I miss you, Daddy, and I hate this shitty week, which commemorates your quietus.
I thought ignoring the worst week of the year would make it bearable. I was wrong.
With my sister — a combat vet who “survived” Iraq — deploying to the Middle East two days before Christmas, during this wholly stable and not-at-all grim geopolitical climate; my mom’s too-brief visit to assist with her departure; and the sudden reactivation of my knee injury distracting me, I briefly succeeded in doing so. Throw in two hours (3–5am!) spent in 39 degree temps preventing an intact, banned dog from assaulting my puppy while the Fire Marshall did his job, and I had plenty of drama to prevent me from noticing the calendar.
That was why I had not experienced the annual, unwelcome visits from pain and grief the way I usually do…until a meeting yesterday reached its fourth and final agenda item and it blindsided me. The call ended, I disconnected, and the next thing I knew, my face was in my hands. I was so grateful that no one could see me. My jaw immediately started to radiate pain into my skull and I allowed myself to explode into tears, because a door was closed and we’re running on a skeletal staff anyway, thanks to the holiday, so it was “safe”. I went home. In my Uber, my cell phone notified me of the date: December 29. No fucking wonder.
I did not go to work today. My jaw pain only worsened, until it robbed me of an entire night of sleep. At 6:45 am today, bleary-eyed and heartbroken, I texted my boss that I wouldn’t be in and then I passed out, finally unconscious, and thus pain-, and memory-free.
I woke up at 1pm. I thought, “Well, I could make the most of this day. Be productive. Do dishes. The laundry. Scrub the tub.”
It is 6pm and I have done one load of laundry. I have not been productive. I do not care.
Sometimes, being gentle with yourself means letting go of ideas and expectations and “shoulds”. Apparently, what I needed in my life was the opportunity to lie in my bed and not move, as possibilities passed me by because I was numb. I felt hollow. Lost. Unable to do the needful, I melted into my mattress as my toothbrush, my need for nourishment, and my medications and supplements were forgotten. My day veered completely off course (apposite, really, since my life has), and then slowed to a gentle, unwanted stop.
As I watched hours speed by, alternating between staring at the ceiling or my phone, I got one thing done; I spoke with a dear friend about the logistics of his NYE party on the phone (!) for ten minutes. I chattered on, nervous and anxious, my heart in my throat, hearing just how off-kilter I was feeling manifest itself in my flawed attempts to communicate articulately. He pretended not to notice. Hearing his voice was a welcome respite from the miasma of despair in which I was marinating. It also reminded me of the disadvantages of text; there is no way for letters on a cell phone screen to convey the warmth and mirth of this man properly. I wish that I could ring in what I fervently hope will be a better year with him, but it’s simply not possible, and tomorrow night will be dimmer, for it.
I also heard from my very best friend, who confirmed a massive surprise: a last-minute trip to D.C. tomorrow afternoon, leaving Sunday morning. Those two things made my jaw pain almost disappear. French Bulldog snuggles from a creature who is generally indifferent to me unless I am holding Turkey bacon didn’t hurt, either. She knew. G-d bless dogs. They always do.
Because the truth is, the wound is still here, *17 years later*, and while it finally, eventually scabbed poorly, it never healed. That’s why a simple laceration yesterday drew blood and resulted in violent sobs, my hands buried in my hair, my entire body shaking with pain, surrounded by walls we write on directly, because we are a start-up, and whiteboards are so last century.
On December 23, 1998, my father greeted my mother after work and noticed she had been given gifts from coworkers and patients; he carefully took a Christmas ornament from her, studied it, then walked over to our Noble Fir tree (always, always Noble Fir — never Douglas), where he hung it, not far from the top.
It was the last thing he would ever consciously do.
Minutes later, my mother was screaming, rushing to him, and shining a Mag-lite in his frozen pupils, as an ambulance sped to our door.
I was in Davis. West Davis, actually. I was fighting with my adorable Sikh boyfriend when I received the worst phone call of my life. Then, I was at the ICU.
