My father quit school in the eighth grade rather than let a teacher whip him for fighting. The next day he left Route 4, Bogue Chitto, Mississippi for Galveston, Texas, where he took a job as an apprentice roofer. Next came the Merchant Marines where he volunteered for hazardous duty (it paid better), and had two ships shot out from under him by German U-Boats. The entire load on one ship was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and Dad never got over seeing men die for beer.
Dad was a transsexual before he knew there was a word for it or that anyone else felt as he did. I only learned that he wore a bra and panties under his striped overalls when he fell off a ladder (he and I remodeled homes and businesses), and knocked himself out. Soon after that, he told me that he learned about there being a name for his condition from Life Magazine during the 1960s. He would have been in his mid-fifties at the time. Even when he was in his seventies, he said he wished he had money for a sex change operation. About the time he hit eighty, he got religion and didn’t talk about his gender problem anymore. Instead, he moved on to telling Peggy and me about his nightly conversations with God. Mostly what God had in mind for my father was to arrange for him to win the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. As I watched my father waste thousands of dollars buying magazines for those sweepstakes, I developed an intense hatred for Ed McMahon and the deceptive mail that came in his name.
Dad would cuss people out over minor things, and he even “enjoyed” getting into fistfights when another man showed an interest, yet he was too shy to order a meal or ask a clerk a question. I knew that something was “wrong with him” (that was how I expressed it to myself) from the time I was a small child. I could see it in the fear that other people showed when they were around him. Yet, he never beat me—or even touched me—and he never beat my mother or sister either. We were all still afraid of him though. When he told me about his transexualism, I wondered how much of his behavior was an attempt to compensate for the manhood that he lacked. He even married several times—five, I think it was.
He died in 1994 after spending his last two years with Peggy and me. I got over his death without a tear. Unlike the 18 months I spent having anguished dreams after my mother died, I never had a bad dream about my father. He appeared in my dreams for years after his death, but he was always old and feeble, and just kind of hanging out in the background, which was pretty much how he spent his last two years. He died here in this house, and that was good because—through hospice—Peggy and I were able to obtain a bottle of liquid morphine so we could do whatever it took to control his pain without having to worry about whether we were giving him a fatal dose the way they would if he had died in a hospital. The last thing my father ever asked me to do was to keep him out of pain even if it meant, as he put it, “easing me out.” I told him I would.
The manner of his death was this. He needed pills to keep his congestive heart failure in check, only he thought that “living out of a pill bottle” was beneath his dignity, so he repeatedly stopped taking them over his last few years. Each time, he would become so bloated and short of breath that he would always go back after a week or so. These continual flirtations with death were a very hard thing for me to witness, and they also put me into a moral dilemma once I discovered that I could sneak the pills into his food. I thought a lot about whether I had the right to do that, and I finally decided that I didn’t. I figured that if he was rational, he had the right to end his own life, but if he was irrational, his life wasn’t worth preserving. I never could make up my mind for sure which it was because my father had always seemed insane. He finally stayed off his pills long enough that he died. He took to his bed on a Sunday and died that Tuesday without me ever having to change a diaper. For that, I was grateful. Either your parents die more or less cleanly, or they deteriorate enough to become a horrendous burden to themselves and to you—and then they die—so it’s not all bad when they die sooner rather than later.