Conversations like the ones I was having with my in-laws often turn to my own mother and father and their people. The subject of my father's family (unlike my mother's side) is sticky for me. I know generally that my father's mother was from Texas and his father's family was from Virginia, but they moved around a lot because my granddad was in the Air Force. They eventually settled down in Virginia and that's where my parents met and where I was born. We moved when I was a few months old and I have memories of visits, but my mother's mother passed away when I was 18 (both of my grandfathers had already passed away by then). I kept in touch with my remaining grandparent – my dad's mom – through letters and the occasional phone call while I was in college. My father's departure from our family when I was 22 all but ended that contact.
When my father left seven years ago, he took everything with him. Every photo and every scrap of paper from his past was packed up in the back of a U-Haul truck never to be seen again. There was a photo of my granddad as a young man standing in the snow in his Airmen's uniform that I always loved. There were copies of his combat medals which included the Purple Heart and the Star of Bravery. I had a sense that there was history there. That there was a story to tell. I had hope to still hear it one day.
My father died as the result of a drunken accident in his home on July 6, 2006. We had not seen each other in four years, and the phone conversations we'd had during that time were quarterly shouting matches about the messy divorce, about his infidelity and lies … there was a lot of anger on both sides. I was angry at what he had done and his refusal to make amends for it, he was angry at me for cutting him out of my life. The last time we talked was in the October preceding his death. I sensed that for the first time since he'd left that he was listening when I told him that yes, I did love him but it was going to take time for me to forgive him and try to build a new relationship. I've rewritten that conversation so many times in my head in the years since it transpired. I didn't know it would be the last time we would speak. I didn't know that I wouldn't have time to forgive.
Later I learned that a few weeks after we spoke – on his fifty-third birthday – he married his mistress. I've often looked back at that point of contact as my father's one attempt, and subsequent failure, to be honest with me. Nine months later he was dead and I had no access to the paper trail of his history which now lived with his new wife in his new home in the new life that he had constructed around himself in a protective fort. There was no way out for him and there was no way in for me.
In the years since his passing the anniversary of his death sneaks up on me so soon after Fathers Day. I think about what I was doing at this time three years ago: Sitting in a hospital in Kentucky with my comatose father, holding his hand, telling him that I forgave him for all the shit he'd put us through and that it was all right for him to move on when they finally turned the machines off. It comforts me to imagine that if my father could have opened his eyes and sat up in those final moments he would have chastised me, probably saying something like, "I wondered if you'd come." Because he is like me, he would have wanted to have the last word, but instead I was the one with that unfortunate honor. There was no more contradiction left between us. It was him and me and I unleashed everything I'd wanted to say to him over the past four years and watched his heartbeat quicken on on the monitor even though his brain activity remained flatlined. I screamed at him and wept over him. I told him that I loved him and that it was all right. It was going to be all right now.
While others are making plans for fireworks and barbeque I find myself lost in a sea of questions. How do I explain to Sydney the absence of any photographic evidence of my paternal grandparents? Who are these people from whence she came? I can rearrange photos on the mantel all I want … but they are not in the photos there. Those people seem so distant to me now because I know so little about them and have no hope to learn more. I wonder what I should tell my daughter about her grandfather who died before she was born. I wonder if it will one day be ok for me to put a photo of my dad somewhere in my house, if doing so will ever not feel like a betrayal to my mother and my sister, even to myself.
In many ways my father was a wonderful man and because of that it makes me angry at him for all that we're missing now. All that he's missing. It's hard for me to talk about him at all. It hurts. There are questions I can't even answer for myself because I don't understand what happened or why it did.
All I know is that I had a father once, I loved him, and he has a story. I can't just pack the memory of him up in a box and put it away. I came from somewhere. Beyond the dark territory of our last days there are good memories; there are moments of my life that I would never trade. I know I was blessed to have a good father who loved me, for however brief of time it was, no matter how terribly it all ended. It's the sifting through the rubble of anger and loss – what is on top of those good things – that is the problem. I don't know how to make those things go away, or even if I should. To whence do we clear those things that weigh us down? Is there some basement or garage of the soul that I don't know about yet?
And so the storytelling is left to me. There are puzzle pieces to fit together, names to learn, dates to list on pads of paper. I wish I was more like Grandmother, who fiercely tracked details down one by one until her family tree was full. Instead I hide inside myself, afraid to ask about Daddy, about his parents, about their parents. I wonder, what are their names? What did they do? Where did they live? What were they like?
And who will tell me?