I took Josie to Target yesterday for some stealth Father’s Day shopping. She takes holidays seriously. She starts to plan months ahead of time, thinks carefully about the person being celebrated, and chooses or makes lovely, thoughtful gifts. She gets almost excited about giving presents as she does getting them. I call her “The Keeper of Holidays.” We have this trait in common. She gets this from me.
We’re going to have a nice day celebrating her father today. He is an easy man to honor, uncomplicated in his absolute, transparent love for our children. I know that things may get complicated as they get older, but the base of trust and love and unabashed delight he has built for them cannot be questioned.
That is the best gift. I know because I grew up with something very different.
I loved my father. Have continued to love him across these many years since his death. But “transparent” was never a word I could have used to describe him and the moments of unabashed delight between us were rather few and far between.
Of course I’m thinking of him today, and I feel compelled to share an excerpt from the project I have been for years referring to as “my memoir,” but which has been laying dormant while I figure out what to do with it. This section recounts the last real Father’s Day I celebrated with my father. Not the actual last–for that we were estranged, and the store-bought card I sheepishly sent fell into the void that became the last months before his death.
This Father’s Day was a year earlier, and the day I’ve come to think of as the first day of the last year of his life. This is mostly symbolic–the months don’t line up exactly–but emotionally it’s right for me. What follows is part of a complicated portrait that includes both incredible love and devastating hurt. It’s truthful exploration of one of the most important relationships of my life and I offer it today as gift for him, and for myself.
Connecticut’s route 34 slogs for 24.7 miles from exit 11 on I-84 East, which is Newtown, past Lake Zoar and over the Stevenson Dam that separates the upper Housatonic River’s placid beach reservoir from the quick sluice of the water below it. It winds through the dingy Naugatuck Valley towns of Oxford, Seymour, Shelton and what my sister and I always called “Dirty Derby,” passing the tacky wedding factory of Villa Bianca, various bait and tackle shops for river fishing, an abandoned brick warehouse building that houses Books by the Falls, a shop I’d always noticed but never stopped for, and the rich brown wood structure of the Yale Glider Boathouse, not yet built at the time of our twice-daily treks in 1991.
At the end of this drive, which might have felt languorous and pleasurable under some other circumstance, but instead felt interminable and exhausting then, was Yale New Haven Hospital where my father lay in an ICU bed, recovering from a heart attack and the complication of pericarditis, an inflammation of the pericardia, the sac around the heart. I was twenty years old and it was the summer after my junior year of college. It was Father’s Day and my father had felt the first pangs of chest pain the night before and had insisted he could drive himself to the hospital. I imagine my mother used whatever powers of persuasion she had to convince him of how crazy that would be, and so he rode in the mahogany leather passenger seat of her Chrysler LeBaron, smoking a cigarette, his thin arm hanging out the open window casually, as if this were any normal commute, gasping between puffs and likely leaving a trail of smoke behind.
We were unsure of New Haven and turning onto North Frontage Road, past the projects and toward the hulking parking garage for the hospital, I felt small, scared, and ill-equipped to deal with this new crisis in our family life. My mother parked the car in what looked to me like a make-shift lot just before the Air Rights garage, and took a ticket from the gritty man sitting in the ripped plastic lawn chair at the entrance. The lot was surrounded by a chain link fence, and I half expected there to be some mangy guard dog at his feet. It was hot and the smell of asphalt clung to the inside of my nose.
In the waiting room at Yale New Haven, there were three of us: my mother, my sister and my high school-turned-college boyfriend, Chris. It seems likely that Chris drove down with us, or maybe just as likely that he borrowed his mother’s grey Buick station wagon and made the forty-five minute drive from New Fairfield to New Haven himself. Whichever the case, he brought with him an undeniable tension: he couldn’t stand my father and my father could not stand him. It would be years before I would be able to see either of their positions clearly or justly, and years more before I would begin to articulate how caught I felt between them.
On that day, as I waited to be told by the nurse that I could go in to see my father, I felt only the nervous anticipation I always felt when I was about to be in his presence. It was Father’s Day and my father was in stasis–in bed, tied to machines that measured his bodily rhythms, now-steadied pulse, the fluid in the sac around his heart.
