Merry Clackamas, America

My father and I hadn’t spoken in seven years by the time he finally hanged himself. Following the grim phone calls and a long, morose drive north to Stockton, I found in his home a collection of photographs, mostly of me and my mother, who had divorced him twenty-five years previous. He had written on the backs of them, sometimes dates, often recriminations: why had we abandoned him? How could we have taken away his only precious objects – ourselves, our support? Our love?

Well, you know how it is. It was him or us.

For the most part he was a funny, kind, and generous man. A drunk, he wasn’t too much trouble if you didn’t have to live with him. If you did, though, if you loved him, his presence was intolerable because he also had bad days when crippling depression made him a horror to himself and anybody around. As the years went by, he got worse. Depression teaches you that you are impotent, that you can handle nothing, that life, no matter how good today, will crush you tomorrow. And so your spirit dies a long while before your sagging shell.

One day when I was sixteen or seventeen I drove over after school to visit and found him despondent. He said, not for the first time, that he was going to kill himself. He pointed out various items that I should take, things for my mother. He didn’t have much energy to talk. He mostly just sat in a bentwood chair and stared at the floor and apologized for his failures. I said okay, got a beer, and went over to his giant record collection. I found an old album by the Hi-Lo’s, a barbershop quartet in crew cuts and bow ties Pop kept around as a joke. I set the needle on a track called “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” and Pop stopped crying to laugh. He didn’t kill himself that day. I was so proud of my ingenuity and resourcefulness that I fairly burst. But you can’t keep someone alive indefinitely on a diet of novelties. You will run out of them or get sick of providing them or your dad will cease to be amused.

Like many Americans with mental health issues, no health insurance, and no job, Pop had his brushes with treatment. People who loved him (his ex-wife, his mother, others) offered help with the bureaucracy or paid for him to “see somebody.” It never took. An unsuccessful artist during his lifetime, I couldn’t afford to get my dad to a decent shrink; when it came to it, I couldn’t even afford to bury him. And Pop was constitutionally unable to tolerate the paperwork, strictures, and various responsibilities associated with ongoing County-provided mental health care. You had to come to the help, and a sick person often simply cannot. He refused medication on grounds that it made his skin break out, or worsened his condition, or constituted its own dependency on top of the many he had already cultivated. His ability to sustain relationships deteriorated; so did his patience for all human interaction not mingled with substance abuse. At the time he died, he hadn’t had anything like steady employment for two decades, and most of his friends shared most of his problems.

He lived almost the last half of his life in an apartment building owned by his father, the majority of that time without paying rent. The latter fact, and his squabbles with other tenants, grieved my conservative and never very compassionate grandfather, but to his credit (or more likely to my grandmother’s) my father never slept on the streets. Ironically, a previous upstairs tenant far more deranged than my father did her best to get him out.

A refugee from Vietnam, this tragic creature was famous about town from her regular appearances at the televised Stockton City Council meetings, where each week she used her allotted five minutes to blow the whistle on government complicity with demons living in the walls and closets of her home. Those demons visited upon her terrible, humiliating tortures, many of which sounded like atrocities she might have experienced before escaping the napalm hell America and the North Vietnamese Army had made of her country. She typically fought these demons in the middle of the night, literally throwing chairs and her bedframe across the room to thwart their attacks. Downstairs, my dad would pound on the ceiling and call the cops. Sometimes he went up and confronted her. I remember coming to visit him one morning after the woman had been removed by police for an “observation period.” Her struggle in their hands was recorded in long black-and-gray hairs trapped in the cracked pane of the stairway window.

She still lived in the building in January of 1989 when yet another lunatic brought a rifle to Cleveland School, just two blocks away, and shot thirty-four elementary students, mostly Vietnamese- and Cambodian-American (plus one adult), in the schoolyard. Five of the children died. Situated in a river delta, Stockton was one of the primary placement zones for what we called the Boat People, an immigrant group largely composed of Hmong and other ethnicities who had assisted the United States in its Southeast Asian endeavors; hearing about a bunch of refugee kids being massacred in this, their demon-haunted haven, did the woman upstairs no good at all. She called 911 and told police that the murderer was an associate and frequent guest of her downstairs neighbor, my father, who had helped to plan the attack and had provided the assault rifle.

Well acquainted with the woman upstairs, the police didn’t take her accusation too seriously. But, shaken by the shootings and duty-bound to investigate all leads, they still had to follow through and subject my father to the indignity of an interview in his home. Pop handled it pretty well, confining his outrage to a mild query about when “they” were going to “do something” about that nut upstairs. Michael Jackson visited the school. The nation moved on.

I don’t know what happened to her. Having come to California decades after Governor Reagan had closed the mental institutions and more than doubled the homeless population, she probably didn’t get the help she clearly needed from the state. One day I just noticed she wasn’t living there anymore.

What happened to my father is a known quantity. Increasingly embittered, alienated from a world that wouldn’t negotiate on his terms, paddling in a dwindling reservoir of junkies and drunks, he finally suffered one too many insults and declined to pursue further adventures. After the new upstairs neighbor got him sent to jail for some outburst or other, he was released the next day and walked ten miles back to his apartment to commit suicide. On his way, he left a polite note on his brother’s door. Having sold his gun years before, when the time came he used a rope.

His own demons would not allow him to see that the flight of his wife and son was an act of self-preservation, so when he died he did so blind to the love in his wake. What my mother had put up with was more than she should have, and after his refusal to refrain from drinking during my last visit, I couldn’t go back. I’m pretty sure it would have killed me. And so he died forsaken as well as miserable.

