Gary Horton: Seeing through my father’s eyes

Donald Horton, left, columnist Gary Horton’s father, and Donald Horton’s brother Robert, right, seen in earlier, better days. The brothers were great friends until Donald Horton’s drinking and disease progressed; he died completely estranged from his brother. Courtesy photo

As my soul slides down to die.
How could I lose him?
What did I try?
Bit by bit, I´ve realized
That he was here with me.

“My Father’s Eyes”
– Eric Clapton

My father. Argh.

Driving along Wilshire Boulevard the other day I passed his urn. Buried at the Los Angeles National Cemetery, his 5-by-8-inch marker rests a few feet from the sidewalk on Wilshire.

It’s been at least a decade since I’ve visited the actual gravesite. Perhaps two decades for anyone else. “Forgotten” is one description. “Forced out of mind” might be more accurate.

One memory I can’t purge is that of being a 10-year-old running down the street and hiding in the bushes as my father chased me in his old gray 1959 Plymouth up and down the road. He wanted my help for something and I should have helped, but I was so afraid of him that hiding from my own dad seemed the better choice.

I had learned that wherever my dad was, I should be far in the opposite direction. It’s hard to write such things. I wish there was a “do-over” that would paint a prettier memory.

My “relationship” to my father has always been a dark, black hole, brutal and painful. Trying to make something good out of something that was so tragically bad and sad remains a conundrum and a juxtaposition between a rough reality and the desire to have experienced happier memories.

I pretty much learned how to be a dad myself by doing the exact opposite of whatever I saw my father do. God, that’s a sorry indictment. But through watching my father I learned not to hit my wife. I learned not to belittle my kids.

Not to act overwhelmingly negative. Not to allow alcohol to ruin me. Not to lose every job I ever had. Not to get divorced. Not to drive every friend away.

Some decry negative parenting. Heck, I learned a lot from it.

Dad was plainly our biological father. But even that was fraught with both dread and potential; while he was highly intelligent and passed that on, he also carried a physically damning hereditary gene known today as “Joseph’s Ataxia.”

He, and each of us kids, faced a 50-50 chance of suffering a fate like Lou Gehrig’s disease, but suffering for a good, long 15-year stint. Dad lost that lottery, as did my older sister.

We don’t pick our fathers, you know. You get born by people you’ve never met and deal for better or worse with fallout from there for the rest of your life. The hideous disease was just one aspect of the fallout.

This weekend includes Father’s Day, a time when we remember and honor our father, yet I can only remember five or six incidents when my dad even interacted with me, let alone interacted positively.

There may have been more, but my mind forcibly buried them along with that previously mentioned urn on Wilshire Boulevard.

My father once saved me from drowning in a neighbor’s pool. He rescued me from getting lost at the beach. He brought me home a toy car from work one time – a white plastic Rambler. And I really valued that gesture, as tender moments were few and far between.

Once he came to our parent-teacher night. He took my sister and me on a week’s trip to the Pierpont one time. When I swiped a tip off a table he lectured me in no uncertain terms not to steal.

He taught me how to use the lawn mower and thought it was funny when he shocked the hell out of me by placing my bare finger on the exposed spark plug wire. And through his absence from the home he forcibly taught me how to fix just about everything around the house.

Those were all the good things, and for me that was good enough to get me reasonably launched in life. That’s the full library of good memories of “Dad.” I need to focus on those things more but the rough stuff still comes up.

I also saw my 6’4” sinewy dad repeatedly beat the crap out of my 5’0” mother. Try purging that memory from a 5- or 6-year-old mind. Try to forget the constant fighting, bitterness, craziness.

I saw my dad pass out on the sofa and floor too many times to count from too many beers to count. Dad routinely yelled, “For Christ’s sake!” so much it made my ears hurt – back then, when those words sounded even more harsh than they do now.

Once Dad drove us to another bar in Palmdale and we played in the back while he threw the brews down. Cars didn’t have seatbelts back then and I shudder now to think my sister and me were unwitting passengers with a drunk-driver dad.

Mom divorced Dad when she was 45 and I was 10 and the time was 1966 – when folks didn’t divorce – but Mom thought it the only way to save the kids.

With a “keypunch entry” job and help from the VA and Social Security – because, it turns, out Dad was actually more handicapped than drunk and lazy – Mom kept us all clothed and fed and successfully moved to adulthood. No boomerang kids in those days.

