You know what I miss about my dad? Here’s a short list:
- He loved Japanese food.
- He loved Vietnamese food.
- He loved a good steak and potatoes.
- Um. He loved food.
- He’d randomly speak Japanese.
- He’d seen more of the US and Asia than I ever will.
- He read so quickly that he’d no sooner open a book than finish it.
- He loved ABBA. And Celine Dion. And Crystal Gayle. And the Vogues. So much to make fun of, and we did. (Except for the Vogues. They were allowed.)
Wait, there’s more:
- He cried when he saw Les Mis on Broadway.
- He insisted that well water was better tasting than anything that could come out of public taps.
- He made our lunches during our school years and packed notes into them with puzzles and riddles and messages with an eyeball and a heart and a letter U to tell us he loved us.
- He offered to “drive down there” when I drove home from college in tears after a boyfriend broke my heart.
- He hated the Beatles. Thought they were a bunch of noise.
- He always wanted to see Aruba.
- He insisted he was Scottish in a family that was determined to be Irish.
- He preferred Budweiser over Guinness.
- He brought us chicken noodle soup when we came home from the hospital after Saoirse was born.
- He loved to talk to us about our jobs. And by talk, I mean ask questions, then listen to our answers, then ask more questions.
- He wrote a children’s book.
- He called my mom his “beautiful bride,” 35 years after their wedding day.
- He raced motorcycles in Arizona.
- He made sure I grew up in a home without prejudice.
- He hated to smile because he was self-conscious about his teeth.
- He had a great smile.
- He preferred the mountains to the beach.
- One of his favorite things to do was play golf with my brother.
- Or play basketball with my brother.
- Or grill a steak with my brother.
- He loved my brother.
- Family was more important to him than money.
- He worked two jobs at one point to make enough money for his family.
- He hated when we wasted milk.
- His favorite comfort food was bread with apple butter.
- He was the one to sew buttons back on our clothes and work the knot out of a necklace chain.
- He could sing, with a huge bass voice that made sense coming from him.
Okay, so not so short a list.
It’s been five years, guys.
Five years since the cancer got him. One day he was running down the road ahead of the stroller carrying Saoirse, and the very next he was in an ambulance with my mom in the car behind it. The last image I have of him, upright and conscious, was when he was standing on our back deck, joking with my neighbor on his way out the door. He was laughing.
My dad didn’t get to hold his granddaughter on the day she was born. The nurses had us petrified of germs, scolding us to not have anyone hold Saoirse for the first twenty-four hours. We were new parents, so we listened like good children on the first day of elementary school. When he came into my room that day, he was wearing his coat–chemo made him so cold all the time–and he’d been at the hospital all the day before and most of the night, waiting, and I didn’t let him hold the baby. I didn’t let him hold the baby. I remember looking at him, in his coat, with the face that had gotten so thin I could see the shape of his skull, and I didn’t ask him to hold the baby.
He would be dead two months later.
It’s hard to type when you’re crying.
There is an acute grief that strikes at odd times when someone you love has been gone for awhile. The missing the person is always, always there, like the shadow of him is just hovering in the background, there even though you can walk around it and through it if you have to. The sharpness comes at random times. When you look at your infant’s face and see your father’s eyes looking back at you. When you’re setting the table for a big family dinner and realize you don’t have to remember to exclude your dad from the head count anymore. It hits with the strength of a thunderstorm, then blows back out again, taking all of the lighting and noise and wind with it and leaving a strange sense of bewilderment, confusion almost, as you knock the rain out of your shoes and carry on.
In the beginning, I used to mark every milestone with a terrible noticing: Dad wasn’t there for Saoirse’s baptism. He missed David’s graduation. He wasn’t here the day I learned how to make that chocolate cake that tastes like wedges of fudge dressed up in party hats. But now, five years later, it’s not the little tiny milestones that get me. There’s not so much noticing anymore as a vague sense of resignation. Oh, look. He’s not here anymore. We’ve added two more children to the family and a novel and changes in jobs and cars and lawn care, and…oh, wait. It’s all happened without him. Our lives have evolved and happened without him and now it’s so commonplace it brings about a whole other level of mourning because now it’s routine.
Does that make the missing any easier? I don’t think so.
Five years. I think about loved ones and friends who’ve lost someone dear to them before they were ready, and those who are mourning what they know is to come. Each of us gets wrapped up in the hurt when death snatches someone we love. There’s no hierarchy to grieving. None of us is more worthy of missing somebody than another. Whether it was a husband or a wife or a father or a friend, it just plain old ordinary sucks. And that’s how it goes.
We say a bedtime prayer with the girls every night, and always ask God to “tell” their grandfathers we say hi. The children don’t connect a face to a name, so they’re just following what we tell them to say. It breaks my heart to see one generation that’s so important to me have no memory of another. Saoirse has started asking questions, though. She wants to know where they are now. She asks if they’re missed, what they were like. So at least we know that the stories we tell will be remembered, that it’s possible to keep the ones we love in the picture, even if we have to paint them into it ourselves.
Dad didn’t get to hold his granddaughter that day. He did later, and after that, of course, and again before he died. But it’s not enough. It’ll never be enough. Not when someone was such a part of your life, not when his DNA lives on in yours, and in the ones who come after you. The noticing may not happen as much anymore, but the missing?
I think the missing is here to stay.