I started this blog eight years ago, and one of my first posts was a little prose poem about my fatherless childhood. A few weeks later, my dad called to wish me a happy birthday.
I picked up, even though I wasn't drunk. My parents divorced when I was two, and conversations with Dad were something I endured every year or so, like going to the gynecologist. The trick was to talk constantly so as to avoid awkward silences, while also steering clear of any topic that made me feel vulnerable, such as politics, feminism, race in America, my writing, my mother, or my hopes and dreams. It helped to be drunk.
Dad was retiring soon from the Oklahoma City urban planning department, and I asked about his plans. My stepmother’s parents had just died, leaving a hundred head of cattle orphaned on their ranch. Donna was trying to convince Dad to take the reins.
“But what I really want,” he said, his voice sheepish, “is to buy a big old RV and take Donna on the road. Just be a bum for a while.”
This made me unaccountably sad. Somehow I just knew it would never happen.
I could hear my husband lurking in the bedroom, pretending not to listen. Ethan was protective when it came to my complex parental relationships. He always took my side, even when I was wrong. This was one of his best qualities.
“I read your blog,” my father said.
My heartbeat accelerated as I tried to recall the last thing I’d posted.
“About when you and Danny were little.”
Oh God. The piece about our fatherless childhood.
It had never occurred to me my father might read that. I began apologizing, but he cut me off.
“I am so sorry I wasn’t there for you when you were growing up,” he said.
The words had the weighty feeling of something rehearsed. It made me intensely uncomfortable. My husband materialized by my side, placing one of his soft pianist’s hands on my shoulder.
“It’s alright, Dad,” I said. “Everything turned out okay.”
Mom had told me many times that she left my father for my sake – “It was okay to treat me like a piece of shit, but I wouldn’t let him do that to you” – and for all her apocryphal accounts, I believed this one.
“I felt sorry when I read your blog,” Dad drawled. “But that was just my first reaction. I read it again, and I thought...that’s a damn fine piece of writing.”
I was stunned. My father had criticized every piece of my work he had ever seen, dating back to the spice rack I made for him in fifth grade shop class. I think I dissociated a little.
When I got off the phone, my husband had tears in his eyes.
“Your father finally gave it up to you,” he said.
Ethan’s own parents had never acknowledged his musical talent. His father was a painter who drank himself to death when Ethan was nineteen. We had several of his canvasses in our apartment: portraits of classic cars whose surfaces reflected faces, farmhouses, Wisconsin cornfields. Ethan’s mother and her boyfriend lived in Minnesota, where they cared for a younger brother with fetal alcohol syndrome. They were kind people yet permanently diminished by life’s disappointments; both would be dead within the year.
Superficially, my husband’s closemouthed Norwegian people differed from my volatile mix of Texan bible thumpers and East Coast Jews. Yet our families shared all the things that really mattered: florid mental illness, bad luck, the tendency to hoard things and/or sell them on eBay, a solid commitment to substance abuse, and conflicting stories about who raped whom.
My marriage, as a consequence, maintained a foreign policy of splendid isolation. Ethan and I saw our birth families as a necessary yet painful part of our origin story, like the radioactive spider that bit Peter Parker. They gave us the wounds that made us interesting, but one bite was enough; we didn’t go back to the spiders’ for Passover.
A few years ago my father had come to stay with us in Brooklyn after one of his city planning conferences. The first thing he did was plug his iPod into our stereo and play his own music, an action my husband later described as “the most emasculating thing you can do to a jazz musician in his own home.” Dad was just trying to impress Ethan, but it was a misstep, as usual. The trip was full of them.
The “Slow Flow” yoga class we attended together was not meant as revenge. I thought it would be a relaxing exercise experience, but the founders of the Laughing Lotus Yoga Center obviously had in mind some strange usage of the word “slow” that I wasn’t previously aware of. Jasmine, a hypomanic brunette with no body fat, opened class with a ten-minute monologue about redecorating her altar. Dad’s two years of gentle yoga at the Oklahoma City YMCA had not prepared him for an ordeal on this scale.
My own yoga training had begun at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshire Mountains. In a Kripalu class, emotionally damaged people of all shapes and sizes rolled around on the carpet, weeping. I’d never quite adjusted to the cool-kids yoga of New York, which centered around a push-up-type movement called a “vinyasa” performed in $200 pants.
Dad’s problems were worse. Like most heavy people, he had trouble stepping forward from downward dog into the lunge because his belly got in the way. We had side-by-side mats, so I had an excellent view of his hernial efforts as he struggled to keep up with the blaring trance music. I telepathically begged Jasmine for help, but she was busy adjusting the sacrums of the more attractive students. She ignored my father’s labored breathing the way Martha Stewart might ignore a farting dinner guest. After a while, Dad grew fatigued and toppled over.
“This class is too advanced for you,” Jasmine hissed. “Please leave.”
Dad stumbled to his feet, blushing, and we rolled up our mats in silence. I felt like a horrible person. He had started taking yoga to connect with me, and here I was, setting him up to be humiliated. He and I were always out of sync, always trying to make up for time that was long gone.
After this visit, my husband said, “I have this feeling you should call your dad more. He’s not going to be around forever.”
I should have listened. My father took a bad fall off the porch steps of Donna’s family ranch, tearing the quadriceps tendons in both knees. His doctor recommended surgery to repair them. Double knee surgery on an inactive, overweight man seemed like a bad idea to me, but I didn’t get involved. I told Dad I would meditate and chant for him while he was under.
As I was leaving to teach yoga one day, my cell rang.
