Thoughts On My Father’s Death

Today would have been my father’s 65th birthday. He died this past Thursday, in his sleep, after a 15-year battle with drug addiction and untreated mental illness. I found out on Friday, my 33rd birthday. The last time I heard from my dad was two weeks prior to his death, in an email sent from an internet cafe in Hilo, Hawaii, the town near where he lived. The power was out at his house and had been for two months, because he couldn’t pay his bill. I hadn’t spoken to him, or written to him, or acknowledged him at all since March. Our relationship was, over the years, wonderful and difficult and horrible and bittersweet. He taught me many things and helped shape the person I am today. I’m overwhelmed with sadness, but also relieved that he won’t be in, or cause, pain anymore.

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to lose a parent you were close to, or who was otherwise healthy, or who died suddenly, or who suffered from cancer or some other prolonged illness. I can’t imagine how awful it must feel to lose a parent you depended on and trusted and adored and would miss every single day after their passing. But I tried to imagine, over the years, what it would feel like to lose my dad, who was destructive and unhealthy and suffered and caused suffering, who I used to be able to depend on but couldn’t anymore, who I didn’t trust or particularly always like.

As for missing him, I had been missing him for years, ever since he chose drugs over his family, his friends, and his job; I missed him every time we had an awkward and unpleasant phone conversation. I missed him every time I helped him make his mortgage payments, every time I loaned him money for things he never actually followed through on. I missed him even when our relationship was at its best a few years ago, when we used to Skype every few weeks, because even at its best it wasn’t what it could have been. Missing him even in the face of him I was used to, but it was actually losing him and everything he had been and become was what I tried to prepare for.

My brother and I had long feared that — despite seemingly having 30 lives and surviving multiple suicide attempts, car accidents, run-ins with the police and various nefarious characters, our dad’s luck would run out and his death would be just as destructive as the way he lived his life. That he would die in some horrific manner or that he would accidentally cause harm to others in the process. On the other hand, he had weathered so much and come out alive, it was almost like he was invincible. Last Thursday night, my brother and I had dinner and were discussing my dad’s most recent email. “I swear,” I said, “Dad is going to outlive us both.” The next day we found out that he had passed. He may have even been dead during our conversation. I don’t know yet. That he died so quietly and peacefully is a blessing I will feel eternally grateful for.

I know I did everything I could for him, that I tried to help him, that I tried to accept him, that I tried literally everything under the sun to make it possible for us to have a relationship, but in the end we couldn’t. I know intellectually that I shouldn’t feel guilty, though guilt might be too simple a word for the feeling anyway. It’s more of an intense mixture of pity, helplessness, and shame for both not being able to do anything about it and for not being able to stand it. I hope he knows that I loved him. I hope he thought I was a good daughter and a good person. I know he was proud of me — his last email told me that. I’ll keep it forever.

My dad was the biggest, and by that I mean dominant, presence and influence in my life. He was a wonderful father for a number of years. He played the Easter Bunny at my daycare center. He helped me get a leg up on math, reviewing my square and cube roots, on the mornings he drove me to school in his beat up VW van (I was in 4th grade). He encouraged me to write from a very young age; when I was 10, we wrote a book of poetry together. He taught me a lot of really important things, instilled me with certain values that he sometimes failed to adhere to himself, but that I have allowed to guide me through life. He’s the reason I’m a writer and he’s the person I most need to write about. He made some really shitty choices that he was too righteous to ever acknowledge and take responsibility for. He was kind and he was cruel, he was compassionate and he was manipulative, he was incredibly brilliant and he was arrogant, he was funny and he was inappropriate, he was everything. He was two people. I loved him and I hated him. And I cannot believe he’s gone.

I’m so sad there are things I never got to tell him, that he will never know if I have children, that the plans he outlined in his last email (to move to another part of the island and live in a yurt) which were never really going to come true now really won’t come true. And I am also so fucking relieved that the pain he lived with all his life, physically, mentally, and spiritually, is over. That he’s stopped chasing the unattainable at the expense of the things that really matter. That he’s at peace now and now maybe my brother and I can finally be too.

My dad loved Van Morrison, particularly the more mystical albums he recorded in the ’80s featuring songs that are never available at karaoke. These are the songs that will always make me think of him. “In the Garden,” off the album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, is the song I’ve listened to the most in the last few days, bringing me much comfort along with plenty of tears. They’re the kind of tears that are full of sorrow but so, so joyous too, which I think encompasses the feeling we often have when someone we love dies. I hope every time I play it, he hears it and knows that I’m saying I love you.