She was four years old and oblivious to any wrong she’d done when her father yanked her into the air by her hair. It was uncalled-for and extreme. They were in the living room in the duplex of her earliest memories, on Walnut Street. The little girl was confused about what she’d done to set him off this time, she couldn’t hear what he was saying or the tone of voice he used. She tried to stay still instead of wriggling around, waiting for her feet to touch the floor again, wanting to be comforted and how it never came…
I barely have any memories left of my dead father.
The memories I do have are like the one above, the ones filled with the most pain. Scientific research shows memories are like that. We tend to remember most vividly the worst ones. It’s one of those good ol’ fashioned evolutionary survival tactics, like fear and the fight-or-flight response. Paying extra attention to the bad memories helps us to survive future threats. My memory is always waiting for the next disaster to strike.
I had a whole childhood filled with incredible Christmases. I’m told there was ample joy and excitement and I believe this is true. But the two Christmases I remember most are the year my parents got into a really bad fight and my mom didn’t attend church with us, and the year after that when they were divorced and Dad wasn’t there until after we had already opened our gifts. He didn’t stay too long visiting that year. I didn’t know that soon he wouldn’t be there at all on Christmas, that soon he wouldn’t even call.
The year my parents got into their last Christmas blowout fight, the only gift I remember is the Hanson brothers’ CD. I remember over-performing how happy I was to receive it, screeching and squealing with delight, making a whole scene of it, like if I just showed I was grateful enough I could make my parents love each other again.
The Christmas after their separation I remember how red my dad’s eyes were that day more than anything else. I still see that glossy red color as clear as if it were yesterday, and the little stabs in my heart it created, the way it sealed our fate, our new life without him. The way Dad sat on Mom’s sheet-covered couch with his hands in his lap, drooping like a weeping willow. It was 5 days before my 10th birthday–I don’t remember that either.
Memories are unfair because they act more like a patchwork catalog of emotional trauma, than a historical account of what actually happened. It’s all those memories of my father that I don’t have that I’m mourning. The hopeful fantasy that there was still time yet to make them… Someday… Now I mourn the death of that fantasy.
There’s also all the memories he’s so clearly and painfully missing from. How do I write about someone who’s dead who was rarely present when he was alive? My father’s been gone from this world for two years now. But two years isn’t really that long when I think about it, because he disappeared for two years at a time pretty regularly. Usually hitting jail a few times in between sporadic phone calls from random numbers. After the age of 12, almost every memory of my dad happened on a phone call.
I was pacing around my little studio apartment in South Philadelphia while my father told me how he had gotten into a drunk driving accident. He laughed it off like it was a lighthearted knock knock joke. They had given him pain pills at the hospital. I remember how sticky my hardwood floors were and how I thought I should get off the phone with him and mop them–but I was too scared to say goodbye. I never knew when I might reach him next.
I was pacing around Point Breeze as the sky darkened while my father told me he drank just a few beers on St. Patrick’s Day. “It doesn’t really count” he told me. He told me everything was fine–great even. Things were looking up for him finally and he wasn’t going to do anything stupid like he did last time he was drinking–the time he robbed the donations from his Salvation Army bell ringer’s parole job. He left his post with other people’s spare change in his pocket to go directly to the liquor store. It wasn’t his fault they stationed him right outside of a liquor store. He didn’t mean to end up in jail that time either.
I remember crying and wondering if people could hear me from inside their barred windows, and how my tears froze on my face because it was still winter in Philadelphia. How nothing I said made one speck of difference. How I shoved my wet cell phone back into my pocket, looked around to see if anyone was watching, then paced back home.
I spoke to my father after he had surgery to remove the cancer from his lungs. He had been put into a medically-induced coma to help him detox from alcohol long enough so that they could perform the surgery without him suffering dangerous and deadly DTs. I remember how my cancer-free pops swore he was a changed man now, how he wasn’t going to take life for granted, how he would never drink or smoke again, as I was pacing through a park in Cincinnati. I remember how pretty the flowers looked and how the sun seemed to shine a little brighter that day. How hopeful I felt.
