My dad died.
I didn’t call him “Dad,” though. I called him “Daddy.” If you could hear my Southern accent, it would make more sense, I think. It ends up being two and a half syllables, rather than two: Da-(yuh)-dee. The word was more drawn out when I was exasperated, as I often was when we were talking, as of late.
When I was a little girl, he called me Little Mouse, Mouse, Mousie, Bubula, Boo Boo, Bub, Bubba. He said that when my mom was pregnant with me, he’d asked God to make me have a pug nose and mousie brown hair. He said that God got the mousie brown hair right, but we’d have to work on the pug nose (and then he’d press my little nose down with his big, rough thumb, as if it were possible to retrain a nose). Even when I got older, he would still every now and then call me Mouse or Boo Boo, especially when he wanted to show me some piece of historic information, or a special yard sale find.
He had such respect for history, and old things – especially books. One of the only times I saw him truly distraught was when our house flooded, and an early 19th-century collection of leather bound books (I can’t recall what set it was) were drenched before we were able to move them. He fell to his knees in tears that day, there in the flood water.
My Daddy taught me how to cook eggs (though I perfected the technique on my own, and I believe my skill surpasses his). On Sunday mornings when I was a little thing, we made breakfast together. He’d always put on the same record – “Endless Summer” by The Beach Boys. I’d march around and around the border of our faux Persian rug in rhythm to the songs, and he’d whip up French toast, sausage, and scrambled eggs in the kitchen. When everything was ready, we’d giggle together as we changed the record out to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, turning the volume all the way up. The cannons were Mum’s cue to wake up and come down to breakfast.
He always wanted a big family with sons. He got one child, a girl – me. When I was born, he told my mom that a girl child was a mistake. They’d try one more time, but if they had another girl, they’d adopt after that to ensure they could get a boy. Mum decided that was a sign to stop having kids. He learned to make due with what he got, but it wasn’t always easy for either of us. He wanted sons, and though he tried to teach me to be strong, he never truly believed that a girl could be as capable as a boy. He was known throughout our community for being an outstanding teacher and Scout leader, teaching boys to be good men. He didn’t believe that men and women could be equal. It’s ironic that my strengths were born out of creating coping mechanisms for feeling abandoned by someone who was too busy teaching boys to bother with me.
Don’t misunderstand – I wasn’t neglected. Over the years, he struggled with how to interact with me, and often landed on teaching me how to do whatever he was doing at the moment. So I learned how to use power tools (“You don’t have the ass for this,” he informed me as I struggled to throw my weight into screwing something down), raise drywall, install subflooring, cover a sofa, make buttons, and tie upholstery springs. He taught me how to drive a car, and let me use his truck to drive up and back down our driveway in an endless loop. We bonded over Conan the Barbarian comics when I was a girl, and lately, we’d spent a good amount of time discussing Bernard Cornwell novels. We often went to yard sales, and we truly saw eye-to-eye when talking antiques and discovering forgotten treasures. I can smell silver, and easily identify any of a number of different historical styles because of him. We liked sci-fi shows and westerns, and when the holidays rolled around, he loved the sappy holiday romance movies on the Hallmark channel. The last Christmas I was home, he gave me a little lecture when I scoffed at a particularly unbelievable plot point; he could be a crotchety old guy, but had a huge soft spot for love stories.
When I was a kid, he was a Boy Scout leader, and spent most weekends out camping with the scouts. I didn’t get to go, and he didn’t take Mum and me on any outdoorsy adventures. He missed out on a lot of my childhood. He wasn’t there when I went to my first dance, and never got to see me perform at Quiz Bowl or in AFJROTC drill competitions. He worked a lot, and when he wasn’t working, he was volunteering, camping, or at various meetings for groups he was in.
During those years, I spent the most time with him either at his upholstery shop before and after school, or riding along on furniture deliveries. I’d do my homework in the truck, and we listened to oldies and sang along. I miss those moments the most, I think. I was happy going on adventures with my dad; he treated me like one of the guys when we were out on delivery. I could be helpful carrying pillows and helping pick up small furniture, and I felt worthwhile and capable. I went along on deliveries all the way into high school, as it was the only real quality time to be had with my dad.
It was much later in life – and all on my own – that I realized I loved hiking, camping, and the great outdoors. When I decided to walk the Camino, he wasn’t happy about it. It wasn’t so much that he thought it was dangerous for me to go on a long walk in a foreign country (that was Mum), as much as it was that he didn’t believe I was capable of it. When I got back, he seemed proud of me, but that’s not something he’d ever say to me out loud. Maybe I made that up, I don’t know.
