Last Saturday, the 16th, marked eight years since my dad died, and as is now typical each spring, April always makes me feel a bit…strangled. I can’t see the blossoms open on the pear trees in this valley where we live without thinking of walking out of the hospital that day, after a week of watching and waiting and crying and waiting some more, to see that spring had happened while we were in the otherworld of the ICU. As most of you already know, it was almost exactly a year later that David’s dad died after another battle with disease, after a car accident. April? Not the best memories lately.
I’d wanted to go to Arlington with my mom to visit my dad’s grave this year. But life, or really, a kids’ soccer game, and the dog, and all the other tiny details of a Saturday in the suburbs got in the way, and we ended up walking around the grotto of Mt. St. Mary’s University instead, quietly talking our way along the mountainside, stepping in between shadows and sunshine as we slowly moved under the trees and along a stream, thinking that this wasn’t so bad a way to remember him, too. We went to mass that night with my aunt and uncle and cousin in Emmitsburg, because that’s what a bunch of Catholics do to commemorate their Protestant dad’s memory, and went to dinner. The kids were wonderful. April confuses them, too, with the stories of grandfathers they’ll never know. We’re all like, “Behold, ye month of doom!” But they were amazing. Saoirse made sure to tell me what a great day she had. Talking. Walking. A bit of praying.
David asked me last week how I was doing, and my answer for him was the same as it is every year: You know, the usual. The thought of Dad is always there in my head in late March/April, encasing me in this weird sort of melancholy sarcophagus as I go about the day. Sometimes the memories are too much, pressing at the backs of my eyeballs while I’m in the middle of something mundane, like driving to the girls’ school, or washing the dishes. I try not to think about him sick, because those thoughts are the hardest ones. Because with the memories of my dad ill, with the final memories of him suffering so badly, comes the guilt of of all the other memories of our normal father-daughter interaction before then. We didn’t always have an easy time of it. But nobody related to me by blood, outside my mom, has loved me more, or been as loved (except you, little brother. You’re up there, too).
This is the thing I’ve been running up against lately: this year, or maybe since Cian was born, I’ve been struggling with being as productive, as good, as I think I should be. I told David the other day that what I feel most terrible about is that I’m not as thoughtful as I want to be. He kindly, emphatically, poo-poo’d this, but it’s there. I always have really good intentions, yes. I want to make that meal and pop by to visit that new mom. I totally intend to call my mother-in-law to check in, or visit my own mom instead of her always making the trek to see us. I plan to send the card/write the email/get in touch with that friend or relative. But I don’t. I don’t follow through. I’d like to say it’s because most of the time I feel like I’m a starfish, each of my arms being pulled in a different direction, but we’re all like that. We’re all starfish.
David and I were sitting across from my parents one night at dinner the winter before my dad died–I can’t remember if we were at their house, or at a restaurant. I was pregnant with Saoirse and trying to figure out what to do with my job after she was born. My dad was a year past his diagnosis at that point. He wasn’t eating because the chemo made food taste bad. He was gaunt, fuzzy-haired from the treatment. He’d turned from my big, overprotective, slightly controlling, bear-hugging tower of a father to someone fragile and human. I wanted to shield him. I wanted him to get better. I think I knew he wouldn’t, but when you’re in the middle of it, when it’s new, those words–terminal, dying, death–do not materialize on the brain when they might refer to someone you love.
But here’s what my dad did at that dinner table, during this conversation, during my thinking aloud: Without a glance at my mom, my dad–my dying dad–offered to watch the baby after she was born. “We’ll take care of the baby” my dad said, “if going back to work is what you want to do.” I remember my mom’s sharp glance, I remember him brushing it aside with a look of his own. I remember sitting back in my chair, astonished. Was he in denial? I don’t think so. Was he hoping beyond hope that he’d be here? I’m sure. But regardless of any of it, my dad–if only you could have seen him–my dad, who needed to be taken care of himself, who spent most of the time bundled up in layers because he was so cold, who was in more pain than he ever let on, was wholeheartedly offering himself to us. To our baby. To his grandchild.
Thoughtful isn’t a state of intention. It’s a state of doing.
I miss him so. But maybe that’s the mark of a good parent–that even in death, one can show us how to live. Maybe I can try. It came so easily to him. Right after Saoirse was born, just a few weeks before he died, my dad brought us a pot of chicken noodle soup that he’d made for us. He sat with us. He talked. He seemed so happy to just be with us. He used to get upset with himself for speaking before he thought, especially at the end, when every conversation, every moment together seemed to matter the most. I wish he knew. I wish he knew how good he was.
We’re all starfish, yes. But some of us focus less on all those arms and more on simply holding on to what’s in front of us. Maybe I can be like that. Maybe I can readjust my hold.
Maybe I can be like my dad.