I remember the call from my estranged older cousin a week later, pacing back and forth through that same park. She told me how my father had gotten kicked out of their house for smoking, drinking and stealing money from them.
I remember pacing the grocery store in Berkeley on Easter after not hearing from my father since I lived in Ohio, but I can’t remember anything I bought there. I remember how he had no explanation for being out of touch for so long, and how I broke down on the drive home and told him I hated him. When I got home I threw a tantrum on my bed for the abandoned child inside me. I shook with a lifetime of betrayal and rage. I remember how sick I was of him pretending nothing was wrong, how angry I was to still feel like a victim, how desperate I still was for his approval, and how I vowed to never, ever speak to him again. There were papers all over my bedroom floor. I had been writing essays for graduate school. I tore them all up.
But I did speak to my father one last time. I was pacing a hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah two years later, where we spoke our last words. I remember how cold the air conditioner was, how loudly it buzzed. How unfair it all felt, how unfair it always was.
How I was always pacing.
In a way, my father was with me all those places, the south side of Philadelphia, the suburbs in Ohio, a grocery store in Berkeley, a random hotel in Salt Lake City. Places we’d physically never gone together, but places I’d carried him nonetheless. For years we were only together through an alternate reality connected by copper telephone wires and cables, and later electrical energy and radio waves. Stuff I don’t really understand.
Like that Georgia O’Keefe painting, From the Faraway, Nearby. My dad was faraway, but nearby too. In this alternate reality that seemed to barely exist, because afterwards I’d put down the phone, wipe the tears, tell myself it’s fine and keep pacing forward.
What I can’t remember is a single time my father told me “I love you”. Even though I’m positive I heard those words from him many times. I also know, deep down, in his own sick and limited way, he meant it.
I can’t recall a single specific time my father made me smile, yet I know it happened. I mean, it must have happened, right? So I mourn for that too, for those good memories I can no longer recall.
I got an unexpected phone call recently that a young woman I knew died tragically. I didn’t know her that well personally, but half the furniture in my bedroom is hers. A few years ago she offered me her bedroom in San Francisco for a great price, and threw in all the furniture she wasn’t taking with her to New York. I’m not sure why it happened, she could have offered it to someone else, someone she knew better, but finally I got the chance to move to my dream city. A month later my father died and I didn’t leave that bedroom for weeks. That new bedroom filled with her stuff was all I had in this world. Sitting here, looking at myself in her vintage vanity mirror that’s mine now, I realize I might not have moved to San Francisco at all without her.
It’s humbling, the cosmic threads that bind us to other people. We’re inextricably tied up in each other. Sutured. Stitched up in ways that never seem that poignant until the threads are cut. So it seems, we are unraveled by each other too.
How many lives are tied up in your memories? How many different threads are interwoven? How many have already been cut?
When I think about my grandma, I rarely think about what it was like at “the end”. My grandma had dementia that peeled her away like the pages of a tear-off desk calendar. I don’t often think of her 75 pound body bag of bones when she died. The sunken-in-ness of where her cheeks used to be. How her lips dried up like prunes and the way they looked while Mom was trying to get her to drink Ensure through a straw. How she stopped recognizing me and looked at me with empty eye sockets. How she didn’t get to keep a single memory, good or bad.
What I remember first is the sound of her laugh, the way she’d tilt her head back and really belt it out, the way she’d widen her eyes and sigh “c’est la guerre”. How she always did crosswords in the mornings and drank martinis at ungodly hours and kissed all my boyfriends on the lips and told me I was simply mah-ve-lous -dah-lin’ with her sweet Southern drawl. How she wasn’t my blood grandma but she was the closest family I had. How she never cooked or cleaned a day in her life and kept newspapers in her oven. I’m grateful to at least have a little good mourning there.
But sometimes it’s tedious and painstaking work just to have good mourning. Some memories are forever buried. Some memories no longer exist, no matter how earnestly I want to call them back. Yet, other memories, I just can’t seem to wash my hands clean of them. It’s possible I never will.
Some things just aren’t meant to be cast away.
I don’t get to choose which memories take which path. These are vast open spaces still left to heal.
Pictured: From The Faraway, Nearby by Georgia O’Keeffe
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