a dead man’s day

As many of us know by now, our relationships don’t end when one party dies. I’m not even sure it ends when both parties die, because the lessons we’ve learned, the common language we cultivate, the individual culture we’ve fostered with them spreads out, permeating our extended community in ways that cannot be measured.

My father and I loved going to the theatre together, and I remember one year, when I was maybe nine, we were off to some fancy show in downtown San Diego. We took a cab from some place, possibly the train station (this detail now lost to the natural fuzziness of memory that inevitably develops with time) to the theatre, and the driver, a staunchly blue collar type, was asking us where we were headed. They chatted, and the man went on about how he loved the language of Shakespeare, even though it was hard for him to understand. Not a stranger to early pretension, I remember being skeptical of his interest and judging him for it. “What a stupid reason to love Shakespeare,” I thought.

I don’t remember saying something about it, but I think my father knew what I was thinking (or saw the expression on my face, which has always been unfortunately transparent–the perpetual anti-poker face is, indeed, a life sentence). When we were out of the car, he said to me, “You know, that guy was pretty cool.” Surprised, I asked him what he meant.

“A lot of people don’t like Shakespeare because of the language. They think it’s too hard, so they give up on it. It challenges them too much, so they decide it’s not for them. It’s pretty cool that that’s the reason he loves it.”

He punctuated my expectations, my early arrogance, with a thoughtful (and non-threatening) perspective, without a hint of condescension or derision. It took many years to recognize it, but this kindness was a staple of my father’s method for imparting wisdom. One of the most remarkable things about my father was that his abrasiveness (which often bordered on offensive) was underpinned with a gentleness that I have rarely seen matched since.

Once, when I was fourteen, an adult man hit on me at the beach, and my father came up to have some words with him. Later, he asked me, “Is it okay that I do that? I know some women want to handle it on their own, so I want to respect that.” It’s a small thing, a seemingly obvious thing, but a conversation I wouldn’t expect of a man of his generation–and certainly not one I would expect him to have with his daughter, of all people.

When we’d go to dinner, sometimes he’d ask me, “Do I look okay? Am I dressed up enough? Do I look like a weird old guy?”

Once, he made me listen to “Wide Open Spaces,” by the Dixie Chicks, and while we listened, he cried at the line, “As her folks drive away, her dad yells, ‘Check the oil!’”

I never thought of these things as strange. Later, when I better understood the defenses my father used to move through the world, I felt so privileged to have access to the softest parts of his heart, to his vulnerabilities. His insecurities and his fears. Now I know that this was a rare gift–something that I received so often I never recognized it as a gem. I didn’t know it at the time, but I lived in a pile of rubies for nineteen years.

These are the kinds of things I think about often.

When my father died, I felt betrayed. In the last year or so of his life, his alcoholism turned him into a person I barely recognized, and played a critical role in his death. I was galled at the audacity of death, of his unwillingness to choose me–to choose his damn self–over his addiction. I was so angry that he couldn’t save himself, and even angrier that I couldn’t save him–that I couldn’t love him hard enough to keep him here. To make it worth it enough for him–to be enough for him to stay. Nearly a decade later, my understanding of addiction and trauma (both of which he was more than acquainted with) is much more sophisticated than it used to be. That, combined with time, has quelled those feelings.

Now, mostly, I feel grateful I knew him for as long as I did. Nineteen years is not nearly long enough, but I don’t know that I’d feel differently if he died when I was sixty. There’s never enough time with those that you love. A lifetime is just not enough.

I wouldn’t be who I am without his formative influence, without that undercurrent of gentleness–a salve to the rough edges of an otherwise chaotic childhood. I wouldn’t be who I am without his death, either. I am proud to be his daughter–to be so much like him, both in strengths and flaws. He’s still the only person I’ve ever met who came from the same planet as me, and even if I find we’re the only two aliens of our kind, I’m happy for it. I hope his lessons permeate the world through me.

It has taken me a long time to figure out how to truly honor this messy, flawed, flinty, wonderful person who is responsible for so much of the good in me. I’m still figuring it out. His body is gone, but he’ll never really be dead to me.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddio. I told you I wouldn’t forget.

Also published on Medium.

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