I remained there for six days, in pure denial about my father’s prognosis. He was already gone, he had left moments after finishing our tree, but it couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be. We never got to say Good-bye.
On the morning of December 29th, they finally convinced me to go home and bathe. I agreed to leave for 20 minutes; we lived fewer than five miles from the hospital. One minute into the most dreaded, avoided shower of all time, my mother slid the glass door (that my engineer-father had installed) open just wide enough to get my attention, before thickly saying my name, my real name, my actual name, the name he gave me, the one no one knows, the name I’d allow GVN to call me if he wished to (he does not).
And in that utterance, a maelstrom of anguish, guilt, and excruciating pain was unleashed as my life cleaved neatly into two: before losing Daddy and after.
It took years for me to recover. Years. I commenced my aborted forays into creative non-fiction around the four- or five-year mark, to cope. To bleed. To try and heal the terminal destruction of my heart.
Unexpectedly, people read the words I had written in saltwater, even though I didn’t think they could or would be seen. They read and they wept, commenting through their own sobs about the raw, inescapable pain I flung at their screens. Anonymous cowards implied that my relationship was somehow inappropriate, my grief proof of, at best, a lack of boundaries, and at worst, some sort of Electra complex. But eventually, it got slightly easier. Barely.
Unless I was at weddings. The father-daughter dance always destroyed me. Still does.
It didn’t get better at the five-year mark. Or even the ten. Was it the fifteen? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s never been okay and at this advanced point, I doubt it ever will be. This week is never good. The gaping, father-shaped hole in my life has never been filled, and apparently, if I never have a child, I’m told it never will be; that’s exactly what every middle-aged woman on an unconventional path that isn’t ruled by fertility clocks wants to hear.
Maybe I will never be whole, or okay. I don’t understand how I can be. I was closer to him than many of my friends were with their parents. My father was a stay-at-home dad who raised us. He took us to auto shows instead of the mall and taught me every tool in his garage before I could read, so I could assist him with his beloved hobby of restoring classic American cars. He took us everywhere, junk yards, paint shops, auctions, dealerships, libraries, duck ponds, donut stores. He was an improbable feminist-traditionalist hybrid who made a huge show of how much fun he planned to have while designing my wedding even as he secretly encouraged me to never get married, because it was an overrated institution that rarely resulted in fulfillment.
If I did get married, he ordered me to keep my name, not because it was his (as I once joked), but because he said it was mine. Not my father-in-law’s. He was my most vocal critic but also, my most rabid fan. He suffered for me, regularly and horribly. The slings catapulted by society, strangers, and even my schools took their toll on him, but he diligently persevered. Back then, he was castigated for his extreme love, paranoia, and devotion to his two girls; now, helicopter parents unknowingly emulate his approach to raising children while smugly congratulating themselves on being superior to their inadequate, underachieving peers.
You were ahead of your time, Daddy. And damn it, you weren’t given nearly enough of it. I will be 41 in five days. You were only 61 when that blood vessel, strained beyond its limits, detonated and flooded your brain, all but killing you even as it mercifully prevented you from feeling any pain. I didn’t leave your side for more than five days, obsessing over your lack of movement, your slow decay, your phalanx of monitors and machines slowly unspooling the last inches of thread from your mortal coil.
I studied you more intently than any textbook I had ever overpaid for by the grace of your platinum card (a non-trivial number of which never left the thick, white, plastic bag they were transported home in, from the bookstore); back then, in a world of mere gold, those glittering plastic rectangles were as rare as the 1992 Motorola brick phone you bought me, so that I could always reach you (and really, so you could always find me). My friends were all taken aback at how lucky I was to carry both, in my preppy Ralph Lauren purse, in a brand new British car with reclining rear seats that were made out of the same leather used for Rolls Royces.
