My father was never one to complain. On the morning of the day he died, an ulcer he’d suffered from for years, and left untreated, ruptured and began to bleed. Two days later I met with the town coroner. He told me the end had been painless, that, as his life leached away, my father would only have felt increasingly weak and light-headed. The coroner, trying to make me feel better, was lying. By any other account, when an ulcer perforates and blood, bile, bacteria, and partially digested food begin to spill into the abdominal cavity, you feel as if a knife has just been buried in your guts. You might faint. You might vomit blood or something that looks like coffee grounds—blood oxidized black by stomach acid. Or your body shuts down completely, total collapse its only remaining response to the shock and agony.
But my father, on the day he died, carried his burning, pleading stomach with him on his morning commute and worked his usual day at the plant, seven in the morning till seven at night. He told one of the other engineers he wasn’t feeling well and then, schematics piled on his desk, worked straight through lunch. I don’t imagine he would’ve felt much like eating. On the way home, a twenty-minute drive, no longer able to endure his pain—or finally, in privacy, willing to succumb to it—he pulled to a soft shoulder and came to a stop.
Six months earlier he’d leased a brand new Chevy Impala. He loved that car. It was one of the few indulgences he allowed himself, and on my last visit home to Wisconsin, he’d been proud to show it off, especially the built-in phone, which could be activated simply by saying, “Dial.” Another feature of the system: It could instantly connect you to emergency assistance. You only had to push a red button and say, “Help.”
But my father sat behind the wheel of his car—pale, sweating, aching, losing his vision—and did nothing. A passerby found him hours later, slumped back in the driver’s seat.
Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable. My younger brother, Rory, and I wrestled with him on the grape-juice-stained shag carpet of the living room. Kick him, punch him, jump on his back, pull his hair (what little he had left)—we could never hurt him. In the backyard, sawing old railway ties to make raised flowerbeds for Mom, he cut himself with his ripsaw, looked down impassively at his meaty, calloused hand, now torn open and bloody, as if it were a thing unconnected to him. In the kitchen, he picked up hot saucepans by their bare handles. When I tried, my hand shot back. On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—he wouldn’t even flinch.
His stories about his schoolboy days back inEngland were litanies of brutality. His English master at Bishop Wordsworth’s Church of England Grammar School for Boys, to give it its full name, was the author William Golding. Golding would later use his dreary tenure at Bishop Wordsworth’s as inspiration and research for Lord of the Flies, in his boredom conducting social experiments on the boys, pitting them against one another in schoolyard battles. My father and his classmates—who had nicknames like “Knocker” Nokes, “Taff” Thomas, and “Tarzan” Taylor—not-so-affectionately referred to Golding as “Scruff,” because of his scraggly beard. In the island-tight schoolyard hierarchy, my father didn’t fare badly. He wasn’t Ralph or Jack—and he definitely wasn’t Piggy—but I have little doubt that he ran with the choirboys and the hunters. He was on the boxing team and fought bare-knuckle. By age thirteen, he was beating even the fifth-form boys; he knew how to take a blow. As for a nickname, his classmates called him “Beastie.”
Through his late teens, my father played rugby for club teams around Wiltshire, often taking the pitch with men twice his age, men who could only hope to compete by playing dirty. In a scrum, just as the ball was put in, they’d reach out and grab your balls (“goolies,” my dad would say at this point in the story, his eyes lit with mischief), leaving you howling while they plucked the ball from the fray.
Dirtiest of all was Doc Mitchell, who played for my dad’s club. If a player on the other team went down, however minor the injury, Doc Mitchell would dash across the pitch, do a quick examination, then send him off, saying, “Have that looked at straight away, lad.” Club teams struggled to field a full side, never mind substitutes. With an injured player, the opposition would have to play one man short; they’d almost certainly lose.
Once, my dad was sent sprawling by a rough tackle. He went to the touchline, clutching his leg, gasping from the pain. Doc Mitchell huffed his way over and fingered a few bones like he was testing fruit at the market. “Oh, you’re all right. Stop whinging and get back in.” Only after they’d won and my father was hobbling off the pitch did Doc say a confidential word in his ear: “Get to hospital, Andrew. You’ve a broken shin.”
A broken shin, a broken foot, a broken ankle—the injury sometimes changed with the retelling. Yet I knew Dad wasn’t exaggerating. He’d played out that game with an excruciating injury and done so with pride.
