My favorite thing about my father for the longest time was how incredibly stable he was. I looked up to him like an old tree, like he’d never fall. Of course he would, one day, but the multitude of days until one day were filled with him packing our lunch and driving us to school while our mother was off somewhere doing something.
Whatever something it was, we were only left to guess. For a year when I was about nine our house was filled with anger, raised voices, and shushed curses. Then my mother was gone, and when I was twelve we were told she had passed away. I think that may have been the only time I saw my father seem weak until he got sick.
One of my father’s defining characteristics was his dark features and serious disposition. Of course he loved us and of course he showed it, but three years after my father passed my husband still feels a little intimidated by him, whether he’ll admit it or not. My father’s entire family had thick, pitch-black hair. The only exception seemed to be me, cursed with my mother’s stringy, dirty-blond hair.
The gift of my father’s family’s black hair was that even at the oldest of ages it never greyed and they never balded. My father never had much of an option though—the radiation would turn a mammoth into an elephant. And with my father it did, and as Dad’s hair started to thin I began to notice dark marks on his skin. Trying to remain respectful, I asked my stepmother Elizabeth and my sister Carrie if they knew of the origin of the marks, but neither of them did and neither of them wanted to ask.
Soon my father’s hair was thin and wiry, and we could see that the marks were several tattoos. One, my mother’s name. Another, a red guitar. Two black letter Xs. A raven. A plate of spaghetti and meatballs. All concealed beneath my father’s hair.
I finally felt compelled enough to ask my father for the story behind the tattoos. As always, he spoke slowly and with purpose: “They’re markings from my life before I had you kids. It’s a story. There’s your mother, our first date, the band we were in together, the drugs we did together, and the good friends we lost in the process.”
“Why did you get them?” I asked.
“And why did you hide them?” Carrie added.
“They were just for me. When I found out your mother was pregnant with you two, I continued to party and damage myself in ways that I don’t even like to think about. I was different then, and that’s why it was so hard for the first few years of your lives. Not that you remember, of course. The point is, I was still messed up when your mom’s water broke. I tried to come into the room but they wouldn’t let me. So I went down to a friend’s shop, he shaved my head and for eight hours tattooed my life story onto my scalp. It hurt like hell, but actually distracted me from the withdrawals I’d go through next. I locked myself in a room for five days in agony, but then I was done. I met you two and I knew with certainty the rest of my life would be devoted to you. The tattoos were just something to remind me about my past failings. I kept them to myself because I never wanted you to be exposed to that side of life. That’s why I made your mom leave, too. I hope you aren’t mad at me for that. I expected her to get clean, not die. I wanted her to be a mom to you. Thank God I met Elizabeth. She lifted me up and parented you in a way I never thought I’d be able to all alone.”
I had never once remotely suspected my dad of ever having done drugs. I never saw him as a weak parent. I never blamed my father for my mother’s absence. My father’s name was John. He was a normal man and a perfect father, yet he had failings and doubts like any other person. To this day the hardest part of him not being around is not being able to tell him that his doubts were not needed. I want to thank him for teaching me how to keep my failings on my brain just long enough to learn from them and propel me to good. I want to thank him for being my father.
“Hello, everyone. Thanks for making it out today. I knew from the moment Dad got sick that I would be speaking today. While it’s hard, I’m happy to do it. Once he got sick, he started talking longer and with more importance. He didn’t know it, but he was eulogizing himself. Every time I saw him, I would write down something that he said that stuck out to me. These are my ten favorite.
10. Sometimes you’re simply terrible at something. A lot of times there’s nothing you can do about it, so do exactly that.
9. Every day is a new day until every day is the same. If you’re really fed up with someone, find a small room and huff and puff until you’re done. Maybe bring a friend if you need too. Then, the next day, restart. Try and be a friend; build the relationship. If a few days go by and you’ve done a restart every day, then take action. Speak up. But never be afraid to give someone a second, third or fourth chance. You’ll find that your greatest relationships never seem like much upon first glance.
8. Sharing is a great way to show someone you love and appreciate them. My car is my prized possession, and for that reason I let your mother drive it.
7. The towing industry is the most unethical business there is. They are literally stealing your car and making you pay for it. If it was up to me, only cars parked in front of schoolhouses on fire should be able to get towed. And even then, the schoolhouse better have children in it.
6. Don’t fake compliments, but learn to compliment the right things. Some people are just ugly, but there’s no one who lacks any redeeming feature, physical or otherwise. Don’t compliment the thing that sticks out most to you, because everyone will always compliment that part of the person. Instead, do a little digging. Find something you love about a person that’s not on the surface. If the response to a compliment is “Yeah, I get that a lot,” then you’re doing it wrong.
5. Your mother is the most beautiful being in this universe. When you have children, make sure they know that about their mother too.
4. Cats and dogs are extremely important.
3. Don’t judge people based on what they do, but on what kind of people they are. Your mother and I had essentially nothing in common when we met. Do you remember the story? My childhood hound had been hit by a car. I sobbed over her on the side of the street. Your mom got out of her car and said to me, “I saw you on the side of the street and I realized that I’m so special to get to witness a complete stranger love something so dearly. Can I ask what her name was?” Your mom was so kind and sincere. As quickly as heaven took one love from me, it gave another.
2. Never be afraid to talk to an old friend. This is how we look back at chapters of our lives which we thought were closed, and it is the greatest therapy.
1. Give speeches. Every time you’re at a party, give a speech. When you’re at work and everyone’s having one of those wickedly bad days, stand up on your desk. Be the captain and say everything you can to make everyone smile, even if they might hate you for it. The words you say will both be fleeting and marking. Only some will remember the words you say, but everyone will remember that you said words. Be an elevator and speak genuinely. You will be remembered.
That last one is my favorite, and it’s the one that gave me the idea to do this. He said it on the day he was diagnosed.