It’s a few days early, but I really wanted to post something for Father’s Day. I didn’t want to do it on the day itself, in the hope that lots of people will be out celebrating the dads in their lives, rather than hunching over their computers reading my nonsensical little blog. I originally wrote this back in 2004. I’ve made a few minor edits, mostly to place it in the current day, but it’s still meaningful, and still a pretty accurate reflection of my thoughts and feelings about the topic at hand, which is my dad.
I was once a big fan of the television show Six Feet Under – if you’re not familiar with it, Six Feet Under is an HBO drama about a family that owns and operates a funeral home. The show is largely about how the living cope with the reality of death, so there was a certain macabre serendipity about the fact that my wife (then my fiancée) and I were watching that particular show when I learned of the death of my father.
It was the evening of July 7, 2003 when my brother called with the news. My father had been undergoing an angioplasty when he went into cardiac arrest and passed on. It has been, without a doubt, the most profound loss of my life. It was not entirely unexpected – my father had a brain aneurysm years ago, and his health was permanently affected by it. From then on I expected him to pass away earlier than he might have otherwise. It was shockingly painful nonetheless, and the passage of time has done little to blunt the pain. It’s clear, however, that the process of separating from my father did not start when he died. My mental and emotional states underwent a drastic shift when he first became seriously ill, of course. And in truth, separating from our parents is a process that we all go through, right?
When I was 5 years old my father came down with tuberculosis and was hospitalized for a number of days. I don’t remember how many, but it felt like 135,000 – I was very impatient for him to come home. One day I was playing in the driveway of our house when I saw a man walking in our direction. He looked, from a distance, remarkably like my father. It didn’t occur to me that when my father came home from the hospital it was unlikely that he would walk home by himself, I only knew that there he was, my dad! I leaped up, nearly foaming at the mouth with joy, and ran toward this unwitting imposter. He smiled very kindly as I came skidding to a halt and stared at him, dumbfounded. Being a kindergartener I felt no embarrassment, and stared, slackjawed and glassy-eyed, until my mother came and pulled me away. My father came home soon after, but oddly I don’t remember the real homecoming – what I remember is my surprised pleasure when I thought it was him, and my intense disappointment when I realized my error.
I flunked out of college my first year after high school, for a million reasons and for no reason at all. My father picked me up and drove me home, a trip that seemingly lasted for an eternity. He took me to lunch, where he told me how my college experience would impact our family’s finances, how it could affect my future, and – remarkably – that if I had learned anything about myself and what I might need to be happy, it was worth it to him, and that he’d do it again in a heartbeat. I like to think that if my children were in that situation I would make a similar effort to express anger and disappointment, but in the same moment express compassion, and hope, and love.
When the aneurysm happened my family’s world was turned upside down. This was a kind of separation that I had not suspected. I was in perhaps my most intense period of detachment from my family – I was fighting what felt like a losing battle with depression, I was angry at just about the entire world, and it had been a long time since I’d had any kind of real conversation with either of my parents. So the knowledge that my dad had lost the capacity for speech brought on a tidal wave of regret that has never truly receded. Over the following decade, as my father’s health fluctuated, I had to learn to bear my own feelings of guilt and remorse.
My wife and I are having our second child later this year, which is a source of immense joy, but it also provokes some sadness. In an ideal world I would become a father at the same time that my father becomes a grandfather, and the moments when I think about that are when it’s hardest to see the separation of death as anything other than horrid, painful, and cruel.
But the complexity of those feelings is leavened and balanced by other memories. I feel cherished and safe thinking about his patient response when, as a preschooler, I demanded to change my first name to his. I remember how despite the unceasing physical and emotional difficulties of his later life he would smile and break into laughter when I would first return home for a visit, no matter how long it had been since my last visit. I feel gratitude at how he welcomed my wife-to-be when they first met. And I will never forget the overwhelming grief I felt at his funeral.
I believe there is a natural order to life. A parent surviving the death of children does not seem right – I would not wish that on anyone. I’d prefer to have my father around for another 40 years, but he did go before me, in the natural order. It feels right to struggle with that pain – it feels like an affirmation of his presence in my life. Still, it is a struggle. I wish he was here. I wish I’d been a better son to him. I wish he could meet his grandchildren – they’re amazing, and they would have loved him. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you, and I miss you.