After the divorce, Dad took an apartment two miles from our home. By the time I was 12, whatever had been ailing my father stole his reflexes to the extent he could no longer drive. To us youngsters fell the task of visiting and shopping for Dad and superficially caring for him, as cold as that sounds.

We were afraid of him. We didn’t like him. He could be angry and mean and difficult, and his awkward gait and erratic motions frightened us. Increasingly, with every passing month, our father’s speech became more difficult until eventually, he was impossible to comprehend.

As years passed, Dad moved to group homes, then assisted-living homes, then convalescent hospitals, and then lived the last three years of his life on a dark bed in a malodorous room in a cheap convalescent facility buried deep in the valley.

He died sometime in the night, all by himself, weighing perhaps 80 pounds, spending his last 10 years or longer unable to communicate with anyone in any meaningful sense.

This last thought is pitiable, sad, sickening, awful, and I wouldn’t wish my father’s death, let alone the last 30 years of his life, on anyone.

My mother had been battered and bruised and had had enough, and we were kids with no means and were too often terrified – and so we all kept our emotional attachment as distant as possible. Hence the decade or two since any visits to that graveside by Wilshire.

This hellacious Father’s Day memory goes out to all the boys and girls and men and women who, like us, may have experienced childhood lives quite evilly opposite of “Father Knows Best.”

Not everyone gets a great dad. We envy those who did. Yet we all have to make our way through life and make the most, don’t we? Can we honor our bad dads for what good they did do?

Now at 60, I can look back as an adult and not as a scared child and reconsider potential redemptions also hovering in the memory banks. Nothing, it turns out, happens in a vacuum.

Understanding this, this Father’s Day has me wishing somethings could be relived and done better by all parties a second time around. Tragedies are like that.

Dad, it turns out, was dealt one of the roughest hands a young kid could be dealt. He was born in the difficult years after WWI. His mother carried the gene for a terrifying disease called Joseph’s Ataxia, which means – over 15-20 years – you become paralyzed and trapped in your own stiff, dying body.

Dad’s mom was put away out of sight to die of the damn disease. Dad died at 59 of the same insidious ailment. He suffered and declined with it, not ever knowing why and what was happening to him.

He passed that damn gene to my second sister who similarly died at 60. I dodged the bullet with the associated life-and-death sentence, and thus I was freed – as my children are, too.

Dad was highly intelligent and had hopes of attending Yale. But he graduated right into the Great Depression, and just getting by for a decade blew away hopes of college for a working-class kid. Whatever he got going was derailed by WWII, and Dad spent a stint in Germany, returning to various sales jobs.

No one then understood the genetic time bomb lurking in Dad’s body, and Mom and Dad happily married, had kids, and began building a post-war life. And then came that unwieldy gait, his slurred speech, his overt sensitivity to alcohol, and a profound negativity and recoil that must have come with sensing your body decaying all around you while no medical expert could tell you why.

“He’s a drinker” was usually the conclusion – but retrospectively, having witnessed my sister’s decay and demise, I’m not sure drinking was the driver of Father’s demise.

At some point, Mom and Dad chose to move from New York to reboot a new life in the San Fernando Valley. They bought a tiny post-war house in Mission Hills for what is used-car money today. Better than many, we at least had a real house to live in.

But Dad’s condition slowly and steadily worsened, his anger increased, his drinking persisted, the jobs went away, Mom’s love died, the kids’ attachment was scared off– and we all went away from his life and he from ours.

There were times I visited him and through me he would beg Mom to take him back. His life must have been terrible and terrifying. The loneliness, the rejection, and knowing that, in part at least, an unknown disease had robbed you of your mobility, capability, and even communication. Something fully unseen had cheated you to your core.

I hope he was able gain some comfort from whatever good that transpired amidst all this rubble. I think that had he been able, he would have been more a dad and not just a genetic father.

Thinking most positively, Dad – without even knowing it – taught us the greatest lesson: We all developed a compassion for humanity. We learned our lesson from being so distant from Dad – and we won’t let it happen again. Call it “shock treatment.”

When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. … These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

  • 1 Corinthians 13:11-12

I’ve learned to love my dad for the good he could do and did do, despite the tragedy, madness and chaos at every turn. I cannot put my mind in his corrupted body, and I don’t dare to think how I would be had it happened to me.

This Father’s Day for me is a lesson of gratitude of whatever flawed good there was.

Sorry, Dad, it was all so damn hard.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident.



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