the missing, pictured
My father had a smile that instantly made me smile. Still does. His smile. The crooked one that took over his face. The one that implied he was up to no good whatsoever. Like this.
I don’t have many pictures of him. Probably about 30 altogether, and most of them are yellowed or damaged from improper storage or years on my Mama’s refrigerators. Like little love notes, they bring me back to a time when I was someone’s child. They remind I belonged. That I was a Daddy’s girl, despite all our differences. And despite all the pain that man caused me–by being there and then not being there–the love we had for each other was palpable. Because look at our faces, behind the blurry yellow of 1982.
That was a joy only my father and a black kitten could evoke in me. And to this day, when I look in the mirror–when I’m giddily happy–it’s his smile that’s on my face.
To say I miss him is the understatement of this lifetime. I miss the man I loved. I miss the man I hated. I miss the one I never got to know. I miss the me I never got to be. And I’m grateful for it, too.
Mostly, now, I only miss him when I look at those 30 or so pictures. Which is usually on some anniversary or manufactured hard day. But the truth is, many ordinary days are harder than they should be. Father’s Day just reminds me that he existed and wasn’t always like the other fathers…that he’s not here. But 28 years after he died, it stings from time to time–not the stabbing pain I had in my 20s–when I finally started deconstructing my loss. More like the dull heartache that never quite stops reminding you it’s there. Like a sprained ankle three days in. Sometimes, you walk–and you’re fine. A minute later, you’re wincing and reaching for pain killers.
I don’t seek pain killers anymore. When it’s there, I acknowledge it; let it sit; and then release it. A sadness exists inside me, though–one I can’t identify most days…one that is so much part of me and my existence that I can’t separate it anymore. It bubbles up every so often from that place where I stuffed it 20+ years ago. It will come unexpectedly. Like I’ll be listening to dozens of songs I never listen to–and the one song I start belting is the one about a lost person. I didn’t know I knew the words. I didn’t know he was there in my heart all of a sudden. And then, I smile because it means he’s still part of me. Even though I really cannot remember his voice or how it felt to be hugged by him.
My grief for my father–Daddy–has changed a lot over the years. For most of my life, it existed in shadows. Outbursts of a child writing him letters in poems. Fragments. Secrets. Denials–of reality, frailty, and pain. We were always too good at those things. Layers.
The layers helped me numb out–made me “forget”–slapped on my face like some stifling mask. Like the masks he used to hide, too–only slightly different. It made me stop being me. And I abandoned him right back. His memory. His legacy. His child. I left myself behind so I could damage him by denying he meant anything or that I was anything like him. For years, his grave went unvisited. For years, this day was just another. For years, I’d rail at any idea that this man was worth knowing or loving.
But I secretly still did. And always did. And then, I spent years peeling off all those layers–raging against all of it. It took me years of daily wailing in my mid-twenties to finally acknowledge it even existed. And then, the grief I felt had nothing to do with him.
Today, when I grieve, I grieve that man–mostly. I’ve come to terms with my own loss of self–of childhood–of things I don’t understand. And I’m finally just able to love him and acknowledge that I miss him. I’m finally just able to be a daughter. His daughter.
I’ve talked about my Daddy a lot over the years I’ve been writing. I’ve talked about him to cope and grieve and unravel. Because I had no other tools. I made guesses based on gut feelings, and those things somehow changed the landscape of my heart. It’s how I forgave him and myself. It’s how I created a vocabulary of loss and recovery for myself. I poured every bit of myself and that shared history onto pages and screens.
I’ve talked about my father’s service. About his drunken debauchery. About the shit he inflicted on me and my Mama. I’ve talked about the other stuff too, but always in that context. Always while saying he was incredibly flawed. All a qualification because, I guess, on some level? I still hold those things against him. Or want to. Or maybe I have to mention those things so I can love him. Because denying these things denies my experience of him. And far too many have tried that–including me.
So, let’s just say this: in many ways, my father was an utter piece of shit. He could be the meanest SOB ever. He spent every year of the life I had with him in and out of rehab. He cheated on my Mama and ruined lives. Especially his own.
He was a human being. And I love him more now because of it. Because so am I. And as a grown-up now, I understand him a little more. Can sympathize.
I want to share the father I grieve now. The one I miss so terribly, every day of my life…the one in these pictures. Because that’s all I have.
So, meet my father. His name was Bert. This is my 28th year without him, and I hope he’d like the person I am today–the person created in those six short years with him and all those years without him.
He was the oldest son and adored his Mama. So much he insisted I be named after her. He hated his sister. He had no time for pretentiousness. He was handsome and sorta short (though I thought he was the tallest man ever as a kid). He had a swagger that convinced everyone he was worth knowing. He was the black sheep of the family–always on some mission or adventure. Always thinking up new ideas and not wanting to wait for anyone’s approval. Always doing something crazy or different just to have a better story to tell.
It took him to the Navy. They called him Boats. He broke his tailbone and drank too much Coca Cola.
And something was always just a little askew. His hair, his accolades…something.
He flirted with too many pretty girls. And married a few of them. Had some kids, too.
That didn’t quite work out. And then, he drifted around the country–in some Kerouac inspired dream life–and met my Mama and saved her life.
They had a special relationship. Mama had special clothes.
Daddy had special expressions.
And he left her notes on pieces of cigarette cartons.
And then I showed up to make things more interesting. There was much velvet involved.
He called me Poudre Poot Pee Pants & Grouch. Because sometimes, I really was.
But then, I got it from somewhere.
Mostly, when I wasn’t crying and he wasn’t drunk–we were best buds.
He taught me how to cook. And not get food on the walls. My colors. About words and what they could do. How to talk to people and shake hands. And tell stories with dolls.
How to travel and how to stand tall. That men can wear yellow. And the drama of a grand reunion.
How to ride a bike. Sorta.
And love people. Even when you don’t think you have anything to give them.
I miss you, Daddy. Every day. Always have. Always will.
I wish we could go on another walk. Lunch on me. KFC sucks now, but I know a few places.