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My Father, the Enigma

by Kristy Ockunzzi-Kmit 22 days ago in grief

My dad was a unique, charming, complicated man. Content Warning: This memoir contains real-life accounts of parental loss and family strain.

My dad in his fancy eclipse-viewing glasses and very fine hat.

Two years ago, my father died.

Technically speaking, his passing was sudden -- but if you ask me, he had been impatiently waiting for his final breath from the very second his mother had taken hers. He made it two years and one day short of her birthday, and I’m convinced he left so abruptly because he couldn’t bring himself to sit through one more of her birthdays without her. Cancer was what eventually took him, and true to form it was a very rare, aggressive, and difficult-to-detect manifestation of the disease -- only something obscure would do, after all, for the man who repeatedly claimed his diabetes was not real and, instead, must have actually been something that science had not yet discovered.

I would like to say that I have a lot of happy memories of my dad, but I don’t. My memories of him are difficult, insightful, humorous, sad, frustrating, embarrassing, even profound -- but rarely happy. I don’t think he was a terribly happy person, honestly, though my dad was never the same person to two different people. I’m sure there are plenty of individuals out there who would disagree with me on that point, but Dad at Home was not the same as Dad in Public or even Dad at Work or Dad Alone. Dad, to me, was not the same Dad to any of my siblings, although there were of course some similarities -- common threads tying together an uncommon man. He was multi-faceted and ever-changing; if he were an animal, he’d have been a chameleon, constantly shedding one suit and putting on another to blend in with his surroundings. Later in life (and maybe even earlier, who knows) he even had different names depending on where he was. It was wild. When I wrote his obituary, I struggled to find things to say about him that were universal truths, things that enough people knew about him to be satisfied with, and in the end I settled on sticking with things the family knew. I think he enjoyed confusing people and never quite allowing anyone to figure him out. It was as if life, and sometimes even other people, could be reduced to a game for him to play.

This might make him sound like he was a bad person, but I don’t think he was. At least, not really. Complicated, surely, but not bad. I feel as though a person must have decidedly ill-intent, a maliciousness of spirit if you will, in order to be classified as such, and I don’t believe my father had that. I think, instead, he had a very difficult time feeling comfortable with most things. Life hung on him like a set of poorly-fitting trousers, the kind that bunch up or pinch and need to be adjusted, that hang longer on one leg or feel fine when you’re standing and then smash your insides when you sit. He had a void inside that he tried to fill by constantly shifting interests and racking up piles of collected DVDs. There was a duality of spirit within him that he probably wrestled with on a subconscious level if not a conscious one. He hated change, but enjoyed creating chaos. He wanted to control most everything, but greatly disliked having to do everything himself. He was playful, yet severe. He also took a lot of personality cues -- again, constantly reinventing himself -- from his favorite actors and musicians; by the time I was fifteen, I could spot when he was being Bill Murray, or Jack Nicholson, or Ozzy Osbourne. There was even a time when he’d turned into a little bit of Danny DeVito, which I’d called him on and he’d vehemently denied.

We were often at odds, partly because we simply didn’t mesh together all the time and partly because I -- through a particularly volatile cocktail of circumstance, poor judgment, and spectacularly rebellious misbehavior -- was anything but a good daughter. We were like two cogwheels destined to work with each other despite the fact that some of our teeth were missing and half of the remaining teeth were the wrong shape. Our machine broke so many times that eventually the mechanic just gave up, packed his bags, and moved to Milwaukee. I spent many years resenting him, thinking he was terrible for being the way he was. And, surely, he was not always the most splendid person to be around. But with time I began to realize that he was stumbling just as much as anyone else was. The only difference was that he was doing it while constantly chasing the impossible, simultaneously wanting everything and nothing, inhaling one personality and exhaling another.

Cows from the farm where my dad grew up.

I think it’s possible that his changeable nature was fueled in part by both a sense of never having achieved his dream, which was to be an architect, and by his seemingly never-ending list of previously-held jobs. He grew up on a farm, so he probably would have semi-jokingly told you that he started working from the moment he was born. Really, though, he began his first job when he was only thirteen years old, taking up a groundskeeper position at the local cemetery. From there he went on to wear many hats, including (but not limited to) and in no particular order: Fence installer for Smuckers, something involving explosives with Austin Powder Company, teacher, police officer/dispatcher, barkeep, business owner, small-time construction worker, roofer, delivery man, electrician, something mysterious in Parma, and secret poetry writer. At least, I think so. Maybe.

You see, he was also quite the storyteller, though I mean that in both the sense of “could tell an interesting tale” and “could bullshit with the best of them.” I have no idea how many of the stories my father told me are true and how many are lies. He could be charming when he wanted to be and downright convincing when he needed to be, and if he were ever confronted with contradictory facts, he’d find an avenue through which he could slip away from the conversation without having to fully explain himself. There was always, always a window of possibility left open. He also had a habit of telling a very personal or remarkable story, perhaps in a moment of vulnerability, then later denying it. Such denials were typically done with a heavy dollop of anger, which the careful observer could interpret as a ham-fisted attempt to deflect any further probing into what I’m sure my father believed was an exposed chink in his armor. Most of the time, though, it was merely an attempt to get to know him better. Or, in my case, a simple request to hear a fantastic tale again, to repair the threadbare patches in an otherwise vivid tapestry and reclaim every last detail.

