Today is my dad’s birthday.
I struggled for a minute with how to write that sentence, wondering whether it should be past tense. Today “was” my dad’s birthday? No. He’s gone, but this day is still here, and it is still the day he was born.
Writing this feels a little self-absorbed, and I suppose maybe it is. But I’m not writing to avail myself of a deluge of sympathy. Far from it. I write to understand, or at least to articulate my own feelings. Writing is how I think.
Death is one of those things that reduces us all to the indiscriminate use of cliches. We want so badly to understand, to have at hand a useful narrative, a device that lets us impose some shape and order on the event. We want a chance to say, “Hey, wait a second, not so fast. I demand an explanation.” But no such explanation is forthcoming. So, in the place of genuine insight or, better yet, a full embrace of unspeakable complexity and stifling grief, we hear ourselves saying things like, “At least he didn’t suffer.”
I wish I could write my way to a better sentiment, but the reality of my dad being gone feels ineffable. There’s just no way to understand the abrupt, absolutely final absence of a person who was always there. There is a void where there once was a massive presence. He always paid for everything. He always took care of everything. He always knew everything (or at least pretended to). He was how information traveled in our family; now it’s like the Internet is suddenly gone forever.
Since he died, everything has had the feeling of slowly and uncertainly shifting, changing its flight pattern, recalibrating how it orbits. Things feel tentative. There is a question of hierarchy. Of course, there is no final org chart. At the precise moment that matters feel nicely arranged, part of you knows in a far off way that the next big change is already in the works.
I know a few simple things. I think about him a lot. I feel more empathy for him now than I did when he was alive. It’s tempting to translate that into regret; it would have been good of me to share some of that empathy with him. It might have helped him. But maybe now it’s helping me.
I wish I’d had more patience with him. I often thought he was deliberately trying to get on my nerves. Maybe he was, but, looking back, I don’t think it was that simple. I think he was trying to get my attention. He didn’t know how — in fact, he frequently undermined it — but he wanted to connect.
One of the cliches that’s taken hold is this: I think he knew he was at the end. The last time I saw him, two weeks before he died, he told me he loved me and was proud of me with a sincerity so out of character that it unnerved me. There was a clarity about him at that moment, a determination to unambiguously deliver a message, even (yes) a sense of peace. It was a sad kind of peace, but peace nonetheless.
It’s been hard to think about anything else today. I don’t like how death quickly compressed his life, like a zip file, into a series of images and episodes and memories, whether good, bad, or in between. Death just moves much too quickly. All of the nuance, the ephemera, the details, the footnotes, the stories within the stories — they’re all in danger now of being absorbed into the movie version of the book that was his actual life. It’s not that I don’t like the memories; it’s that I don’t like the abruptness, the compression. Events from my childhood are now on the same level as the recent past. They’re all part of the narrative of my dad, and my dad is gone. It’s too easy to divide his life into two or three chapters. This is terribly hard to explain, but there’s something here that I resent. Maybe it’s the forced narrative of it all. Because what I really want, and I think about this quite a bit, is to go back and be able to talk to him like two men rather than like a father and a son. Father and son was a tough dynamic for him and me. But, had we just been two guys, I think we would have gotten along pretty well. We would have fished together. He would have caught more.