The Thing I Wish I'd Done When My Dad Was Alive
I have a confession to make. I hate Halloween.
Not because of the candy, for which I harbor a shameful addiction, or the pressure of getting everyone cool costumes, or even the gross, gory stuff (which, to be honest, I really dislike.) But no: it’s none of that, really.
I hate Halloween … because nine years ago my father died alone sometime in the night between October 30th and October 31st.
I was at church on Halloween morning when I got word. My son’s preschool was doing an autumn concert and the little ones were singing and parading around in their costumes when I noticed my phone displaying three missed calls from my mother. Before I could call her back the phone buzzed again, this time from my stepmother. I eased out of my seat and stood behind the rows of applauding parents and answered in a low voice, wondering what in the world could be going on.
“Kimmery,” Rosanne said. Her voice sounded raspy and anguished, almost frantic. She was the kind of person who laughed a lot; I’d never before heard her sound anything other than hearty and amused. “Richard is dead. Your daddy is dead.”
I remember every single thing about that moment. It’s probably the clearest, most detailed memory of my entire life. There wasn’t a single instant of denial. There was no reprieve from understanding that my father was forever gone; over the course of my career I’ve told too many people that their loved ones had died to mistake those words for anything other than what they are. I’ve seen people react in many different ways to this news; some people scream, some crumple up, some deny it, some stare blankly. In some detached corner of my mind I found myself wondering how I was going to react, almost as if I were both myself and some interested observer hovering a few feet way.
Turns out I am a crumpler. Who knew? I went down in an inelegant heap, rocking on my knees with my forehead nearly touching the carpeted floor of the fellowship hall, my grief so acute and overwhelming it misted my vision. That moment of rocking on the floor was surreal. No one noticed; they were all captivated by the sweet spectacle of the children, who were now marching across the stage on their way to head back to their preschool classrooms. In an instant, the room filled with bodies as everyone rose and headed for the exit.
My dad. My dad was my person. If my mother, with her singular goodess, is the person I most aspire to be, my dad was the male version of who I actually am. We were the most alike of the members of our family, both of us hotheaded and infinitely curious and a little bit weird. Unlike me, he was also a bona fide genius, with a measured IQ so high it placed him in the top 99.9% of humanity. He knew everything: as a child, in the pre-internet era, I used him as an encyclopedia whenever I had a question about physics or geopolitics or economics or literature or history, or anything except fashion, basically. (No exaggeration on the fashion front: at the time of his death, Dad wore the exact same style and size of clothing he’d always worn, not appreciating the point of wearing different sorts of outfits on different occasions and certainly not appreciating the point of spending money on clothing. He had maybe four outfits and refused to wear a tie, on the grounds that they were pointless and stupid. Every now and then in a crowd I will spy the tall, slim silhouette of a man wearing worn black jeans and disintegrating army boots and it makes me want to weep.)
He saw the world in a different way than the rest of us: supremely logical, he could build anything, make anything, figure out anything, often after only a casual glance. (I’m probably the only person who cried my way through the novel The Martian by Andy Weir, losing it over the main character’s MacGyverish obsession with duct tape and math.) But despite his fierce intellect and his scientific mind, my dad was the one I went to for comfort.
Right up until the week before he died, Daddy called me regularly, never altering his conversational habits: first, he’d spend a few minutes bitching about the intolerably slow drivers on the two-lane country roads where he lived, then he’d inquire about the well-being of my husband and the children (and the dog, who he apparently considered a grandchild), and then he’d ask me a series of questions about the pattern of my days. These never required yes-or-no answers; I realized after his death that what he must have been doing was trying to paint himself a more complete picture of my life. He asked how I spent my days, how I perceived the world, about my emotional state, what I was reading, what my opinion was on this or that subject dominating the news. We lived 400 miles apart; by the time I was a wife and a mother I only saw him a couple times a year so I think he must have missed all the little things you glean automatically when you see a person every day.
In addition, from the first day I left for college no major event in my life went unheralded by a letter from Dad: he wrote after every academic achievement, every wretched boyfriend break-up, every little triumph and disappointment. Every time I changed apartments, he’d drive hundreds of miles to haul my stuff around and hand-build me some bookcases or a bed frame or shelves. When a troll I’d been dating dumped me for somebody prettier, he sent me a ten-page letter detailing his own romantic misadventures in college. When I was little, he carried out elaborate practical jokes and wrote biting, sarcastic signs to leave around the house when I failed to do chores. When I got married, he occasionally wrote my husband, too; these notes usually included some awkward photo of me with glasses and a bony adolescent physique and godawful 1980s hair, while the caption underneath congratulated Jim on his spectacular taste in women.