I had a knack for remembering his stories, but only in a general sense. I always needed those details repaired.

Perhaps most notable of these generally-remembered stories was one he told me when I was maybe ten or eleven years old. He had been commiserating with me after I had possibly seen a ghost the previous night -- I'd either woken up in the middle of the night, or I had been hovering in that airy place right between sleeping and wakefulness, when I had seen what I thought was my grandmother standing at the end of my bed. She was very moonlit, very grey and soft. I was confused, since I hadn’t known she’d come over, but I remember asking her to stay. “I can’t,” she’d said, “but I want to tell you that I love you, and I want to tell you good night.” She patted me on the foot and I fell asleep after that. The following day, I asked why my grandmother had been at the house. My family was obviously confused because she hadn’t, in fact, been there. Later that evening, my dad told me a story about how his grandmother had once come to visit him when he had been awake in the kitchen in the middle of the night. The details are fuzzy (the exact person, and the timing, are the parts I can’t quite remember) but I do know for sure that he had claimed she said the same things to him -- that she wanted to stay, but couldn’t, and she loved him, and good night. The only thing we couldn’t figure out was who I might have seen, since at the time both of my grandmothers were still alive. We didn’t dwell too much on it, though.

Decades later, after my paternal grandmother did eventually pass away, somehow the topic of spirit visitors came up. I asked my dad if he could re-tell his account of his late-night visitation because I couldn’t remember everything about it. It didn’t go well. In fact, I’m pretty sure he was upset with me for several weeks, if not months, after that one.

My dad was a staunch believer in the paranormal and the metaphysical, though. He believed several unbelievable things without a shadow of a doubt, and woe be unto anyone attempting to change his mind about any of it. The chief grand-daddy belief of all beliefs held by my dad was that aliens had abducted him when he was young, and they inserted a (possibly slowly-dissolving) device of some sort into his forearm. One story he would almost always gladly tell involved a night he’d been standing outside with his brothers, gazing up at the stars. He’d noticed there was an odd, circular patch of darkness in the sky, and stayed to stare at it while everyone else went inside. According to him, hours passed before anyone came looking for him, but he had felt like it had only been a couple of minutes; confused, he went to point out the missing stars to his family, but the darkness was gone. The sky was clear, nothing but a beautiful blanket of heavenly twinkling from one edge of reality to the next. Years later, when security scanners in airports became the norm, my dad would consistently set them off. The guards would always have him remove just about everything, turn out his pockets, unbutton his shirt, you name it. Then they would pull out the metal detector wand and wave it up and down his body, and sure enough, it would go off over his forearm. “Old surgery quirk,” he’d say with a bit of mischief in his eyes. “Probably left some scissors in there or something.”

Curiously, when he came to support me at traffic court for my first fender-bender some three or four years ago, the security scanner didn’t go off when he walked through it. He looked genuinely surprised, almost disappointed. “Huh,” he’d said. I had been staying at his house at the time, and there had been several nights when the automatic streetlights lining a nearby driveway had spooked him pretty badly. He had rushed outside each time, eyes upward, not once even considering that the light coming into the house could be the very normal and very boring motion-sensitive LEDs not fifty yards away. He wasn’t going crazy, I don’t think. He was just becoming a little more relaxed with his reactions. Maybe even a little hopeful that whatever had picked him up as a child had come back.

He also believed that he was psychic and that he was, in some way, tuned-in to forces beyond human understanding. I was a very sickly child, and for a number of years he preached to me the power of “mental healing” as he called it; he’d say, “If something in your body isn’t working, you can think yourself into making it function a different way.” Unfortunately, my body wasn’t working because of bacteria, so that didn’t really help, but it was a nice idea I suppose. (No, it wasn’t. Sorry, Dad.) However, his stories of having seen alien ships and traveling around the world using out-of-body experiences and connecting to nature a-la Crocodile Dundee were fun. Even though he kind of gave up on it in his later years, his eyes were always on the stars when I was young, and he fostered a love for the unknown in me. He never seemed to have a problem talking to me about crystals, or sacred places, or any of life’s great mysteries.

Dad looking like Sasquatch while visiting General Sherman and the rest of the redwoods.

Except, that is, when I was maybe thirteen years old and he went on walkabout for the summer. He spent the night talking to me and my brother about all manner of things, asking us what animal we’d be if we could be one, where we’d go if we could go anywhere, what we thought about various topics, that sort of stuff. Then, in the morning, he was gone. Off to the Great West, to have Adventures. He called, occasionally, and I would listen in, very quiet so as not to miss a word; he’d talk about laying in hot springs and catching “prairie chickens” for dinner, about finding himself and searching the outer reaches of existence with his mental projections. My mother accidentally broke the magic when she asked me a question over the phone line one day, betraying my presence -- although I wasn’t really hiding -- and after all these years I suppose the only answer for the ensuing anger is that he’d been speaking with a different sort of freedom than he allowed himself when he spoke to me, and he didn’t appreciate being heard without having that sort of control. That wasn’t the version of himself he wanted to present to me, and I had unwittingly robbed him of that choice.

