My dad passed away a week ago.
Let that sink in a bit, because it really hasn't to me, not yet. My mom keeps asking me if I feel that "kick in the stomach" feeling. I told her no, for me it's like a thousand papercuts. Little, by little, until my entire arm is bleeding and I cant even tell from where.
I want to be dramatic and claim that I will never recover from this. But I will. And I won't. I will move forward with my life, but I will always have this with me. The absence of my father.
I will also have with me the terrible but beautiful time I got to spend with him in the last months of his life, but especially the final weeks. I had a rough start with my dad, but later in life we found each other. We started to "get" each other. It took the time it took to get there, but I still wish I had more time to enjoy where we ended up.
My dad was cremated and we had a burial for his ashes on Friday. Today will be Sunday, one week since he died, and we will have a Celebration of Life for him. My sister and I will stand up and speak for ourselves, and for our family. I expect my sister to be strong and do well. I expect myself to be strong, do well, and cry in front of people.
The talk I give will be an edited version of what follows, to account for limited time (and my brother says old people don't want to hear about boobs at a funeral).
In Memory of Ted Kehl, December 21, 1929-February 8, 2015
My niece Madeleine recently told me that her favorite book growing up was “But I really am a princess”. It starts with the opening line, “I am really a princess. And when my true parents, the king and queen, find out how I’ve been treated around here, they are going to be very upset.”
She told me this because I was telling her how I always thought I was adopted when I was little. I thought I was adopted because Gary and Debbie told me I was. They told me I was adopted because I had a different last name. My last name was “Dammit!” (always with an exclamation point).
If I left Lego out in the middle of the room and someone stepped on them in bare feet, “Jim Dammit!”
If I didn’t clean my room after being asked 42 times in the same day, “Jim Dammit!”
If I placed golf balls on the top crack of the opening of the refrigerator door, pulled down the butter door inside so it would flip up when the door opened, and then the golf balls would fall at the same time hitting the door, then the floor, a lot like an upright pinball machine? “JIM DAMMIT!!!”
My siblings may have thought it would make me upset that I was adopted, but I took comfort in it. “I don’t really belong here. One day Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson or Buddy Hackett will return for me and then these peasants will all be sorry.
As I grew up I started looking more like my parents, and I had to make peace with my place in life... In Bellingham. Say goodbye to swimming pools and movie stars, hello to slugs and hamburger helper.
Gary was easier to understand. He played sports, he liked being outside. He was like dad as a kid. Debbie was daddy’s girl. That bond and connection is easy to see.
Obviously I was different. I liked to tell stories. I liked old movies. I had an opinion about my clothes at age 3. Dad was in charge of getting me dressed and I didn’t want to wear what had been chosen. I was 3. We went round and round. The more he yelled at me, the more I resisted. Yelling from him, screaming from me. Finally he threw up his hands (literally) shouted “Jim Dammit!” and told mom to come fix it.
When I was 7 and I was lighting firecrackers on the 4th of July. Gary showed me that if you lit them and threw them, they would explode in mid air. I thought that was cool and wanted to make sure they were always in the air when they exploded. I held onto one too long and it exploded in my fingers. All hell broke loose. Dad charged out of the house shouting “JIM DAMMIT!!!” I stormed into the house and slammed my bedroom door. Dad stomped off, jumped into his car and left. Mom made me ice my fingers and I cried and cried. Dad came home two hours later and mom came to get me. I was afraid that I was still in trouble. but when I finally came outside there was dad and uncle Ed with sparklers for me. They had driven around at 10:00 at night on the 4th of July trying to find any fireworks stand still open. The worst day of my life had just turned around.
When Scott’s mom died, my mom was busy taking care of Scott. The day of Pat’s funeral she said, “Your father will pick you up and bring you to the service.” When he picked me up, I said, “I’m gonna cry.” He said, “I know.” I told him, “I’m going to be a big mess.” And he said, “I know.” I told him, “Don’t try to stop me, because it will only make it worse. It’s going to be an awful day and you have to just stand there and take care of me.” And he said, “I know.” And he did. And now there would be two of us “adopted kids” me and Scott.
