I like to joke that Robert Plant (the former lead singer for Led Zeppelin) is my father. Because if you give me a few beers and we do karaoke or Rock Band (remember that?), I’ll try to wail like Percy in his “I-am-a-golden-god” Physical Graffiti prime. And my friends and family humor me by pretending I’m good at it.
Of course, Robert Plant is not my father. My father was Michael Riley Kilgore. But on Thursday, February 20, 2014, my uncle Terry Thomas called to tell me that my father had died. He was 71.
I don’t know any details about his passing. I don’t know if he was at work or home, if he had been ill or not. I had not spoken to my father in almost 20 years; I had not seen him since 1978: none of that was my choosing.
Some quick facts. My father was born on October 6, 1942 to Walter Thomas and his wife Virginia West. When Michael was very small (perhaps 3 years old), Virginia died of tuberculosis, and shortly thereafter, Walter skipped town, never to be seen by Michael again. Michael was adopted by Virginia’s sister Vinita and her husband, Alexander Kilgore. Hence my last name.
The Kilgores lived in Bristow, OK and were devout Baptists. Not a lot of money, but they got by. Back then, Michael wanted to be an actor: his stage name was going to be “Kenton Kilgore.” Got a scholarship to college. Dropped out—he told me didn’t like the rich kids on campus—and joined the Army. Was stationed in Germany, met my mother in Heidelberg. Left the Army, married my mother, had me. The three of us moved to the U.S. in 1968, staying with Charles, Michael’s brother, in Chicago.
We drifted around. From Chicago, we went to Indiana; then Corpus Christi, TX; eventually to Phoenix, where a half-sister and her family lived. Stayed with them for awhile, Michael working with her husband and son as a housepainter. Got our own apartment. My dad stole a telephone wire spool—those huge wooden ones—and turned it on its side to use as a table. Plastic milk crates for chairs.
We moved a lot within Phoenix. Jobs came and went, schools came and went, pets and friends and neighbors came and went. I remember that we had to give away my first dog—Snoopy, of course, as I loved Peanuts— because we were moving, but I don’t remember what breed Snoopy was or what he looked like.
My dad said he wanted to be a writer, but he mostly painted houses. He was very smart and very charming with people, but he had no patience for “authority” or “office jobs.” He preferred to work for himself, and disdained typical, suburban, middle-class life. Called it, “bourgeois.”
He wore glasses and read a lot and lifted weights, was into health food. He hated television, sneered at religion. Had all kinds of funny songs and sayings. Would sometimes answer the phone with, “Maple’s Flophouse: Maple speaking.” My mother and father argued a lot, often over money, sometimes over things I only found out about decades later. You can imagine. When they didn’t want me to hear what they were saying, they’d argue in German. Which only left me confused.
Our last best shot at being a family was in August 1973 when we moved to 3102 West Pierson Street in Phoenix. A rancher with a swimming pool and a very tall tree out front. High cinderblock fence for the back yard—they often use cinderblocks for fences in Phoenix because it only takes the sun a few years to destroy wooden ones.
We had furry mop-dogs: Cleopatra and Sheba, my folks named them. My mother planted fruit trees in the backyard, and we talked about watching them grow and eventually eating the apricots and pears and such they’d make. My dad got “river rocks,” he called them–hand-sized, smooth stones—and landscaped them around the pool. They were dull brown or gray when they were dry, but when they got wet they would reveal vivid red or orange or yellow or blue or green streaks through them.
My bedroom was big and I had lots of toys and my folks would hassle me about cleaning my room. I didn’t have a boxspring under my mattress, I had a plywood board because my dad said it would give me a strong back. We ate steak: my dad was big on protein and weightlifting. In the summer, he’d take me along on housepainting jobs. It was usually pretty boring, but after one job, we came back with a huge box of comic books that the person who hired him thought I’d like.
Dad’s step-parents came that Christmas. He cleaned up his language and we went to church with them. My grandmother taught me canasta; I haven’t played since. It was, for once, normal. It felt good. It felt like home. We felt like family.
Google Maps’ Street View shows me that the tree is still there at Pierson. We, of course, are not. In late 1974, my parents divorced.
My mother gave me the choice of whom to live with. I chose her. We stayed with friends (Don and Cathy Jones and their daughter, Fiona) for a while, then found our own place in Phoenix, near what was Christown Mall. My father moved to Los Angeles.
Anger issues that I had previously got worse. Though I was the smallest kid in class, I was screaming at people, starting fights, throwing chairs, breaking things. My mother tells me about the time when the school called her and told her that I had walked down the line in the cafeteria, flipping over people’s trays, dumping their food on the floor, for no reason they could discern.
