I want to tell you about my father. And this will be a rather short, and somewhat different kind of eulogy, because to tell you the truth, I don't know much about him. I can't tell you where he was born, and I'm not even sure exactly what year it was. I can't tell you his father's name, or all of his brothers and sisters, because frankly, I don't know them. I only know my story of him.
I went to see my father days before he died and on the way I listened to my brothers and sister telling stories--not so much stories about my father--just growing up stories, and I felt so sad because I didn't know those stories. I didn't know the people in the stories. I had other stories from where I grew up away from them. I had different people. I said to them, "These aren't my stories." And they gave me the strangest look. It's as if no one had ever said that outloud. I got bolder still. I said something about my father. "I don't have many stories about daddy." My sister Gina said, sadly, "Neither do we."
I take that back. We have stories about him. He was quite a rascal. But these were the kind of stories that children hear snatches of in whispers from adults that don't want you to know things. Or they're stories you hear poured out in thick sobs over the telephone to bestfriends or sisters. Stories that you hear yelled while you're sequestered in the bedroom while the grown-ups are in the kitchen. Stories with bad words in them. Or even stories of such audacity that they make a person a legend! There's the one about my father teaching art at Temple University until they found out he had no credentials to do so. There are many more, far more scandalous, and not nearly as funny.
I think all of his children came to a point where we had to make a decision. I decided early to love him. Hate and bitterness are costly. Besides. I had lost the father who raised me far too soon. I liked having a daddy in my life however scant his presence. I remember when I worked at the mall. Once I was in a clothing store, hanging out, and I saw a father with two of his daughter, both around my age. He looked as if it was tormenting him to shop with them, but I could tell they were his delight. "Daaaaadeeee," They cried out at his merciless teasing. And I missed having someone to say, "Daaaaaaaadeeeee," to. It wouldn't be until I was good and grown, and he had gotten sober and come to Christ that I would truly have him.
Christ makes the difference, doesn't He? I remember the first time Daddy wrote me a letter. It was his testimony of being an addict for 39 years. It was part testimony. Part apology. Something I could hold in my hand for years to come. I had my daddy for the first time. Not the drunken voice on the phone making promises he couldn't keep. There were other letters. Lots of phone calls. He knew the plots to all the books I'd written back then, even the ones I didn't publish. There were times I felt like I could talk to him about anything. He was proud of me, and treated me like I'd won the Nobel Prize in literature before I ever got a hint of an indication that I'd get a book published. I loved that I got him when I was an adult, and much more sure of myself, and less needy. I felt like I could look him eye to eye. I could be both woman and baby girl. Strong and vulnerable.
I don't want to make it sound like we had a perfect relationship. Money kept us largely apart. We couldn't call too much. Couldn't visit one another. We usually saw each other when somebody died. I have no memory of shared meals with him. Of going out with him. Of spending holidays with him. Just speaking on the phone. Sporadically.
Just before he died he wasn't feeling well. Went into emergency for something he thought was fairly routine, and found out it was merely a symptom of something insidious. And widespread. We all thought it was his heart. For weeks I hid from the thought that I'd lose him. I slept. For weeks I slept as long as my body would allow, thinking sleep would shield me from the terror and the depression and loss assaulting me. Sometimes late at night I'd want to call him, but couldn't since it was so late. When I crawled out of my funk--figurative and literal--I called my mother and asked how he was. She told me about the cancer and that his prognosis was okay. The next day I finally talked to my sister Carlean and we did a three way call. Finally I faced the truth and spoke to my father.
He was so happy to hear from me. He said, "I kept thinking, 'Where's my baby?' "And I thought that was the damndest thing. Where is my baby? Wasn't that the theme song of our life together. Always I was separated. Always. We talked about so much in that conversation and so little. We talked about my second book. I told him I'd make sure I'd get him a copy even though it wasn't going to come out (and I did get it for him thanks to a little help from my friends.). But it was too late. The next day he couldn't talk anymore because he needed a ventilator to breathe. To my knowledge, he never spoke again.
You know what I loved about this conversation? How animated Daddy got when he started talking about reading my book--the first one. He went through a plot analysis, and then started talking about the characters as if they were real. And I could feel how proud he was of me. And it took all the sting out of some of the madness that happened in my career this year. I made my daddy happy. I made my daddy a fan. The last time I talked to my daddy in this life he told me how much he wanted to read my next book.
I've learned something very important in this life. People love you the way they can. They don't love you the way you want them to. If you cling to how you want them to love you, you may find yourself bitter and terribly unhappy. But if you accept the love you're offered you may find a few treasures buried there.
This is what I know about the man I'll say goodbye to for good in this life in the morning. I know by heart the sound of his voice. The music of his laugh. I know that nobody calls me his "baby" like my Daddy. I know he missed me, and wished I called more, but didn't make any demands because he felt like he profoundly failed me in life. I know each time I talked to him he wanted to apologize about his failures, but I made him stop when I was forty. I couldn't forgive him anymore than I already had.
I know he loved jazz, all kinds. And sometimes he missed being Catholic, but he didn't like all the Latin. He liked my Orthodox version of the Nicene Creed more than the one his Presbyterian Church used and was still waiting for me to send him a copy of ours. He had skin the medium brown color of pecan shells and that I always seem to write a character or two that color. He hair was a whispy cloud of white curls very much like the texture of my own hair. He gifted me with a replica of his nose. I know he was sweet, and kind, and precious, and wonderful, and funny. All the things he always was, but the booze and the drugs blunted and dulled. But they were there. Always. And when he was most himself, you could see it.
I know now that when you don't get all the love you want, you should get all the love you can, and can all the love you get. And put those cans of love in the pantry of your heart and save them for the winters of the soul when you will surely need them.
I am saving my daddy's love, because unlike string beans, beets and peaches, canned love keeps forever, and you can savor it in this life, and it's even sweeter in the next.
I am looking forward to the day when I will see Daddy again. And drugs, and alcohol, and depression and money, and time, and selfishness...nothing will stand between us. Love will bind us together like white ribbons and beautiful, bright bows. And we will love forever. Listening to Jazz. Laughing. Drinking wine. And I can read him all my books. His baby girl's books.
Did you hear me, Daddy? You won't miss a thing. I love you.
Claudia, your baby,
and this time, it's me that is so very sorry for all the times I've profoundly failed you.