One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is help lift my father’s body up and off his rented hospital bed and onto the stretcher belonging to Salas Brothers Funeral Chapel. I don’t remember much about the moment – a moment I thought I would never forget. I think my brothers were there, helping. But I don’t know. What I’m left with is an impression, a sad sense that suddenly there was a before and an after, and that the after had started in a rush.
When the men from the funeral chapel left the house that Monday morning, when they wheeled my father to the hearse – was it a hearse? Of this simple fact I am also unsure. I know he was covered with a dark blue wrap. Something soft. That image is indelible. But again, can I even swear to that? Those moments – from Dean’s early-morning phone call telling me my father had died. My race home to Modesto, desperately wanting to be pulled over so I could yell at a Highway Patrolman, vent my anger and loss at someone. On anyone. Then parking outside the house on Sherwood Avenue. The only home I’d ever known in Modesto. My parent’s house. Hugging my mom. Holding her while we both cried. Then walking into that quiet bedroom. Those men outside, waiting quietly, respectfully. Waiting with their dark blue wrap.
My dad, especially there – close to his end. He had spent more and more time in the bedroom, at the back of the house. I will say nothing more than it was too hard for him to move, to join us in the family room. To sit on the couch, or at the table, where he had sat so often before.
My point? My point. I have a point. It’s right there. It’s that my dad – even at the end, even when he wasn’t with us, chatting and laughing and marveling at his grandkids – even then, my dad filled that house. And I was unaware of it. We’d sit there, in the front room, when he was resting in the back, and we’d talk. Of course much of the talk was about my dad.
Dean. Dean asked me, he said, “Did Dad ever yell at you?” My dad’s Greek, we’re all Greek, so we’re used to raised voices. Used to the get-togethers where Metaxa was poured, and spilled, and voices. Ah, those Greek voices. To hear those voices again, what I would give to hear those loud, Metaxa voices again.
But my dad? Not my dad. Mad? Of course my dad got mad. But he didn't yell. Dean said, “Dad got mad at me one time. Not counting when I got the earring. The one time was when he picked me up from football practice. Pop Warner. He picked me up at the parking lot at Davis High, you know, there near the baseball diamonds? I told him,” Dean said, “that I was embarrassed to be picked up by him because he was driving that ’63 Chevy Impala. Can you believe I’d tell him that? When I was in eighth grade? That I was embarrassed? Shoot me. I’m an idiot. But yeah,” Dean said, “Dad got mad at that.”
Me? I gave my dad plenty of reasons to get mad. The main time, I told Dean, was when my Dad thought I was doing cocaine. I helped out during the summer at his pharmacy. His pharmacy was unbelievably cool. There was an attic full of old magazine racks, paperback book racks, adding machines. Full of dust and that old smell that attics have. But the pharmacy itself? Behind the counter, where my dad worked – further coolness. There was a poster he got from the Modesto Police Department, showing what the most common handguns looked like when viewed head-on. He’d had to glance down more than one barrel during robberies, and the coppers thought it would be helpful if my dad knew what kind of gun had been used.
The crazy thing is, that’s something my dad was able to tell them, after. Me? I’d have been on the floor, throwing my wallet over the counter, absolutely unable to later tell the police, “It was small, probably a .25 caliber.” As if.
But there was so much else that made the pharmacy cool. Like my dad’s mortar and pestles. Back then, pharmacists actually “made” some of the prescriptions they filled. I thought it would be fun to grind up some Bayer Aspirin – just grind it up in a pestle. Maybe when my dad was in the bathroom so he didn’t know what I was up to. And what would make it extremely cool is if I then took the powder and put it all in one of the glass vials at my disposal, there at the pharmacist’s counter in the back of Rogers Drug Store. A clear glass vial no bigger around than my pinky, with a black plastic screw-top.
What was I going to do with the ground up aspirin? I don’t know. Go ask some twelve-year old what he’d do with it.
What I did do with it was to hide it, at home, in my bedroom, in my bottom drawer, under some pants, inside a travelers chess set. This little magnetic job, with a black and white game board that folded over, hiding its tiny magnetic chess pieces – and my stolen glass vial filled with ground up Bayer Aspirin. My parents would never find it there. Never.
They found it.
