My dad (Mackula) was a huge movie buff. He loved watching them, talking about them, going to see them, and reciting pieces of his favorites, inserting quotations into everyday life. He had wide and eclectic tastes, for example: The Ten Commandments, Fletch, Planet of the Apes, Platoon, Stripes, Amadeus, Pulp Fiction, The Pink Panther, Die Hard, Beetlejuice and The Princess Bride. Arguably, this last one topped the list. (1)
As I write, it is January 2018 and I am thinking of him and his movie loving self on this anniversary, that this time ten years ago, I was living in what Mackula referred to as the Fire Swamp.
Following a massive heart attack (the last in a series) and stroke, doctors gave Mackula 6 months to live. Hubby and I left Texas and moved into Grandpa Val’s river rock cottage in the Smoky Mountains to be closer to him. Those last sentences are both incredibly sad and dangerously misleading, in that it sounds as if we are big-hearted loving people who were living in pastoral bliss as we offered support and succor to a dying parent. Yeah, not so much. Er, sort of.
Mackula called our house the Fire Swamp because the dilapidated dump actively tried to kill us (think electrical fires and ROUSs) while we worked to flip it into the 21st century.
In 2005, we discovered that the old well had not been capped correctly and that drinking the contaminated water had caused me to develop a blinding kidney infection. The only voice mail on my phone when I was released from the hospital was from Mackula saying, “The Fire Swamp Certainly Does Keep You on Your Toes!”
Mackula was in many ways my best friend, and I like to think that in his last months, I was his too. We talked on the phone literally every day that I didn’t see him personally, and sometimes, even then. (There were days when I hugged him goodbye and left my parents’ house in the morning, was back in the mountains by lunch time, and after dinner, we would talk for over an hour on the phone.)
Working 60 hour weeks at two jobs, missing Texas and our friends, I often felt isolated and frustrated and Mackula would patiently listen and give thoughtful advice. I didn’t always take his advice, of course. “Fuck those Humperdinks!” while funny enough, is not exactly sage advice, even when it’s coming from a mostly dead man.
When researchers from Duke University interviewed him for a series of scholarly papers about those who live with congestive heart disease, he would complain that they didn’t laugh at his mostly dead man jokes. He kept me updated about his pot garden (tomato plants) and Evie (my grandmother) getting busted stealing all the TP on her floor in the nursing home. He would regale me with his latest escapades, like the day IRS agents scared the shit out of Hurricane by ringing the doorbell at 7:00am on a Thursday. (2) Or how he wanted me to arrange matching bright red sparkly pedicures before his next hospital stay so he could shock the nurses on the unit. Or he would email me a document to proofread – a letter he wanted to send his friend who owned a funeral home, requesting a lay-a-way plan in lieu of his refusal to die in a timely manner.
“If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.”
But we talked about dark things too, with a shared macabre humor that most everyone else found off-putting or offensive. We talked about illness, and pain, and death; we talked about the funniest parts of dying. He shared things with me that he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) share with Hurricane, his wife of 40 years. In this sharing – his fears, his regrets, his memories, his beliefs – as with everything, he made me feel special.
He’s been gone now for ten years. The week after his funeral, Heath Ledger died. Mackula did not live to see the insanity of the housing market crashes, or gas prices reaching over $4.00 a gallon. Had he not gone first, he would have mourned the death of George Carlin. And that’s just through the summer of 2008.
As I sit in a posh Victorian flat in Scotland, writing on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I think about how much has changed – and how much has not – in the last 10 years, living without my friend, my dad. I still struggle to manage the (new, improved) stresses of life, and smile knowing that my Fire Swamp has taken on new forms, new challenges and trials, but it still keeps me on my toes. There will never be a life without a Fire Swamp. We just have to navigate it the best we can. When I feel overwrought or like I am running (out of time) or being chased (by deadlines) or misdirected (by eejits) I stop and breathe and listen for Mackula’s voice in my ears. The goofy chuckle that would precede the words that concluded every phone call. For the 2 years, 9 months, and 17 days after medical science said he would die any day, just before hanging up he would say:
“Rest. Heal. Sleep. I shall most likely kill you in the morning.”
And I would respond (as I still do): “Love you too dad.”
“Have fun storming the castle!”
(1) If you are not a fan of (or have ever seen *gasp*) the movie The Princess Bride, then this post might be a bit confusing to you.
(2) They were looking for my eejit first husband, who – among other things – decided he couldn’t be arsed to pay his taxes. Hurricane recovered from her initial shock to feed the agents pancakes. Along with every name and number in her address book she thought might help them.