Born to Run (2016)
In California, my dad worked very hard, stayed employed as a bus driver, went to work each day, lost weight, played tennis, coached Pam’s athletic teams and had a modest but loving renaissance. When I visited, he was easier, more mellow, physically healthier. It seemed like some of the pressure had been taken off. It didn’t last. When his sickness returned, it came back with a vengeance.
When I’d visit my parents on tour, if I brought along any of my male friends, my father would suffer severe paranoia. He would burst out of his bedroom late at night, shouting angry nonsense, imagining we were making sexual advances toward my mother. I began to have to warn my pals or just keep them away. We began to get him help. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Finally it was all beginning to make sense. He needed professional help and though he was resistant, he began to be treated.
Things would be all right for a while and then he would crash. As he got older he exhibited a very strong manic side. My dad was always heavy. He had a football player’s build and would tend to put on weight easily. I was shocked when I visited my folks one year to find him thinner than me. He’d taken up walking and had manically walked himself skinny. He looked like a stranger, but the worst of it was I could tell his mind wasn’t working right. There was an unnatural tightness in his face, a distant rigidity in his features he couldn’t control. He would answer the most mundane questions cryptically.
“Hey, Pop, looks like a pretty nice day out there.”
In between cigarette puffs he’d answer, “Oh yeah, that’s what you think.”
He was drifting between reality and delusion. He wouldn’t be able to stop moving and then it would switch off, and he’d gain weight, be depressed and not budge from the kitchen table for months. Once he drove all the way to New Jersey, nonstop from California; left a note on my door saying, “Sorry I missed you”; drove over to my mom’s relatives (in my pop’s mind, always a disapproving hotbed of insurrection) and cursed them out; then turned around and drove, nonstop, back to the West Coast. He zipped around the country like a madman with my mom riding shotgun, supposedly enjoying their retirement, but my mother knew there was more at hand. By that point, he had been diagnosed and received treatment, but he often refused to take his medicine. They drove, drove, drove and drove. He was going to kill himself, my mother, or somebody else if he kept going.
At one point he disappeared for three days. My mother called; I flew to California and found he’d been arrested somewhere in the desert outside of LA. It was over an automobile violation of some kind but according to his story, he’d stood before the judge and refused to pay a small fine and so they put him in jail. Then, days later, he was bused to another jail in Los Angeles and released. Finally, a phone call came. I found him at six a.m. on the streets of Chinatown in a little “old man’s” bar with a good-hearted bartender watching over him. We stopped on the way back for an early-morning breakfast at McDonald’s. There my dad almost got us into a tremendous argument with the guy at the next table. Out of the blue my pop had started shouting profanity-laced non sequiturs and the guy thought he was talking to him. I apologized, explained as best I could, and we hustled out with our Egg McMuffins. It was sad. My dad was hearing the voices in his head and he was answering them.
Back at home in San Mateo, he remained rebellious. He would NOT stop. He would NOT take his medicine. He told me he was frightened it would all go away: the energy; the purpose, even if it was aimless; the egocentric strength; the high of his manic state—everything but the long, drawn-out depressions. I understood. I’d been there, though not to his extremes. Manic depression, the bipolar personality. It’s the prize in the Cracker Jack box in our family. I told him I understood but that ultimately he would hurt someone, my mother or himself, and that I could not live without them. I could not live without him. Our family loved and needed him. I loved and needed him. He was essential to our strength. He was our center, our heart, so would he please allow me to help him care for himself? It wasn’t an easy sell. There was shouting and crying, but in the end he walked out the door with us to the hospital.
He remained there for three days. He was observed, tested and put on some medication that returned him to Earth and to us. It would not all be easy sailing from here on, but modern pharmacological medicine gave my father ten extra years of life and a peace he might never have had. He and my mother got to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. He got to know his grandchildren and we became much closer. He became easier to reach, to know and love. I’d always heard my father in his youth described as “full of the devil,” “rakish,” “full of fun,” as someone who loved to dance. I had never seen it. I only saw the lonely brooding man, always on edge, disappointed, never at home or at rest. But in the last years of his life, his softness came to the fore.
