It was 22 years ago today that my dad died of massive coronary. I didn’t get official word that he died until a couple of weeks later, though.
My folks were divorced and I hadn’t talked to my dad in a long time. I decided I wanted to call him, and maybe see him, after being out of school for about a week. I hadn’t asked to do that in a long time, and in a strange twist of fate, I happened to call his place of employment looking for him 22 years ago today. The man on the other end of the phone told me that he had died the night before, and that he was just finding out about it. I was stunned, of course. After a few more questions, I found out he had changed to a different work location. They weren’t very helpful when I called there, so I had reached a dead end.
I went on with life for the next few weeks. I didn’t know what to think. It could have been a trick. It could have been true. I put it out of my mind and went to visit with family for a week or so. But when I came home, my mom had the death notice from the newspaper where he lived and it was true. It’s one of those moments you’ll never forget living through. You remember everything, and I still do. I remember the exact layout of the room we were in, how we were sitting on the couch, and the look on my mother’s face when she had to break the news to me. I remember which lights were on, for goodness’ sake.
It was also a moment that changed my life forever for another reason. I found out that I have a hereditarily high cholesterol, as do all the men in my family. It’s something I’ve battled since, and while I’ve avoided a heart attack, I have not won the battle with myself and my ability to stay fit and keep my cholesterol low.
In the years since my dad died, I went through a long grief process, but most of the pain of loss is gone. That was until this week when I had to explain to G about why my dad was dead. G is 5. He has lots of questions. Those questions are often very pointed. He’ll make a good trial attorney someday.
G and I were in the car when he started asking about it. A few minutes earlier, while we were still at home, I was trying to teach him how to snap and whistle. I showed him a neat snapping/clapping trick that my Uncle Bob taught me a long time ago. G loved it.
He got a little confused when he asked about it in the car, and he asked when my dad showed me that. We had to do some sorting out, for example, my stepdad isn’t my actual dad. The snapping trick was shown to me by my uncle. My dad is dead; my uncle is not. Then the questions started about my dad, and suddenly I was back on that couch in my living room watching my mother say the words, “Your dad did die, Tim.” Suddenly, the pain of loss was poking its way back into my gut for the first time in over a dozen years.
“How did your dad die, dad?” G asked.
“He died of a heart attack,” I answered.
“What’s a heart attack?”
“It’s when your heart stops working, and your blood doesn’t get pumped through your body anymore,” I said, trying to make the words accessible to him.
“Why did he have a heart attack?” G asked, apparently satisfied with my previous explanation.
“He didn’t take care of himself, G. He drank beer, smoked cigarettes, and didn’t sleep a lot.”
“Why didn’t he take care of himself?”
“He didn’t know any better. He didn’t know he had a high cholesterol that was going to make his heart stop.”
“So he died because of his cholesterol? What’s cholesterol?” See what I mean? I’m being cross-examined here.
“Cholesterol is the stuff in your blood that we say is bad and you and I have a lot of it. That’s why we can’t eat certain foods because they’re bad for our blood,” I explained.
“And he didn’t know those foods were bad for his blood? How come no one told him?”
“No one knew the foods were so bad. He didn’t know they would hurt him,” I said.
“Well we know, dad, so we won’t eat those, right?”
“Right.” And that’s when I changed the subject, but the feeling of loss hasn’t left me since.
I’ve now reached an age my dad didn’t. He never saw his 35th birthday.
I’ve lived without my dad almost my entire life anyway thanks to a combination of familial missteps, but his absence has always been noticeable. As a boy, I missed him because he wasn’t at my ball games and such. As a teenager, I missed him, but I didn’t fully know why until I was older. I needed a dad to help toughen me up and point me in the right direction (advice about girls would’ve helped, too). As a young man, I missed having that grownup relationship men have with their dads. As a father myself, though, I miss him more than I thought I would. And the conversation with G really brought that into focus. G has a great relationship with my stepdad (Gramps), as do I, but even G notices the absence of my natural father.
So, wherever you are, dad, just know that I’m thinking of you today, as I do each year on this day. You weren’t ever really a big part of my life, but you’ve left a big whole that no one will ever fill.