My dad was the kind of guy who would do anything for me. My memories of him are very twisted and difficult to discern. Part of this is because I don’t have very many of them. He was my dad for all of four or five years before he died, when I was seven. Another part is because the whole experience of him dying was beyond traumatic. I did my utmost best to hide the bits and pieces of my father in the dark recesses of my mind. It was my childhood mind trying to protect me from something so tragic and heart-breaking that there wasn’t any telling if I’d be able to bounce back. Obviously, I’m alive and well, so I’ve done some bouncing from the trauma. But it still lives in my heart and in my mind. He’s everywhere and nowhere for me. He’s in my dreams and in my fantasies and he’s right down the road, being all dead and whatnot. He lives in the blood of the veins of the people in his family and the memories they hold to share with me. He lives in the beating heart of my two step brothers and my half-brother. He lives in the mind of my mother. In me? Well. I know he lives on in me. But sometimes, I find it hard to figure out where exactly he is at the moment.
When I was two or three, my mother was a single parent. She was set up on a date with someone she worked with. He was in the printing department of where she worked. Printing was the family’s life blood for my father’s family. They were all printers and to this day, some of them still are. My uncle, the youngest brother of my father, still runs what’s left of the family business. Anyway. He showed up at the door while I was being my young self and doing whatever it is that I did at that time. When I looked up at this man who walked through the door for the first time, I said, “Daddy.” There was nothing more to it than that. As far as my little head was concerned, the man entering our house was my father. And while I don’t doubt he was in love with my mother and all her charms, I only just added to the package. A daughter. A daughter. He had two sons and chances are that was all he was going to have was boys. And here he had a woman he cared for with a daughter. He could be the man on the porch with the shotgun, scaring away the boys. He would be the guy who taught me how to dance. He would take me to a father-daughter dance and he would swing me around in his arms while I was laughing at whatever we were talking about.
Dreams. Dreams. We all have dreams and my father’s biggest, baddest, and boldest was being my father.
I remember that, as a child, the relationship between my mother and father was rocky. He wanted to be a parent and he wanted to be a husband, but he didn’t know how to fix the demons that were eating him alive. And really, there is no other explanation for his behavior. From the little bits that I’ve gleaned from conversations as a child and from the pieces my mother has told me, my father lived with some very big demons. He had a box of things that he carried around with him, wherever he went, and when he was dying, he asked my mother to throw it away. He said not to go into that box, ever, and just to throw it away. Curiosity is a dangerous beast, but he trusted my mother enough to know that she would do with it as he had asked of her. And she did. We don’t know what lived in that box or what sort of monsters were hiding there. All we know is that the box was a kind of cross to bear, his to be exact, and when he died, it went with him.
I remember that, one night, they were fighting and my mom took us over to my grandparents’ house for the night. I don’t know what transpired, but I ended up going with him instead of staying the night with my mom and little brother. We watched Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony on the TV in his room. We were up until late. Another time, he was taking me home from the baby sitter’s house when I started freaking out because there was a bee in the backseat with me. He pulled over, got out, opened the door, and ushered the bee out of the car so that I would calm down. He always made me feel like I was super-duper special and that he would move Heaven and Earth to make sure everything was okay for me. I know that my daddy wasn’t perfect and that he screwed up with a lot of things – one of those harsh lessons all children must learn: their parents are human. But, he did his very, very best to always make it seem like he could fix anything. And as far as I could see, as a young child, that was the case.
But, like I said. Every child has a harsh lesson to learn about their parents and that lesson is that they are human. They are not Superman or Superwoman. They are the sum total of their experiences and they put those into practice as best they can. My father succeeded in some areas and failed in others. We all fail sometimes, but my father’s failure was the biggest. He got sick. He lingered. He grew tiny. He died.
When I was very young, he got sick. I don’t remember when he got sick, but I think it was around the time that I started hiding in the pantry on Fort Pleasant. I remember I would hide in there, trying to fit underneath the cabinets because it was a hiding place. I was a princess in need of rescuing, or something. I remember watching him get smaller and smaller. He was never a big guy to begin with, so watching him lose weight was hard. He started sleeping with his eyes open and that was a weird sight. He had to go to the hospital a lot, but I don’t remember visiting him more than a handful of times. The one clear memory of seeing him in the hospital was, I’m pretty sure, at the Veteran’s Hospital in Holyoke. There were green floors and a big, huge doorway and in that doorway was my dad. He was lying all hooked up and I was playing in the hallway.
My dad contracted AIDS before there were new and innovative drugs to keep it at bay. When he got sick, it was the late 80s. It was still the “gay disease.” It was still unknown and misunderstood. All we knew was that he was going to die. I remember not telling anyone in school that my dad was sick. I don’t know what it was that kept my tongue in check. I wasn’t the most friendly of children and a bit of a loner, anyway, but I had some friends. I could have said something, but I didn’t. I ended up lying later – I told everyone he died of cancer. That was back in the days when most people thought that catching AIDS was as easy as catching a cold. They didn’t realize that kisses and hugs were okay. It wasn’t contagious like a head cold. It just was. And I got to watch bit by bit as my dad slowly went from the Superman that he was in my head to a skeletal figure.
There is something completely heart-rending about watching your parents die. There is something so painful and heart-breaking about watching someone you love and care about so much slowly but surely make the long journey toward death. As a child, you always think that they’ll bounce back. And I know for a while that I thought he would be okay after the right medicine. Isn’t that what doctors do? They give you the right medicine? But, this is around the time that I became disenchanted with doctors and strangely enough, wanted to start thinking about a career in the health field to help other people. You see, the doctors couldn’t fix him. His demons were eating him alive in the form of AIDS.
The night he died, I was awake. I heard my mom crying. I heard my dad yelling. I heard the two of them saying their final goodbyes and then I fell asleep. I dreamed about him. He was talking to me but I don’t remember what he said. And the next morning, I got up and my mom’s best friend was lying in the living room on the pull-out couch. And my entire world changed. The Superman who had loved and cherished me was gone. The father I had was gone. The man who was supposed to love me, hold me, dance with me, scare away prospective suitors, and make me feel beautiful all the time was gone forever.
I was angry. I was hurt. I knew it was coming, but that doesn’t stop the feelings that eat you up. I’m still angry. Why did you do this? I want to ask him. Why were you so stupid? On the other hand, I just want him to hug me again and make me feel safe. I need my Daddy. My mom needs my Daddy. My little brother needs my Daddy. Instead of being a cohesive family unit, or even a close approximation of one, we’re scattered to the winds. Instead of turning to one another with our pain and our hurts, we’ve pushed one another away and looked for a new start. Instead of bonding over the loss, we hurt each other more. And I blame him for that, too.
But I also love him.
And I miss him.
And I know that he’s watching over me. And I know that he hears me when I talk to him at his grave. And I know that he has a thousand words to give me, but I can’t hear them.
There’s a hole in my heart the shape of my father. And nothing will ever fill it.