So Saturday was the first anniversary of my dad’s death. There’s something weird about the first anniversary of someone’s death, as if the fact that the earth is in the same place it was when it happened makes you feel closer to it or something. In some ways it feels like it was years ago and in some ways it feels like yesterday.
Recently someone asked me what I liked most about my dad, what I admired about him. I got a little teary as I said, honestly, everything. My dad was smart and kind and fun and interesting. He was the guy who would make friends everywhere he went, who would chat with anyone and everyone about anything. As a 75-year-old retiree, he had an intense social calendar. He had his bowling friends, his golf friends, his rollerskating friends, and his old work friends. Planning and being at his celebration of life was, aside from being tragic and unexpected, in a way fun, because I got to connect with all these people who had all these awesome things to say about him, stories to tell, sides of him I didn’t really know even though I probably did. People loved him. At the celebration of life, one of his golf friends prepared a presentation of highlights from their past seasons, which was a relief for me because I said about five words before realizing I wasn’t going to be able to do it. His bowling friends poured a beer for him and left an empty seat at their table. His rollerskating friends shared pictures and asked about how my mom was holding up. This guy he hired at his former work told me about how the day my dad interviewed him for the job was like the worst day of his life because my dad was so tough. That one had the bonus of making me finally understand why I liked harsh law school professors so much.
He also rode a Harley and took my mom out for boat rides in the summer. I’m not gonna lie. My parents argued a lot when I was a kid. But as my mom got further and further into Alzheimer’s, he became a diligent, kind, and patient caretaker. I have no idea what that was like for him because he didn’t talk about his feelings. He was a goddamn rock. I used to think my mom was a control freak, but the truth is my dad was the control freak. The thing is he was so good at it you didn’t even notice. It was smooth and effective.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what his days were like after he found out he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. There he was at home with my mom who was completely terrified when she knew what was happening but I don’t know how often she did. She went to the grocery store every week and bought the same things, whether they needed them or not. He didn’t want her to worry. He sat in his office with the tv on too loud researching pancreatic cancer strategies and thinking . . . I have no idea. He didn’t want anyone to worry. I’d never ask to change any of his decisions, not even the decision to proceed with surgery for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, because I appreciate his research and willingness to go balls-out on a doomed mission and anyway you’re pretty much doomed at that point no matter what you do. But I wish he would’ve let me in more, would’ve let me worry or help early on, instead of having to rush in to figure out how to handle everything while he was already fading away in a hospital bed. Pancreatic cancer is fast. He was diagnosed in March and dead on May 2. I’m going to spend years trying to figure out this balance with Soren, defaulting to “tell him everything” mode and, I hope, eventually ending up somewhere in the middle.
The thing I miss the most, now, is being able to get his opinion on things. We were alike in a lot of ways and different in some (politically we were on opposite ends and equally willing to argue about it). But the one thing he could always do is see the world from your perspective and respect and talk about things you were doing, even if they weren’t something he would do. He was an engineer not just by trade but by life. My mom would always say stuff like why would you have chickens when you can just get eggs at the store, but my dad got it. It was fun to talk to him about anything and everything. There are so many times I want to ask him a question and I can’t. And there are so many things I don’t know. I’m left to piece things together through Medicare explanations of benefits (it started with unidentified abdominal pain, from what I can tell), old family photos, boarding passes from the Cunard White Star, and letters from unknown people in Lithuania (I want to go to Marijampole one day to see where he came from). I’m slowly starting to find my dad voice though, the part of him that still lives in me, that allows me to answer my own questions. He’s in there, and I’m learning how to find him when I need him. I’ve even started to notice myself sounding like him sometimes, like the way he’d say “HEL-lo” when answering the phone, welcoming you into a conversation that could go on for hours. I wish he were here to tell me about stocks, too. Sandisk, dude. Is it time to give up?
I always thought he’d live forever, but of course nobody does. It was just that my mom, she was so fragile already. It seemed like a given she’d be first. But you know, nothing is ever a given. Not tomorrow, not anything. All we can do is make the most of right now, by bowling or golfing or rollerskating or by doing whatever brings us joy today. That’s how we honor the people who are no longer here and carry them with us.