Welcome to new columnist Judy Whittelsey Brinkman, a “Third-Culture Kid.” Writer, Mommy, and Air Force Brat
My dad could fix anything, from a broken hairdryer to a car motor to an imperfect understanding of how to solve for “x.” So much of my definition of what a man is revolves around this ability–the interior-ness of self-reliance and reliability–that I must confess I’m prone to derision when confronted with a helpless male. It’s a conundrum; though I want to be a fully autonomous high-functioning female, I also want my man to take care of me, not the other way around—unless I choose to be the caretaker in a specific instance. Dad imprinted upon us the “Dad/Man as Ultimate Mr. Fixit/Mr. Dependable” meme and encouraged all of his kids–most of us are daughters–to be self-reliant. It’s what you might call a “quandary” but only if you speak English.
Case in point: many, many (oh, so very many) were the nights when he sat next to me at the kitchen table to help me with my math homework. This was accomplished by allowing me to do the problems first, after which he’d check my work. Every time he made a mark next to an exercise (meaning the answer was wrong) it felt like he was gouging out a small piece of my soul, mostly because I didn’t want to disappoint him and partly because my mind would go into Immediately Obtuse Lockdown and I would sit and stare at the problems as if they were heiroglyphics or, well, math. During these silent hystrionics Dad sat calmly in the adjacent kitchen chair, letting me work it out on my own; he never went out to the living room to finish watching whatever TV show my homework had interrupted, never sighed or “tsk”ed or made air motions of committing hari-kiri–he stayed right by my side in the crucible. And when, finally, enough dumb was washed away by my tears for the light to *click* and I could FIX THE ANSWER, he’d invariably grin and say “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it kiddo. . .” and in that instant the little chunk of my soul was magically restored and it was stronger for having been out in the cold.
My dad was a small guy—he stood 5’9” and weighed a decades-consistent 137 pounds—but he most assuredly packed a wallop. He was a true autodidact, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. There’s no telling what he could have become had there been a bundle of letters, college-bequeathed, trailing his name. He grew up knowing want. Dad came from a broken home in an era that did not countenance such abrogations. Raised by a single alcoholic mother, he did without many things-material and otherwise-until he was old enough to get a job after school and thereafter almost exclusively provided for himself. He made excellent grades; his smarts and unreserved exhibition of the same earned him the nickname “Professor Whittle-Dittlle.” Dad was promised a college education by a wealthy aunt, but her unexpected death (really, it was quite inconvenient though I daresay she felt the same way about the whole thing) during his senior year in high school canceled those plans . Instead of college, then, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at the age of seventeen. When I was seventeen my biggest worry was whether my hair would stay curled all day. Dad, on the other hand, had at that tender age embarked on the leg of his journey that would see him almost to its conclusion, and would take the as yet unimagined “us” along for a good part of the ride. And what a ride! It took us all over the country and to parts of the world my children–indeed, most of the world’s children–will never see. And we all had window seats, which was good, because when you’re a kid you don’t want the aisle; aisles are boring.
Dad’s personality, in contrast to his size, was big-really big; he could be the hilarious life of the party or the dismal scourge of your existence. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who knew him when he was a baby since he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was very, very good. And when he was bad, he was a real asshole.
Dad could be gruff. He was a stern disciplinarian. Kids of our era were raised not so much to respect our elders as to fear them. When my mom said “Wait until your father gets home” it pretty much had the same effect as being catheterized. And half the time she said it not as a threat but in “Oh, shit, dude” commiseration. When we were told to do something, we may have THOUGHT “I don’t want to!!!!!! Why don’t you get your OWN cup of coffee? You’re sitting in your chair in the living room which is right next to the kitchen and all you’re doing is watching TV and I’m all the way back in my bedroom doing my homework!!!” but we dast not reveal the smallest inkling that we were thinking anything but “It will be my great and glorious pleasure—nay, HONOR! to get you another cup of coffee. Would you like me to carry it back to you balanced on my head while I tap dance to Swannee River, cause I’d soooooo love to if you want me to!” There was the Word, and it was Mom and Dad’s Word, and it was done, and it was good, goddammit. There was no other possible scenario.
