Dan Rowe, in Vietnam
By Jeff Rowe
The drive to the hospital was rainy and anxiety laden. My wife, Alissa, was driving us up Route 128 at a hurried pace. It was grey, raining, and my father was lying in a bed at Addison Gilbert Hospital—dying. Dying in the same hospital that I’d been dragged to for all my ills and injuries. A very familiar place that brought upon me nothing but dread. It was fitting, really.
My father and I had been estranged for the last three or four years leading up to this day. We used to be like good friends. Always joking and carrying on as if the world around us held little sway. Be it an afternoon beer, an old war movie, or arguing over politics—we were friends. But something fractured along the way. Something that neither of us could fix, or at least that’s what I tell myself. The delicate relationship between father and son walks on a thin wire, on a blustery day, with greying skies that only point to the storm ahead.
We were driving from Boston to Gloucester, which is usually a forty-five minute drive down the line. About thirty minutes into that drive, my sister called to say that my father had just passed away. I didn’t cry. I felt anger. Anger that his death would serve as a last act of defiance to me, that he wouldn’t let me sit next to him and say that I’m sorry for the time that we had lost, whether I truly felt that way or not. For in the moment of his death, a cliché was born. A story as old as time itself had once again been played out on the grand stage of life. The bitter artistry of bloodlines and the dissent therein. But somewhere in my own turbulent tidal wave of thoughts there was a crying sister, a concerned wife, and a lost boy who looked like a man, a man that had the same tattoo as the man that was lying in a bed at Addison Gilbert Hospital.
My first memories of my father are of him crawling on the floor. Sometimes, but rarely, he would have a knife in his mouth. If you’ve not yet seen the sincere fragility of life, I suggest you live with someone who has PTSD. Back then, that’s not what we called it. We called it depression, anxiety, night terrors etc… Honestly, you can call it whatever you want. But what it really is, at its very core, is the reality of someone who is coming undone. When someone ordinary is forced to do extraordinary things, extraordinary things become ordinary. And somewhere in between, like a boat steadily taking on water, all is lost. It’s a real life human being replicating the sound of a limb cracking off a tree in a violent storm. Just before it fully snaps off, you can hear the splitting. And when it finally does split, the only thing left is the white noise of silence and what was left in its wake.
I always wanted to take his place during those fitful nights of waking up screaming. I would wonder if I could take it. I would wonder how long he was going to be able to take it. At some point, he had a valve replaced in his heart and it would make a ticking sound, not unlike that of a watch. Standing in the doorway of his room, I would listen for the tick, waiting to hear the metronome that signified his beating heart. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I would stand there and listen for that tick. In fact, I still have dreams in which the ticking sound plays a walk on roll.
Daniel James Rowe, Sr. was once in the 101st Airborne. He served three tours in Vietnam and was so intent on enlisting that he lied about his age, joining up at the youthful age of seventeen. Danny was a scrapper who by all accounts needed a sense of order. People around him thought that going into the service would be a good thing for him. He would stay out of trouble, out of the fights that he constantly found himself in. My mom told me that when my father was about to get on the plane to go to war, his father gave no hug or warm words, he just said, “Do not embarrass us”, coldly. My mother obviously never forgot that. And thinking back to my relationship with my father, it makes sense that he could be one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet in one moment, and cold and callous in the next. Yeah, that was our relationship.
My father never talked much about his time in Vietnam. Sometimes, when he would talk in his sleep, I would listen to him reliving his days of war. He would often say that he was sorry, to whom I do not know, but sometimes he would yell out for us to get down, at the top of his lungs. Sleep was a volatile event in the Rowe household. I remember crying for him, then. I would never know what it was like to experience what he went through, but I felt his pain—his agony. I would sometimes wake up to the sound of him falling. I would rush down the stairs to see if he was ok, careful to keep my distance because if he was still at war… well, he was dangerous. It was a delicate relationship that we were forging. There would be times of laughter and memories made, but always deep down there was a weariness—a strain. A feeling of knowing that there is a limit, but wanting to see how far we can get before reaching it. Is that normal?
I guess my father never really left Vietnam. He had so many memories, good and bad, wrapped up in that war. I would have loved to meet my father before the war; or if we could alter history, I would have loved to know my father who never went to war. It’s hard to imagine because everything in his life, his politics, his belief, his pride, all centered around the war. I wonder what he would have become. I wonder if he and I would have become estranged at all. It makes little to no sense for my mind to go there, but it does.
When I was young, my father would teach me how to walk with my eyes forward, never looking down, balanced on the curb. We would do this for hours. He would also teach me how to restrain someone, how to use pressure points, and how to blend in should a dangerous situation arise. I wanted to be like him. The truth is, we actually shared very few similarities; an intense and off putting sense of sarcasm, a temper, and an ease for which we could become cold. That was really what we shared. I actually liked knowing that we shared that. I would, after all, take what I could get.
