ON WISHING YOUR FATHER WAS DEAD
This is a picture and my dad and I, when I was much younger and had much less hair.
I loved him very much. Still do. But when I was 20 years old, I wished for nothing more than his death. And I got what I asked for.
Here are a few things to know about my father:
His favorite movies were Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His favorite book was A Prayer For Owen Meaney.
He enjoyed his anti-heroes. The guys you rooted for in the most un-heroic circumstances. The badasses. The rebels (back when that type of thing existed, before it became so easy to go to the mall and buy the rebel’s costume and sort of become one instantly). The ones who just lived.
He loved a good argument. And he could be mean as hell, but he was also nicer, and more loving, and compassionate than most men can ever dream of being. He wasn’t a super hero or a rockstar. He was just this guy who collected records and Kurt Vonnegut books, who liked to talk about politics, who enjoyed a good drink if the occasion was right, and who, when he grew up, and started a family, loved them as best as he knew how, even if he sometimes didn’t really know how.
We used to get into terrible arguments while he tried to help me with my math homework. So much so that it was decided he should no longer try and help me with my math homework.
He was overprotective, but the best fathers are.
He never really knew what to get me for my birthday, but he always made sure to pick out something from just him anyway. And he usually got it pretty right.
My favorite gift he ever got me was a cherry red Takamine acoustic guitar, which, later on, was stolen from me, by someone who I’m sure has absolutely no idea what that guitar was really worth to someone. They’d damn well better enjoy it.
It was the last gift he’d ever give me.
When I was 16, having recently been grounded for some youthful indiscretions involving shoplifting lipgloss from a CVS, my parents came home from work, sat me down, and told me that my father had cancer. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), to be precise. In some ways, it was good. They’d originally thought he had the acute form of the disease, which would give him only six months. Now, he could expect to have four years. And that’s almost exactly how long he ended up having.
I don’t have a lot of things to remember my father with. He was always taking the pictures, so there aren’t a lot of him in our family photo albums. We weren’t one of those families who recorded vacations, so that’s not around, either. I have this stuffed giraffe he bought me which I still hold onto. And I have a lot of memories, too, but I won’t get into those right now.
He did an interview with a health website once, to tell people about some clinical trials he’d participated in. There was an audio recording of it. I used to go to it, because it was the only way I could hear his voice after he died. But I tried to listen to it the other day, and it had been taken down. The transcript’s still up, but it’s not the same.
Sometimes I worry that I’m starting to forget him. Like, for instance, his voice. I can kind of vaguely remember it, but it’s not as sharply etched into my brain as it used to be. More like a faint whisper than a crisp recording.
I remember a lot of awful stuff from when he was sick, and I hate that these are the last memories I have of my father, because they’re not him. He was confused and scared and unable to care for himself. He was anorexic and jaundiced and a number of other absolutely terrible things that I don’t feel like discussing.
Unlike the men in his favorite movies, my dad was never committed to a mental institute or sent to jail. But he was always a man with spirit. With attitude. He was always a man.
I remember watching him get sicker, and thinking that this wasn’t him. And he didn’t want to be that person anymore, either. When he realized that the only way he would continue to live would be to spend his life in a hospital, he put a stop to it. He went home, and he made a conscious choice not to be sick for any longer than absolutely necessary.
After a while, he was barely there. Seemingly not at all most of the time. But every once in a while, something would slip out. He asked if we had paid all the bills. He smiled and told me he loved me the night before he died. He grabbed my mother’s hand the next morning and held it until she fell back to sleep, and when she woke back up, he had passed away.
The scream I let out when I heard he’d died was more primal than any noise you could probably imagine. But I remember feeling relieved at the same time. He was stuck inside of a feeble body, and it wasn’t him.
So much of the time, all I could think about was the movies that he loved so much. About Luke and Randle. I kept thinking about the Chief, who also saw a man stuck inside a body that kept him from living with the independence and autonomy he demanded.
I imagined I was the Chief. That my father was Randle. I looked at the pillow on his bed every night, and thought about using it to put an end to his indignity.
I didn’t have to, though. The hospice nurses gave him a month. In reality it was closer to a day.
I can’t say I would have used that pillow, either. But on so many nights, I wished I could.
It’s been a decade, but I still miss him. It doesn’t really go away. It’s not as constant as it was towards the beginning, but when the feeling happens, it’s still just as acute as the day he died. I don’t think that will ever change.
There’s no substitute for a bad-ass dad. For a guy who teaches you to read, to take pictures, and to shoot pool. Who introduces you to music you actually like and movies that you actually want to watch for yourself. Who wanted John Prine played at his funeral instead of an organist.
Every daughter should be lucky enough to have a father like that.
And as much as I wish he’d never gotten sick in the first place, if living meant suffering, then I love him enough to say that I’m glad he’s dead.