The point of the story, I understood, was not that winners could suffer through and losers could not. The point was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain! Dad thought the story was hilarious, just another in an endless series of boyhood larks. He cracked up whenever he told it, and so did Rory and I. Even my mother had a thin smile for him.
But now I don’t laugh. I think about his refusal, throughout his life, to see any doctor—not Doctor Jacobsen, our family GP, not a specialist for his rotten stomach, and certainly not a therapist or a psychologist for his grief-stricken heart. Too proud, too stubborn, too tough, too ashamed to be seen sidelined or entrust anyone else with his suffering.
My father’s father, Alfred J. Boast, captain in the Welsh Guards, set an impossible bar for discipline and hardiness. As a young man, he worked long, dangerous, suffocating days in the coal mines of southern Wales. As soon as World War II broke out, he joined up and, in the last years of the war, commanded a POW camp in occupied Italy. Back home, he played rugby for both the Army and Wales. I barely remember the man—he died when I was four—but in photos I see all I need to know. On his wedding day, black busby hat in one arm, bride in the other, he stands bolt upright in dress uniform, still tanned from the Italian sun, looking like he was chipped from one massive block of shale. This was the man who taught my dad how to throw a punch and how to take one, how to lower a shoulder on the rugby pitch and lay the other man flat. The man who beat him when he trampled flowers in the garden, the man whose Army mementos formed a little shrine in our house, the man he hardly ever talked about—neither fond nor sad memories of Captain Boast, whose mammoth shadow looms over the lives of all the men in my family.
Dad liked to play a game when we roughhoused on the carpet: Fraggles and Gorgs. He chased Rory and me around the living room, rumbling after us like one of the giants in the garden in Fraggle Rock. When he caught us, he’d give us Indian burns or pinches on the arm he called “Smurf bites” (he could never keep our Saturday-morning TV shows straight). I remember how terrified I was of him, and, at the same time, how much I wanted him to catch me, to pull me close. I was enthralled by my dad’s body—the sharp stubble on his chin, his broad chest covered in delicate curls, his yellow, calloused feet that reeked like Stilton cheese—and even when he exacted these reminders of his physical dominion over us, I’d cry out as much in pleasure as in pain. “That didn’t hurt,” he’d murmur in my ear as he twisted my arm just that little bit harder, “that didn’t hurt, did it?”—and I could only shake my head as I clenched my teeth and my eyes began to water, and then I broke out into frantic giggles. And when he released me, I’d rush right back to him.
Once, he went too far, and I struck out at him. He let me go, rumbling, “Fraggles! Fraggles! I’ll get you, Fraggles!” in his belly-shaking imitation of a Gorg (with his hairy, pendulous belly he looked like one, too). I fled across the room, picked up his slipper where he’d kicked it off on the carpet, and winged it at him. It hit him, heel first, square in the eye. I was surprised, as surprised as he was, to see him recoil from the blow.
When he caught me, he thrashed me with the same slipper, the only time I remember him really beating me. I can still see the shine in his eyes as he let himself go. He was, for a moment, enjoying himself, relishing pain and giving pain in a way he hadn’t since his boxing and rugby days. I crawled away, sobbing, locked myself in the upstairs bathroom, stripped off all my clothes, and sat naked in the bath without turning the water on. I resolved to kill myself just to punish him. But the sting of the spanking had already faded. I got out of the tub feeling like I wanted to retch. What caused that terrible, devouring ache in my stomach? It wasn’t that I’d been cast out forever (as I thought then) from my father’s good graces but the shock of the realization: I’d wounded him. This unbreakable man—I’d put the first chip in him.
The old wisdom tells us the longer we suffer, physically and otherwise, the more indifferent we become to pain: We cry out at the first lash, but the tenth is bearable, and the hundredth we hardly notice. Actually, the opposite may be true. During a long ordeal or a long depression, we begin to feel pain more acutely; we only learn to show it less. The stoic’s creed, the stoic’s prayer—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; bear down and take it, you’ll get through; keep calm and carry on—it all turns out to be nonsense. Only years later do I see that my father’s upbringing and my own—Midwestern and English—left us uniquely, pathetically ill-equipped for the course my family’s life in America would take.
