Last summer, days after my birthday, we received a call in the middle of the night from my dad’s girlfriend, Pat. He’d died in her bed and she was the one who’d brought him to the emergency room.
Before the call, received by my mother, his ex-wife, my siblings and I had received texts from our Dad’s phone actually written by Pat: they read “Please Call It’s an Emergency”. We were asleep when those texts came in.
It was my mom who woke me to share the news. I was not surprised. As I sat up in bed, bleary eyed, to a sentence beginning with ‘I have something to tell you’, I broke in with ‘Dad died’ before she finished.
Amazingly I’d made it to the age of 37 without a single middle of the night phone call bearing bad news. So I was initiated that evening into two clubs that no one ever wants to join; Daughters Who’ve Lost Their Fathers and People Who Listen For Calls In the Night.
But I’d seen it coming; felt the foreboding in my body and acted with the advantage that knowing the future bestows. It was a gift–probably a one time thing, but I received this certainty of coming death with immense gratitude because it wasn’t too late to shift course if I acted immediately.
It happened when I’d last seen my dad 9 months ago in New York. He’d seemed profoundly, shockingly feeble. We’d had a tense lunch after which he flew home to Houston and almost died from a heart attack upon arrival. That heart attack led to an operation that we were told put him back in great shape.
The awful lunch and its aftermath left me with an almost supernatural certainty that he had no more than a year left. A swift change of perspective took firm hold: the father I blamed for numerous hurts and an ongoing failure to engage received my complete and total absolution. He wasn’t what I’d needed and still needed because he simply wasn’t. To be clear, the pain hadn’t healed, but I looked on him as someone constitutionally unable to do any better, certainly not now as he ran a final lap.
All those years of therapy and conversations about the past hadn’t done it. And now here I was, standing in this new space of illumination through grace.
I began sending him occasional text messages with pictures of what I was doing with my life in New York. It was contact on my own terms–gentle and safe feeling in its contained, secure borders. I can’t say how it made him feel but I’d guess he was overjoyed to have his oldest daughter back in touch, however soft the touch was. He had not been a part of my life for years–a choice I’d made based on self protection.
Days before he died, I was celebrating my birthday in Houston, where he lived, while he was in California visiting family. We were driving cross country for a move and hadn’t planned on Houston for my 37th, but there we were.
I drove by his beloved church in hopes of meeting his pastor, a man whose sermons he regularly emailed to me. I parked and found my way to the church’s offices–it was a boiling hot Tuesday in July. Reverend Miller was there in his office, wearing a light suit and priest’s collar. He received us warmly and suggested a tour around the church; we walked and talked for half an hour along with my mother–it was clear he knew little about us but we navigated the awkwardness with relative ease.
Before I left I had a picture taken of the two of us, which I texted to dad. Back in the car, I got an immediate call from California, and he insisted I pull over so we could talk. I was not going to answer the phone because I was driving but my mom insisted on it.
We spoke in a gas station parking lot. He was OVER THE MOON that I’d met his friend and pastor, Patrick. He cited the Holy Spirit as Facilitator of the unplanned visit. The encounter meant just as much to me—I’d brushed up with an intimate part of his life that severed the estrangement between us more profoundly than any of my previous overtures.
It was the last conversation we had because 48 hours later he was gone.
The pain came, as it surely would, and I was told by two therapists that I was experiencing “complicated grief”. The so called hardest kind; the kind one feels when a relationship was fraught with contradictions—love, hurt, adoration, disillusionment. But guilt never entered the picture–the guilt that would have eaten me alive had I not made the move from estrangement to mild connectedness in those final months.
I met the loss by myself because grief is tailor-made. Mine was utterly unlike my mom’s or my siblings’. So ultimately we are alone in grief.
Utterly alone and at its capricious mercy through the following days, months and years.
The grief is a sacred space, hushed like an empty church on a scorching hot Texas summer day.
I let it lead me where it will.