My Dad, Elva Carl Wagoner, told me in a private moment when I was about 6 I think, that he, at that point in time had, “now lived longer than he had left to live.” This is a confusing thing for a 6 year old child to hear or properly process. I have no idea why my father said this to me, or even more, why he said it when he did, but he said it. I remember. Further, I am surprised that I still have that memory. Who has many such memories, I mean memories of what their parents said to them when they were 6? I have hardly any other memories from that long ago. There are pictures or scenes my mind can conjure. There were long summer afternoons laying on my back with my friends, in my front yard, gazing at clouds, trying to see shapes of animals or trucks, playing Army or football in the side yard, summer nights pitching a tent and “camping out” in the backyard, catching lightning bugs in a jar with my cousins, but these memories are very few now, and they contain no dialogue at all, no words. Just pictures of something that once happened.
Later on, I remember a lot of the funny things Dad said to me. I remember a lot of his sayings: “If you’re gonna be stupid, you gotta be tough. When you argue with an idiot know one can tell who’s the idiot. You better take time to do it right, or you’ll have to make time to do it again.” I suppose I remember those, and there were so many more, because the ensuing years have proven them right. But the first thing, the very first thing I can really remember him saying to me was that, when he just turned 35, “I have now lived longer than I have left to live.” Clearly, something had prompted him to contemplate his mortality. I remember another time I came upon him looking into a little mirror my mother had him fix next to the back door just so she could check the way she looked before going off to church. He was just staring at himself. I was probably in my mid 30s by this point. I said, “Dad what are looking at?” He didn’t look away from the mirror. He just kept staring at his own face’s reflection. After just a little bit, still looking at his reflection he said, “I’m just staring at this old man here, thinking about what a wrecker time is.” He then turned to me and said again, “time’s a wrecker boy. Time’s a wrecker.”
Now dear reader, please understand, my father was not a morose man. Everyone enjoyed his company. He was quick with a joke. He never met a stranger. He was smart. He was strong. I am much weaker, I think. There was no one with whom I felt safer….in every sense of the word. I knew, just knew he would protect me from any danger, whether physical or otherwise. Right up to the abrupt end of his life I knew his solidness was there for me. This was perhaps implanted by more words. He once said to me, “I would, without blinking an eye, give my life for you, your sister, or your mother. Maybe nobody else, but for you all, I wouldn’t even have to think.” I have no idea what spurred this – I must have been afraid of something – maybe not – but nevertheless, I knew I had someone in this world that would literally die for me.
Dad wasn’t perfect. Life had scarred him up a bit, just as it does to us all. He was not without blemish. He had an unhappy childhood. It was filled with hard work, poverty, marital dysfunction and divorce – when divorce wasn’t cool. He hated his stepmother. I never met her by the way. He seemed distant from his mother. He was close to his sisters. Perhaps enduring together, what they endured, forged a solidarity, but evenso, I think I am closer to my sister than he was with his. I think he really loved his Dad, but would always mention that “good man as he was, he was a drunk,” My Dad smoked cigarettes most of his life, but to my knowledge he never had a drink himself, and he told me, with some degree of pride that “your momma is the only woman I ever bedded.” I have no way to know if these things are true, but I suspect they are. Dad wasn’t one to lie as far as I know. This, however, isn’t to say he was above “growing a story” or “filling in some blank spaces.” I suspect the stuff that didn’t matter whether it was true or not, might have had a bit of “poetic license” edited in.
The stories he told of his life, which I treasure and enjoy, grew over time. Nothing harmful or outrageous mind you, but they became more and more colorful with each retelling. I still believe them all to be true. Maybe not in the literal, factual sense, but they were true, at least to me. They are true to me even if I doubt their truth. Their accuracy might be challenged by those dedicated to factual precision, but in the end his stories served to define he who at least wanted to be, his ideal self, and they told of a past he wished to give to me. Also I have come to believe that real Truth is unburdened by fact or logic. So, any factual error Dad passed on was meaningless. Any effect of an exaggeration or conflation built him up, not for his own good, but for mine. I also wonder sometimes if some of these things, which I now might view skeptically were told so they he could give his son something he had been denied, a great Dad. How I feel about him now, should someone prove them all untrue, would not affect Truth of who he was to me. And really, in the grand scheme of things, after I’m gone, and my daughters are gone, even the Truth of Elva Carl Wagoner will matter to no one. The same will be true for the Truth of Carl Michael Wagoner. Only a scant handful of people are ever remembered, and even the truthfulness of their stories are written and re-written so many times, and so differently that the “facts” get lost. But Dad, the Truth is, as far as I am concerned, was a good man who would die for me. The rest doesn’t matter so much I suppose, even the really great stuff. The only Truth that matters is that I, his son, had a travelling companion on part of my life’s journey, especially the most vulnerable part, that I knew would die for me. The rest is filler, and this world will soon forget it all.
