“Your father loves you.” My mother spoke for him, but he didn’t look up from his work, nor smiled. I never could understand what he was doing after dinner when occupied at the kitchen table in the evening. I assumed that it had something to do with his underpaid job as an operations manager of a grocery warehouse; second in command. Beermans were always second in charge. An uncle was assistant police chief and another uncle a colonel in the air force; not a general; second in responsibility. In a more frisky moment my mother would say that my father was far too bright for his job. She asked me if I thought that he was successful. I always impishly grinned but never responded.
The day-old, graying stubble on his face gave him more character than age and the image of a worker and not that of a well-polished leader. I don’t ever remember seeing him in a suit, although I am sure that he did wear one on some occasion, possibly for my brother’s wedding. I recall the evening; spectacular! I was ten but felt much older until people organizing the wedding insisted on treating me like a child. I had to walk down the aisle hand-in-hand with this giggling little girl in her baby doll crinolines and Barbie curls. In reality, she probably wasn’t much younger than me, and viewed me as a little boy much too immature and emotionally undeveloped for her. I recall so much of the evening and the people who were there; The always-black waiters passing around small “somethings” to eat that I couldn’t identify; grown women (more my type) sashaying around the room with permanent smiles on their liquored faces and not really trying to not reveal too much of their cleavage; but I could not remember how my father was dressed. Actually, I don’t have any memory of him even being there that evening; although I am sure he was uncomfortably fitted into a corner away from traffic; not smiling. I worshiped my father but never ever told him so, nor did he ever tell me he loved me.
I could see his rose garden from my second floor bedroom window, often lying in bed into the early morning, pretending to be able to smell his roses from there. The majestic but fragile bushes stood tall with protective thorns like armored knights to protect their king, their shiny flowers bashfully grinning; a maiden trying to act as if she doesn’t really know the power of her beauty. I hadn’t seen other rose bushes up close and was sure that my father put the thorns there so that I wouldn’t touch his roses. It worked. I awkwardly looked at and tried to smell them when no one was watching, but I would never consider touching them.
The garden was to the left edge of a rather large yard and a creek bounded the right side, flowing out the back of the property. My few friends and I would follow the creek out of the backyard past the shed at the end of the property and into wooded areas, encountering large snakes sunning on sand shelves, the likes of which I had only seen in magazines and on black and white television. I furiously, but good-naturedly poked them with a long, heavy stick. They menacingly gestured towards me then surrendered their sandbar and disappeared into the water. This creek was our playground. We caught crayfish and very small frogs then released them away from the water and into the damp grass. Playing in the creek was daring but none of us ever had the courage to touch the roses. I quickly would glance at the garden if I thought no one noticed. Nothing existed that neither was that beautiful nor smelled as wonderful as that garden.
Periodically he would take a break from working on his roses to cut the grass. I do not know if I was allowed to mow the lawn or not. He didn’t ask me to do it nor did I offer but I did watch him from my window. I tried not to be in the yard at the same time that he was there working. When he drudged along he moved slowly and deliberately, occasionally grunting but never smiling. I always knew him as being sickly, but my older brother told me that he was an athlete, a tennis player and a ladies man. This was born out in old family black and white photos of him on a beach with several young women hanging on him, his body lean but muscular and strong, and wearing a playful grin directed to no one in particular. Now his frame was frail and feeble, quivering in the evening air as he struggled to urge his mower across the yard. I remained stealth-silent, not that he could hear me from the second floor window. Back and forth he went, sweating, moving calculatingly, and frowning as if angry. I tried to breathe as quietly as possible, afraid that he might catch me watching him. When he tired he traded his mower for a wheelbarrow full of dirt and plants that he carefully carried across the yard from the shed to the garden, repeatedly stopping to rest. He navigated his way slowly with the gait of an old and beaten gladiator, much older than his years, struggling to drag his wheelbarrow full of dirt, plants, or tools back and forth from the shed and the garden. He was like a machine, a rusted robot that needed oiling in order to function properly; like an old and out-of-date engine gasping for fuel. But he never stopped, nor looked happy; or did he? Occasionally I saw a small crease in his lips that strained to the left and turned upward; although he let himself break out into a real smile. Once when riding with him in the car he stated to me that “homosexuality was a disease.” That was it. That was all that he said. I guess, somehow, this was a life’s lesson out of the fifties coming from nowhere. When he did speak, it was in a monochromatic and dispassionate whisper, and then he returned to his job at hand. His small movements were almost choreographed not to show me too much attention. I was confused. Did he think that I was gay, not that either of us knew what that meant or even been around anyone that openly declared that he was gay in the 50s?
