I grew up essentially a daddy’s girl. I didn’t always love fishing, but I found myself wandering half asleep through a tackle shop at 4 AM more than once because it was something I was doing with my dad. I didn’t ever really get into science fiction, but I read through a lot of the Xanth series because my dad loved them. My dad was the one who sang me Eidelweiss when he tucked me in and taught me the German ‘mein hoot’ song that I loved. My dad was the one who usually made my lunches and drove me to school. My dad was the one who taught me how to keep track of units when I was doing pre-pre algebra in fifth grade. My dad was the one who took me camping and read stories around campfires while I acted them out. My dad was the one who bought me candy bars when he went to get gas–Crunch bar or Hershey’s Cookies N Cream, please. My dad was the one who took me out to see movies on Saturday afternoons. My dad was the one who knew what the weather was doing and whether we needed to go into the basement during tornado warnings. My dad was the one who read me The Hobbit and The OZ series. He was the person responsible for my understanding the difference between kinds of fish and different ways to catch them. He was the reason I was proud to be smart and careful with my money. He is also the reason I can take off in a car and never be afraid of being too far away from the familiar. My dad was smart, capable, thorough, and in my young mind, never wrong.
From my dad, I learned how to be logical, responsible, practical, and prepared. My dad grilled more guilt into me than any Catholic institution I’ve ever been a part of could have. Integrity. Honesty. My dad was the one I remember scolding me when I was three and had drawn on the couch in green marker and lied about it. If there was one thing I knew about my dad, it was that he never lied.
In high school, I naturally grew apart from my parents, as most teenagers do. But there was something else going on. I knew my parents were unhappy, but they never talked about it. Instead, they isolated themselves from one another, and I chose to isolate myself from them. After all, if your parents are avoiding their feelings, why would you expect your feelings to be validated? Things got even more distant when I went to school and learned that my dad had been drinking consistently for my whole life without my knowledge. I couldn’t believe it. I was incredibly upset to know that something so big had been kept a secret from me for so long. I was even more upset at the damage this new information did to my image of my dad. Since my family was still pretty much not talking about it, I kept to my old game plan: avoid dealing with parents at all costs. Two years later, my parents divorced, and I was thankful to be far away from the whole thing. But of course, the result: I had become pretty distant from them both.
That being said, I feel like I never really got to have an adult relationship with my dad. I never got a chance to have ‘real’ conversations with him the way I imagine fathers and their grown daughters do. While I was taking care of him, the stress and unresolved feelings made those conversations near impossible for me to initiate, and he certainly didn’t bring them up either.
Compound this strange, abrupt end of a relationship with the challenge of suddenly having to sort through and get rid of a life-time supply of photos, books, clothes, and all sorts of stuff my dad had accumulated, and suddenly I’m confronting the fact that I didn’t really know my father that well at all.
In finding old marriage and divorce decrees, aged brochures from vacations, a couple old college essays and awards, family heirlooms, and millions of pictures, I have been given a look into my dad’s past that I never had before. I have been reminded of the things I sort of knew about my dad’s life, but didn’t take seriously because I was just a kid. The idea that my dad lost his parents when he was about my age, and that we never once really talked about it, is one of those heavy, darkly ironic truths that haunts me.
I’m lucky to get to know my dad through relics, but I’ll always be sad that he can’t tell me himself how all those experiences made him feel. I’m disappointed I never asked. Never really paid attention. Never really got the chance to.
I think sometimes we forget that life isn’t like the movies. If our only concept of what happens when people die is what we see in film, we might expect that great life-altering deathbed conversation that seems so integral to literature and movie plots. Well, I’m here to tell you that this beautiful moment doesn’t always happen. I don’t know that I can speak to its regularity in general, but I can say for sure that it is not a given.
So, I guess if I have any advice to you, it’s to start listening. Start paying more attention, start asking more questions. Because the future is incredibly uncertain, and if you want to know someone–and I mean really know them–now is the time, while they are here to tell you.