In the fold out window of my wallet, sandwiched between my state ID and my badge for work is a faded holy card. The edges are worn and the corners are folded. On the front is Jesus Christ, haloed head, holding court in front of a gathering of small birds perched on tree branches and a rock. On the back are the following words:
We had rabbits in our house. Not pet rabbits, but wild baby rabbits. Our neighbor’s dog had gotten the mother and my brother found their den while mowing their lawn. They were tiny, each one of them could fit in the palm of my hand. We convinced our parents to bring them into the house and fed them with an eye dropper. They stayed in a cardboard box next to the basement door. When we finished crying on the couch, I took one of the rabbits from the box and went down into the basement, sat down in the dark, pet it and cried more.
Since the funeral was going to be on the south side we stayed at my grandmother’s for the next week. . When you die young, your wake and funeral are well attended. For three days people filed in and out. Some I knew, most I didn’t but they all talked in hushed tones. There’s not much for kids to do at a funeral home. You can only play so many hands of Uno, you can only go for a walk around the block so many times. I remember going to see Return of the Jedi at Ford City Mall with my mom’s cousin, Katie. She fell asleep while the people behind us cheered for Luke Skywalker and the fall of the Empire. The father-son dynamic of the story was over my head at the time.
The church was packed for the funeral. I’d never sat in the reserved front rows before. I don’t remember the mass, only the flag draped across the casket. Then a limo ride to the cemetery. Then it was over.
We went back home. Just the four of us. School started the next week, third grade for me. People treated me differently, especially the teachers. Like there was something they all knew about me but didn’t want to talk about if I was there. “That’s the boy whose father just died.” Was it compassion? Pity? I don’t know. I was eight.
I cried a lot that year. Anything could set me off. If I got yelled at, if I was by myself, if something went wrong at school, if I got in trouble, sometimes for no reason at all. To say I was emotionally unstable was an understatement. Even though I was having problems I’m sure it was hardest on my mother. Everything fell to her to do. She started working a few months later, her first full time job since my brother was born. My father’s company had offered her a job. We’d be okay.
There was a man who worked at our grade school, the only male besides the custodian. He was the school counselor and I started meeting with him every other week. We played Yahtzee and invented the practice roll which didn’t count and you could use at any time during the game by crossing out the P we wrote in above the top line of the Yahtzee scorecard. We talked a lot. For four years, every other week I was in his office. I was in high school before I realized he was checking on me, making sure I was okay, making sure my family was okay. Later in life my sister worked at the same school that he did. I had her thank him for me because I never did. Thanks Mr. G.
The hardest part was answering questions about my family. It always came up but as soon as I answered the conversation ground to a halt. Most kids don’t know what to say when you tell them your father is dead. A year later another kid’s father passed away. Finally another member of the Dead Dads Club. We spent father’s day playing together in his back yard. His mother remarried a year later and they moved away.
Then junior high. My first girlfriend, my first kiss. Her father had died too, about the same time as mine. Another Dead Dads Club member, this time one who would French kiss me at the movie theater during Three Men and a Baby. She broke up with me a month later.
Then High school. I met more members of the Dead Dads Club and dealt with fewer family questions. Graduation. Moving on to college. Now it had been ten years. A long time, more years without him now than with him. I wanted to go to the cemetery. I told my mom. She gave me the holy card, told me how to get there and gave me the numbers to write down so I could find the grave site.
Have you ever had to find a grave site in a cemetery? First of all, cemeteries are huge. Even after studying the map by the entrance gate for ten minutes, I could barely find the section where my father was buried. That turned out to be the easy part because once you find the section, you then have to find these four inch diameter concrete lot markers buried in the ground to match the next pair of numbers. If you get lucky and match one number, then you are halfway there. Now you just have to walk in a straight line, either left to right or up and back until you find the next number. If you are a widow visiting your departed husband for the twenty-seventh time, this is easy. If you are an eighteen year old kid visiting your father’s grave for the first time since he died ten years ago you wander lost through a cemetery by yourself for a long time.
Eventually I found the right numbers. Then I found the headstone.
|Now you know what the F stand for in my middle name.|
For the first time in ten years I talked to my dad. I told him what he’d missed, how I was off to college, about my mom, how she was about to get remarried. Then I just tried to remember what I could of him. How he always jingled his keys. How he used to say “Mmm, hm,” the pitch in his voice rising on the “hm.” How that’s the only thing I remember of his voice. How he had us pick out the “cooties” from our carpeting every night before bed. How he would nap on the floor of the living room on weekends and I would curl up next to him.
After an hour, I left. It was a relief to finally go there and I’ve gone back many times over the last twenty years. I don’t stay as long and I seldom cry now. When my son started asking me a lot of questions about my dad, especially as we were driving by the many cemeteries near our old house, I took him, too. It seemed like the best way to explain it to him.
It’s been thirty years since my dad died. I’m just a year younger than he was when he died. Next year is going to be tough for me, my older brother says.
My son still asks me questions about my dad. How old was he? How did he die? How old was I when he died? Am I going to die while he is young?
I wish I could tell him that I’ll be here forever, for as long as he needs me. I’ll be there to coach his soccer team, to teach him how to ride a bike, how do drive a car. I’ll teach him to play chess, to be nice to people, to play tennis, to mow the lawn, help him with his math homework, and show him how to throw a curve ball. I’ll be there when he graduates high school and moves away to college, when he starts out on his own, when he brings his girlfriend home to meet us. I’ll be there when he gets married, at his younger sister’s wedding to walk her down the aisle, to see their child born, my own grandchildren. I’ll be there for a long time.
Hopefully I will be right. Hopefully I’ll see my children, the two that are here and the one who is on his way, grow into adults, see them through all of the life they have ahead of them. But I can’t be sure.
So every night before bed, no matter the time, I sneak into their rooms while they are asleep. I pull their blankets up, put the stuff animals that have fallen onto the floor back on the bed. I give them a kiss and whisper goodnight. Most nights they never know that I’ve been in their rooms. But sometimes, sometimes the open their eyes, they look at me and smile, or reach out and hug me, then roll over and go back to sleep. Those are the best nights.
Thirty years later and I still miss you, Dad.
Thanks for reading.