He had diabetes in his early thirties, his mother had diabetes, two of his brothers had diabetes and my father’s first-born son and my older half-brother had diabetes. After his death I found his small, black book that explained diabetes and treatment to him. It looked like a forbidding new testament bible filled with dire messages of doom and insurmountable challenges. Diabetes held him hostage. It sapped his strength, crumbled his body and changed his image from a solid young man into a disintegrating relic. He must have been so frightened but he never said anything to me. I never asked him about his disease nor did he offer any explanation. He must have felt trapped and miserable, helplessly cast into a slowly developing sink hole and oblivion. The cheerless book was small, but it was his only hope of understanding his situation besides speaking with his impatient, inadequate doctors, however ugly it was.
In the morning he would come into the kitchen, sit at a chair at the breakfast table and stab himself with a needle with the swift swing of a fisherman grabbing a large catch with a grappling hook. He didn’t show any reluctance, emotion or raise his head. I winced inside but did not stare directly at him. Gazing at his punctured area above his knee for a few moments, he soundlessly held his breath then let out a deep sigh. Even then I could see this moan as a small sign of emotion and humanness. But I said nothing. I assumed that this ritual was his diabetes medicine and that it was important for keeping him alive, but this was only an assumption. No one explained it to me and I did not go to the library to research the disease because I didn’t really want to know the answers. There was no internet. I watched him perform this degrading, agonizing yet important ceremony many times but said nothing to him, nor did he say anything to me. I wanted to hold him and tell him that I was so sorry that he fell prey to this theft of his life. We never hugged. Ever.
Over time, the roses in the garden became surrogate children in so many ways, and I was jealous of them. I watched how my father infused life and beauty into them from simple seeds. I watched the miracle passing from his nourishing hands to the roses. If I couldn’t embrace him, then I wanted so passionately to at least touch one of his roses in the garden. That might be enough. Many nights when everyone was asleep I started towards the garden, but always came back; then, there was that one extra bright evening, I don’t know why, but I knew that nightfall I was going to the garden. I was a coward, but that night gallantry and curiosity took hold of me and I wanted to do nothing to stop it. My heart pounded in time with my rapid breathing. Late into the night the moon washed the backyard in a bath of warm, soft light. Chivalrous, feathery beams streaked in all directions as if coming from a turning crystal dance ball, not giving enough light to read by, but giving adequate light to clearly see the life giving blood-red of the roses. Through the open window the dark green, damp grass smelled fresh and inviting, a fairy tale landscape alongside bugs singing into the early morning. Anyone fearless enough to venture out knew that they were not alone; the chorus of insects singing as a discordant crowd at a chariot race, and their chant gave me courage.
Mother and dad were in bed which was across from mine and I listened for an end to their nocturnal noises, not leaving my room until the delicate and urgent, playful nuzzlings stopped. I stood motionless in front of their closed bedroom door pending assurance that both of them were asleep for the evening.
I carefully walked down the squeaky, rug-covered steps to the family room below. Each step was agonizingly loud and potentially a siren to wake my parents. What would I say? That I was going into the backyard to touch and possibly damage dad’s roses? I reached the family room without incident and was relieved to remember that its floor was overlaid with linoleum and not noisy, floors. I slid across the room and opened the door to the patio and the backyard. It was disagreeably loud, but I was too far away from my room to stop now and walked into the backyard.
The whiff of the night full of unseen, singing insects and expected willowy demons flying from the creek filled my ears but I could not see them. The spell was frightening, overwhelming but also stimulating. I had never been into the backyard at this late hour. The concrete patio was cold on my bare feet and it quickly woke me up, the grass damp but welcoming. I looked around for options but knew where I wanted to go. The stars appeared to shine on the delicate roses like floodlights as they stood embarrassed for all the attention, like a young, untouched woman with all of her life in front of her. The moonlight sparkled as a giant flashlight on them, their perfumed odor enticing me to come even closer. I madly stared at them without turning away, their sweet, earthy fragrance filling my lungs with goodness, angelically swaying in the night wind. I just stood there before the garden for the longest and unmeasurable time, unmoving, stiff but full of joy. The roses were incalculably beautiful. I still could not touch them. I guess I was a coward and felt defeated, but in a small way reborn. After a while, I returned to my room, but not with such deliberate movements as before. My parents did not hear me but I didn’t care. I had at least clearly confronted the roses, cherubs exotically dancing in front of me, daring me to touch them. I was intoxicated with their perfumed smell in the night air. But I could not embrace them.
