The Louie Chronicles: Episode 2

My father died when I was only five years old and that was the moment when I learned a cruel lesson that tomorrow, in fact, might not be another day.
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(read Episode 1 here.)

Episode 2: "Look at me, Mom."

I hate to admit it, but I didn't look. On average, like most four-year-olds, Louie's look-at-me requests come in at a rate of three a minute these days. I know am a bad mother for doing this (and, worse, admitting it!), but increasingly I don't actually look and then mumble a "Looking good," or "Cool" to assuage his need for my riveted attention.

"But, Mom," he pressed one night last week. "Looooook. I'm 16." That line jerked my head up immediately, and when I did look at him I saw he was standing tall atop the kitchen chair, hands on his hips, thrusting his small chin upward and shaking his dirty blond mane. "I am 16 and almost an adult," he declared. And so he was, hugely proud of his most excellent performance as the doubtlessly lanky teen that he would someday become. In fact, it was such a good glimpse forward that it almost made me cry, because I could envision him standing there a dozen years hence, his gangly youth and incipient adulthood clashing for supremacy.

The near tears were actually not because I am sentimental, because I am not, but for much more practical reasons: I never thought I could imagine such a future happening. That is no small thing, because until I had kids, I have never been able to have any clear picture of the future at all. You see, my father died when I was only five years old and that was the moment when I learned a cruel lesson that tomorrow, in fact, might not be another day.

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He was only 34 years old. Dr. Louis Bush Swisher died from the complications of a brain aneurysm that burst without warning one sunny Sunday morning less than 40 years ago. My room was so dark that when I came out into the hall to help wake him for breakfast, the brightness of the day slapped me back to the shadowy doorway. I watched from there as my brother knocked purposefully on the door of my parents' bedroom to get my father up. It was locked, and Jeffrey turned the knob round and round and hit the door with his hip. He just didn't give up, though no amount of shoving was going to open it, I remember thinking at the time. That was me, the practical one, with the unlikely childhood understanding that some things just aren't ever going to move.

We both thought my father had fallen into a deep sleep in there while writing a speech he was to give the next day. So Jeff kept kicking the door and smacking it and making such a noise that my mother finally came up, knocked impatiently and said, "Bush, Bush, open up the door right now; you're making Jeff very upset." But he did not wake.

After that, it was quick: the firemen coming to ax the door to splinters, the ambulance and stretcher with all sorts of things hanging off of it. And the extraordinary silence when it was over.

I went back into my cocoon of a room, well before they carried my father out, and only imagine now the gurney with him on it, the white sheet, the hysterical cries of my mother following behind, saying, "What is wrong with him?" I stayed in my room, where it was quiet, and fell back asleep. I never did see my father again.

He lingered for weeks through January and finally died after two horrible operations. They buried him on a very cold February day and neither I nor my two brothers went to the funeral. I do not remember being too upset, but I was only five years old. Jeffrey was seven and he cried nonstop for weeks. He told me once then that I was stupid for not crying. I tried, but it never came.

Worst of all, I do not remember the last time I said goodnight to my father. I suppose the scene is buried somewhere in my brain's circuitry, the final time he said in his languid West Virginia drawl, "Good night, good night, good night," before turning out the lights. I do remember many nights like that, but not the last one. I try sometimes, squeezing my memories dry, but years ago I just about gave up on it.

In fact, it seemed like most of the memories faded before they had time to form. And after a while, my life with my father seemed like a familiar story or a distant dream. The recollections blurred and then refocused. "Yes, you remember that time..." someone would say. And, if I did not, I would then remember it their way, even creating new scenes--that might not have really happened, but that became more real than the ones that did. I remember no living face at all, only the one I see frozen in snapshots.

Inevitably, my father would come up often. Meeting new people, there would always be the question: "What does your dad do?"

"Nothing," I'd always reply. "He died."

"Oh, I am so sorry," went the stock response. I always felt bad because I wanted to explain that it was okay, and anyway it was a long time ago and I was doing fine. But all I would see was an embarrassed face, a definite conversation stopper.

"That's okay, it was a long time ago," was always as much as I could muster.

I could make up hours from the minutes of such moments. And others: empty Father's Days; an absent parent at school plays; good grades without his pat on the back; a prom with no lectures on being safe. And what else was missed? The love, I suppose, most of all.

What stayed for good was the stark definition such a tragic and drastic event gave to my whole life, in ways so inevitable and so clichéd. As most books on children who lose a parent early in life will tell you, the result is often the creation of a "highly functional" person. That's because when half your security is taken away abruptly and so early and you survive it, very little gets to you. This is a good thing and a bad thing, as you might imagine. I am great in a crisis (don't panic, people!) and not so great at forming attachments (anyone can die at any moment, don't you know?). Such an attitude, while jaunty, does lack the human touch.

And this is why, in part and from a very early age, I decided I wanted very much to have children, from whom you can never, either emotionally or physically, escape. I don't mean to sound like a touchy-feely California type here, but I knew that I could finally get over the death of my father only by having kids of my own. How to do this, given I had been gay for as long as I remember, though, would prove to be a journey I could never have imagined, especially since imagining the future had never been my strong suit.

As I was thinking back on the particulars of having him and later his brother Alex, the same night as his impromptu teen show, Louie seemed to be reading my mind in a most alarming way. "I'm not really 16 yet, Mom," he said. "That wasn't real."

"I know, sweetie, that's a long time away," I answered distractedly.

"Actually," he declared, "I wish I could stay four forever and you would never die, even when you get old."

Me too, I thought. Me too.

MORE TO COME...

*Parts of this piece appeared previously in the Washington Post in 1989.
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About this column:

Here's the thing: I fell impossibly in love with the Internet from the minute I saw it in action in the early 1990s. From that moment on, I have studied it, analyzed it, reported on it, and, mostly, have not been without it as a part of my daily life since. If truth be told, it has been one of the more gratifying relationships I have ever had--interesting, challenging, ever-changing, and always new. And yet, I work for a publication, the Wall Street Journal, whose primary business is still print (you know, dead trees), and my only other writing venue has been books (even more dead trees). Thus, in the walk-the-talk spirit reporters like me always demand of their subjects, I think it's high time that I take an ax to a stand of virtual trees in the cyberforest by publishing this online-only serial, a real-time memoir which I am calling "The Louie Chronicles." Centered on the two major Louies in my life--my father who died of a brain aneurysm when I was five years old and my four-year-old son named after him--I hope it will prove to be a good way to write about what it means to be a parent in an era of breakthroughs and backlash. Because here's the other thing: I am gay. And while that might be no big deal in San Francisco where I live and where that classic line about being gay from "Seinfeld"--"not that there's anything wrong with that"--is the de facto city motto, we all know that gay marriage, families, and parenting sits right at the center of the whole noisy and nasty debate over cultural values that has been throttling this nation senseless for much too long now. I don't imagine anything I could come up with would make things any better--you know, the if-you'd-only-get-to-know-us-you'd-love-us philosophy--but I do hope you'll enjoy my stories. And, if you don't--and here's what I really love about the Internet--relief is just one click away. And how many things in life can you say that about?

-- Kara Swisher

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