For years, I have been something of a writing coward, despite having completed a degree in creative writing and taught writing. Aside from the occasional writing contest, intermittent blog posts, and the occasional voluminous Facebook note or comment, I have generally kept my poetry and prose to myself. But when I read Buzzfeed's list of the 51 Most Beautiful Lines of Literature, decided to use it as an opportunity to save my writing muscles from atrophy. So, I will take one line each week and will write a story, poem or essay inspired by the line and will post it here. I do not promise brilliance or even consistent quality. I only promise consistent effort.
Shortly after making this decision, I learned that my father died. We were not close. But I have been a mess anyway. Writing this first essay has helped.
“At any rate, that is
happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
Willa Cather, My Antonia
I was fine. Whenever anyone asked about him, I’d shrug and say, “I’m past my daddy issues.” Mind you, they had hung on like a motherfucker, well past the time when they should have been laid to rest. But since thirty is the new twenty, and – as the meme accurately states – the first forty years of childhood are the hardest, I forgave myself the tenacity of my longing.
But then I got over it. No. I accepted that I would never know my elusive half-siblings. I dismissed my father with a forced bravado to match the finality with which he had apparently dismissed me. And I found comfort in knowing that the four years I’d been an in-state Blue Devil had not embroiled me in some inadvertent incestuous love affair given the rumored size of my father’s family and my complete unfamiliarity with any of them.
Last week, I was sitting on the couch, giddy with anticipation as I worked on the proposal for the property where I plan to anchor my entrepreneurial dreams. Then I checked Facebook and saw a message from a niece I had met once: “Hey aunt Karen, your dad is in the hospital. It's looking like he's not going to make it. Call my mom.” I blinked a few times in rapid succession. I had never called him “dad.” That’s just not the man I barely knew.
In one three-minute phone call, my resolute and confident embrace of the future was dragged back to the vortex of my past pained confusion. Lung cancer for years? Stage four bone cancer? None of his kids were told? Pulling the respirator today? TODAY?! How the hell do you expect me to get there in time?!
These tears feel like a fraud. An unearned release from a sideways ache that I hadn’t realized was there. Am I mourning the man he was (whom I barely knew) or the man he could have been (whom We never knew)? Or is this grief for the dissolution of the illusion to which I have occasionally clung since I was old enough to care.
Because my father could have been anyone.
Sure, Nick was married to my mom and his name was on my birth certificate, but that could have been a matter of convenience, of marital presumption, of largesse or mere ignorance. No. MY father, the one who gave me my high cheekbones, who had a deep understanding of my therapeutic longing for the Earth, who was the source of my high-fallutin’ “difference.” MY father… he had to be … more. And interested, but thwarted somehow. For a damned good and noble reason, maybe a royal one! Not an absentee, philandering, unstable war vet, but … a…. prince! West African. No! East African… descended of the Pharaohs. Or so I had hoped as a grade schooler, accentuating the almond shape of my eyes, doing my best Cleopatra walk and toying with the idea of learning Arabic (I settled on French).
With each slap, threat or insult from my stepfather, MY father had loomed large in my imagination, reassuring me and eventually empowering me. Because my blood, HIS blood does not cower, it boils over and reminds the tyrant, “I might not be able to do much while you are awake, but you will eventually fall sleep.”
But when I saw the blurred photos through Facetime – my father intubated and unconscious in a hospital bed – I knew my prince would never come, because he did not exist. That flawed, absent, profligate, and dying man was the only father I’d ever had, could ever have, and would never have because he would be gone before the day was through and we would never, ever know each other.
It wasn’t the bounces on My Daddy’s knees that I had craved, nor the sage silence of a fishing jaunt to a creek. In the end, I missed his canned tomatoes. I never got to try them. When we met almost four years ago, we had talked about our mutual love of gardening and preserving the bounty of our harvests. I was partial to jams and jellies. He canned tomatoes. I think. It was one conversation, in segments, over three – maybe four – hours. And then we never discussed canning again.
We never really discussed anything again. In the four intervening years, I could count the number of conversations we had on one hand. Maybe my questions felt too much like interrogation, while his answers were just too elusive for me. But even in those few conversations, there was something in his voice – gravelly, jovial, North Carolina pine woods drawl – that had tickled a genetic memory and felt like a cornerstone of home. The missing brick was laid in place, and while I may have wished for a different bricklayer, at least it was no longer a missing link.
I did not look in his casket. And it wasn’t just the hazy-headedness from a red-eye cross-country flight. I could not do it. Having only one visual memory of my father, I did not want that replaced by an embalmed corpse. And it wasn’t because I loved the man I had met years ago. I didn’t. How could I? I didn’t know him. I just want to remember him as he chose to be when I met him, and not as some mortician felt he should look, because I’ll take truth over hagiography any day.
And the truth that speaks to me the most is the truth of my sisters.
I have sisters. J I am the eldest of six children. I have met my three sisters and their children. I have not yet met my brothers. In one of the last conversations I had with Nick, he said that his goal was to someday gather all of his children together. And while I was very nervous about meeting one of my siblings whose life choices were more dangerous than anything to which I had ever been exposed or would ever want to expose my daughter, I had wondered what that future introduction would be like. I didn’t expect it to be at his funeral.
Scripture says that the sins of the father will be visited upon the son, but what about the daughters? As I sat in the pew with two of my sisters, a niece and my daughter, I wondered at the different kinds and degree of pain and grief we each had for this man who had failed at least two of us in unique, but total ways.
It’s not that I scoffed at the remembrances of others who spoke of the man who would give you the shirt off his back. It’s just that I realized I didn’t know that man, and I had nothing to say about the man I barely knew, to a gathering of family I didn’t know at all.
It was the realization that I have five siblings, fourteen aunts and uncles, and over 100 first cousins spanning from two years old to fifty years old that changed my tears. From grief for the father I did not and would not know, to anger over the family I never got to know. The tears that came to my eyes at the funeral were tears of fury. Fury at my father. And fury at my mother. Because knowing my paternal family was my right, which neither of them seemed to have respected. Nick didn’t try hard enough to stay in my life. Mom didn’t try hard enough to make me part of his family’s life.
That may be unfair. It’s probably unfair. But watching my sisters from the corner of my eye, seeing their beauty and poise, and their tears, I felt … cheated. The dissolution of my father-daughter fantasy sucked, but never knowing my sisters (and our brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents) felt … feels like theft. You can only ever grow up with someone once (and I grew up as an only child). Now it remains to be seen if we will learn to grow old with each other, probably not as family first, but hopefully as friends, united by but not guided by our variegated memories of Nick aka Nank aka Rottweiler aka Bulldog aka Wild Mule aka Emanuel aka my father.