Inspired by MamaMary’s soon-to-be-published book and website project, The Dead Dad’s Club, I’m posting this piece about my father. I’m eternally grateful for Mary, who I met online in 2008 through the NaBloPoMo challenge. If if weren’t for her, I don’t think I’d ever have had the guts to start writing about my father and his sudden and shocking death. Ten days ago would have been his 74th birthday. It came and went without so much as a comment from my family. Perhaps each of us took a moment that day to think of him, what he meant to us when he was alive, and what parts of his legacy live on in us. I did so and this is the result:
Everyone says I look like my mother.
I’ve inherited her long face and prominent nose, her physique (minus the height) and many of her mannerisms. But when I look at my face up-close in a mirror, I see my father. I have his signature under-eye circles and his dark eyes and brows. I see a man who is gone from this world 16 years, but alive in my muscles and bones.
Life choices painted those shadows under his eyes as well as mine. My father was a skilled tradesman. It was good work for a young man, he said, but hell on an old man’s body. It was not his career choice. He went to school to be an engineer. He never graduated.
I found this out rooting through my mother’s attic. I asked my mom about the calculus textbooks. Why didn’t he graduate? No clear answers. Rebellion against his father? Lack of tuition? Poor grades? Boredom?
When I think of my dad going to school, I remember the art school years. By day, my father wore a hard hat and carried a metal lunchbox and tool bag. By night, he was parked behind an easel, palette in hand, forming the lines and angles of whatever nude model or still life was on duty in class.
Under his Carhartts my father secretly longed to be an artist. He had a studio in the basement. We had specific instructions to keep away from the enticing array of paints, chalk and pencils. At night, when we were tucked in bed, the sounds of Dylan, The Moody Blues, and The Rolling Stones drifted through the heating vents as dad communed with his creative muses. The next morning, after he’d left, we’d tiptoe downstairs to see his work. Much of it was industrial: the skeletal structures of high-rises, faceless men in welding masks balanced on beams, sparks blooming from blue flame, rivers browned and frothing with pollution, smokestack plumes blotting the sun. Sometimes he painted flowers.
Eventually the art dream faded. The supplies and canvasses found a home on a high shelf behind the furnace. Something else took its place. Then something else after that.
I think my father died a man who did not realize his dreams, who did not allow his wings to spread fully and take him where he wanted to go. I think my father was constrained in a lifelong cocoon of his own making.
In the months before his death, I was shocked to see how deep and dark those wells carved his face. Did they tell of the darkness inside? He said he was feeling old and tired of working so hard. He was 58. Perhaps I thought he was old. Now that I am 12 years away from that age, I no longer think of it as old. Older, sure. Not old.
My 30-year-old, newly fatherless self, free of dark crescents and other signs of aging, didn’t realize those circles were my future. Choices I’d already made or ones ahead on the road were already in motion.
I may look like my mother but I am my father’s daughter. Might I take a page from his life book? Although lack of sleep did not cause his premature death (thank you, anaphylaxis, for your speedy delivery) I’m sure it contributed to an overall lack of good health. As the years advance I find myself taking on more of his behavior patterns.
I’d like to think the legacy of my father is one of adventures and embracing life. But sometimes legacies are dark: he was a keeper of secrets, a denier of the truth, every emotion except anger kept in a cage. Too many bad habits. Too little time.
Go away, dark circles, I don’t like what you portend.