The photos of fathers shared on Facebook this morning, Father’s Day, send me to my photo albums. Surely there’s something in there that I could scan and share, to assert that I, too, have a father who was loving and loved. What I find is the result of my father’s role as photographer in our family. I have photos of him in the army, hamming it up in Paris and Morocco. I have a photo of him and my mom during their courtship. For the 10 years we shared a family, I have photos of myself, running down the sidewalk, sitting on a rowboat, smelling tulips and apple blossoms. This morning, I recognize those photos as seeing myself through my father’s eyes.
I was in the bathroom when my father died. I mention this because I’ve come to see it as emblematic of death coming at its own convenience, during the mundane, the remarkable, the everyday, the breathtaking.
My mother knocked on the door. “Lois?”
“Your father is gone.”
It was ridiculous, unbelievable. My father’d been sick for some time. I hadn’t seen him standing up for weeks and weeks; how could he suddenly get up and go somewhere?
I fastened my shorts (grey ones my mother had sewn) and opened the door. My mother’s eyes were red but she wasn’t crying. She hugged me, and I followed her downstairs, to the den where we’d installed a hospital bed. My father lay under a loosely woven gold cotton throw. He looked gray and asleep. My mother stood next to the foot of the bed, looking into his face. She put her hand on his calf in a gesture of love and loss. He didn’t move. Her eyes were red but she wasn’t crying.
One of Dad’s nurses, Mary Lou, sat by the head of the bed. She stayed for a few minutes after we came in and then took muted, white-shoed steps out the side door.
The ambulance, white with orange trim, rolled up silently. I was not there when they put him on the gurney, but I saw it half-wheeled, half-carried out the front door and down the few cement steps of the ranch house. Looking past the sheet-tented gurney and the ambulance and the lawn and the street, I saw the red-brick church, the cement staircase to my father’s office.
His parents, my grandparents, drove in from two towns over. They came in through the garage, into the laundry room. I ran through the kitchen, past the bathroom, and met them. Grandma hugged me; which was not her instinct and happened rarely. My brother and I weren’t sure what to do. We asked Mom if it would be okay if we watched The Beverly Hillbillies. She said not. We sat in the awkward silence as the living room filled up with people; then we went to our rooms to read.
The funeral home was on the east side of town. To get there for the visitation, we walked past the house of the only adult I’d ever met with the same first name I have. She was a member of my father’s church.
My father’s brother, who was also a minister, led the funeral. I sat in the front pew, right side, with my mother and brother and sister. I wore a cream-colored dress, also sewn by my mother, with a rust and gold pattern of birds, branches, and birdcages. There was brown lace on the ruffles on the short sleeves; there were three buttons down the back and smocking across the front, under the bodice.
All of that is quite clear to me, as though I were taking my own photos of myself, seeing myself through my father’s lens. As the decades pass, though, I have many more questions—about who my father was and might have become, what our relationship might have been, what I might have become as a result—than I have clear memories.
It’s only in retrospect that we can recognize the legacies we’ve received. I know I’ve inherited a sad season. It starts with the lilies of Easter, which are inscribed on his gravestone to symbolize the resurrection, and extends through his birthday and Father’s Day in June, ending with the anniversary of his death on July 5. Along with that is a love of words and books, a certain sense of humor, a dash of rebelliousness, a heritage of faith.
And those questions.
In The Jesus Cow, Michael Perry has a character muse, “She supposed it was the work that had kept her head occupied while her heart healed in the wake of Dougie’s death. In fact, it didn’t heal so much as learn to beat with a hole in it.”
I recognize that hole, which, in spite of the passage of time, does gape on Father’s Day. And I know that my heart does keep beating.