Grief, Or Something Like It

There are phone calls, and then there are phone calls.

The second kind become great, memorable divides, minutes-long exchanges that separate Life Before and Life After. They’re the kind that tell you about something that’s already happened, while you’ve been blithely unaware, and suddenly the world shifts. You can’t unhave them and you can’t forget them. Saturday, July 27th, I got the second kind of phone call from my sister. Two transatlantic flights, one attempt to go back to work before I was ready, and some bone-deep jet lag later, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my dad has died.

When I went home to visit my family last February, I decided well in advance that I would try to specifically get my dad to engage. He was living with my mom and sister in Georgia and they were taking care of him, a task that became more mammoth as his Type II Diabetes (and stubborness) wore on. His behavior was the same unchanged pattern of the last seven trying years: solving puzzles online, reading articles online, and watching Netflix. Determined to squeeze something else out of him in the six days I visited, and with the resiliance of spirit of someone that didn’t have to deal with his increasingly difficult personality every day, I brought the game Catch Phrase.

My family has always been terrible at enjoying each other’s complete company. Terrible is a strong word, but the truth of it is that there aren’t a lot of situations where all five of us in the same room ends up being much fun. But the surest fire way to achieve fun throughout childhood was a good card game. It was how my parents had passed their honeymoon and it was still a solid strategy three daughters later. Catch Phrase wasn’t a card game, but I thought it was a better bet, because it forced conversation. You can’t play Catch Phrase – basically $100,000 Pyramid in a pass-around electronic form – without talking to each other excessively. Ideally, also, it would involve a whole lot of laughing.

Skeptical at first, my dad eventually acquiesced and the four of us sat in the living room, listening to John Anderson, playing Catch Phrase. And I will be forever grateful for that stupid little game, because in those few nights, I saw more of the old dad I remembered than I had seen in years. Sure, before and after he was unchanged, returning to his room and his puzzles once we’d finished. But the during – his thoughtful descriptions, his raised eyebrow at our own, less-than-thoughtful ones, the gleam of genuine amusement and following laughter when the buzzer went off the second he handed the game to my sister – the during I’ll remember forever.

My dad was a wildly successful workaholic for the majority of my childhood. He’d been a regular full-time employee in the IBM-led tech world of the 1980’s before I was born, but for my entire memorable existence he’d been a charismatic contractor, selling his expertise to assorted companies across a variety of sectors. His contracts would take him all over the county, oftentimes all over the state, and they always paid him very well. My dad loved providing for his family and was fiercely passionate about it; he derived the majority of his joy in life from work, the sense of purpose and affluence it gave him, and most importantly, his ability to support his family. What he didn’t get from that (or our love, of course), he happily got from eating extraordinarily well. My dad was a big guy, and it took big food to keep him that way.

There wasn’t much that stopped him, either, regardless of what he wanted. He had a steel will that was terrifying to behold, and not just as his child. I imagine dealing with my father in the workplace could be as horrifying as it was inspiring. He had a zero-tolerance policy for bull shit – a life motto of “No Surprises” and “You Can’t Fix Stupid” – that even extended to being too silly in the car. (During an ill-advised family road trip to Louisiana, one of only two such family vacations we went on in my entire childhood, we lost the privilege of going to a theme park on the way due to excessive silliness in the car.)

In a family with a 4:1 female-to-male ratio, you’d think we would have ended up a pretty emotive, demonstrative bunch. But that was far from the truth. I never, ever doubted that my dad loved me. How he chose to show it, though, was in the way he provided for us, in the experiences he could give us, and from time to time, in a charming affability that made us realize that while poorly-timed silliness on our terms was something he had little patience for, silliness on his own terms was something he enjoyed sharing with us very much. The way my dad expressed love was usually never through words, and, not in the hollow way it sounds, almost always expressed through money. Taking us out to dinner. Paying for our favorite clothes and toys. Buying me an oboe after he’d just bought me a flute because I had the instrumental constancy of, well, an eleven year old. Dad loved us by spoiling us, and he loved it well.