Dad was a Shriner. I didn’t know what that was, but I wanted to be one. He never talked about being a Shriner. I saw him march in a Shriner’s parade down Atlanta’s famous and gigantic Peachtree Street, running from one end of the town to the next. There were marching bands blaring out-of-tune but somehow pleasing music, everyone talking at once lining the street and grown men buzzing around in small, motorized toy cars. There were clowns and horses sporting gold and leather saddles with proud if a bit overweight riders and mountains of candy tossed into the crowd lining the street. At last, my father’s unit could be seen marching in step, getting ever closer. He had a false black beard and sported an oddly Arabian costume and a thick, curved sword suitable more for a 40's Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie, the sword held over his shoulder at the curve in the blade. He was on the end of his line near where I stood. Inside I was gleaming with expectation, but he didn’t look at me nor smile, as he passed. Inside I still beamed. I don’t know who these people were, but I was going to be one someday.
He knew he was dying, but he never told me. He traveled to Houston where my brother lived and worked as an accountant and the heart specialists at the transplant center there pronounced his death sentence. I was out of the house by then. The diabetes did not allow him to qualify for a transplant. After his death mother found a mostly empty bag of jelly beans under his car seat. Out of unexpressed rage, I also considered him a coward by not facing the reality of his disease; by giving in to it and letting it take his body and by giving so much attention to the roses instead of me.
He came home from Houston and immediately went back to work without any explanation, driving to and from the warehouse every day. Nothing in his routine had changed. It is strange that he would drive himself to work every day knowing that he would suddenly die without notice, not taking into consideration that an accident would probably injure others. He did not ask my mother to drive him, but I am sure she knew what was happening. One of the early signs that diabetes was going to slowly ravage his body was the loss of sight in one eye; yet when I rode with him at that time, he still insisted on driving. He would maneuver his car over the center lane of the road so that he could better see and quickly pulled to the right when a car suddenly came into view. At the time, this didn’t seem frightening or unusual. I only saw the independent, ageless man who tirelessly groomed his garden and backyard. Nothing slowed him down; not heavy wheelbarrow loads nor long, arduous pruning routines. It was clear that he wasn’t well, but I just thought that it was part of who he was. I knew him no other way. He moved slowly and deliberately, often stopping to groan, wince, cough and rest only for short periods like a crotchety old man in a Dickens story. But I had no concept that he could ever die, at least not in my lifetime. This just was my reality.
He undoubtedly loved my brother and demonstrably was proud of him. My father’s eyes sparkled when others talked about my brother. It was a confident pride in the realization that he had raised a mensch. My brother was the product of his first marriage and his mother died, when he was very young. My father needed a mother for his son and married my mother, when my brother was just four years old. No single man could raise a child alone at that time. My mother had my father rid himself of anything that would remind him of his first wife. Clothes, pictures, keepsakes all were removed from the house; but my father still had his first-born son from his first wife, and my brother did manage to keep a picture of his biological mother. He could not bring himself to look at it until he was fifty.
I still remember that rose garden buried in the recesses of my subconscious, but not lost. To this day, I can feel the cool evening breeze blow its sweet, perfumed fragrances into my face, as it had done that night and it now finally made me smile. I have never seen a garden so awesome and full of roses so blood red and brilliant, reaching so high, its abundant branches giving the impression of being suckled by the clouds resembling nursing mothers.
All my life I would return to the garden in my mind. I so envied the roses because the garden had so much of my father’s attention. I tried not to notice his affection for them, but I always cried in side. To this day, my body remembers the jealousy and hurt the way my body remembers being hit by a truck when I was 60, and the garden envy in its own way is no less painful.
His lessons were real and life giving, infusing in me a respect for life that he couldn’t find in his own, not that he consciously planned this. Living with him infused in me a sense of ethics, value for beauty and goodness and a concern for others. I have spent my life as a composer of classical art music. I learned the craft from my composition teachers, but my father taught me how to grow and cultivate splendor; how to draw living beauty from an inert seed.
The shame I felt as a result of his apparent rejection was long and deep. I wanted to hear his warm, fragile voice and be wrapped in the blanket of his smile, but he persisted in not responding, as if he knew that I needed a bigger lesson and trudged onward, modeling his way of infusing integrity. Had he smiled, I would have had a moment; but he had so much pain and loss in his own lifetime that he couldn’t smile. Instead, he subconsciously deeply dug into his arsenal and gave me the greatest gift that a father can will to a son. By watching him he taught me to identify and create goodness, respect grace and make it a priority to infuse these values into my life and work. This old man that I loved, but considered a coward for his ways gave me all that a man had to pass on to his son.