People keep asking me how I'm doing since my dad died. I don't know how to answer. Sometimes I feel like I'm doing OK. Getting on with things. This is true, and the sort of thing I think people expect.
The other truth is this: Sometimes I drop off of a cliff, and fall into a river of grief that moves so swiftly, it carries me through decades of memories and regret within the length of one random song that I hear on the radio.
I spent a lot of time during his last years missing my father. And he wasn't even gone yet.
Somewhere around the birth of my second child, there was a noticeable shift in his involvement in our life. He became ill, but doctors were unable to diagnose his ailment. He was unwilling to visit us anymore, but made trips elsewhere. He pulled away, carrying my mother with him, effectively ending the brief period of the engaged, involved grandparenting that my first daughter enjoyed.
Misunderstanding and resentment grew. I felt betrayed by his disinterest in the family I'd created. I wondered: Was he jealous of the attention my mother showered on my first baby? After all, Mom had lived and breathed for him since they were both 16. He'd always been the undisputed center of our family life. He was a man that not only walked into a room and switched the TV station without apology, but also demanded the channel not be changed while he slept.
So we settled into a muted, polite version of family, with occasional visits and limited contact.
He called me the morning before he died, my mother holding the phone for him as he struggled to say my name. I was standing in a furniture store, and I knew this was it. I looked at my youngest daughter, and I lost all my fight.
I threw my children in the car and drove, white-knuckled, to my parent's house in Maine—a zombie in a black SUV. I struggled to not pull the car over and lay down, to cover myself with leaves and not be—not be living, feeling, hurting, losing.
As my father lay dying, I stood at the top of his bed, cradling his head in my hands. Bobby, a Baptist minister and childhood friend of my father, recited Psalm 23. My mother and sister each held one of Dad's hands. I kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his eyes, listening to his strained breathing.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
I glanced at my sister; her features red and twisted in tears. My mother, pale and low over his arm, wept. A wave of detached pity passed through me. My first family would never be complete again.
Then I felt him leave. Elation surged through me. I felt an undeniable urge to spike a football. I felt taller. Clearer. I drew a long, lusty, deep breath, and I knew I was with him—wherever he was.
My father had suffered from COPD for years, the result of a decades-long love affair with cigarettes. Camels unfiltered, specifically, a "perk" distributed to him by the Army as a Green Beret in the jungles of Laos. As I inhaled the sparkling, cool air, I felt him filling his lungs. I felt his relief and gratitude. He was free and whole again. No more suffering.
My mother told me later I was smiling, and cheering out loud.
Weeks later, I read that I'd had something called a "shared death experience." These events are an open secret among hospice workers, medical personnel and others who tend to the dying. I'd walked with him as far as I could, past the threshold between this world and the next.
Night came, and I fell into bed exhausted. The next day I'd face funeral parlors and decisions. I lay stunned, wondering how best to function for everybody else, not really thinking much about the man that had left.
I fell asleep easily.
At 2:40 that morning, I woke. I heard music, clarion clear. The song was "Walking on the Water" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, my father's favorite band. My childhood soundtrack belonged to them. Rebellious, provocative and quintessentially American—just like my Dad.
I hadn't heard this song in years. Briefly during my adolescence, my father and I would try to make each other laugh by singing it to each other, the inevitability of it suiting our black humor. The singer is a man who goes for a walk one night. When he reaches a nearby river, he sees something that terrifies him — a man, walking on the water, calling out his name. The song ends with the singer crying, "No, no, I don't want to go!"
I suddenly saw my father as he was during his last days and weeks. Not the towering figure I'd spent my life reacting to, but instead a scared, elderly man, realizing his life was ending. At the end, he'd asked Bobby, "What comes next?" This from a man who always kept his own council, never turning to anyone for advice, ever.
Why had I been so sure he would endure? What if he was nowhere? What if he was just—gone?
The fear took my breath away. I choked back, not wanting to wake my daughter, sleeping next to me. I began speaking to God, an action long forgotten. "What happened to him?" I asked, tormented. "Did he make it?"
Then, a more direct plea. "Dad, are you there? Did you make it? If you made it, please, send me a message."
Then—so absurd and timely that I laughed without thinking,—my cell phone burst into sound, telling me I'd received a text message. The room was illuminated by the screen. I rushed to read the message, but there were no words, just a bright clear screen. I laughed, and silently thanked him. It was the perfect "all clear."
So how am I doing about my dad? I believe that we will meet again, as beings of light, without the weighing, disappointing expectations of roles that plague all of us here. In some ways, our relationship is better now than it's been for years. Once again, I can see his twinkle, his fire, his joy. I feel how much I love him. I no longer need him to be anything but who he was—beautiful and charming, manipulative and selfish, funny and tragic, narcissistic and wishful, inspiring and self-made and brilliant and flawed.
And God, I miss him.