Everyone, seriously, EVERYONE criticized you for your excess and you, to employ a more recent colloquialism, had exactly zero fucks to give. You waited 38 years to become a parent, a lifetime for that era, and you were going to have a ball now that you had a baby to kick it to…not that you encouraged me to be athletic. You had other priorities, which meant I had other extra-curricular obligations. Speech and debate, JSA, the school newspaper, the actual newspaper (which allowed me to be a teen columnist at 15), internships, Spanish club, Radio and TV, Sunday School, Greek folk-dancing. People can find all the flaws they may care to in your indelicate way of expressing your strained love for me as we struggled through my tempestuous teenage years, but those ostentatious gifts were your silent, but emphatic signals that I was still your pride and joy, even if I disappointed you mightily and disrespected you constantly, leaving you bitter and disillusioned.
Again, you were perhaps ahead of your time. Now all the smug parents buy their children outlandish shit. Rather than being frowned at, it’s often envied. And they don’t even do all the other things you did, to ensure I wouldn’t turn out to be an asshole because of such privilege. But that was you, wasn’t it? Others may not have recognized or understood it, but you were consumed with the principle of balance, and it should surprise exactly no one that I am, too, even as it forever eludes me. My life is characterized by slanted plains, slippery and difficult to navigate, just like the Orthodox hill you were buried on, right outside of San Francisco — because no one is allowed to be buried in San Francisco. Oh, you thought those seven square miles only became precious recently? You were wrong. San Francisco has always attracted throngs of thrill- and fortune-seekers. There is no space for corpses or stones to commemorate them, in Baghdad-by-the-Bay.
You were lowered 12 feet into that wet, Colma ground on December 31, the last member of a cursed, unfair triumvirate of dates that will forever destroy the holidays for me (December 23. 29. 31. Did you notice they deployed her on the 23rd? I did. I can’t catch a fucking break and neither can she.)
I never got to say “good-bye”. I never got to say “thank you”. I never got to say “I love you.” And there are other factors I cannot include here, circumstances that make this whole, nasty saga so much worse, but I’ve already spent over three hours hemorrhaging salt water as I type this and ignore the many, many things I really ought to do, before I welcome a house guest and several hours later, a blessed, fresh new year.
Just as you talked about your own deceased parents every day, just as you called out to them occasionally in your troubled sleep, or wished for their counsel and comfort when life was awful to you, I am the heiress to a sadness that is heartrendingly vulgar. I am the son and heir, of nothing in particular. That’s right. I typed “son”. I typed it because my father never wanted one.
When I made my entrance at 11:46pm on the Saturday that marked the fourth day of January, he crowed to incredulous friends that he didn’t need a boy. And he treated me with the same extreme, zealous, excessively forgiving love that Indian sons are traditionally coddled in, daring anyone to side-eye him for doing so.
My father was a feminist and an iconoclast. He had zero patience with stupidity, racism, injustice, or inequality. He was right about everything with regards to race, class, and morality, it turns out, much to my chagrin and our collective dishonor. He was singular, a 5'5 colossus who was shorter than me, and he left an indelible impression on everyone he encountered, from salesgirls at Macy’s to Greek people in Sacramento who had the audacity to ask him when he converted.
The problem with legends who are larger than life is that they are impossible to move past. The very things which mark them as extraordinary ensure that you will eternally be haunted by loss, as you realize, every hour of every day, that you will never find anyone to replace them. You will never, ever again be the recipient of that kind of exquisite, audacious devotion and affection. There is no substitute for that kind of love, and even if one day, by some miracle, I do find myself diving into cash like I’m a cartoon duck, I will still be impoverished where it counts, because none of this means anything if the man who believed in me like no other cannot join my mother in loving and celebrating me when I finally do get my shit together. This is a specific, agonizing type of loneliness and it will never, ever go away.
Please. Call your parents. Tell them how much they mean to you. Say “I love you”, constantly. Because one day, and I pray it’s not soon, you will be the newest initiate to this devastating club, and then you’ll be haunted by all the things you got wrong, too. And if the universe is kind to you, you won’t be weeping in front of a laptop, turning a meager Facebook status update box into your blog, because nobody fucking reads blogs anymore, and that’s yet another reminder of how quickly the years are racing past you, taking you further and further away from a time when your champion was still here, laughing too loudly, living too boldly, and loving too fiercely, while beholding you with eyes that are identical to your own.