In the seminal book Iron John, Robert Bly surmised that a boy does not truly become a man until his father has died. My dad had suffered from cancer for years, and had seemingly made a miraculous recovery. He had the occasional fainting spell, but he was still going to work every day and running what seemed to be a thriving business. I figured he would live forever.
However on December 5, 2008, I became a man.
By 2007, I was still practicing law, but qualified for malpractice insurance at a reduced rate as a “moonlighting attorney” since I worked less than twenty hours a week. I practiced out of my father’s office, rent free. I didn’t really have my own space, I just shared the room with the copier and the fax machine. When I met with clients, I had to tell everyone else in the office to refrain from copying for fifteen minutes. Usually, they listened.
Some Iron Man, I felt like a tin man who didn’t have much heart.
I still was writing the great American novel when I had the chance, but I had a tendency to rush my writing, especially if I wrote at the office. My editors would fix everything when they went through it if I missed it the first time, so I didn’t care.
I kept doing book signings in Amarillo; unfortunately, I would sometimes spend more money on dinner than I made in a night of book signing. My dad would always ask me “Do you get to keep the money?”
I lied and told him that I did. Money wasn’t important, really. However, my credit cards were getting a little out of control, but my dad could always help me right? I knew he wouldn’t be around forever because of the cancer, but at least he had life insurance, and that would always be my safety net.
My father and I had grown closer over the course of the last few years as he recovered from the cancer. While working out of his office, he suggested that I take the insurance exam to obtain a salesman’s license just in case I needed to sign something if he became incapacitated. Call it insurance on an insurance business.
At first, I was reluctant. When I was in High School, my father and I had watched an episode of Happy Days, long before the show had jumped the shark. One character told his father that he would rather eat barf before going into the family business. The character might have said “bark” as opposed to “barf,” but it had become a private joke between the two of us. Study for the insurance exam? I’d rather eat barf.
While at his office, I looked around his business—his phone was constantly ringing and was answered by a nice person. Respectable people came in and out, usually carrying checks. I wouldn’t mind this being my inheritance.
I reluctantly studied every facet of health and life insurance for a month and I passed the three hour exam on my first time. I scored an 83, the perfect score in that I passed with flying colors, but I hadn’t expended too much energy or lost sleep over it.
Kinda like my life.
With my license in hand, we decided to run an ad in the New Mexico Bar Bulletin as a father and son insurance team. It was a brilliant idea—we were going to use his expertise to market to my connections. Lawyers needed life insurance, and presumably they would want to buy insurance from someone they already knew, like me. My father and I took a picture in his office, with me standing behind him, my hand on his shoulder. Both of us wore matching orange ties.
“So you’re eating barf now?” my Dad asked me when we looked at the picture a few minutes later. “Someday this could all be yours.”
I looked at his first floor office in a suburban complex. It wasn’t flashy, but the square footage was impressive, and he had decorated it with expensive artwork and photos of his trips all over the world with my mom. He had five people working for him while I had no one.
“I’m cool with that,” I replied.
The full page ad ran on the first Monday of December 2008 and by ten that morning, people were complimenting me on my new career. “Are you still practicing law?” Someone asked. “You could make way more money on insurance if your dad sets you up.”
“I guess I’m keeping law as the insurance to the insurance business,” I said. I had checked with a legal advice hotline, I could still sell insurance and practice law at the same time as long as I didn’t sue the companies whose products I was selling. Considering that I didn’t have a single personal injury case, that didn’t seem like a problem.
In Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader had told Luke Skywalker that they would rule the universe as father and son. This would be even better, as I could rule the universe and moonlight by practice a little law on the side.
By Tuesday, one of my friends had actually called about needing a life insurance policy. An hour later, a gentleman from Clovis called, inquiring about group coverage. My father and I spent Thursday afternoon figuring out how to close all the deals and how we would split the commissions. I would get to keep the money indeed.
As we sat at his desk going over paperwork, I felt very close to my father. Maybe we could make this Darth and Luke thing work. I left before five and he kept working. He had some other great ideas he wanted to put together and the next phase of the campaign.
“We can take this national,” he said.
National didn’t sound that bad.
On Friday morning, I was screwing around at home on my computer writing a silly story, when my phone rang. I ignored it, just another call from my mom. My Dad had fainted again, and she needed me right away.
“You need to come up here right now,” she said. “Something’s gone terribly wrong. Your father fainted and he hit his head on the bed.”
As I took my car onto I-25 heading north, she called again. This time I picked up immediately. My dad had died, my mom explained breathlessly. I didn’t believe her and drove as fast as I could as if that could turn back time.
I made it to the house and the ambulance was already there. Surely there had been some mistake. They would be able to save them, right. Unfortunately, he was already dead before they had arrived.
It wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t even the fainting. He had fallen and hit his head against metal and it snapped his neck. If he had fallen an inch in either direction he would have survived. Supposedly it was sudden, and painless.
I was there as the paramedics wheeled my father out, his face covered. We said a quick prayer. I had a tear in my eye and one of the paramedics told me I had better “man up.”
My sister came in from LA that afternoon and she fainted in the middle of airport. Part of manning up was literally picking her up off the floor.
We had the funeral on a Sunday. I gave a speech to the three hundred people in the audience. I had no idea how popular he was in his community. I gave a speech about how my dad went to Cleveland on business in the dead of winter so I could go out-of state to film school. I mentioned the famous “rather eat barf” quote.
I closed with the quip that my dad was still probably trying to close the Clovis deal from beyond the grave and to watch for him speeding down the highway. I even referenced keeping the money as an author.
There was real chuckling from the audience, much like the famed episode of Mary Tyler Moore, they were happy to be laughing instead of crying.
With the possible exception of the speech I gave at graduation, it was the best speech I had ever made in my life.
A few hours later he was lowered into the ground and I shoveled some dirt. I don’t remember what happened the next day.
We then we had an amazing discovery on that Tuesday. My dad the insurance salesman did not have life insurance. The insurance salesman did not have life insurance?
He had spent so much trying to bail us out that he hadn’t been able to renew a policy set at a half a million for me. I figured I would at least get a ten thousand dollar inter-vivos transfer, but that did not occur either.
The next few months were brutal. Without my father, no one wanted to buy insurance from his company. I went out to Gallup on business and closed a deal, but still I would never be the expert that my Dad was. It became obvious that we would be unable to continue. We had to sell the business at a loss in the midst of the worst recession of all time.
We closed the office by the end of 2009. I had to work out of my home for a year and I resumed practicing law. I met most clients in Starbucks, unless like one they had never heard of the chain.
I once met with a convicted murderer in McDonalds.
After a year in a daze in my loft, I rented an office, hired staff and secured a valuable state contract that enabled me to survive as a lawyer. I soon was able to manage a second contract and also branch out into personal injury work.
As for my writing, I could no longer do trips to Amarillo after my father died; they were no longer cost effective, especially when I was spending more on a steak dinner than I was making selling twenty books. I couldn’t ask my Dad to pay my credit card bills any more.
The safety net was gone.
I kept on writing and I managed to win several awards, some of them national, for my next few books. This collection that you are reading now was a finalist in one contest and I literally had to go back through everything I had ever written to make sure it was perfect. I no longer dreamed that I would get the magic phone call. I got up at dawn to write for an hour and then worked a full day practicing law.
And yes, I got to keep the money.
Even though, I was not selling insurance, I was eating barf, but I could live with that. I might not have become Iron John, or even a man of steel, but I certainly wasn’t Tin Jon anymore.
I had become a man at last.