Earlier this evening I went for a short walk with my little dog. For reasons as unknown to me now as they were 52 years ago, I heard once again those words of my father, “I have now lived longer, than I have left to live.” But now I walk alone where Dad and I once walked together, and I am closer now to the end of my journey than he was when he said that to me. I am left no more morose, but every bit as sober as I remember him being upon that long ago occasion. The stories of my life, I imagine to outside ears, perhaps the ears of my daughters, seem more factually suspect than they once did. I’m sure these tales have grown over the years. They seem so to me. I am left to think, however, this is not so much because I want to be remembered a certain way, as it is that I simply don’t remember that much, and it seems a pity to have lived so long with so little to remember, just snippets here and there, images of events that flitter away now just as quickly as they did when I lived them, and there are such precious few words to remember. These gaps need to be filled with something, some words. If we really can’t remember what was, it seems a good thing to put forth something ideal, something that might have been or should have been.
I’ll never really know how my father would assess his fatherhood, whether he thought himself a “good” father or not. I do know I have quite a long critique of my own fatherhood. I know there were 4 or 5 years that I deeply regret, and for which I’d give myself a D+ at best. The rest I’d grade out better than that. I have no idea what my daughters will one day say or write about me, and I hope they will not over weight my failings. I also hope that they knew, whether I said it or not – who can remember – that I would have without hesitation given my life for them and their mother, because I would have, and still would. If I failed to tell them along the way that they were my greatest joy and treasure, I hope I at least showed it. I hope they remember me as being strong. I hope they remember that I tried.
My dad was a good dad. I wish he was still here, and hardly a day goes by, especially if I am scared, that I don’t miss him. He wasn’t perfect, and he’d be the first to tell you that, but he was as close to perfect as I’ll know in this life. He was perfect for me anyway. Could he have done better? Who can say? Maybe. Perhaps not.
I was there as he died. Before he lost consciousness, he was rambling nonsense. He kept saying something about going to Georgetown (a city near us) and other such pabulum. But then, just as the light was leaving those clear, pale blue eyes, he fixed them upon me, his son. He said to me, his son, these the last words I would hear from him. He said, “Everything’s taken care of.” I said, “What? What? What are you talking about Dad?” He repeated, “ It’s all taken care of.” And then he died.
I’ll never really know what he was talking about. I’ll never know what the “everything” was, or how it was, “taken care of.” There is the possibility that those words were just the last incoherent ramblings of a dying man’s addled brain. But his eyes were so clear, and looking directly at me. He didn’t live long to explain that utterance, so those words are now liberated, unfettered by their orator’s intent. They can mean whatever I want them to mean. I may re-interpret them differently as my own circumstances change, but they were his last gift to me, so they are mine to do with now as I wish, to attach meaning how I will. Today, I choose to think he was telling me in a round about way, that he did the best he could. That I didn’t need to worry, that he’d done enough for me. I didn’t need him anymore. He did do enough. I suppose I no longer need him, but I do wish more of him remained in my memory.
Whether or not I interpret his dying message to me differently in the future, my current assessment will remain steadfast. Any future interpretation will only be a longer assessment of those last words. This will remain: He did do enough. He did do the best he could. I know he would have died for me. That’s pretty close to perfect. If he could have done better, I do not see reasonably how. He took care of what he needed to. I was fortunate to have Elva Carl Wagoner as a father. I hope he knew that. If I told him that, I hope he remembered it. I’d like to think I did. I might have – but I forget.