Excepting the occasional son like Dylan Thomas, I suspect that all families–however uniformly happy or uniquely unhappy–have a common hope for their frail and failing parents: a good and peaceful end. My father died in his sleep last night and I am deeply grateful. The years were hard on my father. When I saw him for his ninetieth birthday last month, he squeezed my hand, his mouth a grim and determined line as he whispered, “Age is cruel, daughter. Cruel.”
Mercy does not obliterate grief, however much it may soften its hard blow. I am thankful that the cruel hand of age no longer clutches at him, but to finish that sentence without qualification proves impossible.
Perhaps the greatest mercy in this moment is that what I find flooding over me are the not recriminations or the disappointments that burdened me for years, but the memories of a sweet, sweet man, for my father was a man of personality and charm before he dwindled into shadow. Shadows stripped away, I find myself reckoning with how deeply I am my father’s daughter. Suddenly, rather than associating him with the things I hate most about myself– cowardice in the face of confrontation, quickness to be moved to tears, the temptation to practice peace at all costs even when the cost is one’s own well-being–I am realizing that he planted the seeds of my most formative and abiding loves within me. I am more deeply indebted to him than I ever recognized, much less told him.
My father used to say that my sisters got our brains from our mother and our looks from him. That was one of his frequent quips, alongside his impish exhortation to “Give me a kiss and I’ll forgive you” when he made a mistake of some sort or the other. Yet, however much he saw our mother in us, however much she was a force of nature, it is to my father that I owe my adoration of language and story. Yes, my mother would send me to the dictionary and I’d get lost there, but it was William Henry Smith who inspired me with that insatiable hunger for the just the right word. That, at least, was the lesson that I took away from the dinner table at the age of five when he shook a bottle of slightly cemented ketchup until it could be cajoled from the bottle and then explained the dance from coagulated goopiness to liquid and then back to goopiness as thixotropy. Ketchup was thixotropic.
Thixotropic. Callooh! Callay! She chortled in her joy.
Both my parents read to my sisters and I as children, but my father spun us his own stories as well. Every daughter had her own stories. Mine were the adventures of Baby Ruth and her father. They went hiking and encountered rattlesnakes. They saw wolves. They shared the outdoors my father loved, but had so little time to spend in.
As my memory leapfrogs to showing him pictures last summer of the caves in Mammoth National Park where my sisters and I puttered happily and deliriously around for a few days, I realize that love too is part of his daughters’ shared inheritance: his wondering, curious love for nature and her mysteries. Even as I write this I foresee that grieving my father will be rather like writing a thank-you note with a thousand post-scripts.
“Oh! I nearly forgot, Dad. Thank you for….”
That I never told him how I owe my greatest loves to him is to me a greater regret than the fact that I have not sent him anything I’ve written for years, or that I have not shared my life with him in any meaningful way for years. To share nothing of any meaning was easier than trying to speak of hard truths, especially when my father’s loss of hearing required speaking loudly. Some truths have a best-by date. Spoken thereafter, they are merely hurtful and serve no good purpose. To yell them is impossible.
Still, I could have, and I wish that I had, thanked him for the good loves even if I’d had to shout it. Love is always worth remembering. Always worth speaking.