My father died on April 6th of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, complicated by diabetes. He was 70. I was lucky to find out on April 7th. The woman with whom he lived the last decade-plus of his life (I’ll call her Dagmar) leaked the news to only one relative, a distant cousin in her 80s. I didn’t know he’d been so ill, so the news came as a shock. Only 24 hours earlier, I had received a short letter from him that made no mention of illness.
Dagmar and I share a mutual antipathy. Who could blame me? I met her back in 1988. The second time I ever saw her, she said to me: “Your mother’s terrible. She doesn’t deserve your father. I‘d dearly love for him to be my companion.” It took her until 1991, but she waged a steady campaign and in the fall of that year, my father packed his belongings in his van, and drove to Dagmar’s house on the other side of town.
I loved my father so much, and I missed his presence. When we were together, we usually had good conversations, but we didn’t really need to talk because it was almost as if we could follow each other’s thought patterns without missing a beat. (I’ve always been disappointed that in my love relationships we could never get to this level of communication. Manfred, Sr. found my expectations frustrating and announced on several occasions that he WAS NOT a mind-reader.)
I missed Dad so much, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pretend to be civil to Dagmar. Even if I had pretended, she was always on the lookout for even the slightest whiff of dislike. A vain and shallow woman who thrives on drama and conflict, Dagmar is always at odds with one or another of her own five children. “You’re disowned” is a phrase that comes easily to her lips. (In contrast, my mother operates more in the vein of: “Disown, hell! I’ll be damned if I’ll disown you! I’d much rather keep you around and make your ass suffer!”)
Although I thought my father’s involvement with Dagmar showed an appalling lack of good judgment as well as good taste, I realized that he loved her. What I hoped was that he and I could continue to have a good relationship and I could avoid Dagmar. I wanted us to spend time together, meeting in neutral places. Well, I underestimated Dagmar. She insisted that my father CHOOSE, and he chose Dagmar. I was upset, but kept writing to him at holidays hoping that we would eventually work through our troubles.
About 9 years after my father moved in with Dagmar, she kicked him out one day. She drove him to a motel and dropped him off. The first person he wanted to contact was me. I could scarcely believe this turn of events. Suddenly, he was back in the family, living nearby, going on trips with my mother and showing up at holiday dinners. I was so happy, but I had the constant sensation of holding my breath, thinking it was all too good to be true.
It was all too good to be true.
Dagmar decided she’d made a mistake, and started working her way back to my father. That time, it took one-and-a-half years. He moved back in with Dagmar in the spring of 2002.
I begged him not to go back:
Me: “She won’t let me see you, Dad.”
Dad: “This time it’ll be different.”
It was different, all right. It was worse. From that time, I only saw him when I chanced to meet him out in public. He summoned me over to Dagmar’s house once, but I wasn’t allowed in the house. Instead, we talked in the garage for a short time. I didn’t stay long; it was December, and really cold. We were shivering as we talked, and our breaths came out frosty.
A few months after the garage encounter, I read a memoir by science-fiction and fantasy writer Suzy McKee Charnas called My Father’s Ghost: The Return of My Old Man and Other Second Chances. Charnas’ father, Robin McKee, had left his wife and child when Suzy was very young, to pursue his dream of being a successful artist. This dream was never realized. Years later, when Suzy was middle-aged, she realized that her father couldn’t live independently anymore. He was in New York, and she was in New Mexico, and she couldn’t afford constant plane trips to check on him, so with some trepidation, she invited Robin to come live in the “mother-in-law” cottage next to her house, and slowly, sometimes frustratingly — Robin was strong-willed and eccentric — father and daughter got to know each other again before Robin died a few years later in a nearby nursing home. He went there only after Suzy was completely unable to care for him unassisted anymore. In his last days, he found happiness with a fellow resident of the nursing home, a warm and wonderful woman named Jane.
There’s a part in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, in which the narrator says that his wife was reading a copy of The Trail of The Lonesome Pine, and she was so engrossed she “just melted into the book.” That was how I felt; I just melted into My Father’s Ghost. For me, it was the sweetest of fairy tales as well as a blueprint for the future. This is how it’ll be, I thought. Dagmar will get another wild hair and kick Dad out again, and he can come live with me. Furthermore, our situation would be better than Robin and Suzy’s because my father’s and my personalities were both easygoing and peace-loving. Finally, if he went to a nursing home, maybe he’d meet a nice woman. Even better, he could hook up with my mother again!
I was confident that we had plenty of time to acheive this scenario. After all, my father’s father had lived to be 83! Using that as measurement, it seemed as if my own father was light-years away from death. Sure, he had CLL, but hadn’t the oncologist told him that the disease would annoy him for decades rather than kill him? As for me, I had plenty of time to go off to South Korea — a country in which my father had also lived and absolutely loved — and teach for a few years.
I was mistaken. Even back when I read Charnas’ memoir, we were already running out of time. When I got on the plane to go to Korea almost a year-and-a-half ago, the clock was ticking ominously. I had no idea.
Finally, time ran out, and I didn’t even know. Twelve hours after my father died, 4 hours before I got the news, I was standing in line at the post office, holding a postcard addressed to him, and imagining a day far off in the future when we’d be sitting at my kitchen table together, drinking coffee and swapping stories about life in Korea. Talking, and even better, not talking, just keeping company with our thoughts.
I keep thinking of My Father’s Ghost. I really loved that book. Would I be able to stand reading it again? The experience could not possibly be the same. Before, I found it reassuring. Now, I think every page would be painful, but perversely, I want to feel pain. I think I fucked up. I was a bad daughter. I want my heart to break.
I’m still holding my breath, waiting for my father to return, and trying to strike a bizarre bargain: If I suffer x amount, can you come back? No, he can’t come back. I really need to stop holding my breath once and for all, but if I breathe anytime soon, it’s going to hurt too damn much.