When Daddy Died

It is the middle of the night — 3:17 to be exact — and I can’t sleep. I took medicine before bed, but it isn’t helping. Lying in bed, I can’t stop thinking about Dad. A movie scroll of memories plays continuously in my head, and I am full of sorrow that I will never again hug or be hugged by the man who loved me so deeply for forty-five years. It isn’t real. This was supposed to be a story about recovering from Covid-19, not one about grief.

I won’t use euphemisms for Dad. He died. He didn’t pass. He isn’t lost. And he’s not gone. He is dead. I won’t use euphemisms because Dad hated them. Whenever Dad heard someone say they lost someone, he muttered to me, “Well they should go look for them.” I wish Dad was only lost, because then I sure would go searching for him. I’d search the world over until I found him. As it is, I have to learn how to live without him, and with the way I’ve been crying and falling to pieces, I haven’t exactly been a pillar of support for Mom. I hug her when she cries and then we cry together. There have been so many tears.

Last night, after dinner, I opened Dad’s liquor cabinet and instead of my usual Black Russian, I made myself a Manhattan. I’d never had one before, but it was Dad’s favorite drink. It only seemed appropriate that I should have one to toast Dad. As I reached for the Maker’s Mark and the vermouth Mom asked, “Do you even know how to make a Manhattan?” With a sad smile I answered, “Of course. Remember, I occasionally made them for Dad.”

Today is my wedding anniversary. When my spouse proposed to me, I was living with my parents. One afternoon, she came over for dinner and we told them that we were going to get married. Dad looked at me with a big smile and said, “Does this mean you’re finally moving out?” But then his eyes shifted to my spouse and he added, “Or does it mean you’re moving in?” We all chuckled. I had moved in and out so many times it had started to seem like I was a boomerang. (Come to think of it, even after my son was born, I was here visiting an awful lot. They never really did get rid of me — nor did they want to.) After our laughter settled down, Dad hugged me and said, “I really just need to know how I’m supposed to address an envelope.” I was marrying a woman, but it didn’t matter, Dad handled that like he handled everything, with a touch a humor.

Fifteen years ago, to get married my spouse and I traveled up to Toronto. Queer marriage was not yet legal in the United States — only in Massachusetts, but you had to be a resident of the state — and so we had no choice but cross the border. Mom came and was one of our witnesses. Dad couldn’t come. Fireball, his dog, was old and sick and he didn’t want to leave her alone. Though I was disappointed Daddy couldn’t be there, I understood. He told Mom to take us out for dinner to celebrate after the civil ceremony, so he was there in spirit.

This probably sounds corny, but I am taking comfort in knowing that Dad has been reunited with Fireball. If there is a heaven, she was there waiting for him and when he arrived she greeted him with a wagging tail and glint of excitement in her eyes. Dad is with her now, and though he is sad to have had to leave us, she will keep him company until we see him again.

Because this pandemic has caused everything to shut down, we can’t even have a funeral or a Mass for Dad. Just one more aspect of this whole miserable ordeal that isn’t fair. We won’t be able to see him one last time, we won’t be able to say goodbye. Mom said he wanted to be cremated, and so she will honor his wishes. My son, expecting a funeral, had asked if we’d see Grandpa one last time, and if he could put one of his lego sets in the coffin with him. My Dad and my son had spent countless hours together doing legos and my son wanted those memories to be with Dad in some tangible form forever.

Dad often joked that he wouldn’t read women authors. He didn’t like women writers because he found their language to be “too flowery.” There were only three woman authors he enjoyed, Sue Grafton, Colleen McCullough who wrote the Thorn Birds — he loved that novel — and a third whose name I don’t recall. I often kidded with him that even if I ever managed to publish a book he’d never read it because it would have been written by a woman. But I know that isn’t true. He’d have been the first — and perhaps one of the only — person to buy my book. So I suppose, knowing how Dad felt about female writers, it is a tad bit ironic that it is I who am chronicling his life.

Mom and I were watching television last night when Dad’s iPad pinged. I looked to see why and there was a message from my son, “Love you Grandpa.” This morning, I came home from my walk and Mom was crying. “Let me show you this,” she said as she let me through the door. She picked up Dad’s iPad and there was another message from my son, “Good morning Grandpa.” He’s processing his grief and still trying to communicate with the person he loved most. Two years ago, Mom and Dad bought him an iPad for his birthday. The best part of having it was that he could send messages back and forth to Grandpa. Mostly, he sent GIFs and other little cartoon characters. Dad loved getting those messages. He loved knowing that his grandson was thinking of him. The little Doodle Jump guy was one of their favorites.

There was a time I was jealous that my son loved his grandparents more than me. How foolish I was. I’m not even sure I know when I let go of that jealousy and completely embraced the bond Dad and my son shared. All I know is I’d have given anything if only it could have continued. If only they could have spent more time loving each other.

This morning, my spouse and ten-year-old son drove to New York. According to the CDC website, I’m not contagious. While Dad had been in the hospital fighting the virus, I had my own battle with it. Though my fight, in light of Dad’s, is no more than a footnote. I had originally wanted to wait a few days before seeing my family. I didn’t want them to get sick. However, after Dad died, I needed to be with my son. Perhaps it was selfish of me. Perhaps it was wrong. But I thought it best if we could grieve together — me, my son, and Mom. When they arrived, my son’s eyes were red. I knew he had been crying. I also knew how incredibly hard it would be for him to walk into this house for the very first time without Grandpa to greet him. I knew, because I remember the first time I walked into my grandfather’s house without my grandmother. I, too, was ten. And it felt so unbelievably empty. Her presence was everywhere, but she was nowhere. The house felt too big. Too hollow. And I knew it would hit my son like a wave at the ocean, knocking him down and completely disorienting him.

When my son arrived, I asked him if he was hungry. If he wanted breakfast. He didn’t answer. Instead, he marched into the kitchen, demanded Dad’s apron and once it was wrapped around him, he commenced making pancakes. Dad should have been here to make breakfast for my son. He loved making breakfast for his grandson, it was one of his greatest pleasures, but since he isn’t here, my son took charge. He wouldn’t let me cook. He wanted to be like Grandpa. And so he made pancakes. He made Mickey Mouse pancakes because that’s what Dad always made him.

But as he poured the final batter into the frying pan, he pulled up the stool, sat down, pulled his knees into his chest, dropped his head, and cried. I quickly enveloped him in a hug. “Mama,” he said. “I feel really bad. I should have texted Grandpa more. I should have sent him more messages.” I tried to comfort him. I told him that Grandpa loved him and that he enjoyed the messages he did send. “But Mama, you were right. I should have been more grateful. I should have said thank you more. I should have been happy with what Grandpa gave me.” I was crying with him, “Oh honey, Grandpa didn’t need you to say thank you. Your happiness. Your smiles was all he needed. He loved you. All he wanted was for you to be happy.” He lifted up his head, tears pouring down his cheeks, “But Mama, he really wanted to see his cousin Anna and Tan Tan.  And I’m really sad, that he is sad, that he died before he could see them. It’s not fair.” No, it absolutely isn’t fair. How many times have I said those same words. None of this is fair. Dad deserved so much more. “Yes,” I agreed with him. “But let’s be happy for all the things Grandpa did get to do. Let’s remember all the happy times you and I had with him. Let’s celebrate the memories we have.” But he collapsed into my arms. I pulled the pancakes off the stove and held him while we cried.

About the contributor

Elizabeth Jaeger's work have been published in various print and online journals, including Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Ovunque Siamo, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, and Italian Americana. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress is forthcoming in Newtown Literary. She is the book reviews editor at Ovunque Siamo.

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