He wasn’t always well and we’d have drives where he’d spout the most hair-raising stream of consciousness as if it were all events that had happened yesterday in our driveway. My father, who’d uttered fewer than one thousand words throughout most of my childhood, in the grips of his illness, opened the door a crack on the temple of dreams and devils he’d been dueling with in the dark of the kitchen for forty years. On a casual drive up Sunset Boulevard, I’d hear fantasized on-the-road adventures strangely and innocently told. I would hear, of all things … philosophizing!? The meaning of life (good), love (very important), money (not so important). Money? Not so important? Coming from my old man, who used to say he’d strangle somebody for a buck? So much of it had been a big fucking synapses-misfiring illusion. The state of the world and a wide variety of previously verboten subjects were now all grist for the mill for Doug Springsteen. The Sphinx spoke! My dad showed himself, or some part of himself, though under tenuous conditions. So, rather than revelation, his pronouncements brought only more mystery and a longing to understand what was ultimately unfathomable. Still, over the last ten years of his life, much of the time, he seemed calmer and more settled than ever before, with his manic side in check. You just had to make your peace with the rest. The past was done. There was no further purpose or any practical mechanics for its plumbing. The future was in the palm of the next day and so the present needed to hold its charms. We were left with a quiet, sometimes frustrating man-child responding to stimuli occurring only in the mind of the rock of my soul. This was my father.
Finally, time ran out. He’d not only battled hard against his own mind, but he’d beaten up his body pretty well over the years. He’d had the triple bypass, the strokes, been defibrillated back from the dead, and still hung on. Now there was only so much modern medicine could do. His heart gave out and the medication that made one thing better made something else worse; the law of diminishing returns had come to stay. I sat with him in hospice during the last days of April as they brought into his bedroom the machines that would try to keep him alive a little longer. He looked at them, looked at me and said, “Bruce, am I gonna make it?” I answered, “You usually do.” But this time my dad didn’t make it. He would leave in his style, the old immutable presence, his body white and raw, final thoughts known only to my mother.
Before he passed, I stood over my father and studied his body. It was the body of his generation. It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man. As I looked at my dad on what would be his deathbed, I saw the thinning black curly hair and the high forehead I see reflected back at me when I look in the mirror. There’s the blotchy roughhouse of a face, the bull neck, the still-muscly shoulders and arms, and the swale between his chest and beer belly, half-covered by a wrinkled white sheet. Protruding from the bottom of that sheet are elephant stumps for calves and clubs for feet. The feet are red and yellow, scarred by psoriasis. Shaped in stone, they have no more miles left in them. They are the feet of my foe, and of my hero. They are crumbling now at their base. I scan back up to see boxer shorts in twisted disarray, then puffed armored slits holding reddened brown eyes. I stand there for a long moment and I lean over and lift a weighted, scaly hand between my palms. I feel warm breath as my lips kiss a sandpaper cheek and I whisper my good-bye.
On the evening of April 26, 1998, wrapped in my mother’s arms, my dad quietly let out his last breath and died in his sleep.
With those extra years that were gifted to us, I got to see my children love my father and I got to watch his patience and kindness toward them. I got to see them mourn my father’s death. My dad loved the sea, spending hours at the shore, staring at the water, admiring the boats. When my parents lived in San Francisco, he had a small boat he bobbed around the bay on. At his wake, my children approached his coffin and laid on his hands his “captain’s” hat. It was one like the guy in the Captain and Tennille used to wear, a child’s costume, a totem of an unlived life, of desire unattained. It served as a shield to cover my dad’s beautiful, rocky-shaped, now nearly bald head and as a symbol of an imaginary commanding manhood and masculinity my pop always felt was just out of reach and under siege.
I understood that hunger. For me there’d be no captain’s hat! Just “THE BOSS!” Bulging muscles, judo and the lifting of thousands and thousands of pounds’ worth of meaningless objects every … single … day, until I finally brought my father the physical presence he’d been looking for.
Months later, in the evening twilight, returning from our local video store with my children, out of the blue I mentioned my father’s death. The car went silent. I peered into the rearview mirror and saw my young son and daughter, mouths wide open, crying, but no sound had come out yet. Then, like thunder delayed after lightning, “Whaaaaaaaa … you mean the guy in the captain’s hat?” It felt so good watching my children cry for my dad. As we pulled up to the house, they ran inside, still bawling. Patti saw me follow in behind with a smile. “What happened?” “It’s Pop, they’re crying over Pop.”
He was returned to Freehold, the town he said he hated, and that other limousine, the one that brings the tears, brought them. We drove him straight out Throckmorton Street to St. Rose of Lima Cemetery to lie with his mother, his father, his sister and all the troubled souls who’d come before. Whirrrrr … Whirrrrr … the machinery of Freeman Funeral Home, a crowd I already had a long relationship with going back to the Irish and Italian wakes of my youth, lowered his casket six feet down. Then I, my brother-in-law, my nephews and my close friends the Delia brothers buried him ourselves. We shoveled the earth that landed with a hollow thunk upon his casket, patted the dirt down, then stood there in silence, the traffic shushing along the highway far down the hill below.