Dad was all alone in the recovery room, his voice groggy from anesthesia. The surgery was over. Not only had I not chanted or meditated, I hadn’t even thought of him at all. I stood on my stoop, blinking in the sun and trying to think of something to say. I was late for class and felt embarrassed, so I cut him short and got off the phone.
Two weeks later I thought about calling, but I decided to have a drink first. By the time I got drunk, I forgot.
The next weekend I was with Ethan in a hotel room in Philadelphia. My cell rang, showing an Oklahoma area code. It was a police officer, who said my father had died. I could hear my stepmother crying in the background.
I copied the words “pulmonary embolism” on a sheet of hotel stationery, my heart leaden with guilt. I tried to remember our last phone call.
Had I even said “I love you”?
I couldn’t remember.
I flew to Oklahoma, where two Presbyterian ministers – one fat and one skinny – were presiding over my father’s funeral. The fat minister was from the big church in Oklahoma City whose patrician congregation had made my father uncomfortable. He was pale and sweaty and looked on the verge of death himself.
“How would you describe Mike’s political views?” he asked us at the pre-funeral meeting.
We all remained silent, my stepmother because her mind was frozen with grief, her sister Janet because she was deferring to us, and me because I did not want to speak ill of the dead.
“Well,” drawled the fat minister, “would you say Mike was on the side of the little guy or of big government?”
The leading nature of the question enraged me.
“He would have said he was for the little guy,” I answered, “but he voted Republican.”
The fat minister regarded me with naked loathing. At the end of the visit, he turned to face Donna and Janet and said, “You’re such simple, unpretentious people. I know how much Mike valued that.”
The skinny minister received us in his small rural church in Ardmore, Oklahoma. He was upbeat, sales-oriented, and so white that he’d had the top of his head burned off to combat skin cancer. He told a fun story about how hard it had been not to cry at the last funeral he’d worked.
“One thing I’ve learned is that it’s always best to avoid unpleasant surprises!” said the skinny minister. “Any guests who might be a source of conflict?”
Donna looked at me.
“Mom isn’t coming,” I said.
“Well...now...Sarah, maybe she wants to come.”
I got that icky feeling that preceded our passive-aggressive negotiations about where to eat lunch. My stepmother never revealed what she wanted until I had chosen the other option.
“It didn’t occur to me to invite her,” I admitted.
Were exes supposed to come to a funeral? I certainly didn’t want her there. It was enough chaos dealing with my grief-addled stepmom, oversexed Granny with the early-stage Alzheimer’s, and Uncle Dave, who was writing a book on psychic Jesus.
“Isn’t it wonderful that we’re having this conversation now?” said the skinny minister. “No surprises!”
He told a story about a wedding he’d worked where the bride had entrusted his ministerial fee to her trashy, drug-addicted mother. The mom absconded with the cash, but he’d never told the couple because he didn’t want to ruin their special day.
“Why don’t you call your mother and invite her,” Donna said.
I detected in her voice a touch of martyrdom.
Back at the ranch, I called Mom and told her Donna said she was welcome to come but that everyone would understand why she couldn’t. I suggested a nice flower arrangement might be appropriate.
“Great!” Mom cried. “I’ll fly out with Dan!”
She was euphoric, viewing Dad’s funeral as an exciting vacation and chance to reconnect with old friends and enemies. I tried to dissuade her, but it was futile. When I told Donna my mother was coming, she burst into tears.
“Your dad’s got juice,” my husband said. “Two babes fighting over his coffin.”
I ironed the shirt my father wore. No one ever taught me to iron, so I went very slowly. It was thick blue cotton from Brook’s Brothers, and it looked good with his favorite tie, the one with the painted pear.
I wore a black velvet dress that I’d bought under peer pressure while shopping with a socialite. For some reason I had never returned it. It felt good to have something rich to put on for Dad.
I forced myself to approach the corpse, arrayed beneath an explosion of carnations. It looked something like my father. The rouged cheeks and painted lips were wrong, but the thick silver hair was handsome as ever. I touched the chest. Even through the jacket, shirt, and undershirt it was hard as stone.
At the service I read a list of sixty-two things I loved about my dad, one for every year of his life. As usual, I put in a dumb joke – #52: He had a cute accent, even though he thought I was the one with the accent – but the line that really had them rolling in the aisles was #42: He was coming around to the idea of being a rancher.
I hadn’t meant that to be funny. The funeral was in rural Ardmore, and I think it was Dad’s city slicker colleagues who were laughing. It was loud laughter, and I sensed beneath it an undercurrent of viciousness. I paused for a moment, feeling suddenly helpless. There were so many things about my father’s world that I would never understand.
When I returned a few weeks later to help Donna clean the house, I asked for the wireless password to check my email. She called out a string of digits.
My fingers froze. “That’s my birthday.”
“Your birthday was his password for everything,” she said.
It’s hard to explain why this detail should be what made me grieve. Maybe it’s because my father was a detail man. When I do math, I feel his mind in mine. Even in death he was orderly: all the bills filed away, written in his beautiful draftsman’s hand.
I cried then, and I am crying again now, thinking of my big, silent father typing my birthday into ATMs and voice mail systems, day after day. Meanwhile, weeks went by when he never even crossed my mind.
It was like getting to the end of a sad whodunit. All the clues: how my father used to say the happiest night of his life was a dinner spent with me and my brother; the countless strangers at the funeral who told me how proud he was of me; the dry-erase board at his office where I’d written “Hi Dad” when I was twelve, which he’d never let anyone clean, after all these years.
“Your parents are the people who always have to take you in,” my husband said. “When they’re dead, you have nowhere to go.”
Dad would have taken me in, but I had never asked. It became a point of pride never to ask him for anything. It hit me so hard. My father loved me. He had always loved me, and I never knew.