At the end of my senior year of high school,my mother started having bad headaches. She and I were on a road trip together, scouting colleges, when the first big one hit. She couldn’t drive; she couldn’t even stand. We cut the trip short, and I drove us from Iowa City back to Wisconsin while she lay curled in the backseat, her eyes squeezed tightly shut, unable to speak for the thumping and hammering in her skull. The next day, while Dad was at work, Rory and I took her to Doctor Jacobsen, then to the county clinic in Elkhorn, then to St. Mary’s in Madison. The diagnosis came that evening—a tumor in her brain the size of a jawbreaker. Glioblastoma, terminal cancer. Over the next six months of surgery, chemo, and radiation, my mother knew pain like none of us could imagine. Two days before Christmas, she died, a withered husk of the woman who, as the illness chewed up first her mind then her body, I had greater and greater difficulty remembering.
In the same awful week, my father’s own mother also died, of old age. These two deaths hardly seemed to affect him; he kept calm, steady, and mostly sober, organizing two sets of funeral arrangements with the same frightening rigor he brought to his work at the plant. I followed his example. I felt I should cry, but I couldn’t. I came up with a list of chores and went at them every day until I was too exhausted to do anything but crawl into bed. When I went back to college, I bore down, filling my schedule with as many career-torpedoing courses (Early Baroque Music, Postmodern American Poetry, Existentialism) as I could, writing arts reviews and fluff pieces for the student newspaper, playing in five different bands, practicing trombone and tuba, practicing drum set, timbales, congas, bongos, laboring to do anything but grieve.
The day my mother died, Rory went up to his room and didn’t come out, except for meals, until Christmas morning. When I passed his door, I could hear him sobbing. My father could never seem to compel my younger brother toward the application of discipline, delayed gratification, and tireless work as an antidote for grief. No doubt because Dad, as a young man, had run just as wild as Rory did. (Just how wild and how reckless my dad was at that age I wouldn’t find out until later.) His junior year at Big Foot High, Rory started partying harder than ever, veering as far as he could from the straight-arrow path I’d taken. He ditched school, quit doing homework, passed out in study hall after hotboxing a blunt in his friend’s Jeep at lunch, tripped on shrooms and acid at Phish concerts, ran the second family car off the road and crashed it into a Cadillac parked in someone’s driveway. And my father, who downed seven or eight whiskeys a night, tried to cajole, lecture, and bully him out of it. They went to war with each other, Dad threatening Rory with perpetual grounding, military academy, and expulsion from the house if he didn’t shape up and fly right. Then, the following winter, every fear my dad ever had came true: Rory was killed in a car accident, driving with his buddies, slamming beers and smoking joints, on their way to a party in the Chicago suburbs.
My father, with no other means of understanding or coping with the pain of Rory’s death, turned to the only medicine he knew. Broken by grief, unable to suffer more than he had already, he set to the business of drinking himself to death.
Most of his life he’d suffered from a shitty stomach. Hardly a day went by when he didn’t bear some discomfort. Now, on ten or twelve whiskeys a night, every night, the stomach aches got worse. I saw the cabinet stocked with jugs of Seagram’s Canadian and said nothing; it wasn’t a son’s place to tell his father his business. And when he tossed and turned in his sleep, groaning and calling out in the night, I tried not to hear. Some days his guts were so twisted up all he could do was sit in his easy chair in silent agony, his face going pink, then blister white, sweat pouring down his face. But this spectacle could only be seen on the weekends. In thirty years at the same company, tightening tolerances and measuring thresholds, he missed only a handful of days of work, even when Mom was sick, even after Rory’s accident. We needed to eat, after all. Still, one fact seems cruel to me now: The company gave him an award for his attendance.
Toward the end, he softened. After college I moved down to Chicago and then, two years later, fled further away to go to grad school. I told myself he wasn’t hurt that I drove home only once every couple of months, and always arrived hours later than I’d promised. I’d find him in his easy chair holding vigil, staring out the window, down the length of the driveway, drink in hand, his eyes dull and watery as the ice-thinned whiskey. I knew he’d been sitting there as many hours as I was late, waiting for my car, the car Rory had once driven, to pull in. Over the course of an evening, he’d get so stewed he couldn’t even hold a conversation, let alone finish cooking the elaborate dishes he’d labored over in advance of my arrival. (Now, he burned himself at the stove, too clumsy, too anesthetized to handle the saucepans trembling under the boil.) In this state, he would sometimes talk about Mom and Rory, halting, apologetic, fumbling for words, as if he didn’t speak this language of regret, guilt, and loss. “You and me,” he said, “we’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to keep the family going.” He cried in front of me, and I felt ashamed for him.
