My father died when I was fourteen. It was sudden in that no one saw it coming, but maybe we should have. He was angry. Short of breath. He snuck cigarettes behind the shed. Gardening wore him out and though capable of long conversations about art and his willingness to build strange contraptions in his woodshop, his patience was short and thin and easily bruised. He was forty-nine when he died.
He left behind a number of items and artifacts. The pin he earned for being in the theater at CCNY. A wool sweater, frayed at the elbows. A fountain pen with a bladder crumbled from age. Some were given away or parsed out to family members. Others were donated or thrown away. Material goods come and go. But one thing he left remains firm.
When the parent of a child dies, they leave a mystery in their absence. As time passes, and that child grows, the questions and clues become more complex. Who was this person? What did they really feel? What hard decisions, what grand ideas crossed their mind? How am I like them? What would they think? And who were they really?
Like the living, those who have passed transform over time. Alongside our own changes, our relationships with others, including those we’ve lost, change as well. When I was fourteen, my father was larger than life. He bought a donut fryer and a Vic 20 computer that stored information on cassette tapes. He sang Broadway show tunes at the top of his lungs and never ate the garden vegetables he grew.
As I embarked on my own working life in my twenties when he would’ve been in his mid-fifties, I discovered that he was a flawed man who preferred work to family. I suspected that he was deeply disappointed by his children and what they were on track to become. As a kid, I accepted his criticism as truth. At twenty-five, I’d already struggled enough working towards my dreams to learn that perfection is the enemy of greatness, an idea I don’t think he ever considered.
When I decided to go to cosmetology school, my mother invoked his name and memory to tell me he’d be rolling in his grave over my decision. In my thirties, while I worked backstage as a wig master for Broadway shows, I understood him as an artist who’d given up his dreams to support his family. The depth of his love and loyalty went beyond anything I could ever understand. He had sacrificed himself for us.
I thought of him often when I worked on Broadway and sometimes wondered if I was living the life he wished he’d had. When I was a kid, he designed intricate Hallowe’en make-ups for me and my sisters. His record collection consisted mainly of Broadway soundtracks. Seeing a show left him exuberant. His joy was contagious.
During my years working backstage, I often pictured showing him around. We watched Urinetown from the back of the house and Jersey Boys from the wings. I showed him props from Memphis and the beautiful costumes from The Violet Hour. As I changed the head-dresses of chorus girls in The Producers, he relished in the backstage antics of Roger De Bris. I was happy to give him all of it. I was his equal. If he was alive, I imagined his unbridled glee while shaking hands with actors and carpenters and stagehands. He would finally, finally, be proud of me and my work.
I don’t remember much about the day he died, but I do remember waiting for a long time outside his hospital room with my mother and one of my sisters. When the doctor finally came to us, he said, “He told me to tell you that he loves you very much.”
I think about this moment in his life. A man at the precipice of death took a moment to turn back and face his family. His body was wracked with pain, but he was becoming free. The love it took for him to utter those words with chaos swirling around him speaks of a generosity I didn’t realize he had until I loved a man, married and divorced, cooked my own meals, grew my own garden, conquered a few fears and let others conquer me.
Memories grow and change. Relationships grow and change, too. Even relationships that seemingly ended in their infancy.
I haven’t seen my father for over thirty years. How is it that I know him better now than I did when he was alive, when my memories were unfettered by the passage of time? How can I understand him better now than when I knew him as a child? How does the mystery become greater as time spreads us farther apart?
On Father’s Day, I think of all the people who celebrate with their fathers and have the joy of watching their parent grow old and I wonder who my father would’ve become had he lived. But I also give thanks for the mysteries and shifting memories he left me. My inheritance is our ever-changing relationship, which has accompanied me throughout my life, slowly revealing his secrets and dreams, slowly showing me who I am, who I’ve become and most importantly, who my father truly was.
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