My letter to my mother for Father’s day:
Remembering my father, Edward William Arnold, today, and my mom, Diane Arnold.
I talk about my mom because she’s been both Mom and Dad, to the best of her ability, which for long periods of time, and I understand it killed her to do this, meant that we couldn’t talk. I needed to rebuild myself from the grief of my father’s death, and from the terrible things that everyone involved in a situation like an immediate familial death do to one another if they do not possess rock-hard emotional discipline. Because of my strange upbringing, I had no sense of self, and needed to go out in the world and get battered around enough to realize my life wasn’t going to live itself without any input from me.
My mom needed to do a bunch of relearning, too. She had never been on her own for 17 years, had always been taking care of the kids while my father went to work, and had no idea what to do. She has her GED – we got it together in 1999 when I was 16, bursting at the seams to leave the house and be done with that chapter of my life, the ugliest chapter where I dropped out of high school and missed my chance at a decent education due to deep depression and unsupportive friends and a broken relationship with anyone outside of the internet – necessarily broken by my entirely miswired perceptions of those around me. To me, I was a bother to everyone all the time, an entirely selfish behavior, I realize now.
But I was a selfish kid. I was raised as an only child because of how often my sisters were absent – I barely remember spending much time with them. I miss my sisters. Silly family-related holidays, created by corporations, you still make me a bit misty-eyed about how broken my family still is.
Anyway, this is about my Dad, but my life is pretty much about my Dad. He was a brilliant person who never saw the options available to him to use that intellect. He had to get cancer for me to beat him at chess. We went for walks every day, played a lot of frisbee, baseball, he read to me, and then later I sat there and watched him die. But the problem was, while I was watching him die, I thought I was watching him get better.
In 12 year old me’s world, my dad was indestructible, the rock of our family who everyone relied on to be a source of support. My mom was the most mercurial beast you could ever imagine at times, but she had nothing on my sisters; I still have no idea how they managed to keep their shit together at all. I was 12 when my dad got put in the hospital. It was nearing Christmas, I remember – for Christmas, my dad got leukemia. I don’t even remember what I got. But he seemed to be getting better as winter ended, and he was due out of the hospital the next week.
I still remember I was at my friend Stephan O’Shaughnessy’s place in McCammon, Idaho – now that I recall it, it sounds like complete bullshit because of the bizarreness of the names, but I grew up in Mormon country, where the names even seem strange from the perspective of someone whose friends at Stanford include Fiorella, Wei, and Imran. I got a phone call in the evening at my friend’s house, we had been playing SimCity on the Super Nintendo. I could hear in my mom’s voice that something very bad had happened to my Dad. I didn’t know what it was. She had a habit of crying at anything in those days, and I can’t blame her – her partner of 17 years was dying. She asked Stephan’s mother, Lisa, to take me back home first thing in the morning.
When I got back home in the morning, I walked in the door. I remember this moment in slow motion, because I was walking into a situation where my mom was not at the door to greet me when I got home, which immediately tripped my something-is-very-wrong meter, because a.) she had called me home unexpectedly and b.) I half hoped I would be in trouble for something terrible. I remember walking through our front little closet hall, on the right of which was a beautiful custom-made hardwood bookcase stuffed with Stephen King, assorted Bibles, and all kinds of other books (notably missing: anything with facts in it), and on the left of which you could hang your coats. It was Idaho – winters were brutal. Coats were a necessity, and a variety thereof if you could afford it.
Anyway, I’m walking through this hallway, and it seems like I’m in molasses, because my grave tragedy mechanism, whatever it is, has been tripped for the first time, and I am about to find out something that is going to change my world: my dad died yesterday evening at 5:25 and I can come see the body TODAY if I want because they are cremating him. That’s what I found out within about an hour of entering that house.
I still remember the little annoying dog who was only annoying because that miniature poodle reminded me of its owner, whose name I have forgotten because she later took advantage of my mother to the tune of $15,000 in a failed coffee business that was mostly the two of them and their third business partner getting to jet around the country going to Christian conventions. This was my father’s life insurance money, which was supposed to go for providing for us, putting food on the table, and whatnot.
