How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

Donald Groves and Model A, age 17 smaller 2

My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”

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By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

Sally Groves studying 1

So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

David Groves post college 1a smaller

In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

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We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.

 

As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

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Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

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She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

150,000 Times

We were sitting around at the Magic Castle on January 2, at the 51st anniversary party.  From out of the blue, Siggie asked if any of us had any cigars.  She’s always been kind of a firebrand.

“My father died of smoking in 1989,” I shot back with a bite in my voice.

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

Everybody at the table was silent for a long moment.  Finally, Adam chimed in cheerfully.

“How do you know he died of smoking?”

I shot him a look.  He was wearing a red suit and a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Because he was a pack-a-day smoker,” I said.  “He went into the hospital with one of the most advanced cases of undiagnosed COPD and emphysema the doctor had ever seen.  He died of a series of strokes and heart attacks.”

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Smoking at age 21 in Korea.

“Yeah,” Adam said, “but how do you know it was the smoking?  Lots of people these days are dying of lung cancer who never smoked in their lives.”

“My father didn’t die of cancer.  It was COPD and emphysema.”

Clearly, Adam wasn’t understanding my tone, which was filled with venom and warning, or perhaps he was perversely choosing to ignore it, maybe to get under my skin.

“I know that,” Adam said, “but how did you know it was smoking that caused it?”

“Adam,” I said, “the Surgeon General issued a report as far back as 1964 showing a strong correlation between smoking and lung disease.  This is well established.”

“That was a long time ago,” Adam said.  “Our research has come a long way since then.  There are all sorts of reports these days finding different kinds of things.”

“What kinds of things?”

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58, looking quite a bit older and sicker.

Adam floundered for a while trying to answer that one, and I let him flounder.  He was proving himself wrong, although by that time, there was nobody else there to witness it.  Adam has a similar contrarian view on climate change, government regulations, the national debt, and other Fox News lies.

“You can’t tell me what kinds of things,” I finally said.  “But I can tell you that the tobacco companies are evil.  Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, said that smoking was as addictive as heroin.  And I can tell you that on his deathbed, my Dad said that he had tried to quit 150,000 times.  Those were his exact words, ‘150,000 times.’  And after he died, we went through his stuff and found all sorts of literature about smokers’ rights.  And you know who published it?  Organizations that were funded by Philip Morris and all the other tobacco companies.”

I never did convince him, but he convinced me of something: that he appropriately summed up the dictionary definition of ignorant.

To read my other posts about my father’s death from smoking, click here and here.

The Hieroglyphic Heart

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking

After college, I began to study dreams.  Finally, after ripping through all those thousands of pages of UCLA curriculum, I had time for leisurely self-exploration.  I read Man and His Symbols and started keeping a dream journal.  Around 9 am, I would wake up, immediately roll over, grab my spiral-bound journal, and write down whatever I could remember from that ethereal world.

Looking it over during the day, I began to see meanings.  It helped me see my life as something with shape, form, and mysterious depths.  But they were depths that could be plumbed, if I just tried hard enough.  Everything could be deciphered.  After all, I was an adult now.

Neurology face 1a

What I was trying to do, I suppose, was take control of my life.  Supposedly, every person had an unconscious self that made you do things.  It made you lazy or aggressive or mean, even if you didn’t want to be.  It wagged you like a tail, and yes, Hemingway was right, the iceberg of your needs and desires was almost entirely submerged.  All the action was underwater.

I so wanted to decipher those hieroglyphs.  I so wanted to make things better in my life.

One morning at dawn, I awoke from a particularly emotional dream.  I had been talking to my father in a parking lot.  It was in my hometown, and a department store loomed behind us.  But it was the anguish in our conversation that got to me.  Awake in bed, I cried for a bit.

I immediately knew what it meant.

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To understand the dream, you have to understand my father.  He had never been a terribly assertive man, and in fact, sometimes seemed to be so self-effacing that he harmed himself.  He wasn’t a coward by any means, but the thing was, he never asked for anything.  When his wife decided the family would go on a Caribbean cruise, he wanted to stay behind to save money.  And he never wanted to spend money on himself, and in fact, basked in his spartan ways.

Smoking seemed the embodiment of that self-effacement.  Taking a drag, he looked so solitary.  It was all he seemed to need, that cigarette, that smoke hovering around the eyes, that heat he breathed into his lungs.

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My father smoking in his favorite chair.

That November, I asked Dad what he wanted for Christmas.

“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.

“I am going to get you something,” I said.  “Tell me what you want.”

“Nothing.  I don’t want anything.”

“What, you want me to get you a Shakespeare play?”

“No.  Did you know I haven’t read a novel in 25 years?”

There was always more than a hint of pride in the statement, a sideways slap at the English major who thought he knew more than his father.

“The last novel I read was The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith.  Did I tell you that?”

“Yes, many times.”

“You know he couldn’t write unless he was completely drunk.”

“Uh huh.”

“Have you ever tried that?”

“No.”

