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MidLife GridLife – Altared Thinking

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It was supposed to be cathartic.


To bring a sense of peace and closure to a difficult experience.

Instead it was like opening the wound all over again.

Grief is complicated.

Father/daughter relationships are complicated.

At least mine is.



See what I mean?

When I saw the announcement for this year’s Panteón Sacramento, put on by La Raza Galería Posada, I saw it as an opportunity for my sister and my son and me to do something that we hadn’t been allowed to do properly: memorialize my father.

He died unexpectedly over just a couple of days in May of 2010. He was 68.

His third wife took charge of the memorial, which was a sort of open house, and the obituary, which said little more than who his parents had been and named his surviving relatives; we were happy to be included.

The following March, we were given access to some of his things. There may have been a will; we never asked. He would have left her everything, so to see it would have been a pointless exercise in frustration.

Daughters were difficult, but wives he’s seem to have come up with a reliable formula for. He was disappointing in that way, but predictable.

Am I cynical? Absolutely.

Bitter? You bet.

If only it were that simple.

Much of the person I am is a result of being my father’s daughter.

That’s the first time I’ve formulated the thought in that way, and it isn’t entirely comfortable.

But it’s my truth.

When I was fourteen, my father took me to work in our upholstery shop on Saturdays and showed me how to keep books. He made feel welcome with the employees, and competent. I get my work ethic from him.

He never encouraged me to write per se, but we share a love of the same kinds of pop culture, so after years of writing film and book reviews, he is still the person I think of first when an interesting thriller or series debuts.

He never so much as fried an egg when I lived at home, but later he became my go-to for how long to cook a roast or how to season a chicken.

I, on the other hand, used to help him with his spelling when he wrote speeches when he worked for Caltrans under Reagan.

But my dad and I didn’t talk.

When I was young, I was simply too intimidated to speak to him about anything important; I would begin, begin again, and then generally run out of the room sobbing.

When I was older, we had teary drunken dinners and champagne challenged conversations in the corner at parties where we reassured each other that everything was fine.

I confronted him when things weren’t. He liked to play martyr and I was a bit of a shrew.

I can clearly remember one afternoon in my apartment—I was probably 21—when I went after him over his drinking.

“Okay,” he said, turning around—we were both on our feet and he was across the room near the sliding door—“I’m an alcoholic. Do you feel better now that you’ve heard me say it?”

“Yes,” I said smugly, “I do!”

“Good,” he continued, ”But I hope you know I have no intention of doing anything about it.”

Actually, it turned out he wasn’t really an alcoholic. It was a realization that swept through us all. Bipolar Disorder. None of us have difficulty abstaining when we choose to, and typically take prescribed medication once the diagnosis is in. Dad, however, decided to continue to use alcohol as his treatment of choice, on and off through the years, even after he knew there were healthier options.


I could say that he never told me he loved me.

But he did.

Or that he never said he was proud of me.

But he did.

When I complained that he didn’t support me as much as I wanted him to, he said he knew that was true, because I “didn’t need it as much.” I was “the strong one.”

I told him sometimes it sucked to be the strong one, and he just shrugged, and said I’d be fine.

He put everything he couldn’t give me into my son.

I had to watch that. It stung.

I got to see that. It was…a gift.


So when the opportunity to honor him on Día de los Muertos came this year, I thought it would be a powerful experience for us to share; to put him to rest together, and to remember him, too.

I considered backing out.

I did.

I was already overwhelmed by the idea the night before.

My son talked me out of it.

He talked me into going to Wal-Mart at 9:30 at night to buy face paint.

He’s a really cool kid.

Turns out, after six or seven years of Spanish classes, he knew something about altars, too.

We are not of Latin heritage, so we did not really concern ourselves with pure tradition, but were content to blend some of the cultural aspects with our own personal forms of tribute.

My sister ended up being too busy to join in.
I let my son roll it out and then I put my own marks on it, moving a few things here and there.

I was as proud of my boy that morning as I’ve ever been, as his Poppa would have been.

I was proud of myself for not sitting down on the ground in front of his beautiful display and sobbing, which is what I really wanted to do.

Throughout my entire life, my dad would say, and again near the end of his, that we’d all be “better off without him.” It’s just how he was. It was sometimes sad, and other times aggravating to hear.

I never expected to prove him wrong this soon, though. Not really.

In the hospital they restarted his heart four or five times. Eventually they would realize he didn’t want extreme measures, and he passed away a day or so later.

But the last thing I said before they took him out of ER, the last time I spoke to him, was to tell him we’d all be okay.

Just like on television, giving the dying person permission to die, right?

Except that we’d been having versions of that same conversation for years, and it really kind of pissed me off!

Sometimes it sucks to be the strong one.




In memory of Charles “Chuck” Johnson 2/7/42-5/3/10
His grandson
His daughters
His wives
Ronald Reagan
Good cigars
Vehicles made by the Ford Motor Company
…but not necessarily in that order

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