Dad would not have been happy at how things went after he died, I feel safe saying. I feel like he was so essential to our family that to remove him left us all husks. No one but me was left in the family who had any sort of reasoning ability – my mom never went to college and my sisters were more into drama, religion, and music. We relied on my dad to make all the directional decisions. He urged me to do well in school. He got so pissed when I wasn’t doing well in school because I couldn’t see the board that I was genuinely afraid he would never talk to me again when I refused to wear glasses.
Today, to remember my Dad, who has been so influential on my life, I am typing this sentence, teary-eyed, from Stanford, I have been thinking about what kind of man he was. I think that seeing my own trajectory – I skipped second grade because of the extra teaching he and my mom did for me when I was at home. I used to read novels and novels and novels when the other kids were still struggling to put together a paragraph on the page. We went to the library every week, and I always checked out a big stack of books. Whenever the bookmobile came, the other kids might come out with a book or two, but I would have a stack because it was unreliable and I would read them too fast anyway, even if it came back on a generous schedule.
My dad was a bookworm, so was I. He was into military fiction – he had been in the navy for a couple years before going AWOL. He had drug problems all his life, actually, before he met my mom. He went to DeVry for a couple of years, but dropped out before he finished to find a job. I suspect he realized DeVry was worthless. I would go on to discover the exact same thing, though at a different branch of DeVry, later. After I failed out of DeVry at 17, having needed to sign a waiver to get into the school because I had been 16 when I technically started school, and this is all extremely ironic in retrospect, as despite not thinking about it at all, I seemed to be following in my father’s footsteps.
And it was that path I woke up from when I attended Apple. Here, I met, for the first time, and I shit you not the first time, people who did not do the same thing as their parents. People with diverse interests. People who had not been funneled into tech schools to chase their parents dreams. I think I started to snap out of that pattern of subconsciously following my Dad’s footsteps when I started at Apple.
I entered Apple as a technician, but I left it knowing that I loved people, that I loved talking to people, and that I loved the tools technology provides, but I didn’t like being treated like a widget by my boss. When I started at Apple, I was not treated like a widget – the ABQ Uptown Apple Store started off as a family. Then it broke up, as we started getting treated more and more like widgets as, I’m sure, the upper management at Apple started hiring, I’m sure, people like Stanford MBAs, who see dollar outputs to employees as a function to be minimized, not as enriching their lives. Which is ironic, because Apple’s stated mission is to enrich lives – but only in return for ‘dem profits.
I thank my dad deeply for providing me with sufficiently weird brain genetics and a significant enough penchant for novelty seeking that my life has never, ever been boring. He started me off on logical reasoning very early with chess, and provided me endless character-building novels to read and imprint with, such that I developed an addiction to hero’s journey-type novels, because I thought of my dad as a hero, and I wanted to be like him, noble and just and never punishing when it was not appropriate, always encouraging, nothing like any dad anyone I knew had.
He did the right thing every time. He was artistic. He was creative and sensitive and affectionate, qualities many people today associate with queerness – he was a fantastic cook and showed me a thing or two. But he was also one of the guys, at the same time, had his nerdy boardgames and would have been positively a video game addict if computers for those kinds of games had been around at the time. He and my mom taught me to be polite, to say please and thank you, to apologize when I think I may have wronged someone, and to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
I don’t think my dad would have approved of the way my mother taught me to always put others first. He was far more independent than that, and even thinking about this reminds me of the reserves of fierce independence he had, of personal purpose and drive. My father’s goal had been to buy a house in the country where he could make a good income and invest in his family. He accomplished that goal before he died, and he was comfortable with his life when he died, and I think he died a good death after all the crazy adventures he had had, both with me and, I’m sure, on his own, with my mom, and with plenty of people I’ve never even thought might exist.
I don’t think my dad would have approved of how his family reacted in response to his death – we exploded apart instead of clinging to one another, because he had been our great mediator. We became bumbling, useless idiots. I failed at school, my mom failed at being a mom, my sisters had already failed for totally different reasons far before. I had to take over as much responsibility for our finances as I could wrest from my mother, while still trying to recover from the shock of losing the center of my world.
At least I had my dog, but soon enough my dog left, too. I didn’t hate moving to my grandmother’s because I hated my grandmother. I hated moving to my grandmother’s because I wouldn’t have my dog, or my books, or my library, or my friends – such that I had – again, and I was in a fragile space and my world was already changed so much because it was missing a dad, then the rest of it was removed.
