My Dad and Me, Part 5

Boundaries

Upon those in orbit the sun shines, exposing everything to all. There is nothing private which will not be under consideration at all times. No closet exists in which to pray.

“I simply went from institution to institution,” my dad said. Considering the institutions he chose: the US Navy; a Benedictine college; the LCMS seminary in Springfield; and, finally, the LCMS ordained ministerium, one can barely distinguish among them and the institution into which he was born, the Joseph W. Duke family.

He was trying to help me. He was trying to help me, yet being captivated to his father, he created for me (for us, I think) an oddly-bifurcated existence. At the same time he preached radical rebellion against the system, he preached as fervently a devotion to it.

In defiance of all good sense and reasonableness, in addition to a family opposed, Dad moved us from the Gulf Coast to Central Illinois, at Christmastime, just before my sixteenth birthday. There was, shall we say, some culture shock. I wrote “home” to all my friends, something like eleven or twelve letters. None of them wrote back.

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One day not too long after I wrote those letters, my dad called a family powwow, whereupon he accused me of some terrible crimes, mostly thought crimes, blasphemies (I won’t go into detail here; they are graphic). I was stunned. Why would my father accuse me of such gross violations? What was the provocation? And why in front of the entire family? None of it made sense. I cried bitter tears before him and my mother and my three sisters, tears not borne of innocent denial but of shame and wonder.

Years later–this is the nature of the thing:

An excursus:

I always resented being accused of being sheltered by my mom and dad because nothing could be further from the truth. With my dad making himself the sun of his own system, he became all things to us, magisterially omnipresent, always judging, commenting, criticizing, analyzing, to the effect that we were essentially in pieces, dessicating–in public. Thus we were unprotected, unsheltered, but dazzled by the brilliance of my dad, dominated by him as those wandering in the desert are dominated by the sun. He was ever-present and merciliess, in that sense, but I’m sure it looked like he was overprotective.

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A further excursus:

I hesitate to analyze and dessicate my own father’s corpse without checking myself. I hasten, then, to remind you, gentle reader, that he was already one step, one full step removed, from exacting the same kind of abuse as was set upon his flesh as a living nightmare. Love impelled him to treat us better, as I hope love impels me to treat my own sons better, my own family. Nevertheless, these are the things he did in spite of love, as it happens we do one unto another. Thus we learn love, learn about love, its creeping, persistent nature, as it teaches us, winding through the generations, sometimes apparent.

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Years later it occurred to me, finally (as is obvious now), that my dad had stolen those letters, opened them, and read them carefully. He was trying to cut us off entirely from our previous life, in a perverted effort to move us forward with our lives, in the same way one might crack open an egg to force the chick from its incubation in advance of the completion of its gestation. In so doing, he read my anger, my fear, my nostalgia, infatuation, love, and, to be specific, the lyrics and names of some of my favorite bands. I was into punk music (such as it is).

This is the bifurcation: the cliche “I learned it from you!” is apropos here. Dad was the one who taught me to rebel in the most radical manner in which I could dream. The punk rock scenes of the 1980s were at once rebellion and fantasy in every extreme, with its angrily driven themes of overthrow. “Overthrow of what?” Whaddya got?

Sometime before the move:

“Dad?”

“Yes, son.”

“I’d like a pair of black combat boots.”

“Ah, son, the symbolism of violence is appropriate with you and your friends, and, in fact, has some basis in Christian doctrine: the violence of the crucifixion and its inexorable march over the face of the earth, bringing a kind of participatory death with Christ. If only there were more hope in your expressions, as there is in Christianity…”

He didn’t have the money to buy me black leather boots, but the sentiment was galvanizing, to be sure.

After the move:

“Son, I’m going to search your room while you’re gone to school.”

“Why?”

“Teenagers can’t be trusted. You all live in a fantasy world.”

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Dad told me that he once inadvertently, as he put it, surprised a sister-in-law as she lay resting in one of the bedrooms of the old homeplace. There is some confusion in his telling of the story, in my remembering of his telling, but it seems to me the circumstances work out like this: he came home from high school to the boys’ room to throw his homework on the bed. He heard something upstairs. He went upstairs to see what it was he thought he heard, opening a bedroom door.