I have no memory of that incident. I blocked it out.
I started seeing the school psychologist. We would talk about things. She taught me relaxation techniques. It helped. I started writing stories. My teachers noticed my talent.
We went to visit Michael in Los Angeles. That’s who he was now: “Michael.” Not “Dad,” though I still called him that. He took us to Disneyland. We went to the beach. My folks seemed to get along. Like lots of other kids of divorce, I wanted very much for them to get back together.
Of course, they didn’t.
I spent most of the summer of 1978 with my father at his place in Redondo Beach, CA, not far from the ocean. He was still painting houses: sometimes I’d go with him; usually, I’d just stay home and read and listen to music and ride my skateboard. He had a live-in girlfriend named Pat. I don’t think she liked me that much, but she didn’t dislike me, and I felt the same about her.
For dinner, we often went to this pub-type place that made great burgers to order and gave them and an apple to you in a brown paper bag. He and Pat and I went to the theatre to see Ralph Baskhi’s Lord of the Rings, and after it was over, I had to tell them about how the story ended. Of course I had read the book.
He asked whether I would want to live with him. I considered it, but that was all. At the end of the visit, my mother drove from Phoenix to pick me up.
That was the last time I ever saw my father.
My mother had been working two jobs and going to night school for her MBA, and money was always an issue. The first few years after my folks split, not only was I in the free lunch program at school, I qualified for free breakfasts, too. The court had ordered Michael to pay $50 a month in child support until I was 18. He paid the first month. Nothing ever again.
In 1979, my mother and I moved to Maryland, just outside Washington DC, for better job opportunities for her. When she told me that we were going, I asked her what my father would think. She pointed out that he had his own life, and we had ours, and we had to do what was best for us.
After we moved, I continued to get cards and letters and phone calls from him. For a while. And then they stopped.
Years went by, and my mother and I became convinced that something had happened to Michael. His stepmother hadn’t heard from him in years, either. It didn’t seem like him to not stay in contact with anyone. And I was his son, his only child.
We were sure he was dead. And I—now a teenager in high school—mourned. Deeply. High school was not an easy time for me: my emotions dragged me around like a dog with a chew toy. My father’s apparent death made it much worse.
More years went by. I finished high school, went to the University of Maryland at College Park, working my way through school. Met a very nice girl, married her. Got my bachelor’s degree, followed it with a master’s. Worked a lot of crummy jobs. Bought a place of our own.
And then, April 1992, after not hearing from him for 12 years, my father called one night.
He was not dead. Nothing bad had happened to him: he had just decided to make a clean break from the life he had before. Thought I would be better off without him. Perhaps he was right. He had gone back to Oklahoma, had been estranged from his stepmother, whom he said had been cold and unloving and strict to him, growing up. Perhaps she had. Before she died, she had disowned him.
He had changed his name back to “Thomas,” his father’s surname, the one he was born with. Rejected “Kilgore,” the name of the man who had raised him. My name, the one I carried.
He had found love again: a very nice woman named Barbara, who had children from a previous marriage. They had been together many years, living in a little house in a small town, Sapulpa. He had settled down, stopped chasing his get-rich quick schemes, stopped drinking. He was happy.
We began to exchange letters and phone calls as if nothing had happened. In the spring of 1993, I was traveling to San Antonio, TX and I offered to meet him halfway between there and Sapulpa. He said he was too busy with work. That same year, our daughter Elizabeth was born, and he sent stuffed animals—a dog and a cat–for her first Christmas.
This long-distance re-connection went on for a few years. I was in therapy, working through a lot of issues, at the same time as trying to raise my little girl and work two jobs. Eventually, on the last phone call we ever had, I tired of the pleasantries and asked my father why he had abandoned me.
He was taken aback. I didn’t yell, I didn’t curse. I merely pressed the point, reminding him that he had done the same thing to me as his father had done to him; he hadn’t deserved that from Walter, and I hadn’t deserved that from Michael. That now, as a father, I understood the pressures and frustrations and hassles that come with the job. Why had he walked away from his responsibilities? Why did he walk away from me?
He handed off the phone to Barbara. I might have heard him mumble, “He hates me.” It wasn’t true, but I wasn’t happy. I told her—politely—that I wanted an explanation from him. She said he’d have to get back to me. We hung up.
That was the last time I spoke with him. My follow-up letters went unanswered. After a while, I stopped trying. He was dead to me again, but I didn’t mourn. It was his loss. Elizabeth grew and we added her sister Ally Jane to the family. If he chose to miss out on them, that was on him.
