It was just past five o’clock in the morning. My mom called. This was never a good sign. Nobody calls in the unseemly hours of the night with good news. They’ll wait till after you wake up to tell you your cousin had a baby boy; after breakfast to tell you they got a new job; after lunch to tell you your favorite television show has been renewed. But this wasn’t that. On April 27th 2013 just after 5 AM. Just as the sun was rising. My mother called me to tell me that my father had passed away. The initial reaction was a horrible shock to my system. Followed by immediate resignation to the situation. There was no denial or bargaining, and anger would come later. My father was gone and that was that. Time to remember and move on.
All seasons have come and gone since I last spoke with my father; seen his gap-toothed smile or rolled my eyes impatiently as he waxed poetically about whatever thing I did my best to feign interest in. At first glance, my father and I would appear to be very similar. Our love of baseball and photographer linked us to his dying day, he was a major Star Trek geek just like me. He took me to almost every Trek film for two decades. One of the saddest things was that he passed away just before the last one came out. He would have loved it and I would have loved talking to him about it.
However, my relationship with my father wasn’t always the most pleasant. At times a wall rose between us. Our paths diverged as I grew older. But my earliest memory remains pure. I can recall when I was one or maybe two. Most people can’t remember anything before three, but I know it was at the most two, because my brother wasn’t around yet. We were walking in the park and my father puts my fingers in his mouth and pretends to bite them… playfully. I remember thinking, that this should be scary, but still laughing and thinking. ‘No, daddy’s not gonna eat my fingers. This was the last time I remember feeling unconditional love for him. The rest of my life the love was either tempered or strained and there were sometimes that quite frankly I just didn’t like him.
It was rarely anything specific, but there was always the feeling in my mind that he was just disappointed. In retrospect I now know he was never really satisfied, which is not the same thing. He just wanted me to do the right thing; work harder, run faster, do better; but when you’re 10 years-old you can’t really make that distinction. You don’t know the difference between when your father is disappointed in you and what you’ve done. It didn’t help that he was hard to please and had difficulty expressing positive emotions. After he died I checked my text messages to see the last exchange we had. January of 2012..over a year ago and I remember when I decided to go back to school in 2010. Every single one of my friends were encouraging, but him, borderline indifference. I tried to remember where it happened, were the breaking point was, but there wasn’t one.
As I grew up we grew apart. We fought often as father and son do, but it often felt personal. ” you think you’re smarter than me don’t you,” he would often say. I would always respond with a flat denial, but the truth was I did. I did feel smarter than him. Every single time. Like when I called him after he first started getting sick and I and told him, “Dad, you really need to take care of yourself; stop eating red meat and take a walk around the block every once in while.” and he responded “Sure.” But I knew he was this wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t know. But I knew.
I wasn’t mad then, the anger came in the hours before his funeral. I was writing his eulogy as rarely-seen relatives flew around the house preparing for this and that. With every word a cognitive dissonance grew between what I was thinking and what I would eventually say. What business did you have dying, Dad? Who the hell do you think you are? Leaving us alone like that. What did you think I was going to take care of Mom and Jeremy? How dare you die. This is what I was thinking.
What I gave was flowing prose about how my father, the photographer, cook and baseball fan, and I were so similar and it drew strong compliments by all in attendance. The funeral was over. Then came the real healing. The moving on.
Sometimes I would ride or run and for a while I would escape the lingering feelings of doubt and guilt over our tenuous relationship. What I could have done better or different in the waning months and years, or better yet in the prime, ate away at me. I could escape the thoughts for a while, but not forever, not a night when the shadows creep in and a man is most alone with his own thoughts fears and demons. Was I a bad son?
The worst time was Yizkor. In past years I had a weird sort of curiosity with Yizkor, like what goes on in there. You know whenever we went out for yizkor in the past I always look like “Woah we have to go” and it’s like some club it’s on the inside. Like the second the doors shut clowns and cotton candy and cigars come out. It’s some huge mystery that you only get to be a part of when one of your parents die. When you’re a member of that elite club. Once you’re in you’re in forever. But. I was wrong. It’s filled with solemnity with a few dashes of sorrow. And all the years of acrimony and distrust melt away and I’m a one-year-old boy playing with his father in the park.
I still remember the last time I saw him. It was a couple of months before he was gone. I went home to visit. When I knocked on the door, it was he who opened. and he said the last words I’ll ever remember him saying.
“you look good, son.”
Thanks dad. I miss you.