Stomach pain became a hospital stay which became a panel of tests which became a recommendation to Hospice care which rapidly became a series of voicemails, texts and calls between my mother, her sisters and his grandchildren to communicate his passing.
He didn’t raise them. He didn’t go to school functions. He didn’t walk them down the aisle. He didn’t behave much of his life like a father is expected to and the position of “Dad” belonged to someone who was there and shared those relevant moments in their lives. But he was still their father and it was hard to pinpoint exactly what caused the pain they felt.
They didn’t miss him as a human being, or not enough to explain that depth of hurt. I think it was that they now had to accept the hole he left in their childhoods was irredeemable; what they regretted more than his passing was what they never had with him. They missed what never was and now could never be because his life was over and all that was left were a mobile home, a few vehicles, a little bit of cash in his bank accounts and a blind, fat little dog named Pixie who was the last love of his life.
After a home was found for Pixie, there were things to go through that a stranger could not be expected to deal with so two of the sisters went to the trailer to sift and remember and decide after touching - each object having once been important to someone - which things should be held, which should be passed on and which should be discarded.
Everything, every canned good, walking stick and small appliance he owned had written upon it in fine-tip black permanent marker the word, “Got,” and a date.
In the process of sorting it was discovered that he seemed to buy certain things in sets and that these things were tucked in random places and never taken out of their packaging. There were cards, letters and photographs that had survived changes of address, and one in particular – black-and-white with scalloped edges of a baby born in 1958 – that had been handled often enough that it was almost falling apart.
It was simultaneously comforting and heart-breaking: He had obviously thought about them enough over the years to buy gifts for them and look at their photographs, but did not give these gifts or tell them that he loved them as often as he could have because he did not know how.
Everything he ever “got” was recorded, but how would he ever record or contain what he had lost? How could someone who could only joke when he should have loved express sorrow for not being a part of a daughter’s life? His life seemed to have room only for laughter and regret: In the last couple days when even Pixie knew something was wrong and sat at his feet whimpering, he turned to my aunt and said, “I am sorry I was so mean to you,” and she replied, “You did okay, Dad.”
I couldn’t understand why I had been asked to write an obituary but had been given no deadline until I was told the sisters decided against a public funeral because of who might randomly show up. I envisioned the type of person who could inspire that kind of decision: The kind of people who had maybe had a disagreement in the 1970’s over a forklift, or a foreskin. I am not really sure, but whatever it was, they haven’t spoken since and my mother and her sisters didn’t want these people dropping by unannounced to say whatever they felt they had to before the family could get out of the way.
To stubbornly hold to what we think is important, our small noses that are slightly turned up at the end, to be territorial over our families and possessions, to sometimes love in secret because people should just know they are loved when we harass them, to desire to give but to sometimes not know how, the need to make laughter when tears might be more natural, knowing that stories are important and that simple things are what life is made of: After all things have been said and there is nothing left to divide, these are the things we inherited from the man who left a larger void than a presence in our lives.
I was told as a boy that people start over by being Born Again and I have heard you can never really go home once you are grown because childhood is a one-time thing. I have witnessed a lot since then, and have noticed that some people just start over and when they find they can no longer go home they make a new one. So I imagine my mother and her sisters standing at a gravesite taking note of the passing of a man who had so much influence – but at the same time so little involvement – in their lives and waiting for the childhood they remembered to reconcile with the lives they have built for themselves.
The gap is too large and as the afternoon wears on I know they will finally stop trying and will turn and go, instead – two north, one south – taking their inheritance back to the homes they have created for themselves when childhood got too small to hold the lives they needed.