I know he loved me. I don’t doubt that at all. I just wish that we’d had a different relationship. When I was in high school, during the summers and on weekends, I’d stay up with him to talk about spirituality and the supernatural. We’d discuss all manner of gods and ghosts, and no topics were off limits or too weird. Those conversations shaped my brain, and forever altered what I’ll look for in a guy. I can never be happy with a man who won’t REALLY talk with me about his wildest imaginings, or someone who isn’t open to possibility. I’ll never be happy with someone who doesn’t value history, and geek out over yard sale finds. But I’ll also never be happy with someone who doesn’t take care of himself, listen to his doctor, and keep a thoughtful budget.
We are a genetic soup – a little bit of both of our parents’ lines. I look a lot like my mother, with my father’s height and cheekbones. I got his mother’s anxiety and cleverness, and his father’s love of adventure (and knack for getting out of scrapes). I got her mother’s resilience and loyalty, and her father’s reticence and weird sense of humor. I am also a product of my environment and my influences. So much of how I think, talk, act, and react is a result of my upbringing. Good or bad, it is what it is. And I think it’s mostly good. Overall, he did his job. He made sure I lived, and that I never felt abused. He tried to show me that he loved me. On occasion I felt adored. He might not have really grasped what made me tick, but he made an honest attempt, and that’s all that matters.
I’ve lived in New Orleans for the best part of the last 20 years, and our relationship was gradually getting stagnant. He was very conservative, and I am definitely not. We didn’t have much common ground anymore. He lost a leg in 2015, and had remained in his wheelchair even after therapy and getting fitted for a (very expensive) robotic leg. Our conversations for the last three and a half years were typically about how much his life sucked, and how he’d never get to do anything fun ever again. He’d always been on the depressed side of the spectrum, grumpy, cantankerous. Suddenly he was morose, and nothing I said helped.
Instead, I began to realize how much our conversations flavored my personal life after the phone was back in the proverbial receiver. The less I was able to help him, the more I wanted to hurt myself. I began to see the trend – every phone call was followed by a binge. I’d eat anything to wash away the hopelessness, just as I’d been doing for most of my life. Thank the gods for Refuge Recovery and therapy. Finally, I could see what was happening and what was causing it, and I had just enough strength to hit the brakes. I confided in my mom, and she did her best to force him to only have positive conversations, but that wasn’t really in his wheelhouse.
And I wasn’t helping things any. I knew that when he called, I’d feel helpless and it would be an hour and a half of hearing him go on about how sad and pointless life was. So I ignored his calls. The longer I stayed away from him, the healthier I felt. My anxiety has been really low, I haven’t been drinking, and I’ve been able to eat what I like without binges. I currently have a bag of chips in the cabinet that I’ve had for two weeks and haven’t felt like opening. If you don’t understand the momentousness of that statement, you’ve never been a compulsive eater.
Part of my deep work in the last six months has been taking a long, hard look at my relationship failures, and pinpointing my behavioral issues and what I’d done in each case to hurt/hinder/otherwise fail. It’s pretty obvious that I’m codependent. I have a very hard time saying no or doing anything that might possibly make someone sad, angry, or in any way uncomfortable. My personal boundaries are nearly non-existent, and I dislike disagreements of all kinds. I stayed in an eight-year relationship that should have ended after three years because I thought it was entirely my fault for not trying hard enough to please him more. Over the course of the three-year relationship that directly followed, I had two full-time jobs and took care of my partner financially, mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to tell him to get a job without hurting his feelings. I’m learning how to stand up for myself, finally, after all these years. It’s kind of ironic that I’d learn by trying it out on my dad first. I guess that was his last lesson, but I wish it hadn’t been that way. I wish he could have saved himself.
What I’ve been learning from all of this is that life really does go on. The world didn’t stop when he punched out. It didn’t even skip a beat. People miss him. I miss him. But things are still moving along. My greatest responsibility now, following my father’s death, is to make sure that I don’t end up following in his footsteps. I need to get healthy, get my end-of-life steps all in order (will, insurance, etc.), and make sure that I’m taking every opportunity to make my life bigger, better, and happier.
I’ve been writing this post for hours now, and could continue for hours more, but it’s time to just hit Publish and move on with my life. Daddy, I miss you. I love you fiercely. I hope to the gods that if there’s still life out there somewhere, you’re finally happy and hanging out with all the people you were missing so much. If we always reincarnate together, like you supposed, I hope that we’ve done the best job we can to help each other level up. Personally, I hope that I’m right and after this, we’re just dead, the end. But I know how much you like the last laugh, so I’m willing to concede if it means seeing you smile.