I was born in a Texas Gulf Coast town during the Depression, right before the war. My grandmother was Italian and my grandfather was an Irish cop. My father was a bohunk from Pennsylvania who was in the Army when he met my mother.
When my father got out of the Army, he cut grass and delivered ice until my grandfather got him a job on the police force. My mother divorced him right after that. He went back into the Army after Pearl Harbor and ended up fighting in the Philippines and occupying Japan.
My mother and I lived with my grandparents in a house down by the docks during the war. My mother emptied bed pans at the hospital down the street until she got a job with the Corps of Engineers.
I remember card games in the dining room, listening to people talking and laughing while I fell asleep, a paper jack-o-lantern that caught fire, and falling off the back porch. Later, I remember the lights were off at night along the beach because of the German submarines in the Gulf.
My father sent me a little vinyl record from the Philippines. A scratchy and tinny sounding recording, reminding me to be a good boy.
When he came home from Japan, he brought me a sword.He lost most of one lung to a fungus he contracted in the Philippines. The army didn't know how to cure the fungus, so they just cut the infected part of his lung out. The surgery essentially ended his real life. He lived the next 50 years as an invalid, then died from cancer at the age of 85.
He died in the winter. He was in a hospice in Mississippi, where he had a warm room with big windows and four women to change his pajamas and his sheets every night, laughing and singing while they put the old man to bed.
When he lapsed into a coma, we drove over from Houston, and he was still alive, but breathing in a labored way that lifted his shoulders off the bed with every wheezing breath.
We sat with him for nine or ten hours, talking to him and wetting his lips with a piece of gauze, soaked in cold water.
I was holding his hand when he suddenly opened his eyes and squeezed my hand, and I said hey, he's awake, then no, he's gone as he died. And I felt that something had just left that body. Took one last look and moved on, leaving me next in line.
For an entire year after that, I had a recurring dream. I dreamed I was being roasted slowly, like a pig in a pit. The strange thing about the dream was it really hurt. I could feel the intense heat from the coals, charring my skin. It took a year for the fire to burn my skin away and prepare me to carry on in my father's place.
And he was a very ordinary man.