I’ve had lots of practice saying goodbye to my father. Throughout our childhood, my brother and I divided our time between our mom and dad, regularly boarding airplanes which carried us a thousand miles away from one parent or the other. Every joyful reunion with our father held within it the anticipation of a tearful farewell to come. Alan and I treasured our time with Dad all the more, because we knew so well the ache of separation. So this final parting feels like one for which I’ve been preparing my whole life.
Here are just a few of the memories I’ll keep with me forever.
Dad was the family cook, chauffeur, grocery-shopper, homework-supervisor, and housekeeper. He did all our laundry and sorted it into neat piles: Michael, Katherine, Alan, Elizabeth. He’d call us to come collect it, and if we were too busy playing computer games, reading, brooding, or whatever it was we were doing, we’d get annoyed – “okay, Dad, I’ll get it, calm down!” It didn’t occur to us that after he’d washed, dried, sorted, and folded our laundry, the least we could do was pick it up off the couch and take it to our rooms. I didn’t learn how to use a washing machine until I was in college.
Breakfast was a big deal in our house. Every morning, there would be pancakes, waffles, French toast, or cereal, and always, always meat - sausage links or patties, bacon, or fried Spam, which we blotted with paper napkins and wolfed down. As a child, I was unaware of Spam’s low social standing. I loved it. Our lunch money was always counted out for us and carefully laid next to our juice glasses. Dad bustled around the kitchen drinking coffee, his little brown radio crackling away on the counter. It was peaceful, predictable. We were well cared for, well loved.
I was miserable in junior high, and lunchtime was the worst, with the usual who-to-sit-with dilemma. We weren’t allowed to use the school pay phone during school hours, but I’d wait until no teachers were in sight, then sneak into the hallway and call our house. No one was at home; I just wanted to hear my father’s voice on our answering machine. Sometimes I’d call several times in a row. Hearing his gentle, friendly voice made me feels worlds better. I remembered that I was loved. That feeling carried me through to the end of the day, when the school bus would bring me home to him.
Dad always made hearty family dinners – navy beans with salt pork, barbecued ribs, beef stew, Swiss steak, meatloaf. I used to sit in the kitchen and talk his ear off while he cooked. We’d talk about everything; the Sweet Valley High book I was reading, the teachers I loved or hated, the boys I loved or hated, the dream I had last night – everything. I was closer to my dad than any of my friends were to their dads. There was no filter between my brain and my mouth when I poured my heart out to him on those warm kitchen afternoons. He was the best audience I ever had.
Once, just the two of us were home on a Saturday night, and we baked chocolate chip cookies and watched the Miss America pageant together. Dad showed me the proper amount of cookie dough to drop onto the sheet to make perfect Fanny Farmer-sized cookies, and we licked the beaters as we heckled the pageant contestants.
When I was in college and had a fight with my boyfriend, I called my dad at three in the morning and he stayed on the phone with me while I cried.
One lonesome Valentine’s day, I devoured an entire box of Godiva chocolates and gave myself a nasty migraine. I lived downtown and my dad lived in the mountains, but he drove down in the middle of the night, bearing Advil, chicken soup, and sympathy.
When I close my eyes, I can still conjure the smell of my dad’s old brown bathrobe – the one that hung on the back of our bathroom door, a clandestine pack of Benson & Hedges menthols stashed in the pocket. It smells like home, it smells like comfort. It reminds me of steaming stacks of pancakes, freshly folded clothes lined up neatly on the couch, lunch money carefully counted out, and a voice on an answering machine, reminding me that somewhere, someone out there loves me very much.
I love you too, Daddy. I always will.