A few years ago, I heard Anderson Cooper speak at a library conference. In the discussion of his book, a tribute to Gloria Vanderbilt, he quoted a line from a book by Mary Sarton: “A fatherless girl thinks all things are possible and nothing is safe.”
That line stuck with me, as I had never heard it articulated quite that way before. And I thought, “that must be the worst feeling in the world, or the best – depending on how you look at it.” As I read about grief, the loss of a father, and dealing with estrangement, I have come across an overwhelming amount of advice, some of it resonating with me but most of it not quite fitting exactly what I feel now that my father is gone.
Because the truth is, Dad, you were gone a long time ago. For decades, I had to settle for pieced together memories of you that I fashioned into a type of mental hologram to take your place. And it wasn’t enough. I spent years being afraid that you would show up out of the blue, and throw a molotov cocktail into the carefully stacked house of cards that I’d build for myself. All things are possible, and nothing is safe.
Now that you are gone, I watch the cavalcade of thoughts and emotions parading in front of me, and I try not to latch on to any that threaten to take me to or keep me in a dark place. I try not to stay boiling in the fiercest anger at the boasting family members and acquaintances who are latching onto your memory and notoriety, but were all complicit in your poor choices. On the flip side, I am making an effort not to linger on the collages of your musical accomplishments, photos with other A-list musicians, and accolades.
I am watching my jealous thoughts pass by as I see photos of you throughout the years with so many other people. “No!’ I want to scream, “you didn’t belong to them, you belonged at home, with me.” But you were never mine to keep in the first place. All things are possible, and nothing is safe. And this is our story.
So, instead, I choose to focus on and remember things about you that are unique to us, and our relationship. I will laugh every time I see an old Macintosh 128K, remembering you bringing ours home and guarding it like Fort Knox, down to keeping the plastic cover on it at all times. I used it without your permission once and when you found out, I swear it was the only time I ever saw you break a sweat. I’ll remember all the nights you told me bedtime stories that extended way past what I presume is normal for a six year-old girl. Stories about Jamaica, and ghosts, and skeletons in the basement that left me clutching my sheets in horror, but asking you to keep the story going.
I will never look at a ski slope without remembering you, wearing a full face mask, barreling down the slope at uncontrolled speed heading directly for the large glass windows in the lodge. Nor will I forget the faces of the people inside, watching you and bracing for impact. When I see condo complexes with identical looking units, I will remember the time on vacation when you accidentally went into the wrong unit as we were coming in for the night. 15 minutes later, you came inside, flustered, saying that after taking off your shoes and coat, you found a strange woman sitting on the couch watching tv. I will never look at Where’s Waldo the same way, after you spent two entire days of our vacation trying to find Waldo in one particularly hard scene. We came back and you were sitting in the dark with a flashlight staring at the pages.
Dad, we had a lot of love, and a lot of laughs in our home. I have always considered myself lucky to have that much, even if it was for a short period of time. I once had a well-meaning doctor tell me, “your father is a screw up, you’d be better off forgetting about him.” But how can I do that, when looking in the mirror is all it takes to see you, in myself?
There is a lot that I have taken from you, even if you never knew it. Like you, I will never be the loudest person at the party, but I’ll be able to talk to and get along with almost anyone. I will be able to figure out the issue with most electronics, if given the time. Like you, I have a fluid sense of time and a deep tendency to strive for perfection, which is both a blessing and a burden. Somehow, your calm and unassuming demeanor runs through me, as does your rowdy laugh, sense of humor, love of cooking and good food. In travel pictures, I will still always be the Asian with the camera, just as I was as a kid. I will always have a deep love of and appreciation for Jamaica – its people, land, culture, and food. Despite everything, I am still proud to be your daughter, and I wouldn’t change it. I love you, and I will always miss you.