I lost who I was. I don’t remember most of what happened next because it was very stressful, most of which stress was caused by me being an extremely weird, smart kid who had no good ways to interpret the things happening around him. I didn’t listen to pastors, only listened to them babble on. I didn’t listen to teachers unless they gave me good grades, and I didn’t get those very often because I felt like most of my teachers didn’t understand the subjects they were teaching.
And yes, this is still all about my dad, because he had also been the authority figure I had been lacking. And I didn’t get another one of those until I found my friend’s mom, Cecelia, but plenty of damage had already been done by my trying to both look up to and manage my mom and high school and everything else. By the time I got to school every day I was exhausted from dealing with what seems in retrospect like nightly screaming matches, but which might just be stupid PTSD rearing its head. Each screaming match with your only remaining parent feels like a nail driven down your spine to a bright kid who really, really, really does love his mother.
It drives a wedge in when the only person you have left who gives you any encouragement has suddenly become a different person. And when you have never been instructed as to how to encourage yourself, when the Little Engine that Could never made its mark because you’re too busy being depressed and feeling that life is worthless without a dad to help give purpose to it, you just do whatever you think your dad would have wanted you to do. And you’re stupid, because you’re 16, and you think your dad would have wanted you to become him, but that’s not right.
I was brought up, so far as I can tell, the polar opposite of either of my parents. Both of my parents were raised very roughly in the most dissonant circumstances you could imagine, where school was a place of attack, not development. Because of my parents, I was encouraged to do well in school from when I can first remember even thinking. I was encouraged to read books. I didn’t want to play with blocks. My erector sets went untouched. I loved animals, books, math, all the sciences, and I loved doing my own art, but I hated art classes because at that young age, I somehow already understood art, and my understanding clashed with the micromanaging art teachers
My parents did not want me to become them. They wanted me to become the best person I could be. I mistook my mom at the time for someone who wanted me to do what she wanted me to do, but that was just because she was trying to give me all the options she thought were available. But what my dad had done was give me the confidence to see that those options were available in actuality. After I lost him, I didn’t have that confidence anymore. I half-heartedly tried anything. I thought, what good could a kid without a dad do. I’m fucked up, I’ve had this devastating thing happen to me, I am a victim of terrible circumstances and it sucks. But lately I think I’ve been realizing some of the things my dad taught me by example, not just by instruction.
My dad taught me that it doesn’t matter what people will think, as long as you’re doing the right thing. He gave me the reserves to stick up for my friends at school. Because he was such a fair person about how he did punishment – he NEVER punished if you were genuinely being a good moral person no matter what the stupid school said. I still have no idea how he conceived of morality, but it was somehow perfect, maybe just in my eyes, maybe even just in comparison to Christianity at the time.
It has been my experience that experienced wielders can easily use Christianity to justify basically any behavior they want, though I do admire true practitioners of Christianity. True practitioners of Christianity seem like genuinely good people, and also seem to rarely believe that anything in the Bible is anything but metaphor, just like any other religious book. There’s a good argument to be made that things written by humans can’t be anything but a metaphor. My dad was an agnostic, and a proud one, I think, by the way.
So I’m writing this about my dad because writing is the one thing I have always loved to do since I started doing it, but it makes me very sad at the same time because my dad died before he got to see anything I wrote. I know he was quite proud of me, and bragged about me at work all the time, but those were about a child’s accomplishments. Now I feel like I could maybe have told him more appropriately how much he meant to me. And maybe because I can write now, I could have let him know or feel better what it was he meant to me.
When I lost my dad, I lost my whole framework for looking at the universe, and I had to start from scratch because thinking about what my dad would have done was too hard, it was too huge a hole to touch at the time – hell, maybe I didn’t even have the abstraction equipment at that age to handle that kind of stuff. Now that I have some distance, it has been a long, strange trip. I think this might be the most significant, to me, resolution I required.
It has been eighteen and a half years since my father died and my universe was created anew. I have thought about his birthday every year, thought about him more and more every year, attempting to pull out the details and mend that wound. It feels like maybe I’ve been on the upswing from that for a while now.
Happy father’s day, Dad (and Mom, who was dad for a while).