A few days ago I was cleaning out my closet. It’s pretty hard to do that without noticing the two boxes containing my father’s ashes that sit on the top shelf. There are two boxes because my Dad’s ashes wouldn’t fit into the antique cedar box I had provided. “He was a big man,” the lady at the cremation station told me, her lips pressed into a thin firm line. She handed me the second box, plain cardboard, his name typed on a label on the front. Inside, the substantial “leftovers” had been contained in a plastic bag with a twist tie. And they have remained that way for the last seven years. I’ve thought of combining them into one box, but I can’t bear the thought of it. What if I spill some in the process? I’ve thought of spreading them somewhere, and sometimes I think my Dad would like that. The extent of his discussion with me about what he wanted after he died went like this: “By the way, I want to be cremated. No funeral”.
I carried the boxes around with me in my car for several months after he died. I was in my car a lot. Because after my Dad died, I moved a lot. Not just down the block, or across town. My Dad died in Albuquerque in the spring of ’06. By Fall, I’d moved to Washington state. Three months later I moved to Oregon. Eight months later I was back in Albuquerque where I stayed long enough to get a graduate degree. Two years later I moved to California, and after I got here I moved two more times. I didn’t just move through states, I ripped through relationships. I reignited a relationship with my first love. That was two years of intense passionate long distance distraction, during which time I also was a frequent flyer in the bed of my most recent ex. Then there was online dating and another long distance relationship prompting my move to California. Then when that fell apart there were lovers in rapid succession. All too much too soon, my desire to attach myself to anything or any one that would hold me down. One of them was a boyfriend from High School who found me on Facebook. And there was also my job. Fresh out of graduate school, committed, eager to prove myself, I poured my soul into it to the exclusion of everything else. And everything I’ve mentioned here is just the tip of the iceberg of the distractions I piled up. I took a hacksaw to everything in my path. The conflict. A never-ending supply. I pissed lots of people off. Some of them needed to be pissed off.
And yesterday, sitting on the floor of my closet, looking up at the two boxes, it came to me, that it’s all been distraction. Everything has been an avoidance of the feeling I felt as I sat and watched my father die.
I am alone. There is no one left to save me.
It feels foreign, even to write those words. For so long you were “Dad”, and now you are gone. Today it has been seven years since you left. I know, you didn’t leave. Not by your own volition. And now, as the anniversary rolls around once again, the images of our last moments together float through my mind. I can still see your eyes, the way you looked at me when I asked if you wanted more morphine, right after the last time I watched you struggle for air. You were terrified. You didn’t want to go. I know.
Of course, there was no way to know then how your death would affect me or what was left of our family structure. You were the glue that tied me to them, and when you left, so did they. And though I have tried, to carry on, to be OK, I’m still missing a part of myself because you aren’t here.
If you can see us now, your two descendants, what are your thoughts and feelings? You would be so proud of your grandson. You live on in him, he has your same goofy sense of humor and the kindness that was your trademark. He should have gotten more of you. You should have gotten more of him. I’m so glad you were there when he was born.
You taught me everything I know about loving and being present for the ones you love. You showed me this by example, by always being there for me, no matter what kind of hell I put you through.
One day a few months ago I was in a line at a pharmacy, and there was a man in the front of the line. From the back, he looked exactly like you. The same wiry white hair, a few inches too long and curling up at the ends. The same round shiny bald patch at the top. The same flat ass that is my birthright, crew socks across muscled calves, and shorts. I stared at him for as long as I was in the line. I pretended it was you, and I was waiting. I imagined that when he turned around it would be your face I would see.
I know you’ve never been a fan of sentimentality. And I’m sure you wouldn’t approve of those boxes out in the garage containing the stuff I couldn’t throw away. The clothes you had worn in the days before you left. Your shoes, glasses, and other remnants. You’d tell me to get rid of it. You’d laugh at the boxes I have on top of my closet that contain your ashes. The ones I carried around in my car for months after your death as I moved from state to state trying to find somewhere I didn’t feel lost. You’d tell me to move on.
You never knew how important you were, to me or anyone else. But you always let me know how important I was.
I miss you so much, Dad.