They say that as time passes, loss gets easier. To a large extent, that’s true. I do not feel as lost, bewildered and numb as I did in the days and weeks immediately following my father’s suicide. I was on autopilot during that time, taking on everything he abruptly left behind, my days reduced to a list of things to do to manage his affairs. I was barely keeping my head above water, knocked around by waves, struggling to stay afloat.
I imagine most people never walk on dry land after losing a parent. I think I’ll forever be wading in the chilly waters of grief, although I have my footing now, so it’s easier, as everyone assured me it would be. On a typical day, everything is fine, I’m fine. It’s the usual suspects that push me into deeper waters – holidays, birthdays, a stray document from his estate that got misplaced and turns up, anything pro-gun, the inherited plastic food storage container with his name written in black Sharpie on the bottom that I assume he used to take lunch to work. The water rises fast, a strong current pulls on me, just for a moment. The water recedes, and I’m back to safely wading.
My parents divorced when I was 2, so when I was a kid living in Houston with my mom, I would take several bus trips a year to visit my father in East Texas. It was about a 3 hour drive on the Trailways bus. I was always excited to get there, and carefully kept track of each dot-on-the-map town we passed, anticipating the occasional road signs that indicated how many more miles until we arrived in my hometown. I watched the miles dwindle until the city limits sign appeared. Ten minutes later, I would hop off the bus, and hug my father.
When I was 12, my mom and I moved to Philly. The bus trips stopped. The journey to what I now half-jokingly call Nowhere, East Texas to my East Coast friends who ask where I’m from, became so expensive and complicated, especially in the years before I could legally rent a car to drive from the Houston airport, that my trips to visit my father and extended family eventually dwindled to only every few years.
Our relationship collapsed from there. We lived 1500 miles apart, and he took minimal responsibility for helping me get to Texas, and only visited me in Philly once when I was 25. I was diagnosed with depression and an eating disorder at 16, and he wasn’t equipped to parent a teen, let alone a teen with mental health issues. From the time I was born, he had an infinite number of better things to do than be my parent – he spent his money on cars, ski trips, scuba diving, flying planes, boats and fishing, hunting, and who knows what else. I made the effort to work around his priorities when I was young enough to not know any better, but once I became a teen, he needed to put some effort into being a parent, and he didn’t.
Like those mileage signs, my interactions with him are mile markers for my late teens and young adulthood. The time I visited him when I was 19, after he learned about my mental health issues, and we got in a huge argument. I wanted to go home early, so I changed my plane ticket, and he dropped me off at the airport without even saying goodbye to me. We didn’t speak for three years, until I called him angry and in tears that he hadn’t called to tell me my great grandmother, who I loved more than life, had passed away. There was that time when I was 25, and he visited me in Philly with his girlfriend. It was a nice visit, surprising because it was so out of character for him to go out of his way for me. Although his girlfriend had teenage sons, so I suspect she had something to do with the unusual visit. When I was 27, he called to tell me he was getting married that day. I assumed it was to the woman I had met in Philly, but it was a different woman. Two years later, while visiting my hometown, he was divorced, and I met a different woman, the one whose actions led to his suicide. Then there was the time I talked to him when I was 31, a few weeks before my wedding. He asked if children were invited because that last girlfriend had a daughter, and I said it was adults only. That was our last interaction. After that, the mile markers weren’t that year I saw him or that conversation we had, but the number of years since we last talked. 1 year. 5 years. 6 years. Then he killed himself.
Now the mile markers are years since he died. Today, it’s 6 years.
I don’t mind the wading so much. I’ve gotten used to it. It’s the anniversary when the water rises, the waves are high, and I feel adrift. I have to be with my memories because it’s all I have left.
Sitting in the blue corduroy occasional chair we’ve since gotten rid of, hearing my aunt’s voice over the phone, telling me he’d taken his life. The delay in processing the words, like she was speaking a different language.
On the second night after his death, when we were in Texas at my granny’s house, I woke up in the middle of the night, having seen a bright light in my sleep, hearing him, feeling him with me. I shot awake, terrified, and out of breath.
Sitting in the pastor’s office talking about the funeral for a man who had been a stranger to me, feeling like an intruder.
The photos that were projected prior to the funeral service, and not a single one of me with him. It stabbed me in the heart for its truth. There were only ever a handful of photos of us together, and apparently they were all in my possession in Philly, given to me piecemeal by my granny and great grandmother when I was younger. He only had one photo of me in his possession, buried in one of those under-the-bed plastic storage boxes, lost among hundreds of photos of cars, boats, and planes. I didn’t find that single photo until weeks later, cleaning out his house, looking for evidence that I mattered to him.
Looking through his checkbook, laptop, and personal documents, with the explicit task of getting his affairs in order, but the more primal desire to know who this man was.
Standing in his well-organized closet, overwhelmed and undecided about what to do with his underwear, custom Nikes, NASCAR jackets, and cowboy boots.
Sitting in his house, alone, in silence, on a beautiful mild East Texas winter day, wishing for it to be a mistake, wishing time to be reversed. Wishing I had set aside a lifetime of resentment, and reached out to him, then feeling angry that he put me in that position by being a shitty parent, and then feeling like a shitty person for judging a man who was flawed and troubled, made a lot of bad decisions, and clearly didn’t know how to be a father.
In a rare moment of honesty and authenticity, during a phone conversation when I was 30, he said he wanted to have a better relationship with me, but didn’t know how because we didn’t have anything in common. I felt his sadness. Of course, we didn’t have anything in common because he chose to mostly live his life without me. About a year after that phone conversation, he chose to not attend my wedding. It was those choices he made, time and time again, that led to us not having that better relationship. Wanting a better relationship… we did have that in common.
Maybe I thought after 5 years, it would only be the big anniversaries that got to me – 10, 15, 20. It’s not working like that though. The grief feels deeper this year than I remember it being last year. I don’t know how to do this every year. It is easier than the first couple of years, but after that, it’s just wading, and being a good swimmer when the waves rush in.