Dad confronts me, I tell Dean. I’m trying to explain to my dad that I’m a nerd, a geek, that a requirement for that is no use of illegal drugs. He’s not buying it. I tell him it’s aspirin. He asks if I really expect him to believe that.
I do, I really do.
Then my dad does this cop-show thing. He unscrews that slim glass vial, wets the tip of his little finger, dabs it to the powder, and licks it. He does that twice. Dean’s laughing a little bit. “He really did that?” Dean asks. “He really did,” I say. “Thankfully,” I say. Because that cop-show move finally – praise Jaysis! – convinces my dad that I’m not Modesto’s first preteen medhead.
So for that, yeah, my dad got mad. And I get it. I mean, he’s a pharmacist. He has this respect for drugs. This enormous respect. And if his son had abused this product, this thing that he studied in school, and then had worked with for thirty years, would work at for twenty-five more, for his entire life – until that terrible January day in 2009 when he collapsed at work – I mean, yes. Yes. I get it.
And that was it, really. The one time he raised his voice. Hell, Dean and I decided we can’t get to 8 am without raising our voices.
I’m getting back to my point, I am. I promise. I can hear you now. “Nick,” you’re saying, “what’s your point?”
My point is that my dad filled that house even when he was in the back bedroom. We felt him even when he wasn’t next to us. And I know this because after – after the men took my dad away, after they covered him in soft blue and drove him away – when we sat there, my Mom and I and Dean and George, I felt – we all felt – his absence. We had gotten used to not having Dad around, talking about Utah, the Giants, politics. But that morning, when the men drove away – the emptiness in the house was palpable. The void he left – I could reach out and touch it. I don’t care what you want to call it. His soul. His aura. His spirit. I’m just telling you that something was gone that had always been there before.
Later, at some point during the after – after he died, but before his funeral – we started going through his stuff. My dad had this bureau in that back bedroom, my parent’s bedroom. Four small drawers on top – two over two – over four big drawers underneath. The small drawers were just full of Dad stuff. Great dad stuff. Nametags. His money clip – holding $24. Pens. Oh my god, the pens. If my dad had a weakness, if was for pens. And not the good ones. Karen and I bought him a pen from Tiffany’s one Christmas. Blue box and all. I thought he might use it. Could I have gotten it any more wrong? He wore it a few times, my mom said. To some weddings. Maybe a baptism. But then it got put back in that blue box.
The pens my dad did like? Promotional things from pharmaceutical companies. Pink. Fluorescent green. Clean white. Pens advertising drugs with names like Qvar, Actonel, Nitrolingual. I’ve got this picture of my dad, in my head, clicking a pen – whichever was newest – staring at it as he clicked onetwo onetwo.
Just like that - clickclick clickclick - my dad watching it, then swiping the pen across a scratch pad. Swipe. Smiling at the fresh line it made.
So we’re going through that drawer. Well, Dean, mostly. And we’re marveling at the cool dad stuff. And that’s when Dean laughs. Dean’s got this thing where he laughs and shakes his head at the same time. If you know Dean, you know what I’m talking about. So he laughs, and he’s shaking his head, and I say, “What?” And Dean says, “You’re not going to believe this.” And he keeps shaking his head, laughing, and he holds up, in that dark back bedroom, a slim glass vial with a black plastic screw-top. Full of ground-up Bayer Aspirin.
And Dean’s thinking what I’m thinking, and we don’t have to say much of anything. We both just look at the vial. This vial I hadn’t thought about in more than thirty years, this vial that I’d just told Dean about.
And we didn’t say much of anything.
What I would like to try to do, if I can, is emulate my dad. Is to try and be more like Tony Petrulakis. To remind myself that Elizabeth is six, and Kristina three. That if Karen knows it takes them more than five minutes to get ready in the morning, I should know it, too. That if we’re late, it’s my fault, not theirs. That if it’s easy for me to raise my voice, easy because I do it often, that I need to recognize that. That I need to ask myself, if Elizabeth and Kristina are having a quiet conversation in some future dark bedroom, and if Elizabeth asks, “Did Dad ever yell at you?” Do I want Kristina’s answer to be, “Always,” or not?
I’m thinking I would prefer “or not.”
My point. I keep trying to get to my point. My point really is – I miss my dad and I wish he were here, that I wish I could tell him, “Happy Father’s Day, and many many more.”
There. That’s my point. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.