Last summer, days after my birthday, our family received a call in the middle of the night from my dad’s girlfriend, Pat. He’d died in her bed.
Before the call to my mother-his ex-wife, I got a text sent from my dad’s phone written by Pat. It said: “Please Call It’s An Emergency”. I was asleep when it came in.
So 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 finished it without pause. I said to the room’s darkness, “Dad died”.
I had made it to the age of 37 without receiving a single middle of the night phone call bearing bad news. In the early morning hours of July 17th, I was initiated into two clubs that no one wants to join: Daughters Who’ve Lost Their Fathers and People Who Listen For Calls In the Night.
I’d seen this exit coming; sensed the clouds moving in. Life doesn’t usually unfold this way– we don’t chose our actions based on clairvoyant knowledge of what lies ahead. But I glimpsed my father’s coming death with the same assuredness I felt seeing the R train pull into 36th Street station. My gratitude was proportionate to the gift. It was not too late to change this story’s end.
I’d last seen my dad exactly 9 months before his death-in my hometown New York. He’d been shockingly feeble as we walked three blocks from my office to Dinosaur Barbecue for lunch. It was a tense meal: I issued a carefully prepared salvo about being a better father to my younger brother. He was defensive but I’d said what I needed to say. That had been very important to me at the time.
That afternoon he flew home to Houston and almost died from a heart attack. I think he went straight to the hospital from the airport. This heart attack led to an operation that we were told put him in great shape–better than before.
The awful lunch and its near fatal aftermath left me with a supernatural certainty that he had one year, at most, left on the planet. A swift change of perspective took 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. The pain hadn’t healed, but it was offset by the acceptance of him as a man 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. Here I was, tasting equanimity and its correspondent reward: clarity and weightlessness.
I began sending him occasional text messages with pictures of what I was doing in New York. It was contact on my own terms-gentle and safe in its contained borders. I can’t say how it made him feel but I’d guess he was overjoyed to have his first daughter back in touch. He hadn’t been a part of my life for years-a choice I’d made in the interest of self protection.
Days before he died, I was celebrating my birthday in Houston, where my dad had lived for 33 years. He was out of town, visiting his ill brother in California. I had not planned on Texas for my 37th but in the midst of a cross country drive, there I was.
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 my 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 from the front seat.
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’. Ultimately we are alone in mourning.
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.
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