And so my life with my family went on. In 1998, I started working for the federal government and finally began making decent money: I’ve been with the feds ever since, and the money has gotten even better. In 2001, we bought a little house in a nice neighborhood, near great schools, and we’ve been there ever since. We have dogs (and cats) that we adopt and never give away. We have nice things and go on vacations and I’ve put money aside for my daughters’ colleges.
My kids have never been in the free lunch program at school, and my wife and I never have arguments over money: other things, yes, sometimes, but not money. And not in German. My mother lives 15 minutes away and she’s remarried, and they are my daughters’ grandparents that they visit and adore.
About a year ago, a lady researching her genealogy contacted me. She’s a distant cousin, and had been investigating Walter Thomas. We shared information, and she filled in a lot of blanks for me. Best of all, she put me in touch with Terry Thomas, Michael’s younger half-brother, who lives in California. We corresponded for a bit before finally meeting in person. He’s a good guy, and I’m glad we found each other.
He had discovered where Walter Thomas, after siring a bunch of kids with several different women, had run off to: Chicago, where Charles lived and Michael had brought us to from Germany. He was there the whole time, swallowed up by the millions of other people. He died in 1982, hit by a train. It’s true: I have a copy of his death certificate. I work in railroad safety, and it happens more than you might think.
For many years, my mother had been estranged from her father (a whole other story), but they had reconciled towards the end of his life. She and I both held out hope that that would happen with me and Michael. Terry contacted Michael, told him about me and Joni and the kids. Gave him a copy of my book. Terry said Michael was very proud that I had become a writer.
Terry said Michael had health issues. A back injury. But neither he nor I was expecting Michael to up and die suddenly. So now I am in the peculiar place of mailing a sympathy card to strangers—Barbara and her children—who knew him and loved him longer and better than I did. Than I ever could.
Terry tells me there will be no funeral. Michael was cremated. I have seen no obituaries. But I have learned that somewhere along the line, perhaps when he dropped “Kilgore” and became “Thomas,” he also changed his middle name from “Riley”—which he never liked—to “Dylan,” a grandmother’s maiden name, if I recall correctly. Maybe not. I can’t keep the family history straight.
The easy thing to do, the one that makes the most sense, is to simply shrug and say, “Oh, well,” and put the padlock on the emotional barn door that shut many years after the horse bolted. Because now I have proof that said horse is never, ever coming back.
It would be easy, too, to go back to hating him, as I often did, especially right after we stopped talking for the last time. Anger, holding grudges—I’m really good at those, but I try not to be. It was nigh-useless then, is completely so now.
So, yes, it would be easy to ignore his passing or rage against his memory, but I am reminded that much of who I am is because of him. Life—the fact that I was conceived—of course, but more than that. I have his build (if not his height), the texture of his hair (its color from Mom), his eyes, even the moles on my face. I have his writing talent, his intelligence, his ambition, his sardonic sense of humor. His distrust and animosity for the idiots nominally “in charge,” the corporate Muppets, and those who believe what the TV tells them.
Now, well into my forties, I am the happiest I’ve ever been. I have fashioned my adult life in opposition to what I experienced of his. Michael—the old Michael, the one I called “Dad” as I was growing up, would have hated how “bourgeois” I’ve become, with my desk job, my 25-year marriage, my religion, my two college-bound children, my modest exurb home in a prime school district.
Yet I write books and stories and essays, like he had wanted to, and there were plenty of glasses and bottles and Hell raised, as he used to. I have used the strengths he gave me, and I have tempered (not always successfully) the weaknesses. I have become what he could have been, had circumstances been different. If some of his choices had been different.
More importantly, I have broken the cycle. His father left him. He left me. I will not leave mine. Not while I still live.
After I had thought him dead for many years, my father has actually died, and aside from what he had already given me, the only inheritance I am left is regret for what might have been for him and me together. I lived with him for eight years, which becomes a more and more trivial amount of time the older I get. Eight years—hell, some of my t-shirts are older than that.
I did not know him when I was in my teens. For a brief while in my twenties, he was a voice on the telephone, the occasional letter or Christmas card. After that, he was a phantom I mentioned to my children when they asked, or whom I spotted when flipping through photo albums.
I never knew him when he was my age. I will never know what he was like when he was older. I understand that he wanted to change his life: I just don’t understand why he felt he had to do that without me. Perhaps it was easier for him. It was not for me.
I never wanted our relationship to be what it was. We could have been more, should have been more, but he always decided. It was always him, all along.
Here and now, at last, I can live with that.