Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I write my dad a letter. Four days before my birthday, as it will now always be, is the day I sit down, and my dad and I catch up.
This will be Year Four—it sounds so dramatic that way, but to me it still feels so big—this grandiose, earth-shattering event where everything I ever knew changed. I hadn’t ever experienced life without my dad; there was, very immediately, this very loud and perplexing hole. He was always there, and then he wasn’t.
I remember the day it happened and the few following with Technicolor clarity, whereas my mom doesn’t remember a thing. A few months of sickness, endless trays of uneaten hospital food, then The Day. We spent most of it all cramped together in that sterile, familiar room, but there was maybe an hour or two where I was left alone with him.
He was barely there, frustrated groans and sad eyes, while I sat in the chair next to him and read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. He would occasionally reach with surprising strength for his catheter and I would hold his hand firmly and keep reading. When he had been more coherent a few days earlier, my mom had us each go in alone and tell him whatever we wanted to say. I mostly just sobbed and asked him over and over if he knew what a good dad he had been. I think because there was no way he could possibly ever fully know.
The days leading up to my birthday and his funeral were bleak and snow-filled. Mike (my boyfriend) had jumped in a car the next day and drove the five hours upstate in a complete white-out blizzard. Collapsing into his hug was the first warmth I had felt in days.
On my actual birthday, I wanted to do nothing. The funeral was the next day, because my mom refused to have it on my birthday. We laid around all day inside, Mike making fires in the fireplace, us all sad-eating a mix of disgusting and delicious casseroles that neighbors had dropped off. The snow was becoming more and more aggressive, but Mike insisted that we go out for a birthday drink. I tried to explain that no way was anything open, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
We got in his little shitty car he’d had since high school, and he drove 5mph with his head out the window, wet snow on his eyelashes. We walked in the only bar open for miles, and we drank a single glass of whiskey next to one very dedicated regular. I remember thinking how happy my dad would be, that this dude made me feel special on the worst day of my life.
A lot happens in four years, and I just really missed telling my dad things. I was used to calling him and just spouting off anything I could think of, him just listening and laughing and piping in with advice or some new band he heard that I would like.
You don’t realize that so much happens in small amounts of time. In four years I have fucked up in as many ways as I have made responsible decisions. I have had acting out, immature phases and grown-up, healthy phases and just about everything else in between. I GOT BANGS! (Just kidding, I didn’t.)
My sister got engaged, got married, had a baby, and bought a house within four years—that’s more than some people do their whole lives. My mom just started dating this year, and I am really dying to know what he would have to say about that. He would probably break out into a huge grin, and then ask me for all the details.
Weirdly, the first anniversary wasn’t as hard as the second. I think because I could still say, “My dad died a year ago,” and be met with a certain amount of sadness in people's eyes. It sucks that the more time goes by, the less people seem to care. That’s why each year on the day of the awful anniversary, I think it’s even more important not to forget. To develop a small ritual, no matter what it is, to kind of say “Hey, you.”
My composition of the letters is funny and nonsensical, because I tend to leave out details of my life I wouldn’t want him to know. I imagine calling him from somewhere, maybe on my lunch break, a Chipotle burrito bowl on my lap, phone cradled, just chatting with him about my life, probably leaving out whatever nonsense I had found myself in the weekend before. In these moments, I am usually locked in my bedroom, cat resting at my feet, and some song that reminds me of him playing. I cry, I drink copious amounts of coffee like he did, and I just tell him (almost) everything—from the big things to the minutiae. I ask him what he’s up to, but he never responds.
Those letters are for him, but they are also a little personal birthday present to myself—I get to talk to my dad. He appears every once and a while still, although over the years it has happened less and less. I have control over these letters. It’s a way for me to always be able to reach him, even if it’s only in my head.
So I will keep writing them every year, I’ll take a deep breath and enjoy this correspondence with my dad. I hear his laughter on the air, sometimes I think I can smell him faintly, and I like to think that somehow he reads every last word.