Through the Glass Darkly

Through the Glass Darkly

The last time I talked to my father, he called me from Houston on a Friday night in late August 1974. He was participating in a poetry reading in Austin in three weeks and wanted to know if he could stay with me.

"Sure, Dad, but I gotta go. There's a show at the Armadillo and we're gonna be late. Bye!" I don't think I remembered to tell him I loved him.

My dad was excited to be writing poetry, and I wanted to be excited for him. But two years before, he had been a professor in the English Department at San Antonio's Trinity University. In 1972, he was busted for pot and lost his job, moved to Houston with his lover, and descended into a lifestyle of drugs and bars and shitty jobs that were beneath his exceeding intelligence.

On my birthday in May 1974, he gave me make-up from a line of cosmetics he was selling. My father, owner of a doctorate from Tulane University, a onetime Presbyterian minister who could wax rhapsodic on Shakespeare and translate Old English, was selling make-up.

He didn't have the money to buy me another kind of present, and I was terribly embarrassed for him that birthday. I was even more embarrassed because he too knew what he was doing was beneath his talents and intelligence, and he was embarrassed.

He was also depressed; his jobs were changing almost weekly, and I could scarcely keep up with them. They were as numerous as his suicide attempts. Pills, driving his car off a bridge, drugs, gas, threats ... he never quite made it. My two teenage brothers regularly had to deal with his attempts on his own life and their often-messy aftermath.

About a week after my dad's call, I was unexpectedly summoned to the supervisor's office at work and handed the telephone. It was my Aunt Marilyn, my dad's sister. She was calling to tell me my father was dead.

He'd shot himself while at the office of his latest job as an apartment locator in Houston, and she would be by shortly to pick me up to drive to Port Arthur for the funeral. Her voice suddenly sounded very distant, and the world tilted in a way that never quite straightened for me. I remember little else.

On an overcast day several weeks after my dad's funeral, I walked down the Drag to a bus stop and looked into an empty storefront. Taped to the inside of the window was a small poster for a poetry reading; on it was my dad's name. I was stunned, and stopped and leaned against the glass to see if anyone was inside so I could take the poster. There was no sign for business, for a lease, for a realtor. Nothing.

I left a note under the door and checked back a few days later. The note and poster were still there. I checked back every few days, and it was the same. I would stare at the poster in the window. My dead father lived in that poster.

I could see him but couldn't touch him through the glass. Couldn't hug him again or kiss his cheek when he hadn't shaved any more, or laugh at him when he woke up with rumpled hair. Neither could I think of him in those crummy jobs, in debt, nor living in apartments that got crappier each time he moved.

I wanted to remember back before my parents' divorce, when I was young and we moved to bigger houses in better neighborhoods because I had parents who were smart, liberal, and upwardly mobile. I wanted to be my daddy's little girl again, not the miserable 20-year-old whose mentally ill father committed suicide and who wanted to die herself.

One day I went to the storefront. The poster and the note were gone, and the place was being refurbished for a new business. I tried asking the workers, but they only spoke Spanish and, as best as I could discern with my poor Spanish, had not cleaned the inside.

It was bitter walking back down on the Drag that day. In life, I had not been able to help my father because I was too young to recognize the signs of mental illness in his behavior and would not have known what to do or where to go for his depression. I believed he was simply liberating himself from a lifetime of repressive mores.

I was sure he would get over it like the rest of us and soon find work as a professor or teacher or something befitting his education and intelligence. One day, when I wasn't looking, he was gone. I think of him and remember him every day of my life.

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