On this Father's Day (and like all others since he died) I think about my own father, who was absolutely the most important person in my life up until I met my current husband.
Even in death he lives on in my own children's laughter and in their curiosity about all this world has to offer. There isn't a day I don't think about him, but I never think about him more than I do on Father's Day.
I was lucky to be his. And the worst part is, I never really realized that until he was gone. Here is a glimpse. I have a million stories, but this one stands out the most.
There are people who die to the world long before they are dead. Such as it was with my father.
When I go to his grave (which has only been once, almost 2 years after his funeral) I sit on the soft earth at what I imagine is the foot of it and stare at the date of his death. I imagine being able to find a tesseract (He read me A Wrinkle in Time at least 4 times when I was a kid) and entering an alternate reality to stub out the thousands of cigarettes, to replace the cheeseburgers with salad, to replace the despondency with hope. I imagine his lungs clearing, his arteries becoming unstuck to themselves. I imagine him being able to love again. I imagine the heart attack never happening.
The radio stayed on AM talk radio for most of Arizona. A crumpled up bag from Burger King bumped my leg until we got to Flagstaff. My father kept the windows down so he could smoke. I wished for Xanax harder than I had ever wished for anything in my life.
"...So yeah, if you're going to find a man you're going to have to drop about 40 pounds. And that's really not that much, not with your frame." Dad always had a way of saying the things that made me want to curl up into the fetal position, open the door to the car, and roll on out of it.
"Right,” I replied. “Well, that sounds awesome. Good to know my worth is directly related to the circumference of my thighs. Excuse me while I swallow all of these generic sleep aids." I picked up the tiny plastic bottle from CVS I had bought in Kingman, at the beginning of this hell trip and rattled it in his face. "If I sleep I won't eat! I'll be the skinniest person alive!"
My dad laughed his big deep belly laugh that I loved so much. When I think about the fact I will never get to hear it again my bones start to hurt.
When I was in college, I was in an a capella group. Baldwin Charm. I loved it, it kept me happy. I would call my dad at night and tell him about the music, the girls, how much I wished he could be there for my concert that was coming up in a couple of weeks.
"Seriously, Dad. It sucks that you live in Florida now. I would die for you to be here. I'm singing Goodbye Earl!"
I could hear him taking a long drag. I imagined him talking to me in his room before he went to bed, the only light in the room being the cherry on his cigarette.
"I'm going to be there, sweetie. Somehow, some way. Even if I have to drive 12 hours there, watch you sing, and drive 12 hours back. I don't want to miss it." I remember thinking he was just saying that. No way would he do that. I wasn’t performing at Carnegie Hall. It was Staunton, Virginia.
But it really didn't seem to matter. He did it. Drove 24 hours roundtrip over the span of a weekend.
He was right in the front row, to the left. I think about that all the time.
I insisted on music from Flagstaff to Gallup. Twangy country blared from my brother's Mitsubishi Eclipse speakers. We were driving his car back to him across the country. He was coming back from Iraq after almost a year of being away. Our spirits were high but the car was small and stuffed to it's limits with people and luggage, so we were moody. My knees hit the glove compartment so I put my feet up on the dash.
"Get your funky, Fred Flinstone lookin', ugly feet off the dash!" My father would swat at me and I would pout at him calling my feet ugly.
There was no room for thin skin in our family.
"Whatever. There's no room in this car. I can't believe we're not even to New Mexico yet! How the hell am I going to do this??! I'm sorry my feet are ugly and I need to lose 40 pounds to be worth a damn!"
He shook his head. We both knew that wasn’t what he’d meant, even if he had a weird way of communicating with me, his only daughter.
Elvis Costello started singing on the radio. What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding? I drummed my ugly feet on
the passenger floor mat.
"Did you name me after the Elvis Costello song?" I asked as my father lit up yet another cigarette and rolled down his window, hot New Mexico (we were finally there) breeze hitting my eyeballs, making us squint.
"Huh? Oh. No. The Alison song? No. I don't even like Elvis Costello. Isn't she kind of a floozy in that song? The Costello Alison?"
I sighed. "Yeah, you're right. He talks about taking her dress off at a party. Or it was a party dress. I don't know. Never mind.”