Dead Trees, Gloucester, 1923. Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
When we arrived at the hospital, I saw his bed surrounded by my weeping siblings, all of whom had even rockier relationships with our father than I. And there he was; he looked so frail and haggard. I remember thinking that maybe beyond the fear of dying, of knowing that your life is about to be over, that maybe there was also a sense of relief. I truly hope there was. His eyes were filled brightly with blood, so much so that I could barely make out the vibrant blue that his eyes usually project. He looked bloated and when I touched his arm for the last time, touched the tattoo that we both share, it was cold to the touch. A definitive cold. I think about that moment on a daily basis. That was when I began to weep, not just because my father was dead, but also for the absence of life in a body, which is so profound that to not be shaken by it—is to feel nothing at all.
The doctors told us that he bled out, hence the reason for the blood in his eyes. He had overdosed on a combination of blood thinners and other medications. My whole life he had always taken so many medications. So much so, that it was nearly impossible to keep track of what does what. Lying there, his body looked like one big scar. He had many surgeries in his time, including open heart surgery, which left one raised scar running crudely from his chest to his stomach, which may have been when he was given the tick. Life was not easy for hard luck Danny, and I guess death wasn’t much different. I could wish all day for things to a have turned out differently, but in the end, all we have is the reality that is in front of us. And in that moment, my reality was telling me that my father had bled out and his life had come to an end.
While we were at the hospital, I felt a deep sense of resentment toward my siblings. There were five of us: Kristen was the oldest, Daniel James, Jr. came after her, followed by my half-sisters, Ruthie and Rian. I am, of course, the baby of the brood. My resentment stemmed from the years of hearing from them just how much of an asshole my father was. They would go years without talking to him, and whenever they would rekindle their respective relationships, it always ended in an epic fight. It’s funny, now that my father has been gone for some years, I’m realizing that what I just described is exactly how my relationship ended with my father.
We stood around his bed and made small talk. I had never seen my brother cry before. It looked awkward, like someone trying on a shirt that’s too tight. Also, I couldn’t recall ever seeing all my sisters in one room. Our family always had a distance about it. It made sense. But I think what was most striking to me in that moment was the fact that we were a family of strangers. That was the truth of it. We were a family of strangers, who were gathered around their dead father, who was also a stranger.
We decided to head back to our father’s apartment as a group to discuss arrangements for a funeral. When we arrived at his place it looked so familiar. I had been visiting there for years, but it had been long enough since my last visit that it was hard for me to recollect the layout. I remembered that he had his walls full of pictures. That was another thing I found odd; he had surrounded himself with pictures of his life’s failed relationships. Was it a reminder? A comfort? I don’t have the answer, but I like to think the walls represented the way he wanted things to be. The smiles and the good memories that were caught in a fleeting moment—how if you could just capture the memory of a certain photograph and clutch it to your heart, you would have captured happiness. That’s what I like to think. Our pictures were a reminder of something that he couldn’t hold onto, but he would have if he had the strength to hold us in a moment, forever.
Gloucester carries a weight with it. Not all get to experience it, but most do. We weren’t at my father’s apartment for more than ten minutes before one of my siblings had the idea to rummage around for his pain medication. I’m not sure who had the initial idea to do this, but it seemed that they wanted to ease the pain of his death with the very pills that took his life. Honestly, I couldn’t blame them, but the irony was not lost on me. Don’t get me wrong, I have my vices and to call me an angel would put you in the realm of science fiction, but this moment ate away at the pit of my stomach. It’s the very reason that I left Gloucester at such a young age. This city would always haunt me with its beauty, but once you peel back the layers, down to the seedy underbelly, she ain’t so pretty.
My city has two very distinct faces. One face shows a warming smile that gives the very salt that lingers in the air, like a gift. There is no air like it. This face is the view of the ocean from the Boulevard, Stage Fort Park standing toothed and strong to its right. This face is the ocean, sparkling like millions of pieces of shattered glass, on a spring afternoon. But there is another face. And this face tells a very different tale. One of inherent class division, drugs, and rampant alcohol abuse. A tale of frustration brought about by stagnation. This face has a view that rarely changes for those who see it.
I’ve lived with the memory of both faces. I guess in a lot of ways, Gloucester and my father are similar. They both have two distinctly different sides. And in my own way, I loved them both very much. Gloucester is much like the ocean that surrounds it. A thing of staggering beauty, but very dangerous at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like Gloucester, not in all my seemingly endless travels. But then again, I’ve never crossed paths with someone like my father. They have both proved themselves to be two very unique, double-sided, islands.
I don’t remember driving home from Gloucester that night. I remember drinking a beer, in the comfort of my apartment. I remember thinking that even though it seemed like we hardly knew each other—I felt his absence. The loss of a parent gave me a different feeling than that of the loss of a friend. It has something to do with shelter, something to do with the expectations of our individual roles as father and son. I fell asleep that night thinking about his sense of humor and his wild streak that brought out a laugh of unbridled freedom. The kind of laugh that you could liken to a dog with its head out the window of a passing car. For that night, I fell asleep with no anger in my heart. I thought of his blue eyes, not clouded by blood. I thought of the way that he would call me “my guy,” as opposed to using my actual name. I thought of the tattoo that we shared and the blood that runs through us all. And somewhere, hidden deep in my heart and imagination, I heard a tick.
Jeff Rowe lives on Winter Hill, in Somerville. He grew up in Gloucester and has since traveled the world playing music and collecting memories. He is a brewer by trade and is now in the process of writing a collection of short stories/memoirs of his childhood in Gloucester.