A version of this appeared on my Facebook page a few years ago. Apologies to those of you for whom it’s a repeat.
At this time of year, thoughts always turn to my father, even more than usual. He died 11 years ago on July 31st.
Middle-of-the-night calls still freak me out, or any call when I’m asleep. The phone rang at 2:30 in the morning, waking me up. My mom was on the other end. “Your dad had a heart attack, Monica.” A pause. “He didn’t make it.” And just like that, my life changed. I didn’t have any idea then how…different my life would be. It’s just a thought, a concept, an idea that you won’t see him again. But as the years stretch on and on, this becomes the norm. And that in and of itself is weird.
I remember bits and pieces of that day. I didn’t go back to sleep, but I didn’t automatically jump in my car to make the 90-minute drive home. I knew I was too upset to drive, so I called my ex-girlfriend, who I knew would be awake. And that night, she was wonderful…after her initial response of “No, he didn’t!” when I told her my father had passed away. In time, she would show her true (awful, unhelpful, ridiculous, selfish) colors. But not that night.
After having successfully quit smoking for a month, after I packed funeral clothes and other miscellaneous items and got on the road, my first stop was for a pack of cigarettes — Marlboro Ultra Lights from the GetGo in Carnegie. I didn’t quit smoking again for four more years.
Those first few days are a blur. I remember calling work and breaking down at having to tell Lori over the phone why I wouldn’t be in for a few days. I remember showing up at my mom’s house at 7:00 or so in the morning and her meeting me at the door with a hug. She sort of looked at me, like “Well…what next?” I remember that awkward funeral-home planning session that first day and wishing I could smoke, but not being willing to because, at the age of 26, I had never done so in front of my mom. That wouldn’t happen for another week, at another funeral.
Days almost ceased to exist, turning instead to a large series of individual hours. The goal became trying to get through one hour so you’d be one hour closer to it being over. My grade-school English teacher showed up with food and stared at Mom and me in disbelief because we were waxing my car, a white Chevy Prizm. “What are you doing that for?” she asked, spaghetti salad in hand. Well, it needed to be done, and we needed to be busy. After all, my dad bought me that car, and it should look nice.
Most of my memories are like a slide show, flashes of individual pictures. Ron and Patrick showing up at my house with a cooler of ice, the first of many sympathizers. Me telling them I didn’t want Pat’s sister to know since she was on her honeymoon, and receiving guilty looks and “We didn’t tell her!” in response. Feeling relief knowing that she would be there after all. Spacing out calling my friends – one an hour or so – so it wouldn’t all have to be done at once. Having to leave a message of “My dad died” is awkward, but I thought it was even more awkward to not say anything. Dropping off a rosary at the funeral home and seeing his body for the first time, with just my mom. Seeing her touch his cold hand and not being able to do so myself. Breaking down because a high-school friend sent flowers. Friends showing up at each of the three visitations…and realizing how lucky I am to have such a support system. Being hugged by countless acquaintances…and receiving a hand shake from a friend who knew I hated being hugged.
Then there were the things that I look back on not necessarily with fondness, but with an incredulity that things so ordinary happened in a week that was so extraordinary. Someone having a seizure and having to be taken out of the funeral home on a stretcher. A garbage truck going over the side of the road on the way to the cemetery and the funeral procession being held up for 15 minutes or more. Ron trying to steal a lamp from the funeral home. The wrong date being printed on the “death cards.” Me, finally honestly answering the question “how’s your mom doing?” with “Well, you know Mom. She’s a tough old bitch.” Hearing a former coworker to say to me, “Oh, I got here in time to see person A, but I missed person B. Ugh!” Yeah, I’m so sad for you. How will you pick up the pieces of your life and move on? I’m actually dealing with a thing right now, so maybe we can focus on your issue later. Thanks.
I have no idea how we got through that funeral, but we did. We had to. There was no choice. And then…there wasn’t anything to do. Funeral homes and people stopping by with food and talking to friends and family filled the day, but after it’s all over, there’s a…silence that’s there, a silence that you can’t fill because you’re out of obligations. There’s no list of what to do next. And that’s when you realize that the hard part is just about to start.
I got a lot of qualities from my dad, both good and bad. I have his fondness for numbers but not necessarily his ability at math. I think I’m pretty good at explaining things, but I often lack his patience when doing it. I also have a love of computers but would not necessarily prefer working with them over people like he did – not every day, anyway. I tend to worry about money a lot, but I don’t necessarily have the same urgency he did in not spending it. My brother and I discussed the fact that we both apparently inherited some sort of personality quirk in which people are intimidated by us. He says that he cultivates it and I do not, but I still put off that vibe sometimes. This was news to me.
One thing I didn’t get from him was a love for grey areas, causing me to pick up a double major in Theology in college — something his research-chemist mind just didn’t get. I still remember him asking me about it and not understanding what you, well, did with a degree in Theology. I’m still not sure I can answer that, but by the end of the conversation, he was at least content with the fact that I liked it. And secure in the knowledge that there was no use in trying to talk me out of it.
I always wanted my parents to be proud of me, which is why I was so scared to tell him I was gay. It’s still difficult for me to believe he was surprised, but he was. Mom said later that he was worried about me, either because I wouldn’t have anyone to take care of me or he was afraid I’d say the wrong thing at the wrong place and time and get the shit kicked out of me. In his defense, both are valid fears. I was always happy that I shared that part of my life with him before he died.
I went to see a psychic about 4 years ago, hoping to find some sort of connection to this man who taught me how to drive, had been at just about every basketball and volleyball game I ever played in, tolerated my incessant talking while he himself sat quietly, and always thought that I maybe didn’t aim high enough in my career choices. I was hoping for an appearance from him, but, you know, not hoping too much. And when the guy said there was someone there who could only smell out of one side of his nose, well…I think I may have started to cry a little.
It was a very full 20-minute session with all sorts of interesting things being said. (“My romantic future is where? Yeah, I’ve never even been there.” It was California. Yep.) Now, I have no idea if it was my dad or not. Maybe the guy just got lucky with the nose thing and just made a bunch of crap up. Honestly, I don’t care. It was nice to feel like he was with me again, giving me some advice. I was told that I needed to try some new things and be willing to fail, a practice I have recently implemented with some pretty good results.
The bottom line was that he was proud of me and I didn’t give myself enough credit. Hey, even if the guy made it up, the warm fuzzy that maybe he wasn’t was totally worth the 20 bucks.
I think of my dad every day. I can’t believe it will be 11 years that I haven’t heard him say my name, his pronunciation different than anyone else’s. (Don’t ask me to duplicate it. I can’t. I can only hear it, not say it.) I hate that he didn’t get to see my brother get married, and I hate that I don’t have the option to ask him to walk me down the aisle. (Unsure if we would go that way if it was even possible, but, you know, it would have been nice.)
I wish he could meet Chris and see this life we’ve put together.
I learned a lot from my dad, and I was lucky to have him and my mom as parents. They were somehow able to tolerate my particular brand of crazy all this time, even liking it sometimes. They always accepted and loved me for who I am, no matter what that happened to be.
So, even if you didn’t know him, think of him fondly and raise your imaginary glass to him (or, if you’re not much of a drinker, perhaps tip your imaginary hat). To Bob, the best father Dave and I could have had. You are loved. And won’t ever be forgotten.