Dead parents are an exceedingly common occurrence as I grow older. You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting a 30-something with a sad but touching story of how he navigated the death of one or both of his parents. These are the stories people tell me when I disclose that my dad recently died. While I appreciate the attempt at shared commiseration, the truth is the death of my father is only notable for the fact that I don’t care.
I was 13 the last time I’d seen my father. He’d taken me to a New Year’s Eve party mostly populated by adults and I got drunk on punch upstairs while he sat in the basement doing god knows what. At some point he walked me home, both of us drunk, me for the first time. My dad was a notoriously chatty when he drank, and he rambled to me the whole way back to my mom’s house (this was post-divorce).
In my 13-year-old brain I knew I was about to experience some profound change in perspective. He talked about his numerous marriages and several legitimate and illegitimate children. He eventually admitted he wasn’t sure that anything good had come from any of this, that all those women had just been a drain on him and provided little to no joy. A moment later he realized the idiocy of telling your daughter that she wasn’t a worthwhile addition to your life, and made some lame statement about valuing and treasuring his kids, all 200 hundred of them (she mildly exaggerates).
I can’t say that what he said was sad or surprising, and maybe it was the booze, but in that moment I just accepted that my dad was an asshole. Any sort of intelligence or ability my dad possessed took a back seat to unchecked mental illness. This resulted in a lot of drinking, fighting with my mom, an aversion to work, and a personality that turned on a dime. Sometimes my father would be the life of the party, other times he would sneak out the back door to avoid saying goodbye to anyone (also known as the Irish exit).
On paper, none of this is very horrific. The one truly awful memory I have of my father is of him grabbing my mom by the throat and lifting her up so that her feet left the ground. I can’t remember how old I was, but I do remember watching her feet kicking at air and feeling frozen in the moment, unsure of what I should do or if anything could be done. Looking back on it I don’t really feel anything. Which is the defining theme of my life. I typically don’t feel and when I have an actual discernible emotion I am shocked and outraged. How could this happen to me? My defenses should be rock solid, I’ve been fortifying them for most of my life. It’s the worst with positive emotions. If I feel love and affection for anyone I immediately become uncomfortable.
A day before my 37th birthday my father had the audacity to die. My ethnic origins mean that people think it’s ok to take pictures of dead and/or dying people, and one of these pictures of my father made its way to my phone. He’s not dead in it but he might as well be. When it comes to faces, the most haunting aspect of death appears in the mouth, not the eyes. In the picture, my father’s mouth hangs open slackly like he was drawing his final breath. I like to show this picture to people at inopportune times and laugh at their shocked reactions. I look at it and feel absolutely nothing.
Perhaps the most hilarious side effect of my weird relationship with my father is my choice in men. This is a point of contention for me, as I believe human beings (myself especially) are far too complex to draw a straight line from “Shitty Father” to “Shitty Boyfriend”. However, my love life is replete with questionable men who all seem to enjoy some combination of casual domestic violence, alcohol, mental illness, and infidelity. I have a strong inkling that the real reason I choose men like this is because it’s just an elaborate form of self-sabotage.
It all started with my first serious boyfriend, who I met when I was 16. While sweet and charming, this guy was apparently on the lam from the law and a few months into our relationship he simply disappeared from his apartment never to return. He may or may not have been in the news recently for some kind of insane prison break, but that claim is unverified. After him was a devil-worshipping single father who I somehow spent ten years of my life with fielding insults and dodging half full bottles of beer. Next up we have an alcoholic Pacific North Westerner who was ten years my junior, also known as the OKCupid date that lasted three years. My most recent conquest is perhaps the most bizarre yet, a couch-surfing manic depressive who builds tree houses for a living.
In addition to a decidedly problematic taste in men, what’s most disturbing about my father is that sneaking fear that I am just like him, only I had the good sense not to procreate and draw another human being into this silly drama I call my life. A therapist once asked me if I mourned the life I didn’t have. This was a tough question to contemplate. I imagined how different I would be if I had a normal life with a normal family. Maybe I would be married with kids, and my husband would be some boring guy I could barely tolerate. My kids would be mediocre in every way, maybe the youngest one would be a little shit and I would secretly despise him or her. Maybe I would lose it and bang a 16-year-old football player or become one of those Munchausen-by-proxy women.
I could tell you what wouldn’t have happened if I had a normal life. I wouldn’t have woken up this morning reeking of cocaine. I bet you didn’t know that you could actually smell like cocaine? Well you can, and it’s disgusting. I wouldn’t be in love with another questionable man with whom a shared future is a hard sell. I wouldn’t be borderline anorexic and taking perverse joy in not-eating and announcing how little I weigh to everyone. Or maybe I would be like this, maybe my problems are inherent and would have presented themselves anyway. I guess I’ll never know.
At some point your parents are going to die and you’re going to feel a profound sadness, like you’ve just been unmoored from the only thing anchoring you to life itself. Or you might feel absolutely nothing like I did, which is even more of a kick in the face. My father never really did anything particularly egregious to me. He just introduced me to that special type of asshole that I would encounter again and again throughout my life, one that I would even personify on occasion.