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My father’s death still haunts me

Updated: October 20, 2013 7:35AM

From an envelope, yellowed and tattered, emerge ghosts of my past. I sit in my office at home, having run across the documents it contains while on a cleaning binge.

There is my parents’ marriage license — more than half a century old. Copies of a letter from the City of Evergreen, Ala. An accident report. A certificate of death. A hopeless letter from an attorney, an invoice for legal fees.

I hold the papers between my fingers with a sense of numbness and also angst that I do not completely understand, even as my eyes discover details that I cannot remember reading before now. Or is it that I could not, before now, take them in?

That night, the documents say, John Wesley Fountain died.

It was dark but clear. The asphalt, two-lane highway dry. The tractor-trailer struck the ’73 Chrysler station wagon on the left front side, then the trailer flipped over.

The narrative of these papers does not say that the car’s driver, John Wesley Fountain, was violently hurled through its windshield, his head striking the pavement. The documents’ account is more sterile.

The time the accident occurred: 9:25 p.m. The date. The time that death was pronounced. Damage to the passenger vehicle was severe.

Details. Among them some that I have never missed in all these years:

“On Monday night, January 29, 1979, at 10:04 p.m., it was requested by the Evergreen Police Department to get blood samples from two accident victims . . . These blood samples were to check the blood alcohol content of these subjects,” reads the letter from the City of Evergreen.

“The results from the blood sample taken from John Wesley Fountain was .26 percent.”

It was nearly three times the legal limit, according to the attorney who my mother had look into the accident that killed my father. Her hope was that he might provide in death for his children what he had not provided in life: support, sustenance.

The attorney responded in brief that because of my father’s drunkenness, “the application of the doctrine of contributory negligence would preclude any recovery for or on behalf of Mr. Fountain’s estate.” He attached a note for his services in the sum of $35.

These papers are the sum of my intimate knowledge of my father. A sketch of the man who was 21 when he married the 16-year-old who at 17 would give birth to me. In some ways, the documents are a window to my past, a door to feelings of rejection, of pain and disappointment from my father.

After all these years, I am still moved, troubled, unsettled, whenever I rediscover them. And I find it haunting that in them I still somehow manage to unearth new details.

Perhaps some are details I could not risk absorbing in my hope — in my journey — to be different. To be better instead of bitter. A better father, in some ways, a better man. To not die driving drunk . . .

Or perhaps some of the documents’ details were too painful a reminder of how much I never really knew about my father.

These details are new: My father was unemployed, a cook. His birthday was Sept. 16.

These yellowed papers remind me to celebrate him this week for at least giving me life. And yet, they still cause tears to swell in my eyes.


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