On the last day I saw my dad before he died, I yelled at him. We yelled at each other. We spat vicious words at each other through identically twisted mouths across the family table at my brother’s wedding reception. To be fair almost anyone would tell you he deserved it, but I wish I had yelled at him the day before instead, or anytime during the week prior, or in one of the many months or years that came before that day. Or rather, I wish I had yelled at him more completely before then. I yelled plenty. We both yelled at each other more than enough. But it wasn’t until after the wedding incident that I really articulated why I was so angry. And it wasn’t until after the wedding incident that I started to see him consider that he might be wrong.
Of course, two months later he was gone.
Since then, many kind people have asked how I am. “Fine, fine, I’m okay, thanks.” Then I stop, sensing I’m brushing off genuine offers of support. “I mean, obviously I miss him…” but I trail off, thinking of how many things are easier now. If there is another wedding, we will all be able to enjoy it. I won’t make a scene at the family table. I won’t find myself outside, streaming tears and erupting with a rage I thought would blow that whole wedding barn to cinders. Sometimes I tell people that so many things are easier now, offer up a little of our history, soften it by mentioning that he was also in a lot of pain for a long time. The pain of cancer, other physical ailments before that, and before that, some kind of debilitating pain that no one could quite identify and that made everyone close to him suffer, too.
That deeper layer is tender to the touch, hard for outsiders to see exposed and harder still to lay bare. I know better than to speak ill of the dead (for all I tell other grieving folks that it’s better to be honest about the good and the bad). I know better than to air my family’s dirty laundry (and that you’re only as sick as your secrets). What if I’m wrong about what happens after you die, and his spirit is hanging around, listening to me besmirch his reputation? (I still don’t believe this, and even if I did, and he was, he would be the one person who would understand.) What if my other family members hear what I’ve said, or read this, and don’t understand? (That is definitely going to happen.)
I do miss my dad. I miss his random phone calls when he had seen something about the Bible on the History Channel and wanted to hear what his daughter the pastor thought about it. I miss calling him from the road because I needed someone to help me stay awake, or just wanted someone to know where I was when the weather was getting bad and it was too late to call anyone else. I do not miss his Fox News, but I do miss his attempts to draw me into political arguments long after I had realized unless I had five hours to spare, I should make non-committal noises and move on. I miss the person I knew when I was a kid, my dad who taught me to shoot a basketball, catch and filet a fish, drive a manual transmission and change my own oil, who sang silly songs in his wonderful voice and made hamburgers shaped like hotdogs and never let me win at anything, who taught me about racism and the democratic process and told me I should never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do anything because I’m a girl.
How am I doing? Mostly I feel regret, without knowing exactly what I regret and without having any sense that I could have changed anything. I wish those kid memories were the only kinds of moments I had to remember about him. I wish everything had been that good even then. I wish more of our relationship had been like the conversation we had after the wedding, through the car window, when I explained why I started the yelling. I wish I hadn’t had to yell at him to get there. I wish I hadn’t had to yell.