Thus inadvertently, he surprised his sister-in-law, whose husband was at war, who was lying on top of the bed, without any clothes on (this is a family website, so I adjure you to use your most earnest imagination in the most clinical way). She was (how can we be delicate?) delighting in herself. Now, when she spotted my dad in the doorway, this anonymous teenage farm boy who was a dead ringer for her absentee husband, she did not succumb to modesty; no, she rose from the bed and pursued my dad, who, as he put it, ran.

“She kept saying, ‘You want some, John, don’t you?'” he told me. “I ran through the house and out the backdoor, and she stood in the door completely naked, still saying, ‘You want some, don’t you?'”

Coming up in an environment of such a nature, one’s framework might be a little malformed, don’t you think?

I have my guesses why Dad thought he should tell me that story. I don’t think I want to finally know why.

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Somewhere along the line, my grandfather as a young man was sent from Alabama to Texas to study at Southern Methodist University in preparation for the ministry. Seeing as how the experience made him into a militant atheist, and this just after the turn of the Century, and in the American Bible Belt, it stands to reason that my grandfather was disinclined to go to SMU in the first place. So why did he go? When he finally came back twenty years later, he had in tow a woman who was everything an American Indian, if not full-blooded, then she certainly looked like a full-blooded American Indian, and she had borne him five children.

They spoke of his mother, my great-grandmother. No one mentions my great-grandfather’s response; only hers.

A generation or two later, after my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had died, after my grandfather had died, and after my Uncle Forehead flunked out, my dad was ordained into the ministerium of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, completing that cycle, but it wasn’t Southern Methodist! Dad closed the emotional loop, but he somehow closed it wrong, in the wrong way. It was that Lutheran pastor from Wisconsin, invading the prodigal son’s farm, armed only with a little mercy and a healthy thirst, ready to pick up that jug of Wildcat Whiskey to fuel the one and quench the other. With that little act, he threw a perfectly good system off its axis, causing it to wobble until I found myself standing over my dad’s casket, staring at him for the first time since he died.


There would be two funerals: one in Louisiana, where he died; and one in Alabama, where he would be buried. I wouldn’t go to his first funeral. I didn’t know anyone there. I didn’t want to go to his second funeral; I knew everyone there. I talked to the funeral director, telling him I had to drive from New York to Alabama, and would it be possible for me to view the body in private before they brought him to the church. The funeral director made all assurances. When I got to the funeral home at the appointed time, there had been a delay, and I would not be able to see him before the public viewing at the church building.

The place was already overflowing an hour before the funeral, every pew full. The funeral director stationed us at the casket in the foyer, and my mom sidled up to me when they opened the casket. It was a show, you see. Many necks craned to watch the performance. There he was, the old man, slightly disfigured from the fall he’d taken at his sudden death, in addition to the degradation of a few days of southern heat and humidity. While I grieved, I chastised myself sharply that I hadn’t made a different kind of effort to see him before these moments. My own self-absorption had robbed me of a private, family viewing. I was incapable of projecting my own boundaries.

“They took his beautiful blue eyes and donated them,” my mom said. That’s all she said. There he lay, in his sacramental garb, adorned in his chasuble, whence he would rise to bless his congregation, as a shepherd under the Good Shepherd.

No, not even a closet in which to pray.

An Asshole to the End

A few days after Peter died, I got a text from his pastor telling me Peter wanted me to read John 11 at his funeral. “That asshole!” was my reflexive response. The request was true to his character.

John 11, he knows, I cannot read at a funeral whose corpse I do not know, not without being overcome with the emotional force, so for him to make a dying request that I read over his was a coup de grĂ¢ce upon our friendship, which death ended. That was it. It was over. The text made it plain: Peter is dead.

A thousand people moseyed over to the big Lutheran church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of the thousand, I knew Angie, his wife. It’s possible some others from the early days of our friendship in the mid-90s were there, but I would only have recognized their faces and known nothing more about them. A thousand people, and never did I feel so alone, not even when my father died, for in that case I had my three sisters and my mother.

