Wednesday June 24 2020
My father died yesterday.
I didn’t know until today. Actually, this evening.
My sister called me after she received a call from our Aunt Vicki. The news is cardiac arrest, but the info is sketchy right now, as it’s coming from my father’s step-daughter in Oklahoma City.
I’ve been accused of complicating otherwise simple things with my attempt at explanations, and so with that in mind, let’s see if I can unravel this knot of fucked up family history.
Because people, fucked up it is. There. Simple enough?
What I want to tell you is the last time I saw my father I was somewhere around five years old. I have a memory of a parking lot, of being concerned about a cement parking bumper with yellow paint peeling from its surface. I focused on tracing every crack with my eyes, because I knew when I looked up, I would see a man that made me uncomfortable. A hand is pressing between my shoulders, urging me forward. I absolutely do not want to move.
I trusted my Grandma B, my father’s mother, without question; she was a warm place where I knew I would be safe without understanding how I had this knowledge. The kind of woman who would eat the nuts from the butter pecan ice cream I said I wanted, but then decided I didn’t like the crunchy bits, and leaving me the creamy good stuff. She was a protection from all things bad. Always.
Grandma believed in the power of family and she wanted to see her oldest son, my father, reconnect with his two daughters after he left our mom. I’m told we had several of this unsuccessful rendezvous, although I only have the child’s memory of one.
So, when I say that was the last time I saw my father, it’s only partial truth. I did see him again.
But it was nearly fifty years later.
Grandma B, my childhood guardian and protector and love of my life, passed away on a snowy day in the winter of 2013 at the age of 99. She left me with a foundation of love and faith, along with a hazy cloud of guilt that I could never return to her what I received.
I think we all had put this away as history. My mother and father, both teenagers, married and had two children in quick succession. Beautiful girls, everyone said, because of course, all little girls are. My father met someone else and left Mom to manage on her own, barely out of her teens with two toddlers to manage. After a few early attempts by my grandmother to get my father to recognize he had two kids, even she eventually had to see vain hope of it.
And we all moved on.
In a pure and sad example of irony, what my grandmother wanted so much to see during her life could only put into motion as we all pushed through our grief after we lost her; our compass of What’s Right. Aunt Vicki stepped forward to grab the torch, somehow still burning after a half century, and performed the simple task of sharing email addresses.
“Reach out,” Vicki said. “I think you should.”
I consulted with my mom. “What do you think?” I asked. “It’s not like he can hurt me, right? He’s basically a stranger.”
“Do what you want,” Mom said. “But realize that someday you won’t have this choice to make.”
We send emails every day, don’t we? Making plans, cancelling subscriptions, and other benign daily tasks. How many times in your life can you say you emailed your father for the first time after no communication for fifty years? And holy cow, more importantly, what does one say in such a missive?
“Hey.” I wrote. “It’s me.”
He emailed back, but it was straight forward, the words cold on the screen. I couldn’t get a feel if he responded out of obligation or curiosity. Later that year, Aunt Vicki upped the ante by calling a family reunion at her home. My father agreed to travel to Ohio from his home in Oklahoma City for the event.
Ok, I told myself. Sure, I can do this.
Pulling into the gravel driveway, I park behind a truck with Oklahoma plates. I was totally fine until that moment. But shit just got real and it’s paralyzing every nerve. I sit there, gripping the steering wheel searching for any bit of life experience to help me manage these next few moments of my life.
I got nothing.
Every memorized speech has vaporized, all imagined conversations now feel like cartoon balloons. I remember to breathe and pull my shit together like the grown ass adult woman I am. I collect my purse, notebook, and camera from the passenger seat and I’m on. Vicki meets me at the door, a gracious hostess, and leads me to the dining room.
I had said over the years, many times actually, that I could pass my father on the street and not even recognize him. On this hot summer day in my aunt’s house, I pause in the threshold to see an older man seated at the table – tall and heavy with long silver hair pulled back into a ponytail – and know that I had been wrong.
The hazel eyes shaped just like mine, deep set into a familiar face; the way he moves his hands.
If I would have seen this stranger before that day, he would have caught my attention with at least a double-take. “I know this guy,” I would think. “But from where?”
“Hey.” I say. “It’s me.”
And we begin again.
My father died yesterday.
I’m processing this without having a guidebook to help me. Do I grieve this loss? Have I earned the right to do so?
I’m his first-born child. My very presence changed the path of his life, putting into motion everything that came after. Did he love me once, as his little girl? Or at the end maybe?
He’d been texting more than usual these last few weeks. Talking more about his health concerns and medical procedures, which was new. Not the health issues, but that he was sharing them with me. I wondered if he was just overly worried about an upcoming surgery, scheduled for tomorrow. It was a big one, but I shrugged it off. He’ll be fine. I’ll text him after so he knows I’m thinking about him with “GWS.” Get well soon. We have a shorthand code for greetings like this.
I didn’t get the chance to sent it.
Instead, my last text to him on Sunday was “HFD 😊.” Happy Fathers Day. A bit of an awkward holiday, really, for obvious reasons. The smiley face was to take the edge off of it.
His response was “Tnx. Means alot. Lv M” Thanks. Means a lot. Love, Mike. His final words to me.
My father died yesterday.