“All right.  So don’t ever buy me a book.”

“Then what should I get you?”

“A carton of cigarettes.”

“Yeah, right.  You know I’m not going to buy you cigarettes.”

We went on like this for ten minutes, round and round, until something perfect came to mind.

“You really like macadamia nuts, don’t you?” I said.

“Okay, if you absolutely have to, you can get me that.”

“A jar of macadamia nuts?”

“Yes.”

“Okay then.”

As an adult, I was starting to appreciate my father in a different way.  Once, he was my hero perched high on a pedestal.  Now, I was learning to hug him, even though it made him feel awkward.

“What does he expect me to do when he does that?” he used to privately ask my mother.

Sometimes I even kissed him on the cheek, which really threw him.  The fact is, I was realizing as an adult in how many different ways that I loved this man.  I so enjoyed wearing a pale green 1950s-style shirt I found in his closet.  I was fascinated about the details of his troubled youth.  I wanted to spend more time with him, although it was sometimes difficult to fit into our busy schedules.

Come Christmas Day, I arrived at my parents’ house early.  With the family sitting in the living room, we casually unwrapped presents, but as always, Dad held back.  He always lingered on the outskirts of the group, like a satellite orbiting a planet.  While we tore open gift after gift, Dad was leaning on a railing, smoking and watching.

“Dad, it’s your turn,” my sister finally said.Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

“Okay.”

Dad picked up my gift first, but looked at it a bit puzzled.  The package was larger than our agreed-upon jar of macadamia nuts.  He tore off the wrapping paper, and what he found inside seemed to disappoint him horribly.

“Oh no….”

“What?” I said, smiling.

“That’s too much, it’s too much.”

I smiled.  It was four jars of macadamia nuts.  In the store, one jar had seemed paltry and ungrateful.  This man had put me through college without requiring that I get a part-time job, as my friends’ parents had required.  He’d coached my Little League team during a year when I was a star.  At age 4, he’d taught me how to run as fast as the wind.  I figured I’d set him up with macadamias for a couple months.

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Later that day, we had a moment alone while the women in the kitchen were cooking.

“Dad, I want to tell you about a dream I had,” I said.

David Groves with beard in twenties

The author at age 25

“Okay.”

“It was about you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

I recounted the dream, but as I reached the end, my voice was cracking and there were tears in my eyes.

“You were…you were threatening to cut off your own thumbs,” I said.

It was the thumbs that had really gotten to me.  You see, I had discovered a new way of being in the world.  I wanted to tell him that you didn’t have to hide your emotions and kill your own desires, that in this day and age, you could spend money, you could wear colored shirts, you could tell your child that you loved him, you could give him advice, because he would listen.  I was telling him that he didn’t have to hurt himself all the time.

But while there were tears in my eyes, my father was having a whole different experience of the conversation: He was laughing.  In fact, he thought it was ludicrous.

“I was going to cut off my thumbs?!” he said with a grin.

“Yes.”

“David, I’m not going to cut off my own thumbs.”

“No, that’s not what I mean, I know you wouldn’t….”

“…I mean, why would I cut off my own thumbs?”

“I know that, it’s just that….”

But try as I might, I couldn’t quite explain it.  In the end, I had that sense of hopelessness you sometimes get when you try to enlighten a parent.

I changed your diapers, the parent always seems to say with just a slight grin.  I knew you when you didn’t even know how to go potty, so don’t try to tell me anything.

David Groves at Alan Karbelnigs house circa 1981Later that year, though, he did cut off his thumbs, in a manner of speaking.  He was in a dark mood all that autumn because of office politics.  Apparently, Dad’s supervisor had accused him being an alcoholic, which was absolutely ludicrous if you knew my Dad at all.  Perhaps what that supervisor had seen were the effects of a lifetime of smoking.  Or perhaps he was just trying to put his boot on my Dad’s neck, as power players sometimes do.  One day, Dad sauntered up to me with that ever-present cigarette between his fingers.

“Don’t be surprised if someday, I just disappear,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Disappear.  Gone.”

There was a quiet anger in his voice.

“Why?”

He took a drag on his cig.

“Because I’m sick of it all.”

“What would you do?”

“I’d just become a hobo riding the rails.”

It sounded to me like someone hurting himself because others had hurt him.  I looked at him with as much love as I could muster.

“Dad, I would really miss you.”

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It wasn’t long afterwards that I saw my father sitting on the stairs at home with his shirt off.  It was so alarming that I remember it as if it were yesterday.  My father had become frighteningly skinny.  The mesomorphic father who had always been my hero was so thin that I knew he was sick.

“Dad, you’re too skinny,” I said.  “There’s gotta be something wrong with you.  You’ve gotta see a doctor.”

He wouldn’t listen to me that time, either.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b

My father at age 21

My father approximately age 58

My father approximately age 58

Thumbs, lungs, cigarettes, hobos, death, it’s all mixed in together now.  He never went to the doctor.  And three years later, he was dead.