My father was not a modern man. He wore no mask. Maybe it was his illness, but as he aged he had a face without veils. It was ancient, tired, often puzzled. It was primitive and extinct, powerful, clueless as to its fate, noble in its struggle and purposeless in what he had suffered. At my father’s funeral, my long-reformed greaser brother-in-law, Mickey Shave, gave a moving and funny eulogy. He described the day we pushed my father in his wheelchair, with flat tires, onto a bluff overlooking a windy California beach as his children and grandchildren played in the sand and wintry surf below. He described my father sitting there with a smile, as close to peace as he ever got, “gazing down upon all he created,” his “art,” his love, his family.
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One morning in the days before I was about to become a father, my dad showed up at my bungalow doorstep in LA. He’d driven down from San Mateo and “just wanted to say hi.” I invited him in, and at eleven o’clock in a small sun-drenched dining area, we sat at the table nursing beers. My father, in his normal state, had little talent for small talk so I did the best I could.
Suddenly, he said, “Bruce, you’ve been very good to us.” I acknowledged that I had. Pause. His eyes drifted out over the Los Angeles haze. He continued, “… And I wasn’t very good to you.” A small silence caught us.
“You did the best you could,” I said.
That was it. It was all I needed, all that was necessary. I was blessed on that day and given something by my father I thought I’d never live to see … a brief recognition of the truth. It was why he’d come five hundred miles that morning. He’d come to tell me, on the eve of my fatherhood, that he loved me, and to warn me to be careful, to do better, to not make the same painful mistakes he’d made. I try to honor it.
Immediately after he died, I felt suffocatingly claustrophobic. It rained solidly for two weeks. I slept outdoors for that time on the porch, in the cold, in the rain; I still don’t know exactly why. I suppose it was just “death closing in … the next man in line” and all that. I just couldn’t find my way back into the house. During the days I visited all his old haunts: the Blue Moon Tavern; the Belmar Marina; the Manasquan Inlet, a place where my father parked alone for hours, cigarette dangling from his left hand out the driver’s-side window, as the fishing boats left and came in from the sea. Then finally, one night, with Patti’s help, I came inside and gave in to the tears.
We honor our parents by carrying their best forward and laying the rest down. By fighting and taming the demons that laid them low and now reside in us. It’s all we can do if we’re lucky. I’m lucky. I have a wife I love, a beautiful daughter and two handsome sons. We are close. We do not suffer the alienation and confusion I experienced in my family. Still, the seeds of my father’s troubles lie buried deep in our bloodline … so we have to watch.
I learned many a rough lesson from my father. The rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of “manhood” 1950s-style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your terms or not at all. A deep attraction to silence, secrets and secretiveness. You always withhold something, you do not lower your mask. The distorted idea that the beautiful things in your life, the love itself you struggled to win, to create, will turn and possess you, robbing you of your imagined long-fought-for freedoms. The hard blues of constant disaffection. The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love. And of course … the disappearing act: you’re there but not there, not really present; inaccessibility, its pleasures and its discontents. All leading ultimately to the black seductive fantasy of a wreck of a life, the maddening boil lanced, the masks dropped and the long endless free fall into the chasm that at certain moments can smell so sweet from a distance. Of course, once you stop romanticizing it, more likely you’re just another chaos-sowing schmuck on the block, sacrificing your treasured family’s trust to your “issues.” You’re a dime a dozen in every burb across America. I can’t lay it all at my pop’s feet; plenty of it is my own weakness and inability at this late date to put it all away, my favorite harpies, the ones I count on to return to flit and nibble around the edges of my beautiful reward. Through hard work and Patti’s great love I have overcome much of this, though not all of it. I have days when my boundaries wobble, my darkness and the blues seem to beckon and I seek to medicate myself in whatever way I can. But on my best days, I can freely enjoy the slow passing of time, the tenderness that is in my life; I can feel the love I’m a part of surrounding me and flowing through me; I am near home and I am standing hand in hand with those I love, past and present, in the sun, on the outskirts of something that feels, almost … like being free.
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Those whose love we wanted but could not get, we emulate. It is dangerous but it makes us feel closer, gives us an illusion of the intimacy we never had. It stakes our claim upon that which was rightfully ours but denied. In my twenties, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling. It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light. I’m a repairman. That’s part of my job. So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life (hail, hail rock ’n’ roll!), put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work.
One night I had a dream. I’m onstage in full flight, the night is burning and my dad, long dead, sits quietly in an aisle seat in the audience. Then … I’m kneeling next to him in the aisle, and for a moment, we both watch the man on fire onstage. I touch his forearm and say to my dad, who for so many years sat paralyzed by depression, “Look, Dad, look … that guy onstage … that’s you … that’s how I see you.”