When Your Father Dies


I’ve crossed through a dark doorway, into a club that I don’t want to belong to, the club of fatherless children.

My father died last week. On his birthday, of all days. His death wasn’t unexpected, not at all. I was sure I knew how’d I’d feel when I got the “phone call”: relieved that his suffering ended with that last breath and sad, but nothing I hadn’t felt before, say, with the deaths of my grandparents.

I was wrong.

When your father dies, it’s nothing like you imagined it would be.

The onslaught of memories that keeps coming, the sudden tearing up and choking feeling, the regrets of words unsaid. Yes, that’s happening. And the immense, hollow feeling of “I’m never going to talk with my Daddy again,” that’s eating at me, too.

I’m staring down, into the abyss, as it were, asking myself, “Where are you now, Daddy?” I reach into my Catholic treasure chest, hoping to find a life raft among the tarnished holy medals and dog-eared catechism. But it’s no real help, all that dogma. Daddy abhorred religion, seeing only its twisted side, the violent and narrow-minded versions that crop up daily in newspaper and online headlines.

Pulling together photos and memories for the “Celebration of Life,” I cannot come to grips with the vibrant portraits of my father throughout his long life, contrasted with the man I last saw, barely able to stand or lift his hands or even to eat, his joy of living shrunk to the size of a shriveled grape.

When your father dies, it’s a shock to find yourself mulling over all the details that made him such a big part of your life. Although some people such as my brother seem bent on canonizing the man, Daddy often failed to measure up to what modern experts consider the ideal father. No, he never hit us, and the other day I was trying to recall if he ever did. No. However, his tongue could get a bit sharp now and then, that’s for sure. He just seemed, well, distant, at times when we needed him the most in his role as Dad. I must emphasize that if my father wasn’t always the best father ever when we were young, he was physically there all those years, getting up to go to work, making sure we had food to eat and clothes to wear, day in and day out. He cheered us on as we grew older, and became more and more the father we’d needed in the beginning.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just saying it straight here. I loved him, only I didn’t know just how much.

When your father dies, you suddenly become another person.

The fatherless child, left staring at the memories. That’s who.

Now I know.

© 2015 C. Bertelsen