Twenty-two years ago today at eleven o’clock the telephone rang and a nice female voice on the other end of the line told me that my father had passed away. It was 1987. I remember looking out of the window into my mother’s backyard where snow fell quickly, quietly and lightly, blanketing lumps of cold metal cars, hard red brick of the garage, and tree branches still holding onto brown leaves. I believe I said the words, “really”, “thank you” and “okay” a few dozen times through a throat that was hoarse and thinning and with a voice that was older than my twenty-one years. By the time the phone was placed on the receiver after a forced “have a nice holiday,” the backyard was shrouded in white.
What happened after that is a blur. My father was cremated. My brother, sister and I, along with my mother and her third husband, had a small ceremony commemorating his life. A few people came. More than a few people wanted items (mostly money) from his Estate which consisted of a 1971 Brown Pinto and a few boxes of, among other things, pictures of my father in pink leather at a Halloween Party, at the Inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, President Richard Nixon, of him as a young man with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. I moved all of his boxes into my mother’s garage from his apartment and did what I could to organize things in the cold dark light of the crowded garage. To those looking for money, I told them simply that he had none. My brother, sister and I somehow came to an arrangement on how the boxes and things were to be distributed. After the holidays, I returned to college.
The death of my father, William Chester Bayer of HIV in 1987 marked the end of the first year of the scourge of AIDS / HIV deaths that took so many lives from 1987 – 1992. Although my mother had been divorced from him for ten years, her employer fired her out of fear and mis-information about how AIDS was transmitted. If my father had lived a few more years, then he may still be with us today, managing, like a lot of people, on a regimen of medication, and lifestyle changes.
After all these years, my brother, sister and I have stopped passing the loosely packed boxes around to each other. They contained untouchable, painful pieces of family history that we’d rather not open. And indeed, it took us years to open and organize the boxes. It took years to decide what pieces of family history we were going to cherish, pass on, and tell our children about their biological Grandfather, the only child of a cattle rancher and schoolteacher, the simple part he played in our lives, and his complicated yet unintentional place in History.
Two decades after his death, although the things have been distributed, my siblings and I are still unsure what to tell our children, his five grandchildren, about their biological Grandfather. Today, we tell them that this is the day their Grandfather died, and say that we wish they were able to know him, simply and without complications.
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