This isn't a ghost story, probably

Does my dead dad hate who I've become? And other questions for the not-living.

This isn't a ghost story, probably
Me and my dad, one Thanksgiving.

When I think about fatherhood within the context of American culture, it feels fraught. 

The traditional patriarch. The father who comes home at the end of the day, expecting a clean house and hot dinner. He sits at the head of the table, waiting for his children to serve him.

The sitcom dad. The father who bumbles and babbles and requires as much care as the children. He sits on the couch, waiting for his children to find the remote. 

The abandoning bio-dad. The father who disappears once or many times. His kids are left to imagine where he might sit, what he might be waiting for.

But when I think about fatherhood within the context of my own life, it feels calming. 

My dad was a parent. A father who held my hair back when I threw up, helped with math homework, swept the kitchen. He sat beside me, waiting with me, for me. 

We associate the word ‘wait’ with the time that passes before a predicted end. We check our watches while we wait for a friend, a test result, the final minutes of a long Friday meeting. But the word is older than watches, than the mass measurement of minutes. Its earliest forms meant to observe, to be awake, to guard, to watch. 

A person waited because they could not accurately predict an end, because they were not entirely sure what to expect. A person waited to perceive what was not immediately observed. Perception forms reality. And so it seems to me long waits must produce realities with deep and wide potentialities.

Deep down somewhere around one of its sprawling roots, ‘wait’ means something like ‘to witness.’ And I think that is what I mean when I say my dad waited with me, waited for me. 

His children didn’t exist to serve him. They didn’t exist to find the remote. They didn’t exist to be forgotten. They just existed. He witnessed us exist and witnessed existence with us. Usually, with his arm around our shoulders. I always knew he was trying to help me see something that wasn’t in front of us when he cleared his throat and started talking with his eyes closed.

I didn’t know it as a child, but I was waiting with and for him too. It was all more than any of us could have expected. Existence requires change and that was okay. There was no change, in myself or the world around us, that would keep him from sitting beside me. 

Well. Almost no change. 

My dad died when he was fifty-three. I was twenty-eight. We were both younger than I realized at the time. I waited with him as he died, listening to him breathe.

In the decade since we buried him, I’ve kept existing. I’ve changed a lot. I left the religion he raised me in. I have different ideas, politics, hopes, fears. And I’ve wondered, from time to time, what he’d think sitting next to me, as I exist now.

The wondering turned to panic two years ago. I’d written about my grandma’s abortion. It made his sisters upset. There was a bombardment of calls, texts, accusations, personal attacks. My aunts are nearly all that’s left of my dad’s family. As I read their messages, I forgot who my father was. 

I wondered if I’d changed too much for my dad and I to exist together. Maybe he would have gotten up and walked away from me, if he wasn’t already dead. This was an ache. But I was left gasping when I realized I’m a one-way function. I can’t invert myself, even if it would make him stay.

I stayed awake for a week, waiting for peace. 

When I finally slept, I had a dream.

We call dreams ‘visions’ when they show us other realities we hope are real, now or in the future. Historically, visions are convenient ways to receive absolution or ordination. I am wary of dreams and dreamers. I am wary of visions and visionaries. So it’s very inconvenient that I am person who dreams things that sometimes feel like visions. I am wary of myself, I guess. And so I mostly discard the things I see while I sleep. But this one, this one I let myself keep.

I was sitting on a front stoop, watching existence move through a neighborhood street. My dad sat beside me, right arm around my shoulders. I leaned on him, listening to him breathe. I tried to tell him about everything that’s changed. But I couldn’t bring myself to speak. It’s been so long since I heard him breathe. I don’t know how long we watched together, I just know what happened right before I woke up. 

I saw something move across the street. I looked over to see if he’d seen it too. His eyes were closed, but not tight enough to keep tears from slipping out. I put my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes too. I wanted to be able to see what wasn’t in front of us. He cleared his throat, 

“Oh, Megs, don’t worry so much. I am right here, waiting for you.” 

He pulled me in, very quickly, my left ear smashed against his shoulder, his fingers pressed against my elbow. And then he let me go.