Remembering My Dad, 20 Years Later

Friday, June 19, 2015

This morning, when I woke up, I went through the motions of preparing myself, physically, for a funeral: black pants, black blouse, black flats, gold jewelry, respectable hair & makeup. And as I stared at myself in the mirror, brushing my teeth, I remembered yet again what day today is for me, & how ironic it is (is that the right word here?) that I'm on my way to someone else's father's funeral, today of all days.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first worst day of my life.

There was one other just-as-bad day that would come after it, the day my high school boyfriend died, but this one... this one was the first. I was 10 years old, less than two months away from 11, & school had just let out for summer.

It was the day after Father's Day.

My dad had spent that day, like so many days before it, in the hospital, & I made him an ice cream sundae from the sundae bar the staff had so kindly set up for the holiday. I don't remember what I topped it with, but surely there was hot fudge involved. And then, with my grandmother's permission & without any sort of ceremonious goodbye, I left to go to the lake with my friends & to spend the night at my neighbor Julie's house.

Julie's mom woke us up early the next day. "Katie needs to go home now," she said firmly, & we wondered what we'd done wrong, whether maybe Julie would be in trouble after left. I expected to walk the one block home, as I always did, but for some reason, this time, her mom insisted on driving me. As I walked the stairs onto the back porch of my home, I saw my whole family gathered there - my mom, my grandparents, & my aunt, my dad's sister, the one who doesn't even like us. She had driven down from Hiram before they even called me home to give me the news.

I don't remember how they told me. I was sitting on someone's lap, but I don't know whose, & I as soon as the news was out, I ran upstairs to cry. I called my friend Catherine & my friend Christina, fellow not-quite-sixth-graders who had no idea what to say to console me. I shut myself up in my bedroom & refused any visitors who weren't my grandfather. My face swelled damn near shut.

I don't remember the funeral, either. Did I wear black? I don't think I did. It was the dead heat of summer, the sun shining brightly in a starkly mismatch from the way we all felt, & I vaguely remember wearing some sort of flower print. My uncle's eulogy mentioned Sylvester Stallone movies; my mom's best friend's husband gave a eulogy about the strength of my dad's handshake, & what it conveyed about his personality.

And I gave a eulogy, too, read a poem I wrote whose lines I have never been able to recall. I practically blacked out with nerves, & when I was done, I retreated to the side of my aunt, who was in a wheelchair; I felt less small next to her, somehow, less scared, less like this tiny child surrounding by looming, sobbing adults.

I painted my toenails for that day & didn't take the polish off for months, letting it chip & fade in a sort of sign to remind me how long it had been since the day my father died.

That was 20 years ago. A whole lifetime ago. I don't know if any of the fuzzy details I retain today are correct. But I don't paint my toenails anymore.

When my friend's parents die now, now that we are adults, mourners sometimes say to me, "Well, you know what this is like." But the reality is that I don't, not really. I have a hard time relating to adult friends whose parents pass after a decade of life & relationships; I feel simultaneously bad for me & worse for them, because they have so many more memories to mourn.

I was just a little kid when my dad died, not even in middle school yet. I didn't know anything more about my father than my 10-year-olds do about theirs - that he loved Oreos & NASCAR racing & Home Improvement & always made PB&J sandwiches that had too much jelly in them. He called me Boogaloo, & he took me to Swenson's drive-in on the way home from dance class.

But I feel like I got ripped off. I don't admit it too often, because I never want to sound like a martyr, but of course I do. I am an adult now, & the only way I know my father - the only way I will ever really know my father - is through the eyes of a 10-year-old, stuck that way forever despite my growing older & arguably more mature.

So today is the 20th anniversary of my dad's death, & I will spend half of it at a funeral for a family friend. And then, I will spend Father's Day with two of my dad's best friends, the brothers whose family has taken my mom & me in as their own. And a day or two after that, I will attend another funeral, this time for the father of one of my closest childhood friends, who died just yesterday of lung cancer.

And all the while I will remember the father I never really got to know but who will always be, in my mind, as wonderful as he was when I was 10 years old. And come to think of it? Maybe that's some sort of blessing, after all.

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