That one was also a rather large intrusion of claimants to the corpse. They had to have two separate funerals for my dad: one in southern Louisiana, where he died; another in northern Alabama, where he was raised. I skipped the first one because of the many claimants I would not have known. Besides, I had what they call a “complicated” relationship with my father, a deep and abiding love which was made white hot by long-standing patricidal notions borne of deep-seated philosophical disagreements, which were, at his death, which was sudden, then peppered with anger and guilt, as one would be when one hates how one was raised. I was a pastor’s kid. My dad was a Lutheran pastor. His many surviving brothers and sisters and their families and extended families, along with his childhood friends, were jammed into the Lutheran church in Hanceville, Alabama, where his mother was baptized by a Lutheran pastor from Milwaukee sometime in the 1940s, along with five of her children, including my father, who was five years old at the time. She was an American Indian. It was the Lutheran pastor from Milwaukee who broke down that racial barrier.

His corpse was in the narthex (the common area before you go into the sanctuary (the main room of the church where all the pews are)), a week old already, having sat in refrigeration during a particularly warm August, having been transported within the mysteries of the mortuary crafts from Louisiana to Alabama. We greeted family and friends, and they were seated. As it was, I had not seen the corpse, and I requested to see him with my sisters and mother. The mortician turned the appropriate latches, raised the lid, and there was my father, laid out in sacramental splendor, to be buried in his priestly garments, including a golden chasuble. When I reacted, every head in the sanctuary snapped back to stare. My mother comforted me. Peter was a pastor’s kid, too.

There is an expectation–at least, there was an expectation for a pastor’s kid, especially the pastor’s son, placing him on one of the two paths he can go by. He can either adopt a Pharisee’s mien, the faultless son of the Most High Pastor, who himself is the representative of the Son of God, and can make no error, neither his sons and daughters–a Pharisee’s mien, I say: a hard, cold, exacting, cruelty expected of a sniveling wretch who cloaks himself in an expertise of religiosity. Or he can unleash his anger in a destructive lifestyle, usually in a hedonism akin to that exhibited by the wonderful Sam Kinison. In either case, his identity is not his identity, but that of someone else. To craft an identity is exceedingly difficult, and much discouraged, both by Father and by his disciples.

It can be done, though, if he can navigate that Scylla and Charybdis. Indeed, forgiveness has been known to prevail upon those pastors’ kids who wreck their ships, and they can set sail again. I think Peter and I managed to escape, a pair of Odysseuses in our own right, but not without paying a heavy emotional toll. The tax is high, my friends, for those of us who wish to live free of those peculiar expectations. And, thus impoverished, Peter and I leaned on each other. We developed a shorthand with each other, much as twins do, and we leaned on each other.

Another lonely claimant was there, whose name escapes me. He was flown in from Ghana, where Peter served as a missionary over the course of over 20 years, both formally, and then later on as an emotional supporter of the burgeoning Lutheran Church in Ghana and throughout that stretch of Africa. That is to say, this second lonely claimant was another who had Peter as a close friend and confidant for over two decades, beginning together as young men with babies, enduring the travails of this ephemeral career in the visible futility of the Christian Faith, ending with teen-aged young-adult progeny. Ah! Death! You sting us! Where is your sting?

The funeral was horrible. It was just horrible. Peter wrote it. He wrote the structure of the service, picked the readings to be read, picked the hymns to be sung. Structure? There was no structure. It was a vile Sacramentarian Baptist service with Lutheran trappings. There was no Kyrie, no proclamation of the gifts of the sacrament of baptism, no declaration of the resurrection of the body because there was no Apostles’ Creed, only that godawful John 11, gaping before me like the grave itself. And he had me read it. He did it on purpose. He did the whole despicable thing on purpose because he knew I was the only son-of-a-bitch in that building who would weep while the confrontation of that text was being laid out before us. Do you understand me? He laid out a structure-free funeral service, departing from every form and norm known to our tradition in order that he might have my weakness for reading that particular text in public actually highlight that thing around which his hope revolved.

It’s not the part where Jesus weeps that gets me, nor the many indications of the upwelling of utter despair expressed by a despondent people. Those are, indeed, difficult to read, but where my throat constricts, where my chest heaves, where my mouth clamps into a quivering vise, is the question. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” At this comes the existential pause, where you stare into the abyss, and it stares back, tearing at your guts, shouting, “WHAT A LOAD OF STUFF AND NONSENSE! RUBBISH! THERE’S NOTHING HERE! DO YOU HEAR ME? NOTHING!”

Do you believe this? Peter’s corpse is within arm’s length. What an asshole. Truly, he was a brother. Peter Kelm, 1972-2017, RIP.