The Backstory: Light Fading, Darkness Closing

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

We just celebrated Father’s Day, and I loved seeing all the photos of everybody’s dad popping up in my Facebook feed.  It reminded me that I promised y’all way back that I’d finish telling my dad’s story…. but I haven’t.  Most of it has been told, at least as a story arc, up through my early years. What remains is a sketch of what were to me the most vivid memories of my life intertwined with his.
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To recap:  My dad was the son of an Italian immigrant and he grew up in a poor immigrant section of Connellsville, Pennsylvania – a town that existed to feed the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh via coal, coke, and glass. My dad survived his childhood, impoverished and terrible as it was, and did a stint in the Army before settling in for a 30-year career in the world’s longest steel mill. (Really!)

He met my mom when she was the single mother of two teen boys and fell in love. Along the way, he became a Christian and they got married, touching off a firestorm in their small church. But my dad was stubborn, so he stuck it out in the pew Sunday after Sunday, growing angry that he’d been pigeonholed as an unrepentant “adulterer” (because anyone who marries a divorcee is breaking the Bible’s commandments, right?) and sidelined from doing anything more at church than warming a seat. Meanwhile, they’d built a house and manufactured a daughter, and so the set pieces for my young life were all in place by 1980.

I imagine if my dad were to list the critical moments of his life, a fateful Sunday morning on a lovely October day in 1981 would rise to the top of the list.

He got up and dressed for church, as he always did. There was a funny foggy spot in his vision in his right eye, but he assumed it would go away eventually; if not, the eye doctor would be open on Monday and he could get it checked out.  The church lights really bothered him that day.

Monday morning found my father, who was almost never sick and certainly never in the doctor’s office, sitting in the chair of the town’s optometrist. Our town was small and our doctors not exactly cutting-edge. Anything “fancy” happened down in Pittsburgh, more than an hour away. My dad always wondered if perhaps a better doctor would have saved his sight, but “what if’s” do nothing but stir up dissatisfaction.

A few routine tests indicated that something – a rogue blot of calcium perhaps? – had hemorrhaged my dad’s eyeball, not the big inside part but the small area between the lens and the cornea. The fluid was 90% gone, meaning the growing grey spot which had eaten my dad’s vision in his right eye was permanent.  The eye itched and burned and ached and he was able to see only at the very top of the field of vision.

At first, I think my dad had a little bit of hope that perhaps they could find a solution, and a great deal of gratitude that the chunk of calcium or whatever that had floated around in his head chose to lodge itself in a blood vessel in his eye rather than in his brain to cause a stroke. But it was a cold comfort for a man who’d spent 50 years working with his body.

I was too young to process much of what was going on, other than the fact that my dad was home a lot more and not going to work as much.  I imagine those were deeply disappointing weeks for him.  He talked to his bosses and US Steel offered him sick leave and eventually a new job: dipping disks (of some kind) in acid (for some reason I don’t remember). Dad was quite offended that this was his option. I’m not sure if the job was demeaning (to him) because it was a huge demotion from his previous work driving big dump trucks and bulldozers, or if he felt it was unsafe for a half-blind man. Either way, he was rather indignant and walked away from the offer.

Fortunately for our family finances, dad had just completed his 30th year at USSteel-ClairtonWorks, meaning he was eligible for a small company pension and continued health insurance coverage. It was a massive pay cut, offering about 40% of his former salary. But it was something.

I remember a few of dad’s mill buddies stopping by to see him during the year that followed. His personal misfortune was soon gulfed by the widespread collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh in 1983-84. Ironically, many of his friends who stayed at the mills to try to squeeze out any final months of work were rewarded with less than what my dad got from his pension.  If he’d stayed at Clairton, as he’d intended, he probably would have been in the same position…. along wit the 25% of people in Fayette County who were unemployed by 1983. (!)

*****

Life for my dad form then on was a lot more bitter. He still played Johnny Cash tunes for me at nap time, fiddled around the house with building stuff like our back deck, and cut wood to burn for heat in the winter.

Dad was a very skilled man, really, considering his aborted acquisition of a college education. He could figure out how to build nearly anything — but now he couldn’t see well enough to hit the nails squarely.  The constant watering and pain in his eye made going out in bright light nearly impossible, made reading very difficult, made driving dangerous (though he still drove), made everything harder.

So at 50, my father wrestled with God over what to him were the worst possible questions: What had he done to deserve this? What sin had he committed that brought upon him blindness, uselessness, encroaching poverty, inadequacy? As he said it (many times), “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t run around, I don’t gamble. Why, God? Why me? Why us?”

I don’t think the answers ever came.

We continued on as a family, cutting expenses and tightening our budget, eliminating household utilities that others probably considered necessities.  My dad cooked (he was an amazing cook) and did laundry and met me at the bus stop after school.  He still mended his own socks (as he’d been taught in the Army) and picked away at songs on his guitar or harmonica and wielded his chain saw with mastery. We listened to Pirates baseball games together on the radio or TV on hot summer nights as tree frogs and crickets created such a chorus from the trees around us that we had to put the volume on high. I was daddy’s girl, just as I’d always been.

But my dad wasn’t the same anymore. That gregarious, talkative, personable man shrunk down into his shell of pain and irritation and bitterness and darkness and watched as many of the bright spots of his life faded before his eyes.

By the time I was a teenager, the marital strain was painfully obvious. It was joint blame for sure, for my mom’s loyalty to her older children above her current husband led to bad fights and a lot of screaming and a hateful anger which took up residence in our house and didn’t leave. Their intimacy crumbled, their working lives crumbled, and their drive to be something useful to the world fell apart as well.

By the time I went to college, I’d learned to appreciate the love and energy my parents had poured into me – on that score, they were still united. But my dad’s bitterness and soul-darkness did not break until my mom died.

That’s probably a story best left for another day. 

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