In my bag, I carried two gifts. First, a new copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My father was a reader and traveled internationally for work, and I knew that one of his favorite places of late had been South America. The other was a sandwich—an Italian sub layered with salami, cappicola, roasted peppers and provolone cheese, topped with briny-slick oil and vinegar and sprinkled with salt and pepper. I don’t actually remember whether we had been encouraged to bring “real” food to him the way we would be the following year in a different ICU, but it also seems unlikely that I would have smuggled it in. I was a rule-follower, though that, like so much else in my life, would soon begin to change.
In my memory, my sister, my mother and I wandered awkwardly around the small hospital room, allowing the wires and machines to make a comfortable buffer between my father and us. In the hallway, Chris paced the halls, the heavy fall of his black combat boots echoing off the walls. I knew he was rallying into crisis mode—his specialty and something I would rely on later—waiting either to be invited in or for the visit to end, sending us out into New Haven for a quick meal before heading back home.
Food and books. Words and bites. Again and again these were the ways I tried to reach this distant, learned man who could alienate all of us with his cutting wit, his searing judgment, his silence which often seemed less meditative than overfull of reproach. Sometimes, I later understood, such reproach was well-earned. Often he was right and even instructive in his judgments but what teenage daughter in love with the wrong boy can ever see, let alone accept this?
The hospital bed was kitty-cornered in the bright room, my father askew beneath the thin blanket, head half-raised from the horizontal. He wore his glasses and this odd angle made him appear to be glaring over the tops of the wireless rims. Maybe he was glaring. Maybe he knew, though I had not told him, that Chris was with us.
“Hi, Dad.” Nervous. Fumbling.
“Hi, Sheil.” Half-whispered. Small.
I reached into my bag and pulled out Marquez.
“Happy Father’s Day.”
It would have been an effort to resist saying more to him as I handed him this gift I had literally spent hours worrying over, hoping to pick just the right thing. My instinct would have been to describe the process of staring at the shelves and shelves of paperback spines in Waldenbooks at the mall, trying to choose for him something wonderful, engaging and transporting, something that would have showed him my own rarefied tastes. It would have been more than hard, actually, but in my ongoing campaign to emulate and impress him, I would have kept quiet, respecting his belief that one ought not to speak unless one had something worthwhile to say. We both trafficked in words—he by selective singularity—le mot juste; I by loquacious description and (often, over) explanation. On Saturday mornings in high school, I would join him at the kitchen table where he would be sipping coffee from a blue and white stoneware mug and reading the paper.
“Do you want to hear about my dream, Dad?”
“Is it a long dream, or a short dream, Sheil?”
It was always a long dream and I always remembered it with vivid, prosaic detail. I see it now as a thing between us—something we did, a duet performance to show our affection. He would sip his coffee and sigh as I went on and on.
And I still go on and on. My father didn’t live long enough to see me become a writer, but I think it’s telling that I formed my personality, consciously or not, in pronounced contrast to his. Where he used words swallowed and spat to keep all of us at a careful remove, I have spent my life reading, writing and telling stories in verse and in prose. I have, upon each great transition in my life—death, divorce, marriage, motherhood—relied on words to help me, as Joan Didion put it, “find out what I am thinking,” to make sense of my feelings and to draw people toward me. I need verbal affirmation. Actions are good, of course. But words, for me, are necessary. After I finish a draft of something, I have been known to hand it to a friend and demand, “Tell me everything; tell me why you like it.”
Tell me why you like me.
My father barely registered the carefully-chosen book. I don’t even remember if he took it from me or not, but I can still see it sitting spine-out beside the sad marigold pitcher and the plastic cup and bendy straw on the wheeled cart next to his hospital bed. I can still feel the disappointment that hollowed me out at this dismissal—that drop in my stomach and in my spirit. I pulled out my back-up, my sure-thing, handed him the sandwich made of things I knew for certain he liked. His response this time was immediate, though indistinguishable at first. I was confused: was he laughing or crying? I didn’t know what to do, how to hold myself in that space, where to put my hands, how to shape my voice to respond to this growing chaos. He removed his glasses to show his chronically blood-shot blue eyes, wiping them as if to gain clarity.
“Salami? Jesus, Sheil. Are you trying to kill me?”
I felt instantly small and ridiculous. I had brought the heart patient what amounted to an edible bomb: artery-clogging cheese and salty cured meat studded with fat. And then, almost right away, I felt angry, too. I had brought him something good and delicious that said,
“I love you,” and,
“I know you,” and,
“I was terrified that you might die.”