Happy The Big Four-Oh, Julie Anne :-)
A good bet, Ness.

A tale of three men

Gerald Raymond “Jerry” Nunn

My father died last week. Not entirely unexpectedly—he had some recent serious health problems—but it was still a shock to get the call the morning of August 8 that he had died the day before.

This is the story of three different men, all of them my father, each living a distinctly different part of one life.

The first man

The first of these is the man I remember from my earliest childhood. He was Daddy until I was in 5th grade, when I decided I should start calling him Dad so I would sound more mature.

Dad taught us how to mow the lawn, how to set up our Slip & Slide. He taught us how to play “sidewalk’s poison” and croquet. He coached our youth soccer teams and rode Space Mountain with us at Disneyland. He scorched the fence that one year because he hammered the pinwheel firework a little too tightly before he ignited it. He taught me not to mess with lighters or matches or those godawful little punk things, that a propane torch is the firework’s best friend.

Dad would ask the ride attendant at Lagoon to leave the brakes loose on the Wild Mouse so the kids would get an especial scare out of the ride. He loved the Jet Star 2 and tolerated the bumper cars, and joined in the family water fights in the hot parts of each summer.

When we went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, he would spend hours hacking at a fallen sapling with only the small saw blade of his trusty Swiss Army knife, returning with an armload of twigs and sticks which he’d use to start a fire that minutes later was putting out so much heat it would drive us out of our sleeping bags.

Dad had been an amateur guitar player for most of his life, and he was a student of the folk movement. He could play and sing many Kingston Trio or Dan Fogelberg or Harry Belafonte or Peter, Paul and Mary songs from memory—a slew of others, too—but he was shy about performing solo in front of groups larger than his immediate family. His voice found volume most often in church, when he joined enthusiastically in singing hymns and a few times over the years joined in choir performances for the holidays.

Dad would saw off the prescribed inch from the trunk of the live Christmas tree each year, and swear profusely as he tried to drag the tree into the house (“Goddamned pine needles!” was about the most family-friendly thing he ever uttered) and fought to get the tree into the irritating little stand both securely and plumb. And he would string lights and hang ornaments and join in all of the holiday festivities. Some years he was a bigger kid than we were.

He went sledding with us occasionally and taught us how to warm our coats on the radiator before we went outside so we stayed nice and toasty on even the most bitterly cold days.

This first man did most of the work on our cars. He had loved cars all his life and owned multiple hydraulic jacks and two sets of jack stands. He had all the tools one needed to handle nearly any car repair, other than bodywork (but he probably could’ve faked that pretty well). He knew how all of the parts and systems worked for just about any car he saw. One summer he and I spent the better part of two days working on my Pinto hatchback’s clutch replacement–he was a bit of a perfectionist and didn’t just do a job, he did it THE RIGHT WAY. We adjusted the hell out of that goddamned clutch and it ran several more years for the attention it got.

Dad was the de facto project manager when we painted and re-carpeted the house when I was in my teens, and once again what could (should?) have been a two-week project stretched longer. We didn’t simply paint over walls, we stripped old wallpaper and removed old paint and put up new drywall and mudded and taped (and suddenly I had to explain the lump of modeling clay that had been stuck to the living-room ceiling for about 8 years, and tore off a sizable patch of ceiling when we removed it) and in a few cases re-wired rooms when we opened walls and found decades-old frayed cloth-wrapped wiring, probably from the house’s original construction in the early 20th century.

This man started his own business as a handyman, and he had a faithful clientele for many years. He could do nearly anything with tools, could teach himself how to do something if he didn’t already know, and people would pay him for his time and workmanship. The same desire for perfection permeated much of that work—I have little doubt that much of his plumbing and electrical and other work remains in place today, some of it more than nearly 30 years after he finished.

The last chunk of quality time I spent with this man, the Dad of my childhood, was during spring break in 1991, my freshman year at USC. He visited for a week and we went to Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo and several other major attractions, we wandered Olvera Street and the Gaslamp, and we visited my grandparents’ old apartment in Arcadia. And we had a blast.

