Sunday, June 17, 2007

My obligatory Father's Day post

Le Sweetie and I called his stepfather to wish him a happy Father's Day. It felt a little strange to say "Happy Father's Day." I haven't uttered those words in years.

My own father died of cancer when I was nine going on ten. Dad himself was forty-four going on forty-five. My brother was six going on seven. We were all born in September. In fact, my brother's birthday is the day after mine. Yes, we were born three years and a day apart. I guess winter was a really, uhm, romantic time of the year for Mom and Dad.

Anyway, he had cancer of the stomach, but nobody knows where it originated. I only know that it was first spotted when Dad went into the hospital for a hernia. In fact, he and my brother had hernias at about the same time. And from what I remember, this all happened right after my brother had his tonsils removed. I never had mine removed. I was never in the hospital overnight. I never even got that sick--well, except for chicken pox when I was six years old. Enough about me.

At some point, I remember one kid told me, "I heard your father's dying in the hospital! Is that true?"

"No!" I replied. I must've been seven or eight. As far as I was concerned, everything was okay. I had no reason to be afraid of much of anything--least of all Dad dying in the hospital.

I mean, my memories of my dad have nothing to do with death or cancer. In my head, he is full of life, reading and telling stories. Telling me how he and Mom met. Of how we got the family dog and the family cat. Of taking us to buy candy. Of the country fairs and craft fairs. Of apologizing to me after losing his temper. Of usual kid things like Halloween candy and Christmas presents and sitting around the dinner table and growing up surrounded by trees.

Mom and Dad had grown up in the New Haven area and lived in New York City for a year before I was born. After that it was all countryside and butterflies and dandelions and flowers. We moved to Vermont, where my brother was born, and we lived in a cozy apartment in a building at the bottom of a hill. Then we moved to a small town just north of where FDR was raised.

Dad gladly took to the life of a 1970s college librarian in a pretty rural hamlet. Admittedly, it had its really fun moments. Like sliding down the staircase banister. (Okay, Mom and Dad wouldn't consider that "fun.") Or skipping behind Dad down a hill. Or even going to visit him at his job. Yes, one day, after school, I decided to go to the library and visit him. Even a city girl like me admits you can't really do that in NYC.

Being a librarian, Dad had books stacked up around the house. Including one called "The Gospel According to Peanuts." As in Peanuts cartoons. I don't remember all of his other books. They were, after all, grownup books.

He and my mom also loved music. Dad was the rock fan and Mom really wasn't. This is especially strange when you consider that he was 12 years older than she was. She was a baby boomer and he wasn't. Who said you can't trust anyone over 30, eh?

Right after I began fourth grade, my dad went into the hospital. For a long, long time. What seemed like forever. Even though it was probably only a few weeks. Time moves veeeeeerrrrrry sloooooowwwly when you're a kid. Especially the Christmas season. Then, when you're a grownup, it can't end soon enough.

Ha ha. That's a joke. I actually like the Christmas season. Back to the topic.

I had a horrible teacher who really, really didn't seem to like me. I'd always had trouble paying attention in school, and it got worse. My grades were fine. The paying-attention part...not so much. And Dad was in the hospital and when was he getting out?

Well, finally, he got out, and he was miserable and got cranky. Because he had stomach cancer, his stomach had enlarged, and so I had one generally nasty girl tell me, "Your father looks like he's pregnant." The whole family was miserable and angry and self-conscious and confused. Nothing was right anymore and nothing was getting any better.

One day, my mother took my brother and me aside and said the "C" word. I really tried to block out the possibility of him not making it. No, wait a minute. It wasn't just a "possibility" at that point. But I wanted to believe that there was a chance he'd survive. Something to hold onto amid the misery. And I began to wonder if, between the teacher from hell and the unhappiness at home and the--let's be fair--usual naughtiness that kids get involved in, I was starting to fail him.

Fast forward. It was May or June when he took me aside and gave me a big hug. And then he said, "I love you. Daddy's very sick." That's what I remember what he said. Anyway, summer was coming and I was soon to be rid of the nasty teacher. I'd been terrified that she'd have me held back a year, but imagine how happy I was to read my final report card. I was advancing to the fifth grade! I'd even won an award for spelling! Maybe things would get better after all.

He left for the hospital in New York City some time in July and we all gave him hugs and kisses goodbye. That was the last time I saw him. I drew cartoons and she would bring them to him and she'd tell me how much he loved them. I kept drawing the cartoons for him and waiting for him to come home, as everyone expected him to.

But he never did. He died in the hospital. She tells me that he had a tube in him so he couldn't speak, so he had to write out his last words: "Tell Jean and the kids I love them."

At home, there's an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse's fiction. It's got Dad's signature and it's dated a month before his death. I'd like to think it brought him some laughter and comfort during his final days.

After his death, I really, really wanted to keep observing Father's Day, so I sent my grandfather cards. And then he passed on, and I stopped.

Still, I consider myself fortunate to at least have had a hands-on daddy for nine years of my life. Even though I wish I'd had more time, more chances to really celebrate Father's Day. To give him more gifts to complement the painted-rock paperweight I gave him when I was five or six, and which he kept on his desk. Because being fatherless on Father's Day is notlike, say, being a Jew at Christmas. You feel sad and then you try not to think about it.

Or maybe you take a leap of faith, and you say, "Happy Father's Day, Dad, wherever you are."

So this year, that's what I'll do. Happy Father's Day, Dad, wherever you are.