To say that he was one with nature, though, would likely be an overstatement in the extreme. My dad was, perhaps, skilled at growing vegetables, and I never really had the chance to see him interact with farm animals of any kind so I’ll have to take his word on that front. But as far as any other animals go, they were not exactly his friends. In the year before his passing, I was in my parents’ driveway one morning when I noticed a raccoon was sleeping on the roof of their garage. Naturally, knowing that they’d had a multitude of problems with raccoons in the past, I went inside to tell my dad that he had a visitor. What I did not expect was for my dad to get up and walk outside, with a pistol, in nothing but his threadbare shorts, a button-up leisure shirt, and a pair of loafers. There, in plain view of the very busy street on which he lived, he took rather unsteady aim at the raccoon and -- BLAM -- missed.

Now, I want you to picture this, because at this point in my dad’s life he had a very, very round belly and very, very spindly arms and legs, and he was quite pale, but he otherwise looked like Santa Claus. So here was a sort of oddly-shaped Santa in his PJs taking aim at the roof of a garage at approximately 9AM on a Tuesday, thankfully after all the school buses had made their rounds; meanwhile, I was standing there off to the side, hiding, absolutely certain that commuters were frantically calling 9-1-1 and reaching a dispatcher who was likely suppressing uproarious laughter because he or she would have known exactly who it was they were calling in about. Anyhow, this poor thing woke and groggily stumbled around for a second while my dad took another shot -- missed again -- and went soaring off the side of the garage, looking for all the world like a giant flying squirrel. It flattened itself out, spread eagle, and landed with surprising fortitude on the hard asphalt, sprinting off into the field behind the house without a flinch. My dad was sure the raccoon would be dead on the ground, so he merely wandered over to collect his prize. But when he didn’t see the splatted corpse he’d expected, he let out a very un-Santa-like expletive and looked to me for help. I just pointed in the direction I’d seen the raccoon run, and away my dad went. He shot off a few more rounds, hopefully straight into the dirt, and eventually came back home empty-handed.

So, no, my dad was not exactly Crocodile Dundee.

He wasn’t without kindness, however. Though I cannot recall a time when he told me, verbally, that he loved me -- save for one memory which is, again, not a happy one -- I know he tried to show me affection in all his stubborn insistences to pay for things, in his completely unplanned family camping trips and vacations, and in so many other little gestures that were usually annoyingly generous. He passed this joy of giving down to me, although I am far more verbal with my love for my daughter and my husband; I never want either of them to question it as I questioned my father’s love for so long.

Dad holding my daughter's hand at Rock City/Ruby Falls.

My dad also hated to see sadness or need in people he was on good terms with, and up until illness made his very existence an exercise in painful patience, he was quick to rush to the aid of another. And while his jokes were not necessarily good, he at least tried his best to make others laugh whenever possible. It’s fair to say that most people who spent any length of time around him enjoyed the humor in his tilted perspective, if nothing else. I grew up surrounded by people who held him to near-legendary status simply because he did what he could, when he could, and tried to get along with everybody. He made other people -- people outside his immediate family, at least -- feel better about themselves. He had a way of making light in all but the most serious situations, and sometimes he’d even find laughter amidst the darkness, too.

A lot of his laughing and joking around was total bullshit, but in the end, I don’t suppose it really matters. He did it right up until his last days, telling his nurses all sorts of nonsense and charming their toes off with his stories and partial-truths. While we were gathered around him in the shuddering stillness of his parting, when he could no longer speak and was, perhaps, the most bare and open that he had ever been, at least three nurses came in and shared condolences with us. They left us bewildered with their comments on how good of a man he was or how they knew he had tried so hard to be healthy. I wanted to ask them what exactly he had said, what grand tales he had told, so I could hang onto them for myself. I didn’t, since a greater part of me felt like there was a bit of magic in not knowing. It’s okay, though. He knew he was dying, he had made peace with it, and he was ready. I figured it was fine that he’d bent the truth to his nurses at that point instead of letting them know his favorite snacks were fistfuls of M&Ms and entire bags of off-brand Ruffles -- because, really, he did eat apples with his potato chips, and that part is healthy. Maybe it was less fine ten years ago, or fifteen, or thirty, but in his final moments?

One more little bit of tilted perspective didn’t hurt a thing, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Dad's last trip to Yellowstone. See you, space cowboy.

Author's Note: I originally posted this story on my Ko-Fi page on the anniversary of my father's passing. The upcoming holidays, however, have me feeling a bit nostalgic, so I thought I would share it with the Vocal community.

All tips received from this story will be divided evenly between the college fund my father set up for my daughter and donations to the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation.

To learn more about cholangiocarcinoma and its devastating effects, please visit https://cholangiocarcinoma.org/

Thank you for reading.

grief

Kristy Ockunzzi-Kmit

Kristy Ockunzzi-Kmit is a fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi author from Cleveland, OH. She is also an artist, spending her free time painting and sculpting. Happily married to composer Mark Kmit and mother to one very imaginative teenager.

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