It was the last time I was directly aware he had enjoyed himself doing anything. I saw it with my own eyes.

But things were changing, and not for the good. This first man started to fade away around the same time.

The second man

In the early 1990s, Dad started fumbling a bit in his work life, drawing out projects because he would rather read a book or smoke a cigarette than do the painting or wiring or bit of plumbing he’d been hired to complete. Some of his faithful clients fell away but others stuck with him, even though it could be difficult to get him to complete projects on time and according to the bids he had prepared. He often had clients calling up and begging him to present their bills so they could pay him for completed work.

He decided he needed to be fully licensed as a contractor so he could expand his business. So he went back to school, took classes in mathematics and engineering to help him prepare for licensing, but he found the University of Utah class experience to be daunting and he gave it up after a couple of quarters. Then, magically, he decided he didn’t need a license at all, he just needed more faithful clients.

At some point Dad started doing some thinking, or perhaps he’d experienced a sudden mental or physical change. This second man became, almost overnight, dissatisfied with his life. He looked back over the sum of his relationships and experiences and decided he was greater than their total. They were not the ones he was meant to have. He was not working in the job he should be doing, he was living where he shouldn’t, perhaps even his family was the wrong one.

Somehow he arrived at an intellectual place wherein he believed that every single decision and experience he ever had had led him to a point that he simply knew was wrong, and he became convinced that the people in that wrong version of his life were somehow responsible for cheating him out of the life he knew he should have experienced.

He began to withdraw from his family. He spent his time reading (mostly re-reading a set of books he’d probably read a couple dozen times before) or watching old Westerns and other movies, often at absurdly loud volumes—until those days, I didn’t know most TVs from the early 1990s had volume controls that topped out at 50—and he would sit for hours with his guitar and strum random notes, rarely stringing them together into recognizable songs even if you could hear the instruments over the din of the TV.

The third man

By 1996 the the man who died last week had arrived. In my mind he had already become Jerry—he hadn’t been Dad, or even my father, for a few years, he was just a man I’d known my entire life. He was difficult to talk to, and he was easier to talk about by his first name because everyone else knew immediately who he was.

Jerry lost his temper frequently and twice physically threatened other family members when fairly benign conversations didn’t go as he expected or required. He wasn’t working at all, instead spent his time with the too-loud movies and the random guitar strumming and more chain-smoking and Big Gulp-swilling.

Jerry became determined to get away from the wrong life he had been living. In the last days of December 1996 he announced he was moving out of the house where I grew up. And so in January 1997 he moved, with our help (which he immediately discounted), into an apartment owned by our family dentist at the time. The dentist was also one of his handyman clients, and part of the arrangement they had was that Jerry would take care of immediate handyman needs for all tenants in the building in exchange for a rent reduction. It was a sweet deal, really; Jerry’s rent discount was a substantial set amount, and never once did he have to perform an equivalent amount of work on the building.

But some cracks started showing. He insisted on paying his rent and most utility bills months in advance when he didn’t really have the money, and he bought most items in unnecessary multiple quantities. At one point he had probably 40 12-packs of diet soda stacked like a fort in his living room.

And the changes he had set in motion were inadequate, never had a chance of being enough. He thought he was owed more from everyone in his life at that time, and many of his relationships changed for the worse. Among the first of these was his relationship with his landlord, who asked him to leave. Over the next several years this same approach to his surviving siblings would alienate him from them as well.

One Sunday morning in May 1999, Jerry called my sister Katharine and breathlessly requested that we kids meet him because he had some news. We immediately thought it was something health-related—Jerry was a champion chain-smoker much of his life, and he consumed caffeine at prodigious rates—and so we agreed to leave the family brunch we were attending (Mom’s side of the family) to meet him at City Creek Park. When we arrived, he told us in a breathy whisper, between drags on several cigarettes and frequent sips from his Super Big Gulp, how he had possibly pre-cancerous nodules on his vocal cords. We asked what his course of treatment was, he told us his doctor had instructed him to stop smoking, to quit caffeine, and to elevate the foot of his bed. We could see he was ignoring two of those instructions; he admitted, when Katharine asked, that his bed was still flat. Katharine pointed out that ignoring the doctor’s instructions might be deadly, and Jerry exploded into a fit of anger—suddenly his voice was back and in full force as he ranted, and I was so worried for Katharine’s safety that we left his car. We walked away as his diatribe continued and I didn’t see him for over a year.

