When I was young and had the occasion to run afoul of my mother (an occurrence more than just occasional), she would call me a bastard. Occasionally. When my dad would transgress, as he was indeed wont to do, she would call him that as well: a bastard. Now in my case that was a certainly less self-denigrating insult than calling me ‘son-of-a-bitch’ if only by degrees. When she would talk to Opal, Bill’s mom, she would refer to him as a son-of-a-bitch. In later years she claimed she didn’t realize what she was saying.
Clearly one could apply the same standard to calling one’s son a bastard: the insult self-applied in the inherent suggestion of one’s dodgy morality. It could be in no way my fault that I am or am not a bastard from a biological standpoint – I was too ill-formed to have any real influence on the matter. So it becomes an odd insult at best when directed at one’s offspring. Indeed that moniker applied, regardless of where, is a commentary on someone’s parents’ behaviors and is no way reflective of the child’s choice. If it was up to us, we’d all be George Clooney.
As I got old enough to consider simple mathematical equations I realized my parents’ anniversary was a mere 8 months from my birthday. While mature beyond my years, it was never indicated that I arrived any earlier than my allotted 9 months – conditions were cozy, I was well tended, why vacate before the lease is up? I say… But simple math confirms: my Mom was with me before she married my Dad.
I am of virgin birth.
Or my Mom wasn’t necessarily as chaste as she led many of us to believe. In fact, whenever I alluded to said sidereal discrepancy, she was quick to giggle and avoid the subject completely. As avoidance was how we dealt with many issues around our house, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. As she didn’t admit to having premarital hummana-hummana with my Dad nor did she deny the virgin birth possibility, I ran with the likely rather than the divine explanation, always holding out the grander hope…
You see, I am very different from my family. My family is crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I am crazy as well, being a part of the whole ‘family’ aspect of the observation. The difference is (as it usually is) is that I know I am crazy. I’m not homicidal or anything, don’t have special relationships with my stuffed bunny or whatever, but I understand by any rational measure – you know, what society presents as rational – I am crazy.
My family (what remains of them) accepts that I am crazy, but – here’s the scary part – they think they are sane. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that the only truly sane members of my crazy family are the ones, like me, who understand they are crazy. Of particular interest to no one in particular, there is no one in my family like me.
I suspect now that I might understand why.
This has been a hard year by any measure. Started out destitute, and after visiting a dear friend who was recovering from lung cancer, got terribly ill while repairing a piss-saturated deck at Bobby Kennedy’s kid’s house in the Palisades. For half a month’s rent. In March, my nephew died horribly in a single-car collision. In June, Gayle was felled by that cancer and in July my mother died. For 2 weeks, I traveled a thousand miles of the deepest grief I believe I have yet known.
Before my Mom died she called me and asked me to come and see her. At this point she had entered hospice and knew the end was near, so her request for me to come back was very sad but understandable. I was working on the ESPN machine so I told her I’d be up in early June. But the check got tied up, as checks will, and by the time we were able to head Northward I got the call: Gayle had passed. Pat, my oldest friend, was utterly devastated.
The trip became immensely harder.
Upon arrival, we found Jan doped out of her skull on huge amounts of morphine and an endless panoply of other chemical emollients, an oxygen tube wrapped around her face. Death seemed imminent, and all communications had that dream/nightmare quality as she shifted about in her drug haze talking to people who weren’t present and preparing for events long past. Moments of recognition were punctuated with moments of confused terror, delusion and paranoia.
I hearkened back to my Dad’s death in 2001. Alzheimer’s took him down slow and hard, leaving him lost and terrified, coveting death. Begging for it. Of course a humane society doesn’t allow people who have deteriorated so awfully that only death will end their suffering to die with dignity, so Bill soldiered through until catatonia stole his motor function and held out till I could send him off.
People I know have bad deaths. Sorry to those of you I know. Keeping that in mind, I recommend all those I know to have good lives just in case this horrid trend continues.
One moment of lucidity will stay with me the remainder of my days: my son Errol (who had been caring for her for some time before we arrived), Robin and I were with Jan when the haze cleared and she knew us all. She was pleased we were there, together, especially as her other two children who lived more locally couldn’t make the trip. Errol set up the CD player and put on The Moment, my first piano concerto, which astounded and pleased Jan greatly. She was amazed at what her boy had created, at what he could do.
I told her, “I made that but you made me so this music wouldn’t exist if not for you. You’ve made the world a more beautiful place.” The look of satisfaction on that one face in that single instant made all the work required to create it dissipate into delight. Art can do that. The moment shared.
Before Jan went down, and she went down very hard with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, she had an unexpected burst of lucidity. She had joined wonder-girl Robin and me for a compelling little chat that I had the occasion to record in which she offered the real reason for needing to see me: she needed to get something off her chest.
As her coherence was dodgy at best, at first I didn’t pick up on what she was saying. Some of the conversation was to me while big parts of it (the juicy stuff) had me as a neutral unnamed 3rd party to whom she confided about me. She made it clear to us that she didn’t want me to know about this. She’d kept it a secret my entire life, apparently only her mother knew:
Bill wasn’t my biological father.
That honor/disgrace belonged to someone in San Pedro named Tidwell. While dating Bill, she had messed around with Tidwell, found herself with child (zygoat) and seduced Bill with the notion that the little bundle of freedom-ending responsibility gestating in her womb was of his delight. She indicated that he never found out.
She had tricked my father into marrying her under the pretext that he had knocked her up, and he raised me under the belief that my curly, reddish hair and spots were the natural outcome of his natural manly outpouring. I have lived the entirety of my life under this perception. If he had any idea, he never let me know.
“The only charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception necessary for both parties…” – Oscar Wilde
I’ll admit I was fairly surprised by this revelation. 58 years seems a long time to keep secret what some might imagine as relatively significant information. Learning about your real father when there might actually be a possibility he’s still vital seems more likely to achieve any hope of a functional relationship. Expand the Christmas card list, that kind of thing. But she kept it, her private little embarrassment, all to herself.
Grown larger each passing thought, the secret becomes more difficult to tell the longer it hides.
Such secrets, it seems, become a burden and as with all burdens, the longer you carry them, the more back-breaking they become. All who knew Jan knew of her back afflictions. It would seem in trying to put something she couldn’t face behind her, the weight necessarily became more crippling each year until she could carry it no more. At the end, she gave it to me, with the tease of relevance, plummeted into the hospital, and within a few days, was dead.
Taking the short view, this could be seen as selfish and a little cold; keeping the true biological nature of a child’s parentage from them the entirety of their life, then achieving catharsis by dropping it on them at the last moment, callous.
The long view affords a more palatable palliative: when she called me a bastard, she was just being honest.
RIP Jan Simmons 5/20/31 – 7/7/14