So here’s another December in which I loathe and resent the prospect of family gathering, of that communion of folks with merely blood ties to tether them in a roomful of baked meat and pastry. I hate the word “family.” It represents to me the illusions proffered by a society that can’t be bothered, or is too busy, or too frail, to take care of its members. I am so sad that I couldn’t get my dad the help he deserved, that society deserved on his behalf. How much easier would it have been for those cops who had to cut him down, if only he had been locked into some treatment years before and turned into someone who could hold a job and family together? How much lost production, industrial and spiritual, is represented in such a wasted life? How much happier would I have been if I had had a father who spent some time in a hospital instead of a life in his head?

Maybe someday I’ll get over it. And maybe this country will start taking steps toward self-preservation that include the care and treatment of the citizens least able to care for themselves. And maybe not.

my review of Silent at the Odyssey Theatre

my review of A Christmas Twist at the Victory Theatre Center

Filed Under: Featuredjason rohrerPonderings

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Jason Rohrer About the Author: Jason Rohrer's education includes New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, the Nikitsky Gates Theater in Moscow, Russia, the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Village Oaks School in Stockton, California. He reviews film, theater, dance, and music for stageandcinema.com. He tweets as @RohrerWrites. He is less intelligent than he thinks, but then, he would have to be.

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  1. Yale Cohn says:

    If this isn’t your best work yet, I must have missed whatever was superior to this. Well done, sir.

  2. Sean Thomas says:

    Jason, I couldn’t agree more with Yale. This is some of the most eloquent, honest writing I’ve ever read. I don’t know what else to say other then thank you. I wish you the best of holidays. Sean Thomas

  3. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    Thank you very much, Sean. You may not believe it, but I actually fantasized that you would read this and think better of me, and realize a human being lives in my name. I hope we can move on, because our mutual contempt has disgusted and saddened me. Peace to you.

  4. Ken Dirschl says:

    Very moving and troubling, Jason. It is a tragedy that family has had nothing but negative connotations for you. I hope you are able to create your own and do it right.

  5. John W Roberts says:

    Amazing. Well done. Thank you for your courage.

  6. Joey Corrigan says:

    ” . . . kind of personal.” Really? Wow. I’m facsinated that you can share such personal thoughts with the public at large. As I read it I winced at the idea of some unfeeling mook or jamoke reading these precious words. Almost a given given the American education system. But more likely and importantly this kind of giving will help others with similar heartaches to make this season more bearable. Kisses

    • Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

      Takes a lot of balls to share such a personal story in such an eloquent manner, Jason. Thanks for allowing the Lemon to be the forum for your heartfelt story and I too hope that the word “family” becomes a source of joy and solace for you one day as it always has been for me. I feel very blessed on that account. Cheers, mate.

  7. Steven Stanley says:

    A very gutsy post Jason. I can’t even begin to imagine the hell your father’s life was or the pain he inflicted on you and your mother and others who loved him. Life isn’t simply good/bad or black/white, though recent events have led many to see it that way. Your powerful, honest, moving article is a painful but necessary reminder that (and here I’m not repeating the rhetoric of the right) people do indeed kill people (including themselves) and that if we don’t work towards making other people’s lives better, healthier, safer, then our own won’t be any better or safer whatever we do about restricting gun ownership (which I honestly do believe should be restricted, but that’s another subject). Wishing you the comfort and joy of friends around you and of the families that we make for ourselves from the people who mean the most to us.

  8. Yale Cohn says:

    Here’s our show about gun violence after Sandy Hook. We mention this article.

  9. Jim says:

    I spent my earliest years in the company of The Cleavers, The Nelsons and Father Knows Best. My own family and extended family were what these days we’d call “intact”. In those times we all thought ourselves merely “normal”. One can, I think, easily appreciate that in my child’s eye view this was what everyone experienced.

    As I’ve travelled through the ups and downs of six and half decades I eventually came to appreciate that what each of us comes to count as family quite likely extends well beyond any roof under which we live. Who we count extends well beyond genetics.

    We all keep some members of our genetic families at arms length while welcoming “outsiders” much closer.

    Jason happens to be part of what I consider extended family. He was a student in my class for an entire school year many moons ago. The principal at his school I also still consider more a family member than friend though I’m directly related to neither Jason nor my former boss.

    This triangular relationship emphasizes a major irony of all families.

    From Jason today I read words of pain, grief and outrage wrapped around a deep, troubling personal revelation concluding with a plea for improved mental health support systems. Jason’s calculus: improving community mental health interventions=safer communities.

    Almost simultaneously today I received from my friend–the one time school principal–several online articles advocating the relaxing of concealed carry laws as the best antidote to gun violence in America. His calculus: more guns in common citizens immediate possession=safer communities.

    Since we are all ultimately in these troubling circumstances together, understanding how healthy “families” resolve such seemingly intractable differences is clearly at the heart of the matter.

    Finally I have to say that of all the commentaries I read and heard in the days following the Sandy Hook School killings Jason’s turned out to be the most compelling though it never mentions that calamity by name. And while Jason referenced the Cleveland School killings that took place here in our home town in 1989 (and their bizarre connection to his father) he may not even be aware that the perpetrator of that crime had been seen–earlier on that day 24 years ago–parked on the street next to the school Jason attended. Had the Cleveland killer chosen to commit his act at our school instead of at Cleveland the ironies of my extended family could today be greatly multiplied.

    You nailed this one Jason.

  10. T.R. Nunes says:

    Very poignant prose, sir. I bear my own scars related to family dysfunction, though none near as deep as yours. I also have painful memories of Purdy’s bloody rampage, as I spent a year as a volunteer aid on the Cleveland campus while attending SJDC in the early 80s.

    May the new year bring you happier memories, and may those you cherish today and in the future help you make them.

  11. jes says:

    Thank you for this. I am also so grateful when I find someone who understands as so few do. I am happy to put another holiday season to rest.