Yes, I know the word penultimate. Yes, I have known since reading Strunk and White that one word is always better than three, even when the three are hyphenated. But I received my inspiration for this post from a title I passed over fleetingly in the New Yorker daily feed, and I wanted to preserve the diction: “My Last Conversation and so on.” I actually went back and read it, and it was quite good. No, it was dazzling, in its straightforward and understated way.
I am not a journalist covering wars across the globe. And my father was even further from being a law professor. He was just a copper miner from Globe, Arizona (a crusher repairman and sometimes president of the local Steelworkers union), and I am just . . . well, I have been many small things, but mostly a teacher of writing and thinking. Nor was our second-to-last conversation dazzling in its understated but confusing and not-at-all-straightforward way.
The conversation occurred just after Daddy’s birthday on March 11; he had made it to the year 2000, something he had wondered about in one of our weekly conversations when he drove me to and from the university in Tucson, where he grudgingly allowed me to go; he thought college for girls was a fool’s errand, but he wouldn’t have said so because he knew that there was little else for a smart and studious girl like me to do; besides, he didn’t speak in metaphors.
I can’t say that I remember any of those Globe-to-Tucson conversations except in snippets when reminded by something else. I do remember several other conversations with my father, though. I remember that when I was about five years old, he walked with me into the hills beyond the Little League ballpark. He showed me three seashells fossilized on the part of a giant boulder exposed aboveground, and he told me that once, oceans had covered the land in this area of high desert.
When I was a girl, he told me about the antics he and his hoodlum friends indulged in when he was a boy going to the same schools my sister and I attended. By all reports, Rex Byerly was probably in the category we now designate as mentally disabled. One morning when he didn’t want to go to school, so Daddy’s story went, Rex hid behind the window shades of his classroom on the southeast-facing side of Noftsger Hill School (the same room where I had Miss Setka in the fourth grade), pulled down to keep out the blazing sun of late morning. All the children (especially Daddy and the other hoodlums) laughed and pointed when they saw the crisp silhouette of Rex Byerly.
So when the Noftsger Hill hooligans went to high school, they decided to mock the new-fangled idea of student government by electing Rex as the first student-body president of Globe High School. Daddy told me, too, but more briefly, about going to school with Rose Perica, who became the first woman governor of Arizona, with no help from said hooligans; she ascended to the office by default after the impeachment of Evan Mecham (an Arizona-bred character more laughable, in retrospect, than Rex Byerly).
Despite his service in World War II, Daddy never told me anything about his army experiences save one brief vignette about getting his tank lost in a field in France. Oh, yes, he also told me about meeting an unknown cousin at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, whose pronunciation he insisted was “camel.” And he schooled me in similarly erroneous pronunciations of words he had learned in French.
Some conversations are easier for me to remember, such as one when he called me “a fat sow who doesn’t do anything but lie around and read all day.” Another time, when I asked to lend a small and unused television to a college friend who couldn’t go home between the summer and fall semesters, he snarled, “It’s a damn funny thing you can’t get along with anyone but a bunch of girls down at school.” And during my senior year, when I returned home for Christmas and wanted to put up the tree even though it was artificial, a travesty of tradition, he taunted me, “The only thing good about Christmas is the fact that it was started by a Jew, so I am justified in hating it.” My insolent response–“The tragedy of your life is that you were born into an identifiable ethnic minority, so you can’t hate them all”–came only months after he had called me a “nigger-lover” for my decision to go to graduate school to study the history of race relations in the United States. His rejoinder, a chilling expression of of a dark tradition in American history, was that he had learned to hate by being called dago and wop when he was a child.
But he went proudly to my college graduation, beamingly gave me away at my first wedding, did not attend my second. Once, when I had retuned to Globe to visit him in the hospital after a stroke or a broken hip or some other ailment of the elderly, he told me, “I wish your mother would take better care of herself. She used to be such a purty woe-man”; during the same visit, he told me about a fruit he had been served for lunch; “I didn’t know what it was,” he said, “but a guy could learn to like kiwis.” At the end of another trip home–and it is still home despite my long absence–spouse #2 and I were preparing to leave for Phoenix to catch our flight back to North Carolina. Daddy hugged me, kissed me on the lips as we did my whole life (“Good night; I love you.” “Good night; I love you.”) and said softly into my ear, “Be good, sweetheart.”
Well. The last spring of the 20th century had finally rolled around. My sister called to tell me our father was dying–drowning in his own fluids, she said. I made quick arrangements to fly home and then frantically called the number she had given me. My mother had died the previous year when I was in an airplane somewhere above this huge continent while I was reading The Poisonwood Bible to take my mind off her condition, and we hadn’t even been able to say goodbye. So I was desperate to speak to Daddy and asked the hospital operator to connect me to the room of Harold Bozzola. When he answered, I said, “Hi, Daddy,” and he asked, “Who is this?”
“Vicki. It’s Vicki. Triss told me you aren’t doing very well.” He said he was doing fine, just a little under the weather. His voice was muffled, the words, difficult to decipher. I said I would be coming to see him the next day, and he was glad. He told me a little about the food at the hospital and a program he had seen on television, but he couldn’t really see the TV because the nurse had taken his glasses. I asked if he wanted me to speak to her on his behalf, but he said it wasn’t important. He really liked the nurses and didn’t want to cause them any trouble. His favorite was named Jane (it was my mother’s name). He seemed happy to hear from me but sounded tired, so we exchanged our I love yous and said goodbye. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I reminded him, hung up the phone, and returned to my packing. Thus ended my second-to-last conversation with somebody’s father. But the gnawing clues slowly became clear: It wasn’t Daddy.
So moments later, I redialed the number for Cobre Valley Hospital and told the operator, “I just called and asked to speak to Harold Bozzola, but the person I talked to was not my father.” She connected me with the nurse on duty, to whom I repeated my plaintive words. She chuckled and said I must have reached to his roommate. “Is he there? Is he able to talk?” He was asleep, but she said she could wake him. When he answered, I said, “Hi, Daddy.” And he responded, “Hi, Vick.” This voice was even more muffled, gurgly even, and it didn’t sound any more like the man who called me a fat sow than the other one did. But it was Daddy. I told him I was coming to see him, but he said not to waste my money. I could come later when it wouldn’t cost so much. It was definitely Daddy.
Like Mama, he died while I was in an airplane, this time reading The Four Quartets:
In my end is my beginning. . . .
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. . . .
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I realize that most of the conversations I have written about are not conversations at all, but monologues half remembered because they gave me momentary pleasure or pain. Nor are the last words I will report a conversation, but my own monologue at my father’s memorial service. I told the congregants about him as an angry, bitter man, who loved the slide rule and National Geographic but who toiled his life away at hard labor during a time in history that would not allow him to gratify his keen yearning for knowledge. But then I noted that he had lived his last days in a residential care facility, where the owner’s young children loved to sit on his lap and had insisted on throwing him a 79th birthday party with cake and balloons just nine days before he died. I acknowledged that Daddy was not a religious man, but I suggested that something besides congestive failure must have happened inside his heart because little children don’t climb on the laps of angry, bitter old men. And then I turned to the Book of Common Prayer, as I often do when I need language that sanctifies the yearnings of my own heart:
For all who have died in the communion of your Church, and those whose faith is known to you alone, that, with all the saints, they may have rest in that place where there is no pain or grief, but life eternal, we pray to you, O Lord.
I loved you, Daddy. I love you, Daddy.