When I was seven years old and my sister was five, we came to what seemed to us to be a very logical and obvious decision -- for the rest of our lives she could belong to our mother and I could belong to our dad.
Now, this was long before the first whispers of their impending divorce, which didn’t happen until I was in fifth grade. Nonetheless, I was older than my sister and manipulative, and I wanted to be certain that I got the best share of the familial love in our household. After all, my mother had this heinously evil tendency to not let us eat skittles and chocolate milk for supper, and she never brought us to carnivals. My dad was the obvious choice!
Time passed and my parents actually split, and I spent a lot of time trying to think of how I could move out of my mother’s house to go live with my dad.
It wasn’t really her fault. I only saw my dad for a couple of weeks each year, and he knew how to make every visit a nonstop party. When I was obsessed with Star Trek at 13, he rented every film for me, and never once complained about my tendency to go into monologues about how Janeway and Chakotay (Voyager ftw!) were meant to get married and be sooo in love forever.
When I decided at 14 that my new obsession was Cats: The Musical, he arranged tickets for me to see the show on Broadway. We sat in the cheap seats at the back of the theatre where he fell asleep, but I still thought it the most perfect night of my young life (except for the snoring).
At night, we’d go back to his filthy apartment in my grandma’s basement, and he would drink and tell me about my family history, but only the bad parts. Mostly the parts about my mom.
He said he still loved her, but it seemed like what he loved most was to list off every “bad” thing she’d ever done. He’d follow that up by telling me about every bad thing that he’d ever done, just to be fair. I held no illusions as to my father’s sobriety, but his brutal honesty about everything appealed very much to my teenage sensibilities.
The older I got, the less I saw of my dad. I never knew where he was and how to contact him, and nobody else did either. He’d show up, at first a couple of times a year, and then once every couple of years. I thought he was a hero just for coming.
I have two strong memories of my dad from when I was in college. During my sophomore year, my school clumsily threw together a production of the Rocky Horror Show. I had been in contact with my dad for several consecutive months at that point, and I was to play Eddie. We shared a common love of all things Rocky Horror so I invited him to come watch. He showed up with disheveled hair and a beaten-up wheelchair that he’d “found somewhere” and asked if we had a Doctor Scott. We didn’t, and my dad was welcomed into the show. There are photos floating around Facebook of him onstage amongst a group of my underwear-clad friends.
The other memory isn’t as nice. I was at a friend’s party, and he called me after over a year of radio silence to say that he was in my city and wanted to hang out. I was having a great time, and wasn’t about to leave it behind for him. My friends and I joked at the nerve of him trying to break up my plans after not talking to me for so long. I tried to call him the next day, but got no answer. I found out about a week later that he’d tried to kill himself by jumping off a bridge, but somebody had called the police.
I moved to China to work as an English teacher after graduating, and, to my dad’s credit, he did make some attempts to stay in touch with me. He sent me a long letter from a homeless shelter where he was living (to save money for a trip to Jamaica, he said), but by the time my reply reached him, he’d already moved on.
He sent me another long letter one Christmas telling me about how he’d gotten his life together, and had taken in a homeless cat with two missing legs and nursed it back to health. He gave me a phone number and I called it. It was four AM where he was living, but he told me how happy he was to hear from me before the phone cut out. I was never able to reach him using that number again, and it was the only time I heard his voice during my time abroad.
In July of 2011, I was making plans for my first trip back to the States in three years. At this time, I started to get e-mails from my aunt telling me that my dad was not doing well. One day I was told that if he gave up drinking he might have two years to live, the next he was in rehab and then just a couple of weeks later the news was that he’d gone on a drinking binge and was in the hospital.
I started to make plans to visit him in the hospital, and the last thing I was told before getting on the plane to the USA was that I should come a week or two into my trip instead of right away, to help him make the transition into assisted living after his condition stabilized.
A 12-hour plane ride later, and I was told by my mother upon meeting her at the airport that I needed to get to a hospital in the far-off city of Seattle right away if I wanted to see my father before he died.
The next day was one of the strangest of my life. By the time I made it to the hospital, my grandma, two of my aunts and my dad’s girlfriend were already waiting there. My dad was waiting, too. He was on his way out, but the doctors had been giving him blood to keep him alive for me. His skin had turned a sort of fluorescent yellow like Frankenstein’s monster, and he was clad in a diaper that he was bleeding out into. He looked a thousand years older than when I’d last seen him.
He’d been awake the day before, and had a nice long conversation with hallucinatory versions of my mom, my sister, and me. Hallucinatory me had told him I loved him and that I forgave him for everything. I’m glad, because he never woke up to hear it from my own mouth. My father passed away less than 48 hours later.
In a way, it could be said that his dying didn’t change my life very much. I went from never seeing to never seeing him.
There will never be another surprise letter, though, and I’ll never again find a phone number that will let me hear his voice. He’ll never know that I’m living successfully half a world away from where we started, and he’ll never know how much I wish he’d taken the two years of life offered him instead of drinking them away in a single night.