I love a corn dog.
Not just because it’s delicious, deep fried food on a stick, but because you can only get it in special places, on special occasions. This is before Trader Joe’s. Corn dogs are reserved for trips to Great America, the boardwalk, a circus. Fun times.
I love fun times. I love amusement parks. Roller coaster rides, water rides, in particular, but anything that goes fast is good for me. The fact that you can also get a corn dog, or a 5 cent frosted mug of rootbeer makes it pure kid heaven, minus the bumper cars.
I hate the bumper cars.
Not only can you not go anywhere on a bumper car, but you actually sign up to let people jar you, and jeer at you.“How is this fun?” I ask myself, as my head bangs back against a metal pole, while strangers crash into me, smiling gleefully, but I don’t opt out. My two older sisters love it. Feeling left out would be worse than the bumper cars. I grit my teeth, and bear it.
This weekend, we are at a carnival with my father, who at this point, we only see on the weekends. We’re on the dreaded bumper cars when it starts to rain, and we have to get off. Good news for me, but my sisters are disappointed. Dad tries to negotiate with the guy running the ride, but he isn’t buying it. It’s dangerous, he says. My father, at least 30 years his senior, is insulted. “Remember the name, Richard A. Finnegan!” he declares, as he storms off. As if, this is a winning line. Archaic, and embarrassing. I’m confused. Why does he care what this guy thinks, and why doesn’t he care about possible electrocution?
What I don’t know is that these are my father’s final days. I don’t know it, but I feel it, a sense of impending doom. Of course, impending doom is the backdrop of our family life. Before my parents separation, and even before I was born.
My father met my mother while he was still involved with a woman whom he’d been involved with for over 20 years. It was the late 1950s, early 60s. I’m pretty sure this woman thought he’d eventually break down, and propose. Instead, after 20 years of waiting, he left her to marry my 25 years younger mother. Not long after that, the now ex-girlfriend committed suicide. Thus, our ill-fated family was born, of which I am the youngest. Of course, I knew nothing about this, until years later. Life goes on.
We’re on the spider ride now. Or maybe it’s an octopus. A cluster of legs, or tentacles, spinning, each separate box-seat spinning on its own axis, too. It’s a great improvement on the bumper cars. I enjoy the sensation, the loss of orientation, but suddenly, and unexpectedly, my middle sister, Moira, bursts into tears.
My eldest sister, and I, are immediately distraught. We are the kind of close where boundaries are blurred, feelings contagious. Enmeshed, they call it. “What’s wrong, Moi?” we plead. She’s too upset to talk. “Is it the ride?” No, she shakes her head, but she can’t stop crying.
Finally, she musters, “Dad.”
We search below, as we spin and twirl.
Then, we see him there. Alone in a crowd, eating a corn dog.
We begin to cry, too. We know exactly what she means.
Not long after the day at the carnival, my father becomes very ill and dies.
Not from the corn dog.
Congestive heart failure.
Failure, I believe, is the operative word.
Richard A. Finnegan was the only son of Richard J. Finnegan, a very powerful, and prominent Chicago news man. Richard J. was a man who got featured on “This Is Your Life”, a man who had a hospital wing named after him, a man whose diaries make little mention of wife and children, while endlessly recounting meetings with powerful Chicagoans. Richard A., by comparison, was invisible. “Remember the name, Richard A. Finnegan!” was a desperate epitaph to the bumper car guy, who wouldn’t, to a world that wouldn’t.
My sisters, and I, of course, would. He was our father.
Even though he was not successful. Even though he was an alcoholic. Even though he failed us, failed the woman who was his girlfriend, failed himself. We still loved him.
I still love him.
I still love corn dogs, too.
A vegetarian now, all I can eat are sad tofu corn dogs.
But sad, in fact, fits.
“If you’ve never eaten while crying you don’t know what life tastes like.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe