DEAD DAD DAY
October 25th marks the eleven year anniversary of a relatively new named family “holiday”, one so christened a couple years ago by my brother’s girlfriend: “Dead Dad Day”. In a well-meaning attempt to buoy my brother’s masked emotions about the day she treated him to gifts and craft beer and was met by his grateful mocking. it is a surprise to me that this dryly named holiday didn’t emerge sooner, from a family more likely to honor our dead patriarch with jokes than saccharine sentiments. But, as one might expect this has been a tricky day. An illogical worrier, I am always trying to diagnose in myself any symptom of the impending anniversary, but over the last eleven years I can’t pick out a single “Dead Dad Day” from the rest.
I was 17 when my dad walked into a grocery store, collapsed, was taken to the ER alive, and quickly died from a misdiagnosed pulmonary embolism. Now I am more likely to tear up recounting how I had to break the news to my then prepubescent brother than to miss my dad’s presence. Because, a decade of absence has clouded what his presence could be. We as a family talk about him openly and often, but I can no longer imagine what he would be like alive today. He is the ashes in the paint your own pottery cookie jar on the shelf in the living room. So much so that one year I took a picture one Christmas of my mom sitting nearby on a couch and tastelessly captioned it “Mom & Dad on Christmas Morning”. Much like the year after his death when I maniacally googled embolisms, painted canvases of abstracted clots and assumed any body ache was a sign of swift and hereditary death; When the weather switches from balmy to chill, I start to monitor what could be any sign of emotional stress, and thus arrive at the same illogical conclusions. I am crying in the car after a fight with my boyfriend. I have been taking my birth control sporadically leading to a tidal wave of hormones, I am stressed out about finding a new apartment, but the weather has changed. I must miss my dad?
Upon reflection I honestly do not know what our relationship would be like. I was 17 when he died, with a healthy dose of self absorption and strictly against everything he stood for. He listened to Rush Limbaugh. Even at 12, while watching the 2000 election I broke my bed jumping from excitement when Al Gore was first named winner. Not because of the issues, but because my dad’s guy briefly lost. He wanted me to attend the affordable school with a reputable art program ten minutes away, which to my hyperbolic self seemed like hometown prison. If he had not died my future would have been much different, and not in a bad way. Sure I would have less student debt but also a completely different trajectory from the one that as of now I would not change.
This is not to say that I was not emotionally impacted when it happened. I was wrecked, and although 17 is a pretty good age to be knocked down a few pegs, I felt like everything had been ripped away from me. Petty teenage issues quickly dissipate when you are hugging your father’s corpse goodbye. Our grief left my brother and I feeling like emotionally wizened aliens among our peers. Upon starting college there was so much I was learning and experiencing that I wanted to talk to him about, I wanted his opinion on everything but got silence. Up to a few years after his death he would sporadically show up in dreams. Each time appearing more haggard and trying to explain his absence. The dreams would start off with a flurry of recognition and my euphoria and end with resentment. I would wake up in a sweat. My mom would have nightmares that he would show up after faking his death and she would be sued by the insurance company for fraud.
It was only a year ago, a week before the ten year “death-versary” that I finally read Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking”. I had been encouraged to read this book since 2005, but as is my knee-jerk reaction to being told I need to do something I actively avoided it. My paternal aunt’s copy was up for grabs during a family reunion book-swap that summer and I surreptitiously snuck it into my bag. I did not want to give anyone the satisfaction of observing me taking what I felt was an obvious hint. I read the entire thing in the span of a day and was rushed back to what the year following his death was like. As a new freshman in college I remember asking my mom to ship me some of his old clothes for a project. Upon opening the package I was crying on the floor into a box of old sweat stained shirts, because he wouldn’t be able to wear them once I cut them up. The upshot of reading the book so long after the fact was how reassuring it is to know for sure that these feelings wane in their intensity. I can trust that I could and can handle the unexpected as I brace for the future.
After a month of “what our relationship would be now?” festering in the back of my mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. It is all speculation. During my monitoring for any signs of grief, I have instead noticed something else. I, like my dad, have silly and often inappropriate nicknames for coworkers, restaurants, or family members that become ingrained in my vocabulary. In good moods I am making up songs about what is around me, loudly, repetitively and as my boyfriend is apt to point out they often dabble in scatological humor. What can sometimes be a quit wit also leaves me with my foot firmly placed in my mouth. I am pragmatic, skeptical, resourceful, and stubborn. While I have many that do, these characteristics don’t align with my more selfless, soft, and kind mom. I attribute this edge to him, and these characteristics are often the more obnoxious parts of my personality that I covet. I have seen other what I categorize as “dad” elements emerge in my brother, who’s humor I find aligns so much with my own and can be summed up as “go dark and end in a poop joke”. He is affable and comfortable talking to anyone. He also can be piercingly mean and irritable when hungry. While I look like a carbon copy of my mom, his face is my dad. I have found relief in the fact that the ten year mark of mourning has become one more of finding my dad than of missing him, and the tsunami of grief I imagined with clenched jaw would overtake me on “Dead Dad Day” has not come to be.