My dad died suddenly last summer, five days before my birthday.
I received a lot of kind expressions of sympathy, and to some people who remarked on the suddenness of his death, I said, “It’s okay; I’ve really been getting ready for it nearly my entire life.” It was long real to me in a way one’s father’s death isn’t for most people.
In 1978, when I was three years old, the day my mom learned she was pregnant with my brother, my father was diagnosed with stage 4B Hodgkin’s. They said they’d treat him, but they wouldn’t give him odds; the odds were too bad. He had two further occurrences and endured a total of twenty-one rounds of MOPP chemo before going into remission for good in 1982.
When I set the table back then, with the practicality of a child who has known nothing but a difficult situation, I gave him the brown placemat because he threw up a lot. When I got the (infrequent) chance to choose candy, I picked Good & Plenty so I could pretend I was taking pills, like Daddy.
When he was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, he had a hospital roommate, another young father with the same diagnosis, same stage, with three children. That man died within a few months. I have thought of those kids countless times over the course of my life, always aware that they were out there in the world having a very different experience than my brother and I were, and hoping they were okay.
My dad’s hair was completely silver by his early 40s. I don’t actually know it was the years of stress the cancer had caused but it’s always seemed plausible.
Sometime after his last bout, when I was still a child, I asked him if he would die someday.
He said, “Yes, but probably not until you’ve been grown up a long time.”
He had no way of knowing that, but he turned out to be right. He lived long enough for my parents to divorce and both of them to embark on second marriages, long enough for me to fight bitterly with him in adolescence as our politics revealed themselves to be very different, long enough for me to not speak to him for several years, long enough for him and my stepmother to reestablish themselves in another state, long enough for us to renegotiate our relationship over a long distance, and for my dad and my stepmom to adopt my three siblings.
I’m truly fortunate to have had all that time.
On the last day of his life, when my stepmom Pam went to bed, my dad stayed up fixing a lamp. For those who didn’t know him, that is so precisely like him that when Pam called to tell me about the stroke, she and I laughed about it through our tears – his education was in engineering, he was incredibly adept at drawing plans and building and fixing, he needed a less-than-average amount of sleep and often made use of the wee hours to get things done, and one of the many ways he showed his love and care for the people around him was by quietly taking care of their environment.
It feels like my entire childhood was him deploying those abilities, and we’d be here all day if I listed everything he built for me or my brother, every time he made me look good on any school project that required physically creating something, every year he and my mom created Halloween costumes that became the talk of the neighborhood.
I was a bit of a daddy’s girl then because Daddy made so much of that kind of magic.
We got into a fight one night the week before my senior year of high school that resulted in my cutting off contact with him. I wanted to go several exits down the Beltway with some friends to Taco Bell; there wasn’t one nearer, and as we were all vegetarians with no money, it was our constant resort.
He said no, which was unusual for him, and I didn’t take it well. I reasoned to him that I had nowhere to be in the morning. I don’t remember what he argued back, but from his perspective, which I didn’t consider as a 17-year-old, he probably didn’t want to be up waiting for me to come back safely in the middle of the night.
I know that dispute seems inconsequential, as adolescent fights with parents go, but it was a tiny weight that tipped the balance. I had been finding it increasingly difficult to be around him for years. I had been doing a joint custody arrangement that involved switching multiple times a week since 8th grade, and that was murder on my ADD. The divergence in our politics had me often silently fuming. I had recognized that I was bisexual and I didn’t feel I could share that with him, and in fact, didn’t until just a few years ago. He was a big fan of the fundamentalist James Dobson and his Focus on the Family. Our church, in which he was very invested, was strident about abortion and homosexuality. As I began to understand my own identity, the messages I was getting from those sources that my view of the world and my sense of myself were immoral, sinful, depraved, were more than I was willing to continue to try to reconcile. I was beginning to lose my faith.
I was also doing the natural pulling-away of late adolescence and trying, in the way adolescents often do, to replace that parental relationship with a love relationship. I wasn’t making the best choices; my parents were seven years apart, my maternal grandparents ten, and so I didn’t see anything wrong with age-gap relationships. My parents met in college, but in high school that meant other things. If he and I had been able to figure out a way to sustain our relationship through that shift in focus, I might have not landed myself in some situations I’m working on in therapy.
When I was working the morning shift at Whole Foods in the late 1990s, it was my habit to listen to WAMU’s longstanding bluegrass show on the way home. It seems incredible now to say that there was such a show at an important time of day on an important public radio station in an important city, but it was so, and being able to tune in a reliably consistent musical genre I loved was a soothing way to decompress from the workday at a job I found emotionally exhausting.
One day on that show I heard a version of the song linked above; it’s Gene Autry’s originally but is a standard.
I adopted it as my own at that moment. My dad and I were speaking again, and I felt the weight of having been the one to cut off contact years before. I knew I could never recapture the uncomplicated joy of our relationship in my childhood, but I never stopped wishing it could be so.
If I could recall all the heartaches
Dear old daddy, I’ve caused you to bear
If I could erase those lines from your face
And bring back the gold to your hair
If God would but grant me the power
Just to turn back the pages of time
I’d give all I own if I could but atone
To that silver-haired daddy of mine.
We never talked about the fact that we were renegotiating our relationship, but we did that over email and then text over the past twenty-five years. Living many states away from each other was probably best; the means we used to communicate were inconvenient for conveying the depth of the disparity in our worldviews, so those were left aside. As we did that, and as I got older, and as the world came to see my views as more mainstream and some he’d held as less, I was better able to recognize, because of his example, that very smart, very principled people can come to very different conclusions about the world.
He and my stepmom became foster parents in 2006 and eventually I gained three siblings through adoption. I’ve never met them, but I’ve written postcards to them for years, and so we know each other more than the distance would indicate.
He and Pam chose that because they’d enjoyed raising children so much the first time, and their local paper thought it was notable enough to do a Father’s Day story about in 2018. It was delightful, for me, to watch him fill that role for my siblings, one that had been so deeply meaningful for me. He was immensely proud of them and delighted in their interests, their explorations, their growth. I know how he talked to them, because I know how he talked about them, because it was the same way he talked to me.
He sent me a loving message in our text chain the week before he died. It wasn’t the least out of character for him – he was always adept at expressing his love for and pride in me – but I had been recognizing that his cognition was not where it had once been and I’d wondered if his death was approaching. When the text came through, I thought to myself if this were the last message like that I got from him, I could accept that. It was.
He was a pretty great dad for about as long as I most strongly needed one, growing up, and I was the one who walked, and I kind of felt like I gave up my claim. I’m quite aware that it’s my youngest siblings’ loss that’s the greatest; they didn’t get to have him help them finish growing up. I wish my dad could have been around long enough to see them into adulthood too.
But if by walking, I contributed, in a small way, to donating a pretty great dad, for a while, to three kids who wouldn’t have otherwise had him, I’m okay with that.
I put together this eulogy-with-a-difference (anonymized in order to be featured here) over the course of a week by recording short passages at a time, which is why in places it sounds like I’m doing acting school Good Speech and in others my voice has become more scratchy than normal from crying. Chimp and I, both the Word-Speakin’ Person in our families, have been called on for several eulogies over the years, and while I was in the midst of putting this one together, he reminded me of the Patton Oswalt line “What a horrible thing to be great at.”