I wrote this post at the end of January, right after the nineteenth anniversary of my dad’s death, and I sat on it for a while because I was angry (and also it was the middle of the night and I needed to go to bed), but I watched the new Pixar movie Onward on Sunday evening and the whole dead dad plot upset me, so I decided to revisit this post. Right now, I’m mostly sad, but fair warning: there’s a lot of anger (and strong language) in this post, so if that kind of thing offends you… sorry not sorry. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
January 27, 2020
I was trying to fall asleep, and I was turning this conversation I had with my mom earlier in the day over in my mind, and I had to get up and fumble around in the dark for my laptop at 1 a.m. to open up a WordPress draft and get all this out before it melted away in my sleep.
Saturday marked nineteen years since my dad died.
My family is from a small town in upstate New York, the kind of town where it seems like everyone knows everyone or has at least heard about them through the grapevine. So there are a lot of people who knew my dad. And a certain number of these people, who play a very, very small role in my life have this really annoying habit of wanting to talk about him on the rare occasion when I’m in town. Specifically, they feel the need to talk to me about him.
Case in point: I was back home last summer to attend a funeral for someone I really loved, and more than one person felt the need on this occasion to tell me, apropos of nothing, how much they loved my father or how much they missed him or how my sister and I are the spitting image of his side of the family.1 I can count on one hand the number of people I don’t mind talking about my dad with: my mom, my sister, my dad’s closest brother and his wife, and one of my dad’s cousins that he was really close to. These people I’m referring to do not fall into that select group.
How, how do they not understand how selfish this impulse is?
There I was, already emotionally compromised and grieving another person in my life who had met an untimely death, and suddenly I’m surrounded by people launching emotional grenades at me with no warning whatsoever. And all I could think was: How dare you? How dare you bring up the most traumatic experience of my entire life like it’s fucking small talk? You barely know me. You haven’t seen me in at least a decade. What makes you think I want to talk to you about the worst thing that ever happened to me? How dare you project your grief onto me when mine has been following me around like a second shadow for nearly twenty years? How dare you?
I got in the car afterwards with my aunt and uncle2 and just sat in the back seat stewing and rage-texting my mom about the whole ordeal. (She tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but she came around to my way of thinking in the end.)
I was reminded of the incident again after a conversation I had with my mom over the weekend. We ended up talking about stuff he hasn’t been around for and won’t be around to see and how much that sucks. It’s always in the back of my mind every time something big happens. My high school graduation. Getting into college. My college graduation. My grad school graduation. Moving to South Korea. Moving to Boston. Getting my first apartment. Starting my first real grown-up job. Editing a book for the first time. Softball games, award ceremonies, choir concerts, school musicals, big exam results. I don’t know if I’ll ever get married or have children at this rate, but he wouldn’t be here to see that happen, either.
So, the point is: my family—my mom, my sister, and I—don’t need you to bring him up because we’re always thinking about him in one way or another. I really could not care less how well-meaning you are. This is not about you. Don’t patronize us with platitudes about how he’d be proud of us. You don’t get to put words in my dead father’s mouth. And we’re not here to hold anyone’s hand for their little walks down memory lane. You wanna do that? Get a fucking therapist. It’s what the rest of us have to do.
You think I sound angry? My father died when I was twelve years old from an entirely preventable cancer because he couldn’t give up smoking. I get to be as angry as I want. I spent fifteen or sixteen years trying to ignore my feelings on the subject, and ever since I finally opened that can of worms, the only emotion I seem to be able to summon is anger.
March 25, 2020
I would like to be able to let go of all of this anger at some point. I don’t know how to do that without actually having it out with him, though, and I don’t have a wizard staff or a magic spell to bring my him back for a day like the two brothers in Onward, so… I’m kinda stuck here.
I was thinking about what I would want to do if that were a possibility, though, so here is my little list à la Ian’s from the movie:
- Immediately punch him in the arm (the one with the ugly-ass eagle tattoo) and probably spend the first hour unloading almost two decades’ worth of pent-up rage by hysterically crying and throwing a lot of breakable objects3 and enumerating the many ways he failed as a father. I don’t remember if he ever apologized to me for putting me through this,4 and I feel like deserve an apology.5
- After we got all that out of the way… I dunno. Unlike with my mom, I was never able to get to know him as a person outside of his role as my dad. I’d probably just want to talk for a while, ask some questions, stuff like that.