It's not a huge secret that I was with my father when he died. I remember that day in way too much detail. I want to repress it into a tiny ball and put it in the back of my brain where the sad times go but it has remained at the front of my memory every day since it happened.
One minute I was watching a video on YouTube of Susan Boyle singing "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent and the next second there was my father turning purple, gasping, looking up at the ceiling with a look of horror that cannot be described.
It was not beautiful. It was not peaceful. I see the look on his face in my nightmares and I still scream. I am not better for having witnessed what I saw. Seeing my father die was worse than being skinned alive. I didn't feel God. I didn't feel Jesus’ embrace, like someone told me I should feel at his funeral. In the darkest moments after my father died I understood why people stop believing there is a God at all. The light in my life was extinguished without any kind of closure.
For a long time, I envied the people that lose their loved ones to cancer. Which is so messed up. It sounds horrible to admit that because I know that kind of death comes with it's own unique and unbearable pain. And how selfish of me to wish my father a slow and agonizing death. But selfishly, I wish it. I wish I could tell him everything I ever wanted to tell him. I wish I could tell him I loved him, that he was a great dad, that I always respected him, even when it didn't seem like I did.
I want more time.
I want to tell him I remember how far he drove for his children. He would have driven to the end of the world.
He almost left me on the side of the road in Texas when I informed him I was voting for Barack Obama. We argued over every social issue you can think of before we reached Arkansas. He accused me of trying to break his heart on purpose. I think it was hard for him to reconcile that teaching me to be a woman who thinks for herself was backfiring on him.
But like with all our arguments, they never lasted long. It was impossible to stay mad at each other. He was my best friend after all.
"Dad, I think I have given up on the whole love thing. I mean, look at me! I'm 27 years old and already divorced. I have a shitty job, a shitty car, and like you said, I could stand to take a few long trips to the gym. I have accomplished nothing. I have friends that have mortgages and children and lives that seem so... adult. It's like everyone went to a class I never signed up for on how to live life and now that I never learned the lessons and I am left to my own devices I'm fucking everything up," I was talking his ear off.
We were in Arkansas, full from pecan waffles at a Waffle House in Texarkana.
"Who the hell is going to want ME, Dad? And look what love did to you? Your divorce almost killed you. Love is just a bunch of bullshit. It's a faulty product with a shitty return policy."
Dad laughed again. "Oh, girl. That's why I love you. You're such a drama queen. It's always all or nothing with you." He started up the car, looked over his shoulder to see if it was clear to back out. "But that's probably something you got from me. You’re definitely my daughter.”
I nodded, agreeing. My dad could be melodramatic himself sometimes.
"But you know what, sweetie?" My father rolled the steering with one hand. "You're wrong about yourself. See, you don't see what I see. You're special. Not just in the way that all kids are special to their parents. But in a way that will make it hard for someone to love you because you will make it hard FOR them. You're stubborn. You're a pain in the ass. You whine too much." He pulled out of the parking lot and looked at me again. "You're also drop dead gorgeous. Smarter than hell and literally the most talented human being I have ever met in my life.”
I was silent. My father had never told me these things. It was always about how I could improve myself. How I would be better IF.
"Don't let my story with your mom make you think there isn't a beautiful life out there waiting for you. That life may or may not include a great man, although I don't believe there is a man that exists that is good enough for you. You always ask how you can be better for someone else. I don't want you to spend your life asking yourself that. I want you to spend your life thinking how is he good enough for YOU? What does HE bring to YOUR table?" He started fiddling with the radio.
"I have no doubt your story is just beginning, sweetie. You're younger than you think you are."
I didn't complain about the talk radio again for a couple of hours. I sat and stared at the trees swishing by my window in a blur.
When I first visited his grave it was as difficult as would be expected. I remember getting out of the car and hoping somehow I would find the tombstone split in two, the earth spilled out where he'd been buried. An angel sitting on a rock telling me: "He's not here. Go find him elsewhere."
I would smile and think of him living a new life. A resurrected life. A life where he could get it right this time. Where he could be everything he ever wanted to be.
Sometimes when I look at old photos of him and see the smiling freckly kid in his football uniform, or a young sailor in his dress blues, or a high school kid in a ruffly tux for his senior photo, I wish that I could tell him what direction to go in. Sometimes I even think I would sacrifice having been born for him to get it all right. To find his happiness.
That is because I am my father's daughter.