In the opening sentences of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, the narrator Meursault says, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” I recall reading those famous lines so many years ago and wondering at a character, at a person, who could write about such a seemingly emotional event with utter detachment. How could one speak about death, about the death of his own mother, in such a nonchalant manner? It has taken me many years to understand.
My father is dead. In these simple words – a subject, a verb, and an adjective – I have totally changed the world of my existence, and my universe has shrunk by one. I must now speak in the past tense, not the present perfect. I found out about my father’s passing via one of my sisters, who had heard via my father’s third wife. It was sometime last week; I am not certain of the exact time or date, only that I found out on a Friday, in the morning, a few hours before my niece’s wedding. Like Camus’ character, I do not know much about the specifics surrounding the death of my own father, and while I have searched my heart and scanned my body for some kind of reaction to this reality, I feel very little. It is this detachment, this deadness in my own being in response to this news that scares me.
I supposed most children, if they are healthy and live long enough, will at one time or another have to learn about a parent’s death. It is the natural order of things, or so we are told. We are also told that the natural reaction to such news is profound sadness, grief, probably tears. For most people, death is not an easy concept and the knowledge that someone who has shared your life no longer exists is a complicated idea, one that reminds us all too swiftly of our own mortality.
My father. I had not seen nor spoken to him in over five years and therefore word of his passing is even more complex to fathom. Ours was a strained and oftentimes painful relationship – at least for me. He was a larger-than-life figure to me when I was a child. A booming voice, a commanding presence, a man who must be obeyed. I worshipped him and constantly tried to please him. This kind of adoration is often found in young girls. I followed him around, eager to help in any task he was doing, always ready to tag along when he went in to the office on Saturdays. He taught me many things, some good, of course…but he also taught me about fear and was probably my first introduction to the world of mistrust.
My father was an alcoholic. He was very intelligent and high functioning, to borrow a term from AA. In our home the bar, which sat heavy and foreboding in a corner of the den, was like an altar. Consistent as prayer, he visited it almost every night after returning from the office. Even as a child of four or five, I knew its importance in our home. You never knew who might emerge after my father consumed his first couple of gin martinis: a gregarious, laughing man who praised your post-dinner antics or a dark and brooding one whose voice could crack the rafters in our home and make a little girl want to disappear into some tiny space for doing exactly the same antics that had received praise the night before. To worship and fear someone at the same time makes for great confusion.
Add to the mix of alcoholism a volatile divorce that raged for years between my mother and him, spurned by his affair and subsequent marriage to another, and one has the recipe for a made-for-television-movie and layer upon layer of psychological detriment for a girl like me to wade through over the years. I was 13 when he left, and despite the strangeness of our relationship and the knot that perpetually lodged itself in my stomach when he was near, he was still my dad and his departure devastated the only world I had known.
I tried, I really did. For many years, once we reconnected when I was in college, I had a relationship with my father. Albeit one that was still skewed by suppressed emotions and alcohol, I did my best to be a good daughter and to have a man I could call “father” in my life. He did many fatherly things for me, too, like sending gifts on my birthday, being present at some of the major holidays, walking me down the aisle when I got married…helping me navigate the legal system when I got divorced. I admit that he did many things that demonstrate love, but for me there was still something missing, something hard to name and even harder to speak.
Ours was a relationship still founded on the power of my father, my perhaps childish fear of him and our inability to talk openly. Alcohol always sat between us, and next to it I suppose was the latent, unexpressed anger I still harbored toward him for leaving. Between those chasms sat volumes of words unsaid.
Growing up, years of therapy, struggles to find some way to forgive and forget did not relieve me of any of that burden. And so, five years ago, in a phone conversation that I still feel more than remember verbally, I asked my father for more. I asked him to try and bridge the gap I felt existed between us, to talk with me honestly about some of the pain I still felt, to put aside the gin when he was with me so we could have a conversation not affected by alcohol. I guess I asked for too much for his reply to me was that he was giving me all he was able to give. If it was not enough for me, then he was sorry, but it was my problem.
I had to make a decision about my life and what I wanted, so I separated from my father and had no interaction with him. For five plus years I have lived my life as if my father was already dead; however, in the back of my mind, I knew he still breathed and lived a quiet life in south Florida. I think, on some level, a part of me remained hopeful that we’d reconcile, that one day he’d say to me that a relationship with me was important to him, more important than drinking. I suppose that if I am totally honest with myself I really expected some form of apology from him. But that day and those words did not come and now he is gone. I am left to feel what I do, a blend of numbness and disconnect, tinged still with anger.
Two nights ago, a week after I heard the news of his death, I awoke around 3:00 am. My thoughts had been racing in my dreams; the figure of my father loomed large in my mind. I flipped through images from my childhood, trying to recall as my happy and positive times as I could, times when he showed love and caring, times not tainted by fear. I found a few and for some reason focused on the books he read to my sister and I when we were around seven and five, still sharing a room. My father would sit between our beds at night and read. He always picked grown-up children’s books, and I can see him holding Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland followed by Through the Looking Glass. The books were hard-bound, a soft-shade of blue and a dull red, respectively. In the darkness, a week after my father’s passing, thinking about those books and those two very young girls so eager to listen to their father’s voice, I felt myself feel and finally some tears came.
So perhaps I am not like Meursault, I am not a woman empty of emotion or unaffected by the death of a parent. I felt something, whether compassion for those two naïve girls, the softer, more loving side of my father or some amalgamation of emotions too complex to attempt to define, I experienced something and the tears that slid hotly down my face felt both horrible and beautiful. I wonder if they will come again and how this world, the one in which my father no longer resides, will unfold for me. Only time will tell, but I will continue to search for the positive memories and attempt to excavate and abandon the nuggets of anger still buried deep within me. I know this is the only path toward peace and acceptance for who he was, for who I am and for who I want to become.