- He was a big Star Wars fan, but I didn’t get into it until after he died. He took me and my sister to see The Phantom Menace in ’99, but obviously he never got to see the other two prequels, so maybe we could watch those and razz them MST3K-style.6
- I know my Uncle Jimmy was into Lord of the Rings—he was the one who recommended that I should read The Hobbit when I was twelve or so, though I didn’t get around to it until after I saw the Fellowship of the Ring movie a couple years later—but I don’t know if my dad was into it, so that would have to be a conversation.
I dunno. It’s hard to think of anything else because I’ve lived so much of my life without him. I mostly just want to get all this crap off my chest and get some closure so I can stop feeling so wronged all the time… but I think I am just going to have to come to terms with the fact that I will never get closure, and that’s what happens sometimes. Holding a grudge against a dead guy hurts me more than it hurts him, I know, I know. But I think it’s going to take a little more time for those words to be more than lip service.
- And don’t get me started on how after the burial, one of my aunts asked if my sister and I wanted to “visit some graves,” since the burial took place at the same cemetery where my grandparents and my dad’s ashes are interred. I haven’t been to my dad’s grave since 2002 and I wasn’t about to break my record. (I’m being sarcastic, but seriously, the whole thing makes me so damn uncomfortable.)
- The cool ones I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago
- Not at him, of course. He already died once—I’m sure as hell not going to be the one to kill him again. I rarely get seriously angry; it usually blows over pretty quickly (lol Aries Mars lol). But when I do, it feels like my head is going to explode unless I scream bloody murder and/or smash things. I never actually end up breaking anything, though. I was in a screaming fight with my mom once (I think it was the summer of 2008, when there were no jobs because of the recession and I was super depressed after having a really bad spring semester of my freshman year), and I was so spitting mad I almost picked this teacup up from the shelf next to me to throw it at the floor, but I ended up flinging the slice of pizza I was holding (it was a Friday night so she had brought it home for dinner) at her instead because the teacup was too pretty to break. She was Not Happy about it, but she recognized that I was clearly Going Through It because I never go off like that. We patched things up within the hour, and we can laugh about it in hindsight, but I felt so horrible about it at the time. I still feel a little bad about it. I don’t like losing control of myself like that.
- He very well may have—I think I saw him a couple times after they moved him to hospice the week he died, but I was so uncomfortable being there that I blocked all of it out aside from the last thing I asked him, which was to please not die on Thursday or Friday that week because I had my first midterm exams (in sixth grade, good lord) those days and I was worried that it would distract me. (He died Thursday. I went to school because I thought that’s what he would have wanted. You can see why I turned into a school-obsessed monster in the six years that followed.)
- And I don’t mean just because he died. I was well into my late 20s when I realized that my dad always played the role of the Cool Dad™ to distract us from the fact that he wasn’t a Good Dad™. It kind of sucks to realize your dad was an absent parent even before he died. (I don’t think he’d disagree with this assessment—I think he came to the same realization right at the end, far too late for anything to be done about it.) I’m not saying he didn’t love me and my sister, and I don’t think he was a bad person—he had a lot of great qualities—but being a parent means you sometimes have to sacrifice your wants and needs for the good of your kids, and my dad could be very self-centered. I mean, we never went on vacation anywhere unless the trip happened to coincide with a poker tournament taking place near our destination, and after we moved to Vegas, he spent many (if not most) weekends playing poker downtown. He took me and my sister to get a puppy the week after we moved into our brand-new house, and when I—a total worrywart, even at the tender age of nine—asked if my mom knew about it (spoiler: she did not), he told me to shut up because “kids should have a dog” (read: he wanted a dog). I have a laundry list of other examples I could pull out, but I won’t. All I’ll say is that I regret that I didn’t appreciate my mom more before his death. I always favored my dad when I was a kid because he was fun and would let us get away with a lot of stuff and bought us treats and Pokémon card booster packs; I think he was unconsciously (?) compensating for all the time he missed when he was off doing his own thing. So my mom was always saddled with the bad cop role because someone had to lay down the law and make sure we didn’t grow up to be spoiled brats. I hated it when I was a kid, but I am so grateful for it as an adult. Of course, I would much rather have two parents and be “normal,” but if it had to shake out this way, it’s better that he was the one to go. I can’t even fathom the alternative. (I can’t even type the words. My eyes are swimming with tears at the mere thought. Ugh.)
- I’m honestly not sure whether he would hate them or like them. Ep. II in particular is so eyeroll-worthy and schmaltzy I can barely stand it, but he was a weirdly sentimental guy; my mom says she caught him crying when they were watching ET once.