Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Some Days Are Harder Than Others

Since Kim's dad passed away, she has been sorting through very complicated feelings. On the one hand, her childhood was not a happy one; on the other, many of her happy memories from childhood concern the times when he favored her with special attention, like her Fourth-of-July birthday trips to Santa Cruz or the times when he took her to Candlestick to see the Giants. And then there's the fact that he managed to reform, though he almost certainly wouldn't have described the transformation in those terms. But when he stopped drinking alcohol and retired from the ironworking job which, although he was proud of it, left him in pain at the end of every workday, he rid himself of the two main reasons why he would turn into a fearsome parental figure.

Kim and I have often remarked that her dad was the perfect grandfather to Skylar, the only person whom, as she tearily confessed after his passing, she doesn't have single negative memory of. But I was thinking this evening that the same could also be said of my relation to him. He was as good a father-in-law as anyone could every hope to have, affectionate and supportive in every way. I tried to give a sense of how important he was to me in the piece I wrote for Souciant in the week after his death. But what I didn't fully capture then was the extent to which he provided -- and I do think it was deliberate, at least to a degree -- a refuge for me.

He was fully aware that Kim, like her mother, can be a challenging person to live with, if for no other reason than the force of her personality. Simply put, her presence has a way of bending the space around her until she is at the center of things. That's an impressive and in many ways admirable quality, but one that can make the other people in that space feel overwhelmed. While I am by no means a timid person and can similarly dominate a room -- as my sister will readily attest -- I have always found Kim's particular brand of intensity hard to handle, in part because it is grounded in a passionate response to the world that my parents seemed almost entirely to lack.

The challenges that living all these years in close proximity to Kim have posed for me is a subject for another day, as well as one that I will surely be discussing in therapy. But I mention them because her dad was so good at creating an atmosphere that made them melt away for a while. When he would call me to tell me when the next game we were watching would be broadcast; when he would cheerily say, "That better be Charlie, or I'm calling the police", as I opened their front door; when he directed me to the fresh bag of crunchy Cheetos he had made sure to purchase beforehand; and, most of all, when we would talk during the game itself, I felt more at ease than at any other time in my dealings with family.

That's why today was so hard for me. I spent much of it feeling rotten in a way that I couldn't pin down. After I fell asleep in the late afternoon with a splitting headache and a sense of not feeling motivated to do anything, I tossed and turned, practically willing myself not to get up. But then, at 6-something, my internal alarm clock went off and I remembered: not only was it the start of the Pac-12 basketball season, usually one of my favorite times of the year, but Cal was playing at Stanford in the roundball version of the Big Game. Suddenly, my malaise made perfect sense.

Earlier in the afternoon, my father had expressed surprise that I wouldn't be coming over to watch basketball with him, as I often do now. In retrospect, I can see that he had justifiably assumed that the Cal-Stanford game was my highest priority. But I almost forgot about it entirely. And then, when I did remember that it was on, I knew that I could only watch it by myself, because the start of the Pac-12 basketball season had been a special thing for me and Kim's dad ever since we first moved here together in the fall of 2000 and the Cal-Stanford game, whenever it fell in the conference schedule, was an even bigger deal. I had watched at least one of their match-ups with Kim's dad every year since we came to Tucson. To watch with someone else, even my own father, in this, the first season since he passed away, just felt wrong.

The longer I watched, sitting in our front room by myself, wearing his headphones, the better I felt. It helped, of course, that Cal wasn't getting blown out as had so often happened in their games on the Farm. But the sense of well-being that came over me went deeper than that. I'm not a very spiritual or metaphysical person. Yet I definitely felt that he was in the room with me watching. I could even hear his voice in my head making the sort of comments he invariably made, about how the Bears are bizarrely injury prone or the way they struggle to achieve any offensive flow. I was sad, certainly, but happy to be sad, if that makes sense, because it meant that I was mourning him properly.
Tags: autobiography, family, sports
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