I just sat on the front porch of my brother’s apartment listening to the white noise buzzing and chirps of insects and birds as life just kind of stood still. It’s been about two hours since I was informed that my dad, Allen Ward, had passed due to complications from a major surgery on his heart to replace his aortic valve and perform a triple bypass caused in part by his chronic problem with rheumatoid arthritis. I went out yesterday to celebrate my birthday while the surgery was being performed and clung to my phone waiting for texts from my uncles to give me the news on what was going on. Around 3 o’ clock, I got a text that they were closing him up and sending him to recover in the CCU of Memorial Hospital in Savannah, GA. I went to bed happy, figuring I’d hear from him or someone from our extended family again this morning that he was on the mend. What I got instead was another type of phone call entirely. I’m still sorting out the details of what exactly happened, and I don’t plan on going into them here, suffice to say, all of this comes as a complete shock to my brother and I. I know when I picked up the phone this morning to answer my uncle’s call and Alex saw the look that came across my face of what had happened, he felt it too. Right now, I’m just numb and I haven’t even begun to get into the real grief yet. It’s coming though, that much I’m sure of, but I would like to hold it together a little bit longer, in the interest of taking care of the remaining business of such an utterly brutal day.
There were two versions of Allen Ward I met in the span of my life. The loving dad who raised my brother and I in the opening years of our lives, and in the period between his divorce from our mom and subsequent decade of little to no contact with us, there was the man who came back. Perhaps part of my perception of him in the early years and the stark difference in the man I knew ever since is due in part to my being so young and the different outlooks on life that can come with youth, or maybe our dad really did change into someone else over that time period.
The previous statement may come off as somewhat harsh, and I’m not here to bash him by any means. My father had demons that he needed to fight on his own, and when he left our family altogether, he gave up all custody without a fight and just went away. Because of that, I spent a lot of my youth being intensely angry and having a lot of the confusion that comes as part of the stock of having a parent just fuck off one day from your life one day and not tell you why. In hindsight, I know now that my dad left and didn’t come back because of the demons he wrestled relating to alcoholism. In his own way, he left and didn’t put up a fight because he figured we would be better off not having to see him in such a state. It’s not the way any parent should go about something like this, it’s surely not the way I would go with any child of mine, but at the end of the day, I understand what he believed he was doing. I think my brother and I were better off not having to watch him implode in those years, and in a weird way, I’ve become somewhat grateful for his decision to leave.
Ten years later I met the man who came back. Altogether different from the person I remembered from my early life, and someone who clearly had traveled a rough road and while he may not have conquered it, had gotten himself back to a place of control over the problems that had consumed him over those years he was gone. When he came back, he was ready to be part of the family again in whatever way we chose to allow. My brother was younger when he left, so he didn’t remember much about dad. In the beginning of his return and pretty much ever since, Alex had less trouble reconciling the man who came back, because I think his recollections of the one who left were few and far between. For myself, it was another story. I spent a lot of time emotionally stonewalling my dad in those early days. I let him in on occasion and we slowly got a bit more comfortable with one another and around the time I graduated high school, we were on better terms. We went on fishing trips together and briefly ran a rock-climbing wall at a mall in our old home town of Macon, Georgia. The time that passed, my father and I got to build a different kind of bond together. To me, it didn’t often feel like father and son, so much as younger guy and older drinking buddy who enjoyed filthy jokes and ogling women with you. That was what our relationship became for the majority of his returned period. He spent his time driving semi-trucks cross country and calling or texting us dirty jokes he’d heard on the XM Satellite Comedy channels. He would stop into town on some occasions when his truck route passed him through and we would meet him for dinner or go see a movie or ride go-karts in what little time we had off. There was definitely still a bit of “dad” in there at times. While our conversations rarely got serious in nature before deviating back to toilet humor and whether one of us had seen the latest episode of South Park, there was always an apologetic sweetness to Allen. It was very clear to me from the beginning that he wanted to be back in the good graces of his sons and was willing to do whatever it took to get there.
Allen was sweet and liked having fun although he kind of relished in being a needling annoyance and have a lot of fun doing it when he knew he was grinding on your nerves just right. Over the years, I’ve noticed the same sort of tendencies in myself when it comes to certain social interactions. If I really like you, I’m going to give you shit sometimes in only the most loving ways possible. You might get aggravated, but I’m going to make it as clear as I can that it’s not coming from a place of any sort of animosity. Sometimes, it can go a little too far and hurt some feelings, in which case, I’ll quickly be the first person to spring into an apology. My dad, it turns out, was very much the same way. As I spent the years of my late teens and twenties getting to know him all over again, it turned out I had inherited a lot of personality traits from him that I had figured were just things I’d picked up from some unknown origin.
He had a knack for trying to call at the worst possible times in the day, (when I’m at work, when I’m taking a test, when I’m on a date, when I’m in the middle of personal life drama, etc.) and frequently, my time in getting back to him wasn’t always prompt. If I’m being totally honest right now, I’m feeling like a downright asshole about that. I have two unchecked voicemails sitting on my phone from days ago that I know are from him, that I just haven’t had the heart or stomach to listen to yet. If I could tell him I was sorry for that, I would, because I’m sure he might have thought that deep down it was a symptom of me not liking him when that couldn’t have been more untrue.
And now, I sit here, wishing I could go back and tell him that I’d forgiven him a long time ago. I don’t know if I ever said the words to him out loud. Our the communications of our relationship had long ago become a series phone tag calls where when we would get a hold of one another, a “how have you been?” conversation would ensue, punctuated by a series of dirty jokes, and innuendos. Some of our conversations involved a lot of over-sharing at times. Things that sons and fathers with normal relationships never talk about. A great example, last year, my dad and I got into a conversation about my current research work on a writing project about the methamphetamine trade. Dad proceeded to tell me about the really shitty time he’d had the one time he had tried meth during his “dark period”. It’s shocking to hear a father figure telling you about something with such a sense of brutal honesty, and at the time, I was pretty taken aback by what I was hearing, but in the end, I realized that in Dad’s weird way, he was trying to take part in what I was doing and encourage me in my career. It took him years before he got onboard with my being a writer, and the very second I held a first copy of Love Buzz in my hands back in 2009, he finally saw that I might not be chasing something so pointless or foolish after all. From there on, he was onboard with it in his own way.
It took me years to realize how alike my Dad and I were in ways I hadn’t seen before when he was gone. People want to know where I get my foul mouth and borderline deviant sense of humor, that’d be from my old man. I’ve worn it proudly and mostly unapologetically ever since, and now I plan on wearing it twice as As complex and fractured of a relationship as we had, I always loved him, and more recently we’d gotten back into the habit of saying it more frequently. We were back on our way to a more normal sense of relationship to what we were used to.
People might feel like this is all a case of that aforementioned over-sharing, but… That’s just the Ward in my blood. I may be known by a different name for years since and for years moving forward, but blood doesn’t change with a name. If I had a moment to tell my dad what I truly needed to tell him again, I would tell him every word of this and end it by saying “I love you.”
I’m going to miss you Dad.
My only hope that on some level, you knew that.