My Father’s Obituary
[From time to time, people ask to read the obituary/essay I wrote upon the occasion of my father’s death a few years ago. I’m not sure why.]
Let’s start with the easy obituary:
Clarence William “Bill” Ludwigsen II, 69, of Arcadia, died on November 1st, 2013 from cancer.
Born in 1944 to Rev. Clarence and Ingeborg Ludwigsen in Queens, New York, Bill earned degrees in sociology from Nathaniel Hawthorne College and Long Island University as well as an honorary Doctorate of Education from Woodlawn College. For much of his life, he served colleges, mental facilities, prisons, hospices, and private clients as an administrator and counselor.
He is survived by two children. His second wife Delores preceded him into death in 2002.
And then there’s the more complicated one.
My father was a sociopath. That’s not a joke or an exaggeration; he was a human shark, obliviously tearing his way through human beings his entire life wondering why so few of the rest of us had the gumption to take what we wanted.
He was cunning, smooth, clever, erudite, and manipulative. He was the kind of person who borrowed a Cadillac to go on a job interview. When his second wife died, one of his great regrets was not buying a computer with her insured credit card. He taught me to steal nails and lumber from construction sites. He chased a man who cut him off on the road once by tapping a knife on the windshield of our Volkswagen bus, pursuing the other driver all the way to the church where he was getting married.
He did many less endearing things. He beat and terrorized my mother and sister and I, of course, and he did far worse to strangers while serving as a “family counselor.”
His basic feeling was that if you could be hurt or exploited, you needed to be; it was his holy mission to introduce you to the world that way. Like your gentle, smiling guide to debasement.
At my parents’ divorce hearing in 1986, he stopped short of the courthouse metal detector, turned around, and accepted an eventual arrest for contempt and a night in jail instead of going through it. He’d always promised to kill us one day.
It’s hard to tell what exactly was wrong with him, but I looked him up after twenty years of silence because I wanted to find out. I wanted some explanation, a diagnosis that I could make with my adult judgment and my adult courage. What I got instead was one tearful hug, lengthy phone calls twice a year, a bunch of e-mails written in Comic Sans font, and a hustle to buy my own grandmother’s wedding rings to help him pay for property taxes.
The best I can tell, he probably came out of the box with some fundamental inability to feel empathy, but his mother’s death in childbirth also touched off a life of rage and severe anxiety disorder. When he attempted to medicate his extreme hair-trigger fight-or-flight responses with alcohol, the effect was disastrous.
As the years went on and his life spun further out of control, he grew more paranoid, angry, and dangerous. Anything you said or did to him was like pulling the handle of a slot machine. Well, if sometimes you got a velociraptor instead of coins.
When my sister and I entered his house a couple of weeks ago as his only next-of-kin, we were like the Allies stumbling upon Hitler’s bunker…if Hitler’s bunker was neatly decorated in the style of a prep school dorm with fake wooden rowing oars on the walls. I stormed in, ready to find all the papers — the manifests for the trains to Auschwitz, the orders from Himmler, the stolen paintings from the Louvre, the damned truth.
What we discovered instead was that the place was festooned with Dartmouth alumni merchandise — hats, mugs, trash cans, mouse pads, on and on. He even had his undergraduate Dartmouth degree hanging in his little office.
The trouble is that he never went to Dartmouth. I squinted at that degree and found it puzzling. It was set in Times New Roman and had no official seal on it.
The good news is that, being my father, he had an explanation. Taped to the back of that framed diploma in his office is this comment.
Now…whom is that explanation for? For me? For himself?
At the end of his life, dying of cancer, suffering great agonzing pain…he was pretending to himself that he went to Dartmouth for that preppy college experience he always thought he deserved.
As we wandered around his house, everything seemed staged like a play. Pictures of his second wife with her hair bleached and cut short to look my mother. Labels with his name on everything from DVDs to his washing machine. A bookcase of books about power and success and influence.
I realized standing there in his house that he was literally a nobody — an empty shell of a human being who had to simulate humanity. He got pretty good at it, but he could never truly fill himself in. The man who terrorized my family was a nobody.
A nobody. Him hurting us was like Lee Harvey Oswald killing Kennedy.
The real reason I came to find him all those years ago, the one I didn’t realize, the one that made me rush to his deathbed two weeks ago, was that I wanted some sign that he wasn’t a nobody. That he was an insane criminal genius. That he was, at root, at least an interesting evil person. That he was fighting against the terrible handicap of his stunted emotions. That he wanted to be more.
Nope. He was fine. Dying in that hospice bed, he ignored my sister standing right beside him and asked me how my car was. He knew why we were there, why he was there, but he had no regrets or goodbyes.
On my way out the door from his room, I reached back in and shook his hand because I wanted to give him the very last, the very last chance to say something, anything that was human. He looked at me with pity, like he was consoling me for my icky feelings, and he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll always be with you.” Then he tapped his forehead with his finger.
Yeah, no kidding, pal.
I’ve worried and wondered my whole life just what I’ve “caught” from him. Certainly his anxiety disorder — I have a very hard time starting any project or task because I’m deathly afraid of being “caught,” and it was his shrieking banshee voice that wound me up for years to my (now far less frequent) terrors and hysterias.
I also caught his facility with words, I think, and a certain enjoyment in watching how they change things. It scares me sometimes how much I like to make people feel, given how he liked to do the same thing.
But my funny and strange reaction against him, my lifelong rebellion, has been to use those words as best I can to be entertaining, to act against his legacy of harm. I’ve fucked up plenty — ask my two ex-wives! — but the one thing I’m NOT doing is making a fake goddamned diploma from Dartmouth for myself. I’ll tell you anything you want to know and plenty you don’t, but I’m not writing to hide things but to find them out, to show them to you so we can say, “Holy shit! What the fuck is that? Let’s get our bikes and check it out!”
My father was my first horror story, and this is the end of it.
The good guys (my sister and mother and I) won, weaknesses and all, because we could look inside and the bad guy could not. Because we could grow and he could not. Because we like crazy creepy funny things and he…could not. Because we’ve always been solid and he’s always been a ghost.