Did I think all of this in that moment? I swear, I did. It came to me in a rush: all of that was gone. My dad was gone. Gone. I stumbled out into the foyer of the church, clutching an armload of children’s books since I was supposed to be the surprise reader of Halloween books to my son’s four-year old class. I’d begun to garner some odd looks; people were clearly not sure what to make of my face, red and swollen and contorted in what felt like a silent howl. Maybe they thought I was trying to be scary.
I spied a tiny, beautiful blonde I recognized as one of the other mothers from the class. I knew her only vaguely but I thrust the pile of books at her. “I can’t read these. I have to go right now,” I said, adding in a rush, “I’m so sorry. I’m Alex’s mom. Can you tell the teacher I’m sorry?”
She stared, taking me in. I wore purple velour pants and a black T-shirt dotted with orange sequins in the shape of a pumpkin and a black and purple metallic headband with little googly eyes protruding from it. The shirt fit me badly, riding up enough to show an unattractive inch of my abdomen—I’d had a baby the prior year and my body still had not returned to normal, but this was the only Halloweenish outfit I owned. I didn’t have anything to use as a handkerchief so tears and snot poured down my face, collecting in a disgusting pool above my collarbone. I was finding it hard to breathe without hiccuping.
“Hey,” she said. She took the books from me and set them down. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head. My snot problem had become unbearable. I couldn’t breathe, even a little through my nose, so my voice came out strange. “My dad died,” I whispered.
For a second, her expression didn’t change and I looked away. When I looked back, tears were sliding out of her eyes. She picked up both my hands and squeezed. “Oh no,” she whispered back.
She led me to the sanctuary and found a minister, who prayed for what seemed like an hour while I tried to figure out a way to blow my nose without desecrating the church in an explosion of mucus. I fixated on the carpet in there too, lowering my head to my knees as we sat on the first pew, letting the words of the prayer wash over me. My new friend wound up driving me home, politely pretending to be deaf as I sobbed on the phone to my mother and then fought on the phone with the coroner, a non-medical dolt who called me from Kentucky to announce he was declining to request an autopsy even though my dad was healthy and fit and not particularly old. She walked me into my house, where she’d never been before and hugged the breath of out me, telling me not to worry about my little boy, that she’d make sure he got home.
How do you sum up a life? I try, every year, to write some kind of post on the anniversary of his death. He possessed a wicked and sometimes inexplicable sense of humor. He loved any sort of machine, the faster and more complex the better. He was utterly unmotivated by wealth—he and my mother met in Kentucky in the 1960’s, where they’d both gone to volunteer in the war on poverty, and where he remained for the rest of his life even though he possessed about as many Southern Appalachian characteristics as Winston Churchill. He never spent money if he could avoid it: he built himself a tiny house in the mountains, rebuilt an ancient 1930’s era truck out of random prices of salvaged metal, read thousands of books from the library, and jerry-rigged the shit out of any mechanical contraption that broke. Or he just invented new machines. You know the cliche of the smart guy whose glasses are held together by duct tape? Yes. That was my dad.
But here’s the thing I realize now. In my mind, my dad’s existence was filtered not through his accomplishments and experiences but through the prism of his relationship with me. He was Dad. He cherished me. He was so proud of me. He was the one man on earth I could count on for pure unconditional support. And, like most children, I failed to realize what that support was worth until it was gone.
I loved him but I was fundamentally selfish. It wasn’t until after he died that I learned more about his life. If you’re wondering how I acquired my values and beliefs, it’s because I grew up witnessing my parents—both intelligent and driven enough to have been enormously successful in any field they chose—forgo wealth in favor of fighting to change the conditions that cause poverty and inequality. My dad—an economics major, a literal genius, the most innovative person I’ve ever known in real life—could have been a billionaire on Wall Street if he’d wanted that. Instead, he moved from the Pacific Northwest to Washington, D.C. and then to rural Kentucky to try to foster economic development there.
To me, it was as if he sprung into existence when I was born. Why had I taken his life for granted? Why hadn’t I asked him the same kinds of questions about himself that he asked me? Why hadn’t it dawned on me that a day would come when I’d never again see his distinctive all-caps handwriting on the front of an envelope? Why didn’t I write him back more often?
To my eternal regret, only two of the dozens and dozens of letters he sent me still exist. I’d give anything to get another one. But mostly I wish I could ask him questions about his life, to know him and understand him the way he knew and understood me.
Cherish your parents. And ask them about their lives before you came along, if you still can.