An imposing six-foot-three inches, confident, mustached, the definition of the sort of gentleman that can only buy his suits at the Big and Tall store: that was the guy I grew up with, and I was often in awe of him. We didn’t talk about a lot, but I loved listening to him, and most of my young memories of him are more of just going on rides with him than anything else. (He was a major fan of driving.) My sisters and I spent many an hour standing behind his office chair, peering at his computer monitor over his shoulder, impatient for him to finish explaining his newest Excel spreadsheet. And while we didn’t always have the same opinions, we could always be sure he would share his, and he always spoke with authority and inflection on most any subject at hand. He could sear you and your opinions with a look.

I share all of this so you can understand just how hard it was to process the person he became after 2008, the person I visited last February.

Between the sudden death of his best friend, who was almost ten years his junior, and the economic recession, which slowly saw the last of his contracts permanently dry up, my dad was a vastly different person from 2008 onwards. Never a man of many hobbies, with no work to keep him busy, he became a recluse, hyper conscious of the family budget and more inclined to spend time looking up minutia on the internet than to spend it speaking with any of us. Despite numerous efforts to network, he continually struggled to find any new jobs. Eventually he just stopped looking.

It sounds so simple in hindsight, but it took us years to realize he was depressed, and years more to talk to him about it. But by the time we did, it was too late. Maybe because he thought it was weak, maybe because he genuinely did not think anything could be changed, maybe because he simply did not have the wherewithal to try – whatever his reasons, he never did anything to try and fix it. For seven years, it got progressively harder to keep the faith that he would ever manage to. From the moment I got that phone call from my sister, I realized a harsh truth: now, he never would.

Losing your dad is never easy, but my dad’s health had been waning for years, and he had not been “himself” for a decade. I genuinely thought I had done most of my mourning for the person that raised me, because so much of him was already gone. Boy, was I wrong. I hadn’t realized that however much I had accepted where he currently was, that was NOT the same as him being gone. While he was still alive, there was still a chance – however impossible, however small – that he would rally. That the dad I had grown up with, dynamic and confident and charming and vital, would come back. I don’t think I will ever stop being sad that he just couldn’t. Because of his depression.

Worse, it hurts that he never felt like he could talk to us about it. I would have given anything to lend just five minutes of my own drive and self confidence to my dad – from whom, through both nature and nuture, so much of those qualities were sourced – to get him to see he had the strength to get through it. To see that it wasn’t weakness to talk about it, that we absolutely knew he still loved and cared about us. To see that he didn’t need money to prove it and that all we wanted was for him to express it through words. All we wanted was a conversation about something other than the weather, a day spent on something other than puzzles and streaming more NCIS.

My dad had advanced Type II Diabetes, Congestive Heart Failure, and was severely overweight. He passed peacefully in his sleep on a Saturday morning from a combination of his physical ailments. But I would argue that depression was his deepest illness, and that I couldn’t help him with it will always be one of my deepest regrets. I have my suspicions, but the truth is I’ll never know what it was that stopped my dad from being able to share what he was going through. All I know is he was painfully good at faking otherwise – he was always “doing good”. So in his memory, I want to take the time to say that if you are reading this, and you are “doing good”, you may not feel ready to talk about it yet. But I want you to know that when you are, I am someone that will always be here to listen.

I didn’t know how to help my dad and so I settled for telling him that I loved him, showing him that I loved him. It wasn’t much towards the end – if I could change how often I called him over the last year, God you know I would – but I know as much as you can know anything in this life that he knew he was loved. Sometimes that is the best that you can do.

It sounds stupid, so basic, but the strangest part of death is that no matter where you go, you will never find that person. No matter where you go. But there is a constant comfort in memories, perfect and imperfect, and while I will be sad for a long time, I will also be okay. I will move forward and eventually stop having those cutting, random thoughts – that my dad won’t ever know the person I marry, that he won’t get to see my neices grow up – and realize that for my dad, this was the best case scenario. More than anything, I will always be grateful for the time I did have, and everything wonderful he did give me. Because old those memories may be, but they will never fade, nor will their impact, nor my image – strong, dynamic, and loving – of my dad.

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