Things always get complicated in the middle. I grew up and figured out that the word for my difference was “gay” and I couldn’t tell my dad. I told everyone except him. I kept hoping you would just figure it out and it never happened. He couldn’t understand why me and my “friend” were always together, even for Christmas. I moved away to California, if those movie star parents of mine couldn’t find me in Washington, perhaps I’d find them there? Once I was far away, I figured I had less explaining to do.
When Lyle proposed, I was so excited to tell everyone. But I couldn’t tell anyone unless I finally told my dad. He was the first person I phoned. I had to start by telling him I was gay. He was fine with that. Then he asked me, “Why, dammit, if you have a good thing going, would you want to go mess it up by changing it and getting married?” I told him I wanted to mess it up the same way he and mom had messed it up, the same way Gary and Cathie had messed it up, and the same way that Deb and Rob had messed it up. He understood that.
I asked my dad if he would say something at our wedding. He told me “No way”. I persisted, I told him that I always remembered the Elk’s club 11:00 toast. It stayed with me. As important as the Elks club is to my dad, of course it spilled into our lives. In my group of friends, if we are out together at 11 pm, I would stop the conversation and explain that my dad was an Elk and at 11:00 they raise a glass to “absent friends” and we would toast. I asked my dad to do a modified version of that toast at 11 pm at our wedding reception. I doubt dad knew what an effect he had on my friends that night. Years later and we all get misty eyed just like the we did that night. Today, I’m wearing my dad’s jacket from when he was an Elk’s officer in 1974.
Living in LA it’s impossible to not meet celebrities. I met Bo Derek in 2000 when I worked on a photoshoot with her. I was excited to tell dad that I got to see Bo Derek naked. He told me she was in Playboy and anyone could see her naked. I told him I had seen her naked in person in a hotel room while she changed clothes.
My dad asked me, “And?”
And she looked good. Her boobs are real. Slight dip, but nothing dramatic. Still perky.
And she has some fine scars on her legs. Says she needs to wear hosiery to cover them up for photos. Claims they came from skateboarding as a child and horseback riding as an adult.
“And... nothing? It didn’t do anything at all for you?”
No dad. Seeing Bo Derek naked did absolutely nothing for me. If it had done something for me, they probably wouldn’t have let me hang out in the room while she changed.
“Well, dammit,’ He shook his head, “If that don’t change you, nothing will.”
When Uncle Ed died, I wanted to be so strong for him. But everyone is strong for him. What he needed was for me to be weak and cry with him. Still unable to say how he felt, he would look at me and raise one eyebrow. I’d say, “Dad, don’t. You’re going to make me cry.” He’d stare at me as I started to tear up, then he’d start to cry. He’d say to me, “Dammit, Look what you made me do.” He used me like an old hanky.
Each of us kids has our specialty. Gary has been amazing with paperwork, doctors and always being a month or a year ahead of us anticipating what would be needed next. Debbie is matter of fact. She tells you exactly what is good or bad and doesn’t over-complicate things. No one argues with Debbie and she gets stuff done. I am the squeaky toy. I am the peacemaker. I am the person who stuffs you full of food and holds your hand. Scott is the full package. Having started life as an only child, he can transition into any of the other three roles as needed, seamlessly.
I look at photos of our family and they can never tell the entire story. Good times, bad time, who was born to us, who was adopted, who married in, who chose to join and who was drafted. Many people have commented that we are good children to rearrange our lives, change our schedules, and put our parent’s lives ahead of our own. I want to tell them is that we are being really selfish and trying to squeeze the maximum amount of time we have with them. Instead I say, “thank you, it’s true, we are the perfect children.”
I spent a long time waiting for my dad to change and get comfortable with me. While I waited for him, I changed and got comfortable with me. When I found me, he was right there, like he’d always been, waiting to meet me. I think I was the one in the way a lot of the time because I couldn’t speak up and be myself.
I am a princess. My parents are my king and queen. It took me a while, but I am so lucky to have found them.