How we go out matters. The last thing we do in life actually happens after we are gone, when the will is read. For most of us, it’s our only postmortem message to the world. Many people seem to think that their will is their last chance to shit on people, to let them know how little regard they had for people in life but they lacked the courage to say so until after death. We sometimes hear about these things in movies, books, or television programs. Old rich guy #1 dies having known that his wife had been sleeping with his brother for years. Having chosen never to confront them in life, he cuts them out of the will to strike back at them after death. At their heart, such actions are passive-aggressive in the extreme. They do accomplish one thing. They cement your death.
My Nana and Grandpa Schroeder both passed away in the last century, but they live on. They live on because they truly are the only members of my family who gave the tiniest little damn about me. They provided refuge from a home environment that was toxic in the extreme. Since they only lived two blocks away it was easy to hop on my bike and go over there where I was always welcome and they both listened to me. Nana was always in the kitchen, it seemed, wearing what used to be called a house dress. Grandpa was often in the den, which was on the other side of a kitchen wall. When I arrived Nana would call to him or knock on the wall to let him know someone was there. He would stop what he was doing, come in the kitchen and sit on his stool. Until I left, we would all sit there and visit. In a very real way, they saw me. I don’t know if anyone else did, I certainly can’t think of anyone. The result is that I have stories, memories of time spent together, that I still share today. They live on.
On the other hand, my parents were toxic addicts who couldn’t care about anyone but themselves and never saw their way clear to try to change that. When I first read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA it was like reading a family history. On my eighteenth birthday my father came home (he was working out of state) to take me out for a beer and tell me he was never coming back. What should have been a memorable rite of passage became memorable for the wrong reasons. The next morning he told me that he most valued the travelling he had done for work, the places he had seen, the people he had met. He said he wouldn’t trade that for anything. When I asked if that included his family, if the travelling meant more to him than us, he replied, “yes.” To this day, I can forgive him for feeling that way – my mother was the closest thing to pure evil I have encountered. What I cannot forgive was that he said it to me, even after I asked for clarification and gave him a way out.
Whenever I hear the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” I think of how I grew up and how, for quite a while, I was a lot like my father. It has taken a very long time to step away from that, to not allow externals to define me and to trust enough to have real relationships. God knows, I am still not perfect and never will be. One thing I can promise my kids they will never experience is the pain I have experienced in knowing that not only was my father never interested in doing the work of maintaining a relationship with me or anyone else, but he also chose to kick at me from beyond the grave. It’s not completely surprising that he did that. He was always a spineless weasel who avoided confrontation at all costs and preferred to whimper in a cesspool of self-pity, passive aggressively striking out when he was sure he had bitchy women around him to protect him.
What this last act of my father has done is ensure that he is dead and will not live on. Who will tell stories of their great times with him? There will be a short time, perhaps, when the handful of people he deigned to pay off in the end, may speak of him. Beyond that, there are no stories, no remembrances of time spent together because there wasn’t any time spent together. His time was at the office, working, avoiding personal relationship, and at social engagements at country club like settings where he unwittingly played a pathetically un-funny version of Rodney Dangerfield’s character in the movie Caddyshack. How we go out matters. Using our last act to lash out speaks volumes about us even if we believe it is we who are making the statement. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to be remembered poorly in exchange for a satisfaction obtained through spite that we can’t even feel after we are dead. We all deserve better, for ourselves and our survivors.