On the morning of the day he died, he called me. He seemed to be in a cheerful mood. “Rise and shine, guy,” he said. “Hands off cocks, on with socks!” He used to shout this up the stairs to Rory and me when it was time to get ready for school. Over the years his accent had faded, but his voice still had a musicality, a gruff singsong.
I was hungover and pissy about being woken early. At twenty-four, I was already well on my way to my own Midwestern, ten-beer-a-night-every-night drinking problem. He asked if I’d taken my car in for a tune-up like he’d told me to last week. I lied and said I had. Was I doing okay on cash? “Yeah, fine.” We had the same conversation two or three times a week. Sometimes we talked about music—Bill Evans, Modern Jazz Quartet, Van Morrison—but mostly practical stuff: car, money, news from Wisconsin, news from “across the pond.”
He told me he’d added me to his AAA policy. He gave me the number, asked me to repeat it back to him, twice. He fretted paranoiacally about my safety and health, even as he seemed to care almost nothing for his own.
“Dad, quit worrying. I’ve got it, okay?”
“Have you rung your grandmother?”
“I’ll call her this weekend.”
“Guy, tell me you’ll ring your grandmother.”
“Christ, I’ll call her,” I said. “Anything else?”
Nothing else, Dad said, but then he went on about a Dilbert comic I’d torn out of the paper and mailed to him, what he’d had for dinner the night before, a few projects he was thinking of doing around the house, but would have to put on hold, just wasn’t feeling up to them at the moment. And then he asked me—a merry, almost giddy note coming into his voice—how things were going with my love life, if I’d had “any romance” the last few weeks.
It was an odd thing for him to ask me. We never talked about those things. I never imagined he would want to talk about them. I’d recently broken up with my college sweetheart, whom I’d been dating for three years. I hadn’t even had the guts to do it in person. She lived a block away, and I’d done it on the phone, coldly but not cruelly (I thought) informing her that whatever we’d had was over. I believed the breakup wouldn’t hurt me—after all, I wasn’t in love anymore. That night, and into the early morning, I found myself roaming the streets of Bloomington, bawling and tearing my hair. When I told Dad that my girlfriend and I had split up, that I wanted to “see what else was out there,” I could tell he was disappointed. I knew he’d always been taken with her. She had a great smile, a bright, quick laugh, and a pouncing interest in pretty much anything to do with England. He used to light up whenever we came home together—he’d been hoping for a daughter-in-law. But when I told him she and I were through, he hardly said a word, only that I should make sure I knew what I was doing. Probably he was heartbroken.
“No one special at the moment,” I told him on the phone. “Yeah, nothing much happening. Keeping busy.”
“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine. Concentrate on your studies.” And then he said something else about the car.
Did he know he was going to die that day? When he felt that first stab to his guts, he must have known something was wrong, seriously wrong. My god, the self-control! Before calling me, no doubt, he’d already had to rush to the bathroom and cough up blood. In less than nine hours, he’d take his last breath.
“Got a couple things I need to finish before class,” I said, wanting to wrap up our conversation. “A couple of response papers.”
“All right, guy. Don’t forget to call your nanny.”
“I’ll try her this weekend.”
“They say it’s going to snow.”
“Yeah, that’s what they say.”
“Drive careful, please.”
“Dad, you don’t have to say please. I’ll be careful. I’ll be fine.”
That was the end, small talk and my impatient protests. All that pain we shared between us, and we were talking about the goddamn weather. If I sensed—or Dad was trying to tell me—this would be the last conversation we’d have, I was too distracted or too hungover to notice.
That evening, my father pulled to the side of County Road B, halfway between work and home. He stopped the car on the gravel shoulder, parked neatly, turned off the engine. The Wisconsin winter stretched out on both sides of him, the gray dark, the endless, flat fields stubbled with chewed-up stalks of corn. He sat sweating and hurting, staring up at the red button. All these years later, I’m still struggling to understand why he didn’t just reach up, press it, and speak that single word: “Help.”
He taught me that the worst, the weakest, the most shameful thing you could do was indulge your pain—swallow it down, don’t say a word. You didn’t talk about it; you certainly didn’t write about it. His methods killed him, but he did with his pain only what he’d been taught to do, all he knew how to do.
Now the question remains: What will I do with mine?