Jerry’s sister Sandra died in June 2000. The family held a memorial dinner on June 10 and each of the surviving siblings had a chance to say a few words in remembrance. Allen’s and Art’s speeches were short and heartfelt, each telling brief stories of experiences in their oldest sibling’s life, but Jerry’s time turned quickly into a rambling screed about his own poor lot in life and how his siblings and later his own family had held him down.

That was the last time I saw Jerry in person.

He had landed in a room rental in a house in Kearns, and we think he worked at a few auto-parts shops and maybe some home-improvement or other big-box stores over the years. But he would never tell us what he was doing, he would make only vague references to having a job and a place to live, his tone suggesting not only was it none of our business but that his telling us specifics somehow would cause him problems.

The last time I spoke to my dad was in June 2010 when he broke into the house where I grew up, moved in a bunch of clothing and random belongings including multiple gallons of rum and orange juice, and a Water Pik, and attempted to change the locks and claim the house as his own. Mom called me to ask me if I would talk to him, and so from 900 miles away I asked him by phone to leave the house and avoid ongoing problems. Amazingly, he did leave. Shortly after that he moved into an apartment in a senior-housing building in downtown Salt Lake City.

We didn’t hear from him, nor very much about him, until earlier this year when his health deteriorated. He had heart trouble and other health problems that took a turn in January, and he was in hospital and then in various short– and long-term care facilities for several months. He finally returned to his apartment on or about August 1 and not quite a week later died in his sleep, probably from a heart attack. No autopsy because it wasn’t an unexpected death given his medical history.

The building management found him the morning of August 8. Katharine and I received the news about 90 minutes after they found him, and we went into crisis mode, knowing we had to handle arrangements for his body and for his belongings and who even knew what else. So we drove to Salt Lake City on August 9 to make arrangements for burial and services, only to find out that evening that Jerry’s will expressly disinherited his children and assigned responsibility for arrangements to a person we had never heard of. He named his longtime friend James (they met in 1992) as executor and personal representative of the estate.

Jerry decided long ago that his family had let him down and would never make up for it, and so he placed on James the unwanted burden of cleaning up and disposing of the last remnants of Jerry’s life.

We suddenly had no responsibilities, not even a say, legally speaking, in Jerry’s death or funeral arrangements. Instead we spent time with family and friends and reminisced. And we met James at Jerry’s apartment to have a look at Jerry’s belongings, to find out if a few items of sentimental value might be among the remnants of his life. We got to talking with James, who knew what a hardheaded and stubborn son of a bitch Jerry could be, and who laughed right along with us as we stared in combined horror and amazement at the cluttered mess that will be our last memories of Jerry Nunn:

  • A dozen or so bottles of mouthwash and the six tubes of toothpaste and a giant bag of baking soda.
  • A gallon of Karo syrup and large bags of flour and other staples—Jerry was not a baker; he was barely a cook of any kind.
  • At least four computers and two TVs, and probably 300 DVDs and a thousand or more books.
  • A tray of Bic lighters like you might see in a convenience store.
  • A stack of opened (mostly junk) mail scattered on the floor in front of the chair where he apparently spent a lot of his time.

This man who died last week is a complete stranger to us. He had become a vastly angry man, his anger centered on his conviction that somehow he had been cheated out of the life he should have led, and that cheating had been at the hands of his nearest relatives.

His anger drove him to sabotage his relationships with his children and other family members, but he believed he was in the right and that the steps to fix those relationships all belonged to other people.

His anger had grown and festered over many years, crystallizing into a bitterness that left his face pinched into a permanent sneer and turned the Dad of my youth into a shell of a man I now only refer to by his first name.

I hope Jerry finds in death at least some small portion of the satisfaction and serenity he believed eluded him so completely in life.