Las Vegas attracts many of life’s losers. If people are going to gamble on living then why not die here in this neon filled city that epitomized the extremes of American living? In 1998, my wife’s father, a man who I never met, died indigent and homeless here in Las Vegas.
His death was suspected for many years but for a long time could not be confirmed. He had a habit of disappearing for a few years then reappearing. When he reappeared, it was usually not a joyful experience. Generally, he was petitioning his siblings for two things: money and shelter. He must have been something of a smooth talker because over many years he talked them out of thousands of dollars. They wanted to believe in his rehabilitation. He promoted cockamamie business schemes involving their money, all of which eventually failed. About this time that he crept out of town.
Around the year 2000 after many years of no one hearing from Bob, one of my wife’s aunts entered his name into the Social Security Death Index. When his name and social security number came up positive, some basic facts about his death were gleaned. Date of death: September 14th, 1998. Age: 67.
Earlier this year I happened to speak to one of his sisters, my wife’s Aunt Pat. I informed her that her brother had died. She expressed neither surprise nor sorrow. However, she did take the time to get a copy of the death certificate, and she sent me a copy.
The death certificate filled in a few holes about his last days. He died at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in Henderson, Nevada. Henderson is a town just outside of Las Vegas. His place of residence did not list a street address, but Searchlight, Nevada was listed on the death certificate. Searchlight is a town of about 500 people an hour’s drive south of Las Vegas. There is not much in Searchlight, but it is the birthplace of Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Bob must have died indigent because the Clark County Social Services Department was listed on the death certificate where his parents’ names would normally be. The certificate showed he was never married but here too the facts were incorrect. He was married to my mother in law for many years. In addition, he sired not only my wife but also my brother in law. He died of “end stage cardiac and pulmonary failure”. In other words, his heart stopped, but he was likely suffering from some form of congestive heart failure. He was reputedly quite obese as well as an alcoholic.
Among his entire family, including his former wife (my mother in law) there has been a noted absence of curiosity about Bob. When I broached the subject with them, what I usually heard was that he was just a bad man. The less said about him the better. Yet I found myself wanting to know more about Bob. For better or for worse he help shaped the woman I married.
My wife essentially grew up without a father. In the first six years of her life, her father did live in the household. However, he was not the nurturing type. My wife does not remember much about him in part because she was so young. What she does remember is not flattering. He was loud. He and her mother argued a lot. Perhaps that is how she acquired her introversion. Perhaps it was safer to be alone in a room reading a book than to deal with the ugly reality of two parents yelling at each other.
By early grade school, her mother and father were divorced. Her mother had custody, but her father had informal visitation rights. Her father’s idea of daughter-father time was to take her to bars to meet his friends. Since her brother was nearly ten years older than she was, she spent much of her formative years living with only her mother. There was no June Cleaver mother waiting for her after school with milk and cookies; she had to work. In the mid 1960s, she was the only child of divorce in her entire class and felt its stigma.
Trying to know her father so many years later is a challenge. Bob apparently was loud. He argued a lot in front of the children. At times, he had trouble maintaining a job. He was obsessed with his son excelling in sports, but not enough to bother to attend any of his games. My mother in law claims that he never physically abused her, but her son remembers differently. He recalls one episode when he was so angry that he put his fist through a wall. For a day or two, my wife was an innocent six-year-old girl embroiled in a nasty marital dispute. Her father essentially abducted her for a few days. Her brother, then sixteen at the time, threatened to kill their father if he ever showed up in their lives again. Apparently, he took his threat seriously and disappeared. He reappeared only to sympathetic siblings that hoped for his rehabilitation.
I had this image of Bob as fat, a drunkard, coarse and abusive. However, a discussion about Bob with my mother in law this week (we were in Phoenix, Arizona) portrays a somewhat different man. He did not always drink to excess, but when he drove a beer truck, he had more opportunities to imbibe, so that may have started his addiction. That and perhaps his loveless marriage seemed to tip the balance toward dysfunction. I imagined him running around with other women but that was not the case. He wanted to desperately to save their marriage. My mother in law wanted it to end because she was not in love with him. Much of his emotional abuse was manifested as reckless attempts to keep their marriage together. He had a hard time coping with the reality that there was no way he could win back her love. Moreover, my mother in law was doing quite well in the workplace by the standards of Flint, Michigan. She could provide for her children on her own income. She was eventually able to purchase her own home and even furnish is with brand new furniture. As she entered her teens, my wife had a home in the suburbs at last with her own bedroom and supportive neighbors. My mother in law made the best life she could for her daughter.