I remember one evening daring to give him a “dirty look” while he was chewing me out ad nauseam (he did have a tendency toflog the dead horse; invariably, as he was–finally–winding down during Any Given Lecture, he’d ask “Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?” and in my dangerous years I yearned to reply in the affirmative but I was rather fond of sitting, so prudently kept my mouth shut). Just as I was marveling in my brand new dirty-look giving rebelliousness–“Hey, I’m getting away with this!” he said “You better wipe that look off your face right now, young lady” and BAM-my “Angry 11’s” eyebrows instantly morphed into “Disappearing Into My Hairline” eyebrows. I cannot think of a time—ever—when I tried that again. I was in my late 20s before I dropped the “f” bomb in my dad’s presence, and he didn’t speak to me for three days after. I was in my mid-30s when he told me how disappointed he was in me and that it hadn’t paid off for him to have high expectations of me. I know that he would take it back if he could. It left a scar, though, because it was he—my dad, my hero/villain father—who said it.
Dinnertime at our house was a ritual consisting of cleaning our plates no matter how disagreeable the contents (contrary to my parents’ assurances, I have never “acquired a taste” for liver), concentrating on keeping our elbows off the table (it was a Blood Sport at our house; slip up and Dad would lunge, cat-like, fork locked, loaded and ready to plunge into the offending appendage) and sparring with my dad in a duel of wits. He was a tease, a comic, a brilliant punster. Whenever one of us kids gave back as good as we got he was palpably pleased and proud; earning his gravelly, full-throated laughter, you felt like Queen of the Prom. He was not physically demonstrative except when administering spanks with the dreaded “Big Fat Joe,” a thick wooden 18 inch ruler that lived on top of the refrigerator and came down for frequent visits. But when I was a kid, lying in bed at night with my bedroom door cracked, lulled to sleep by the murmuring of the television, I knew my parents were just down the hall and was conscious of feeling utterly safe.
Dad didn’t say “I love you” out loud. He said it when he spent hours building a platform for my brother’s electric train set. He said it when he, with a sort of restrained aplomb, presented each of us girls with her first training bra. He said it when he upbraided us for not picking up after ourselves or for doing a chore sloppily—he said it when he made us repeat the chore to his satisfaction. He said it when he spent countless hours coaching my softball team and my younger brother and sister’s Little League team. Years after we kids were grown and gone, he said it when he dropped everything and came to our aid when we really, really needed him; he never asked embarrassing questions. He never berated. He showed up. He fixed what was wrong. Then he never mentioned it again. My dad didn’t talk about his love. He proved it on a daily basis.
Dad took care of my grandma when she was widowed in her early sixties. He’s the one who had to come home that terrible morning in October, just a few months after we’d moved to AFCENT, to tell my mother that her father was gone. I was home from school that morning and when I heard the news—when I saw my mother rise up like she’d been shot and then collapse in his arms— I mindlessly fled to my bedroom and somehow wedged myself in the space between my bed and dresser. Dad’s the one who came upstairs and pried me out and held me while I literally howled in agony. That was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. My mother’s parents were more his family than his own parents; they had taken him under their wing when he first showed up to woo my 13-year-old mother.
I would see my dad cry a few more times in the years that followed. Life for my family took a bad turn when we came back to the highly anticipated “World;” Dad was essentially forced to take early retirement when Richards-Gebaur closed just a year after we rotated back. Had we lived on base, things might have turned out differently, but when we arrived Stateside there was a year-long wait for base housing so Mom and Dad bought the house in which my mother still resides. The down payment was my college tuition, so I floundered around for a couple of years until I finally set my cap and compass for Stephens College. Civilian life was tough for Dad; it took him a few years to settle into the new rhythm. His dreams eluded him. The smaller his self-esteem, the larger his dross; he was often moody and sullen. Now we know he was clinically depressed. At the time, we just stayed low, out of his line of fire, when he came home from work.
