Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Miss You, Daddy

The digital clock by the side of my bed read 5:32am. My alarm wasn't set to go off until 7:00; what had awakened me? I pulled the covers over my head, eager to drift back into sleep. Then I heard it--a soft but insistent knocking at my front door. 

My heart lurched. I was instantly awake. No one knocks at your door that early in the morning unless something is wrong. I jumped out of bed and pulled on a robe. I opened the door to find the guy from the next apartment standing there, a combination of embarrassment and concern on his face. His Edison uniform shirt was only partly buttoned up. He held a silver thermos of coffee in his hand.

"Hey, hate to wake you, but I've got bad news." He gestured towards the narrow stairs that led from the apartment door down to the street. "Come on."

Somewhat warily (after all, it was barely past dawn and I barely knew the guy more than to say 'hi' ) I followed him down the stairs.

"Look," he said. I followed his pointing finger.

My red Honda Civic coupe was in its accustomed place at the front of the building. I glanced at it. There didn't seem to be anything amiss. Then it hit me: my sweet little car--the one I was so absurdly proud of, my first big purchase at $12,00 (a fortune to then 23-year-old me)--was up on blocks, all four tires gone.

"Oh my God," I said. 

"Yeah, that was my reaction, too," he said with a lopsided, self-conscious grin. "Look, I'd love to help you out, but I gotta be at work. You have this?"

How was I supposed to answer that? It was 6:00 in the morning, I was in my PJs and a robe, and my car was on blocks. I had to be at work by 8:00. Of course I didn't "have this."

I called the police, who took a cursory look, filled out a report, and told me there was basically no chance they'd ever find the guy who took my tires. That was it. I remember standing at the curb next to my violated car, watching the police officers drive away. I had absolutely no idea what to do next.

And that was how it happened that an hour later, my dad was at my apartment, hunkered down next to my car checking out the damage. Fortunately for me, there was no damage to the car itself. I just needed tires.

I burst into tears.

I was barely out of college and had next to no money. I was on the "dating diet"--basically, I would date anyone who asked me out as long as we were going to dinner. The thought of spending hundreds of dollars on tires was overwhelming--especially when a few hours before I'd had perfectly good tires and they were stolen right in front of my own apartment.  

So my dad called a tow truck, and we headed over to Goodyear. We spent an eventful morning there, buying tires (ahem--he bought the tires). He said I could pay him back whenever; he was just happy to know I was safe. He put his arm around me and reassured me that everything would be okay. I remember feeling profoundly grateful that he was there.

He died just under five years later, 49-years-old. An undiagnosed pulmonary embolism took his life and devastated our family. 

The hard-working, loving man who was quick to smile, slow to anger, and eager to debate politics and religion with me at the slightest provocation was suddenly and irrevocably gone from my life. 

It has been 12 1/2 years, and there is not a day--and often, not an hour--when I don't think about him. Contrary to what people told me (with best intentions, I'm sure), time hasn't "healed all wounds." The pain of the loss is as fresh now as it was the early morning hours of April 2, 1997, when another pounding on my apartment door awoke me--only this time, it was my brother, who had driven miles and miles to break the news of our dad's death.

All these years later, the pain is still as fresh. All that time has done for me is provide perspective. 

I am one of those very, very blessed people who had a great relationship with their dad. That's not to saw we always saw eye-to-eye (in fact, one of our favorite things to do was debate each other--you name it, we could always find the opposite sides of the same coin and tussle over it until the coin dropped to the ground and rolled out of sight). Our relationship was great because I always felt secure--and I know he felt that way, too. We both knew that no matter what, we would always love each other. We respected each other. He was one of my closest friends. 

At the time he died, we were talking on the phone almost every day. I was by then in my late 20s, on the cusp of making a decision that would change my life forever. His death tore me down to my very foundation; an earthquake that ripped my entire world apart. Everything changed. 

At times I wonder if he hadn't died, how my life would be different. I suspect many things would not be as they are now. After his death, I foundered around looking for something or someone to hold onto. The decisions I made immediately following his loss weren't made with a clear head--or heart. Or his always-good advice.

It was worse for my mother, who had built her life around him. Her subsequent emotional fall out was frightening in its intensity. My brother, sister and I floundered through our own grief to help her as best we could. I don't know that we succeeded; she has never been the same. She's found a kind of happiness in the grandchildren we've all given her, not a single one of whom ever met "Grandpa Bob." But sometimes, even all these years later, when I look in her eyes I can see that she is really only waiting for the time when she is reunited with our father, wishing that time would come sooner rather than later. 

I am lucky to have had him for a father, as brief a time as it was. My heart goes out to those who are unable to move beyond past issues to create true closeness with their dad. I wish I could talk to them, tell them, to treasure and value their dad, and to remember that he is only human. Whatever the mistakes a father may have made in the past--or, for that matter, the mistakes the child may have made--there can be forgiveness, on both sides, and ultimately, closeness.

While the pain of his loss is still as fierce, at least I can be so, so grateful for the relationship we shared. My memory of that early morning trip to Goodyear Tires is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. The impact of his early death made all my memories of him more clear, and that much more precious. 

There are thousands of such memories--my first memory I can recall is of him picking me up and swinging me around in the air. I was 3 years old. He was in his Navy whites, having just come home from duty. We were in the kitchen. The sunlight was streaming in the window above the sink. I can tell you exactly what the pattern on the linoleum floor was. I see if as if it is a movie. In that movie, we will forever be, as we were then: him, so young and handsome in his uniform, not even 25 years old, and me, a laughing little girl in long brown pony tails. Flying around that bright little kitchen forever.

So on Father's Day, as we do every year, my daughters and I will visit him at Crestlawn, lay some flowers on his grave and say a few words which I know, in my heart, he hears. And then, I'll tell them a story about "Grandpa Bob" from one of my many precious memories of him. 

Miss you, daddy. 

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