Now that I’m older, I realize that it didn’t have to happen that way.  He could have stopped smoking.  He could have reached out to us.  He could have accepted our love.  It could have been easier for him.  The problem was, the person who was telling him to change was his own son.  And who listens to his own son?

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Hitting My Father in the Arm

When I was six, my father would flex his upper arm and ask me to punch it.  I punched.  It made a pleasing smacking noise.

“Harder,” he would say.

So I would punch harder.

Harder,” he would say.

And I would hit him with all my might.  It didn’t faze him.  He was my big, strong father.  At that time, I didn’t know that he had been brought up by a mother who was mentally ill, and had an innate inability to display affection.  I cringe, thinking about the chaos he grew up in.  Hitting each other in the arms was what we did to feel close.

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

Self-portrait of my father, Donald, circa 1952

My father was a mesomorph, although his smoking tended to change that over the years.  They were a family habit.  My mother, who was a skinny young woman, smoked throughout her pregnancy.  The doctors recommended it for calming nerves.

When I was five, I liked the odor of tobacco.  I had grown up with it.  It was inextricably intermingled with the idea of father.  But my parents knew it was bad for them, so they promised me a prize of $1,000 if I made it to age 18 and didn’t smoke.  He was still a mesomorph and I still hit him in the arm.  I took half a puff on a stolen cig at age 13.  I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to look cool.  But there was always an impenetrable barrier between me and cool, so I never continued.  At 18, I put the $1,000 in the bank.

When I went off to college and mingled with people of other cultures, I learned to hug people upon greeting them.  Sometimes I even did something unthinkable: Kiss them on the cheek.  I started doing that to Dad, and it threw him for a loop.

“When David hugs me,” he once told my mother in private, “I don’t know what to do.”

“Hug him back,” she said.

But something within him made him unable to return the hug.  I just kept doing it, though.  Hugs never hurt nobody.  I figured I was converting him to a new way of being in the world.  After a while, he came to expect it, although he never got really comfortable with it.

Later, I learned that he had served in the bloodiest battle of the Korean War, Chosin Reservoir, and had seen hundreds of his buddies slaughtered.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking.  His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking. His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

“I learned pretty quickly,” he told my mother when they first got married, “that you don’t make close friends, because as soon as you make a friend, he gets shot dead.”

Maybe that’s what taught him not to hug people, the way he’s doing in the photograph above.

At 29, I would come home occasionally to visit my parents.  I was a freelance journalist writing for the likes of American Health, Psychology Today, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, and the like.  Good health was my beat, and I followed all the best health advice.  I was so healthy that my sweat smelled like lilacs marinated in noni juice.

One day, I visited my parents and saw my Dad sitting on the carpeted stairs with his shirt off.  The sight shocked me.  That wasn’t my father, not the athletic, muscular hero I used to punch in the arm when I was 11.

“Dad, you’ve lost a lot of weight,” I said, trying to quell my rising alarm.  “You need to see a doctor.”

His smile suddenly left his face.

“I can take care of it myself.”

“Dad, it’s not normal to lose so much weight.  There’s something wrong with you.”

And with that, he got up and walked into his room and closed the door.

I talked with my mother and sister, and we all agreed that he should see a doctor.  He had smoked for over 40 years, after all.  So my mother promised to “work on him.”

“Leave it to me,” she said.

For four years, my father ignored our impassioned pleas to see a doctor.  When we got onto the subject, he would walk out of the room.  He would snap at us.  He would lock himself in his bedroom.

“I’m taking care of my own health,” he once angrily told us.  “I’m listening to Dr. Dean Edell on the radio.”

My father approximately age 58

My father at age 58

But I didn’t dare hit my father in the arm anymore.  I tried once and he cried out, not playfully, but in real pain.

“Hey!”

He had become too frail.

Then one day, he was dead.  In the months that followed, I would suddenly cry at odd moments.  In line at the grocery store.  Dead at 59.  While driving, hearing a lyric on the radio.  When you comin’ home dad?/I don’t know when,/But we’ll get together then, son/You know we’ll have a good time then.

“I tried to quit 150,000 times,” he told me on his deathbed.

A few days later, I saw my father walking from the bathroom to the bed, and his paper robe was open in the back.  I was shocked.  There were no traces of the mesomorph left, nor of basic health.  Smoking had withered him down to something I may have seen in news reports about famine.

One image of my father remains from my early childhood, and I’m not sure why.  I was four years old.  We were in the front yard.  I was convinced that I had figured out the secret to running fast: All you have to do is move your legs faster than the other boy.  Armed with this brilliant insight, I challenged my father to a race.  To my astonishment, he creamed me.  In my mind’s eye, I see myself running fast, moving my legs like a cartoon.  They all told me that young people were our future; that meant me.  I was growing stronger every day, and very soon, I would overtake the older generation, I would be dominant, I would be strong.  But on that day in my youth, my father was the strong one.  Muscular, handsome, swift of foot.  I lost that race and he was a god.

Donald Groves on his honeymoon 1951 b