The death talk started around Halloween. Surrounded by walking, talking skeletons and goblins and ghouls apparently aroused some dormant curiosity in my children, particularly the younger one. So we’ve had a lot of conversations recently about bodies and what happens when you die, a lot of conversations about where heaven is (Is it up?), how you get there (Does one spirit come down and give another one a piggyback?), and what Papa is doing there (is he lying down? On a shelf? Playing golf?)
My father died in 2005, seven and a half years ago. He had just turned 60. My oldest son was two months shy of his first birthday. A lot of times, caught in the hustle and bustle of everyday-ness, I forget he’s gone, but then suddenly I am struck by something; a sideways glance at the wedding picture of my parents I have on a windowsill, the strains of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, the song my dad and I danced to at my wedding. A random memory, a turn of phrase. Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of “Over the Rainbow” does me in almost every time. In a lot of ways, I had it easier than my mother or my sister. My husband and I had just embarked on a hectic new phase in our lives when my father died. Mourning and grief had to take place in between feedings and sleepless nights. We were hiking our way up a learning curve so steep that it left little time for anything else. I never really knew my father as a parent myself. And my life changed so drastically that there is almost a visible dividing line. Life before kids. Life after kids. Life with my dad. Life without. My mother and my sister were left with that empty space, to roam around in, to try to find walls to huddle against. Grief is a vast thing, engulfing and spreading and you need concrete things to anchor yourself to. I was able to anchor myself to those sleepless nights and in doing my best to care for my child. And for that I am thankful.
I speak about my dad a lot to my boys, not just to keep him in their lives, but also because on some level, I want them to realize why I am the way I am. I carry a lot of my father’s traits with me through my own life, not only physical, but personality wise as well. I have his nose and his sense of humor. His narrow jaw and his history of depression. I think like my dad did, I am as stubborn as he was. And as my own children get older, and their personalities develop and morph, I see bits of my father in them as well.
Dad. I wish you knew my boys–they are so much like you in so many ways, and so different in others. Reed has a killer sense of humor and a sense of timing for jokes that is unrivaled in the pre-K world. Rowan is a master at jig-saw puzzles and constructing things out of nothings, just like you. They double over with laughter when they hear the words nuts or balls and think there’s nothing funnier than a fart. Rowan has inherited your sense of justice and fairness. Reed is the most stubborn child I’ve ever met. I wish that you were here to read Walter The Farting Dog to them, though you would have had to stop to catch your breath from laughing. They are good at sports and good in school. They are good kids, even though they drive me up the wall most days. They use your expressions, because I do, though so far I’ve managed to refrain from threatening to “Call the Indians” to come and take them away. I see your lankiness in them as they are starting to grow up and every now and then I see a look in one of them that I’m sure is yours, sent from some great unknown beyond just to keep me in check. The boys know who you are, Dad. They talk of Papa and what he was like. They are fascinated by your workshop and Reed is enamored of the hard hats you kept down stairs. They know the things in the house that were built by you, they know stories. Rowan carries your name. We are doing our best to make sure they know you. And I think they do.
My father, probably much to the annoyance of my mother, always stopped to pick pennies up off the ground. See a penny, pick it up. All the day you’ll have good luck. Over time, since my father’s death, seeing a penny has come to mean that Dad is there, watching, keeping an eye out. My mom and my sister find pennies in odd places. A little bit of copper comfort. And now my kids too keep an eye out for pennies on the ground, wherever we are.
“Papa’s here!” they shout.