One night, when I was 18 or 19, he and I were sitting up late in the kitchen, talking. I can see him clearly with his elbows on the table (since we weren’t eating I couldn’t stab HIM with a fork), his elegant fingers laced together in front of him. I’m sure he was wearing one of his short-sleeved button up shirts, the chest pocket bulging with a protector, mechanical pencils, and his Marlboro Reds. We spoke at length, reminiscing about good times and people at AFCENT, when his chin started to quiver and he dropped his head and, to my horror, started to cry. . . deep, wracking sobs: “Judy, you don’t know how much it hurt me when I couldn’t send you to college.” It put me on my knees. I sat at his feet, hugging his legs, crying with him: “Daddy, it’s alright, it’s alright, please–please don’t cry.” Seeing him like that made something fierce and protective and incredibly grateful bloom inside my heart.
I was 34 when I received my SUPER marketable B.A. in English. Dad wasn’t able to attend the graduation because he was in California, at the bedside of his cancer-stricken brother. He called me on the morning of the ceremony to tell me how much he regretted missing it and to verbalize to me (in actual words) how proud he was. A couple of days later, my uncle passed away. When Dad came home from the funeral, we had another late night kitchen table talk, during which I said something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get in touch with Gentile and visit him?” Dad looked up and said, so fervently “You know what? That would be great. Let’s do it.” He had a look in his eyes that, in retrospect, I recognize as acknowledgement. He knew that he was sick. He had seen in his brother the signs of the disease that would claim his life.
When Dad was diagnosed with small oat cell carcinoma/lung cancer, it was because he had been rushed by ambulance to the hospital from his workplace for what everyone assumed had been a stroke. He was walking up some stairs with a few co-workers when his leg suddenly stopped taking marching orders from his brain. See, my dad would get a chuckle out of that.
Tests revealed several spots on his lungs and four brain tumors. Mom told me that she and Dad cried together when the doctor gave them the news—but in the very limited number of days that comprised the remainder of my father’s life (six weeks) I never saw my dad shed another tear. Through the chemo and radiation and the indignity that is cancer’s twin, he never complained. He spoke only of getting better. Even that horrible day when I had to physically lift him out of his bed because he was in too much pain to move by himself, he gritted his teeth and remained stoic. Pneumonia was the cause of his pain and it put him back in the hospital. The last time I saw my dad conscious and alert, I had taken my two youngest, Annika and Miles (ages five and three), to see him. He had been in hospital for about a week, recuperating from the pneumonia. My dad and my little girl had a real love-hate relationship; Dad would growl at her, banish her to her room, scold her for committing such grievous crimes as sashaying between him and the TV on NFL Sundays. Gasp! I vividly recall how on one such occasion, she, undaunted and with hands on hips, looked up at him and said, with all the outrage a 5-year-old towhead with a speech impediment can summon: “GAMPA. Don’t talk’a me WIKE DAT.” Which, of course, infuriated him all the more, because, well, see paragraph beginning: “Dad could be gruff.”
The day after our visit Dad suffered a massive seizure and lapsed into a coma from which he never returned. Of course we knew nothing about that on the night in question. Well, at least I didn’t. Let me explain: because of their battling egos Annika tended to shrink from my dad, but on the evening in question she walked into the room and straight to the bed to which he was essentially tied with IVs and oxygen tubes. Totally focused and somber, she climbed up on the bed and found a space amongst the tubes to snuggle right up next to him, head on his shoulder, face peering up into his. He was taken aback for just a tick–I recall that he looked at me rather quizzically and I’m sure my expression was incredibly astute (coff. No, it wasn’t), then he laughed a kind of “What are you gonna do” laugh. She stayed there, Velcroed to his appendix, for most of our visit. She just . . . knew. Meanwhile, Miles was literally hopping all over the room–with the great big exaggerated motions unique to really little kids—to the vast amusement of his grandpa. I hope I’ll never forget the sight of my dad, one arm relaxed around Annika, shaking his head, eyes closed in that mirthful grimace you can see in many of these photos, laughing as Miles leapt (in his Power Rangers-fueled daydreams) from one skyscraper to the next. I keep that memory like a pearl, close to my skin so it stays warm and never loses its luster.