Choking to Death

Following on from “The Business of Death” posted earlier this month…


January, 2007. It took my father four hours to choke to death. I sat vigil in his hospital room as he fought the fluid in his lungs, his face a mask of agony, unable to speak or communicate in any way. His eyes, shining with fear, would occasionally lock with my unforgiving stare. Pleading eyes. Begging for release, mercy, an end to all things. Each time, I would only offer a quick, tight grin in reply.

No…no. This is how you die. After all you’ve done, you’re going to die here. Forgotten. Accompanied to hell by the boy you destroyed, the man who hates you.

In the end, exhausted by the spectacle of his death, I stood and told him that I forgave him. If that will let you die, I said, then I forgive you. Before I finished the words, he gasped his last breath.

My father had won again.

I was weak. As always, I had been reduced to the child he had abandoned 22 years earlier.

Dad left in 1985. He drained the family business of every penny, leaving 80 employees in the lurch without payroll or pension. Some had been working for our family since 1938. Some were generational employees, inheriting their positions. Dad took everything and not a day has passed since then where the horror of his legacy hasn’t followed me. 26 years, now, since the end and I still get calls, emails, and letters at home and at work from former employees, or their children, or grandchildren. All still angry or bewildered. Your father ruined our family. He bankrupted us. He left us destitute. We believed in your family. We believed in the company. We loved you.

The legacy of our name and my father’s final deeds has, somehow, shifted to me. The heir to a scandal, or just guilty by association.

I never reply. There’s no phone connected to the answering machine that receives these calls, at work I avoid direct calls to my office phone. I quietly file all the letters and emails away, an ever-growing pile of evidence in case anyone takes their vitriol to the next level.

After dad unsuccessfully sued me for mom’s estate in 2000, he contacted me in 2001. He wanted to talk, to make amends. Though he didn’t use those words. He carried on a conversation as if he’d been in touch for all the years since he left, as if he was still a father. I moved him to email, and we carried on conversations for a year. He told me stories of when I was young, and I offered only terse replies, unsure of what was happening or what I should say.

In 2002, he talked me into flying down to Atlanta to see him. He’d just bought a house, though we didn’t meet there. We met for dinner and I spent the weekend with a friend. One dinner was all that I could muster, and I sat, stunned, as he talked about the world as it was before 1985. The family vacations, his old life. He avoided my few questions about the years since he left, and he never spoke about the family business he destroyed.

I visited him again in 2004. I don’t know why I maintained contact with him. I dreaded every email, every letter arriving with his scrawl. Every contact was a flash of pain and memory that I had been running from since the 80’s. I think it was greed. He had left with millions, much of it in cash. I felt that I was owed a piece of that pie. He was on oxygen full time, suffering from emphysema, so I figured he wasn’t long for this world. If I waited him out, if I swallowed my pride, if I pretended to be his son, then maybe I could walk away with the lost family fortune.

A more hopeful part of me clings to the idea that I simply wanted a father. I have lived my life believing that, if only I could meet my parents in the middle, maybe I could salvage the traditional roles. Maybe I could have a mother and father again. Or some semblance of a mother and father. To this day I look at happy families with envy, and a twinge of despair. I feel cheated of more than money.

But I’ve long known that to be a foolish dream. A waste of my time. When mom died, I thought that I would be sorry. That I would feel I had missed an opportunity. With dad missing, I believed mom was my only chance at having a normal parental relationship. But I wasn’t moved. Blinded by pain and appalled at the business of her death, her passing felt more like a release. A celebration. I had no regrets and, instead, felt free for the first time in my life. A sensation quickly crushed by my father’s hostile return. Again, I found myself in the same sort of cycle. Unable to embrace life as long as I knew that I was sharing the world with one of my parents.

In 2004, I had found my mettle. My second visit to Atlanta was confrontational. I told my father that the legacy of the family business persisted. He told me I was full of lies, that nobody remembered the family business, that it had no impact on anyone.

I asked him about the money. He said there was none. I listed off the things he had done – clearing out the bank accounts, and the wall of evidence against him. He told me it was all lies and he left a poor man, and has been destitute ever since.

I asked him why. Why’d you leave? Why’d you do it?

He sobered a bit, setting his jaw, then he smiled brightly. He patted my hand and said, “I thought it was best for you.”

I had no reply to that.

His house, on a quiet block in Atlanta, had a wooded half acre backing state land, a gentle creek babbling through his backyard. It was a simple rambler, with a large deck. I looked through a wall of windows at the Chinese chestnuts and gnarled oaks, the line of green following the creek, a southern autumn slowly settling in. My view had been brick walls and parking lots since I turned 18. I wanted to say all those things I said in 1985. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.

But I dismissed those thoughts. I turned and faced his inane grin. We went out for dinner, and he left me holding the check, claiming a forgotten wallet. I left him and went back to my hotel, camping out at the end of the bar and staring into the mirror. Seeing the younger version of my father’s face and hair.

He was crazy. Simple as that. What more could I say or do? Drunk, deep into the night, I called my airline and changed my flight times. For an extra $100, I moved the flight up to 6am. I checked out of my hotel at 3am and took a cab to the airport where I crashed at the gate, sobering through the early AM hours, forcing myself onto the plane and hitting DC in time for morning rush hour, which I navigated in a haze.

I told myself I wouldn’t visit my father again. We still corresponded, and I maintained my chilly aloofness. He never talked about anything substantial, and he never apologized. I don’t think it occurred to him to do so.

The call came while I was at work, late in January of 2007. My father’s doctor. He told me that my father wouldn’t last another 24 hours. I spoke without thinking – I’ll be there.

Again, the greed rose up. If, in life, dad claimed poverty, and was unable to face what he had done, maybe there would be fortune – and answers – in death.

I took an expensive last minute flight, grabbed a cab to the hospital, and sat vigil during my father’s final hours. Also in the room was my dad’s neighbor, on his knees and mumbling feverish prayers. The neighbor would occasionally shout out in religious ecstasy but, otherwise, he and I remained apart. I sat, staring grimly, as my father choked to death.

Afterwards, the neighbor took me to my father’s house. There was talk about the business of death all over again. The neighbor seemed cagey, unsettled by my stare. He mentioned going to the bank and getting my father’s accounts sorted out. He betted that there was money there for me. I forced a smile, shook my head. No, no. The money’s not there.

I stood in my father’s kitchen and I spoke in soft tones to the neighbor. Leave me here. Leave me with the house.

It was time to find some answers.