“Are your windows open? Is there a breeze?”
When it was said and done, those were the questions I asked my dying father. The man who prepared two daughters for the world of men by showing us not to trust them and, for best protection, to be with men we were not fully committed to. I had his attention ― and I asked about the room temperature.
When I think about grieving him, I trace the loss back 35 years. If I am thorough, 50 years, to when he began disappearing during summer, returning in fall and sporadically working winters, spiraling into deeper depression each snowfall. When I was 17, he left our family, moved to Brownsville, Texas, and remarried on a beach.
He made new friends, became part of a new family and had a whole bunch of people who loved him. He and his wife grew beautiful fruit trees, participated in liberal causes and enjoyed each other.
In the intervening years, when he did visit us, he was agitated and anxious to leave, saying the Northeast made him uncomfortable.
He loved us as well as he could. It was often a complicated and absent sort of love. Our mother’s death in the winter of 2020, right before lockdown, seemed like a good time to let go of the past — enough trying to make sense of my family of origin. After all, we were down a pivotal character.
I was able to move forward without a backward glance, until our father published a book of poetry dedicated to his ex-wife, our mother, for her patience. I believed the word “patience” acknowledged he’d been a relentlessly exhausting partner.
The dedication threw me into reverse. I wasn’t glancing backward ― I turned around. I self-righteously lit into my unsuspecting father in an email. I wrote that patience didn’t aptly characterize our mother’s experience. Fear, I suggested, was more precise. I highlighted his disrespectful behaviors, and lauded our mother’s grace and strength. I wrapped things up by detailing her 25-year battle with cancer, but not before rhetorically asking how our lives would have been better had we not been whiplashed inside his mercurial moods. Who we would have become, not subjected to his narcissism dressed up as political activism? And finally, minus his devastating and omnipresent judgment, what we may have left home knowing about ourselves rather than about him?
After a few hard ciders and an evening with my sweetheart, I sent the email, cc’ing my sister. I felt great. Until the next morning.
My sister wished I’d left her out of the mess. By cc’ing her, I’d made her part of a diatribe she wanted nothing to do with. That was fair. I apologized. My stepmother called me toxic. My email was undoubtedly upsetting and toxic-ish. But I believed I was protecting my mother’s honor by dredging up memories — memories our father had the audacity to thank her for tolerating.
“Who we would have become, not subjected to his narcissism dressed up as political activism. ... Minus his devastating and omnipresent judgment, what we may have left home knowing about ourselves rather than about him?”
For months I didn’t hear anything from my father. He primarily communicated via U.S. mail. Usually he sent letters/reports on his activities. I received nothing. I was a little surprised. Tough words had never quieted him before. He was an old man. Maybe older than I knew. I cooled into regret. The inscription, that word ― patience ― led me to lose mine. A glaringly obvious irony, visible in retrospect. I’d welcomed the opportunity to rant ― a reprieve from trying to solve the concrete Rubik’s cube of grieving my mother. Integrating her death was exhausting and only finally solvable through acceptance.
I decided I would reach out to my father. I would apologize for taking my sadness out on him, admit I had no idea what, if anything, would have been better without his presence. I believed I had time. He was a daily exerciser. An active, vibrant octogenarian.
Five months after I’d pressed send on that email, on his 83rd birthday, our father had a massive stroke and fell off his chair at breakfast. I imagined an unread newspaper, cold black coffee and our father terrified inside an ambulance. He hated doctors. Hospitals. Mortality.
I knew I’d be lucky if permitted to say goodbye to him. My stepmother told the hospital staff I was toxic. I wasn’t allowed to speak with them. I’d created the situation. If I didn’t get to say goodbye, well, that was on me. My sister brokered the final conversation. I was allowed to speak with him if I agreed to the conditions set by our stepmother.
“This is how it’s going to go,” she told me. “You’re going to start by telling him you love him. After that, you can only share good memories.”
I told her that I wouldn’t antagonize a person who’d had a stroke. I wasn’t going to lash out when his brain was muddled and his tongue tied. But why should she believe me? I was contrite and agreed repeatedly to the terms.
When we spoke, he was home, immobile from the neck down. I told him I loved him. He told me that he remembered my sister and me as little girls. He remembered watching us cross-country ski. We cried. He said we’d speak again, he needed to go, a woman was coming to read to him. Then he was gone.
I knew we would not speak again. I recognized the hitch in his breath, the fade of his thoughts. I’d heard it before. He died that evening. In Texas it would have been warm with a pinkish sky. Here, in the Northeast, the temperature was below freezing, the night indigo and crisp. I will remember the relief I felt after speaking with him and the sadness blanketing the days and weeks following his death.
I was grateful before, for inadvertent lessons he shared on the imperfections of being human. I will continue to be grateful. His joy could be infectious. His anger, scary. His sense of adventure, reckless, but usually worth it. His heart, big and blundering, was usually well-intentioned. His words, at times brutal, were usually a reflection of his own self-loathing. Maybe he was just another puzzle, not for solving, but accepting.
Miriam Novogrodsky is a writer, therapist, mother and author of a new collection of stories, “Short Loves.” The best compliment she ever received was being called a “a miner of the human experience.” Miriam’s work has appeared in the Larcom Review, the Newport Review, Thema, HuffPost, Glimmer Train Stories, Narratively, and more. For more, visit her website, www.uncleanslate.com.