Nor was Bob a bad provider. He managed to stay employed in decent blue-collar jobs throughout his marriage. It appears that the divorce and his messy abduction of my wife triggered a long descent. He lived in Denver for a while, close to one of his sisters. I have heard that he probably had adult diabetes. He may have lost a leg because of his drinking. He sounds like a man who was probably clinically depressed for much of his life. Like most people born in the 1930s, he chain-smoked.
Talking with Aunt Pat I learned something of his family of birth. He was raised in a poor North Carolina household. The family eventually moved to California. He grew up in a family full of marital strife and high drama. Perhaps I assumed he was a philanderer because he had the opportunity to learn it from his father. His father and mother eventually divorced. Bob became the family’s black sheep. Aunt Pat was pulled toward the other extreme. She embraced religion. Now in her early eighties she remains a devout Adventist who despite her background managed to add a PhD to her name. Pat also sponsored my wife for several months when she moved to the Washington area. Were it not for Pat’s loving heart, I would never have met my wife.
Only my mother in law offers a different perspective of Bob from the other stories I heard. He was a good provider when they were married to each other. He only actually hit her once, and he just pushed her. She was not physically injured. She just did not love him. She wanted to be free of him. In particular, she wanted to follow her infatuation with the man who was her boss.
It appears that their divorce instigated Bob’s long, slow and painful downhill spiral. Eventually he ended up homeless in Searchlight, Nevada. He ended up sick but made it to a hospital in Henderson, Nevada. He died there ignobly and most likely alone. With no one to claim his body, the Clark County Social Services Department took up the slack. They paid for his cremation. His remains are now deep in a county crypt somewhere in here in Las Vegas. They can be released to the family if sufficient documentation is provided and for a $200 fee.
While I am forwarding these details to Aunt Pat, I doubt anyone will claim his remains. No one mourned his passing. In fact, everyone seems glad to know that he has exited this world. With Bob gone, their lives became just a little less stressful too.
I wonder how long the Clark County Social Services will hold on to his remains. We arrived in Las Vegas today, where my wife and daughter will attend a convention. I was going to try to track them down along with any records maintained by the county that may exist. However, after a couple phone calls I know not to bother. There is no place to go to see what is left of my father in law. There is no county crypt with his name on it that I can photograph. They will not even release his records, not even to family. It is prohibited by HIPAA regulations. There is a possibility that I could retrieve his hospital records, if a local probate court grants the writ, but it is unlikely it would shed much information about the last years of his life.
Therefore, I fill in what I can with sketchy information, anecdotes and a certain amount of reasonable conjecture. I should be angry with my father in law too. I should be angry at his abduction of his own daughter. I should be angry at how he used her, a vulnerable child, as a pawn in a larger personal war. Nevertheless, I am also now aware that in many ways Bob was acting out the behavior he witnessed inside his own dysfunctional family.
I do not know how long Clark County in Nevada will hold his remains. They will likely not stay in county custody forever. Perhaps in fifty years, perhaps in a hundred, Bob’s remains, like the many of indigent homeless men and women who have the misfortune of dying out here in the desert, will be unceremoniously dumped into a county landfill. After all, there are plenty of new desperate and homeless people in Las Vegas. Others wandering the streets here tonight are doomed to also share his fate.
Everyone just wants to forget about Bob. Perhaps I should too. Perhaps instead of keeping his death certificate, I should throw it out with the garbage. “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind,” the poet John Donne once wrote. My Unitarian Universalist values call me to respect the inherent dignity and worth of every human being including less than stellar humans like my wife’s father.
It is nice to know that Bob was not entirely a bad man. Most likely, he was just a lost man, who never knew love and consequently did not know how to show it. It is good to know that he loved my mother in law in his own inept way, even if she did not feel the same way. It is good to know that even though he never paid child support, he helped support his family for a number of years. It is also sad and a bit pathetic that his life devolved the way it did.
This leaves only me, lamenting only not knowing the man who sired the woman I love. I wish I could have a conversation or two with him and hear about life from his perspective. It may be that after such a conversation, like his son, I would want to kill him. Instead, I feel an unrequited mild curiosity. It might be the hardest thing I would ever do, but if he were alive here in front of me, I would try to give him a hug. Somehow, I do not think he ever received one.
There is just a cardboard urn of his ashes somewhere here in the Clark County crypt. There they are likely to remain forever unclaimed.