When I was about fourteen years old Dad started saying this funny (weird funny) thing to me:
“Baby, I’m not going to be around much longer.”
What the hell is a fourteen year old supposed to say in response to her Dad’s own prediction of his nearing departure from his life…and hers?
My teenage response was usually, “DAD STOP SAYING THAT!”
Obviously and understandably it would upset me when he said it. He told me when we were alone just sitting around. But it was always said seriously and soberly. He left misery out of it. It was just plain fact. No emotion. Dad-like.
Fact: I’m dying. And soon.
He didn’t have cancer or a terminal disease. He hadn’t been given a death sentence by his doctor. He wasn’t suicidal. There was no depression or emotional abuse connected to these few moments. He was an active man. He had many friends. He and his wife, my step-mother, went out two-steppin’ often.
He just knew he was a gonner soon. He’d already had two heart attacks. He wasn’t weak (or he never seemed that way to me). Nothing scrawny about this man. He just knew he wasn’t long for this world and wasn’t going to let me be surprised by it.
“Baby, I’m not gonna be around much longer.”
I’d reply in good ole fashioned teenager whine, “DAD! Stop saaaaying thaaaaat!”
“I just want you to know.”
And that was simply it. Exactly what he said. He just wanted me to know. He wanted to prepare me for what he felt was the inevitable. Not inevitable in the way that death is for us all but imminent. He felt it was coming soon. And It was. And It did.
One year later Dad had his third and final heart attack and it took him out. He was alive for one week in the hospital and then he was gone.
I didn’t really remember our bite sized death convos until the initial shock and grief had begun to wear off. But when I did it affected me deeply.
I didn’t like it while he was telling me. It scared the hell out of me. I didn’t know how to respond and I didn’t want to think about him being gone. But Dad knew how attached I was to him. And I was the youngest. The baby.
So as a sixteen year old, feeling Dadless, I began to wonder about the things he would miss: graduations, my wedding (if I’d only known how long I wouldn’t have to worry about that), celebrations, opening nights and recitals. And I often felt upset that I was unprepared for my first trip to an emergency room, and subsequent first funeral not realizing that one is rarely prepared for these life altering events.
As I’ve gotten older and reflected on these feelings and questions there’s one thing that comes to the forefront of my mind: he prepared me. That isn’t to say that I was prepared. But he did do his best to make sure I wouldn’t be whip-lashed by surprise. It may not have been poetic or comforting at the time. But why should it have been? It was real. It was true.
It was generous and thoughtful.
“Baby, I’m not going to be around much longer. I just want you to know.”
He never belabored it. He never abused me with it. But it needed to be said. Perhaps because he knew me better than I did.
Later I relayed this to my older siblings. They were surprised to hear my story. I was expecting them to nod in agreement at how Dad said the same thing to them. But he didn’t. I learned that he only said it to me. Who knows why. Maybe he just felt I needed a little more prepping. A little more babying for the baby. They’d had more time with him after all.
So I survived losing my father at the age of fifteen – one month away from my sixteenth birthday. I survived the grief and the absence. I survived not knowing the answer to questions that would come later in life – questions I didn’t know I’d have like: Where should I move after graduation? Should I go out with this guy? How do I save money for….? What do I do when…? I survived Dad’s death. Just like to obituary said.
I didn’t have to ask how to change a flat tire, though. He took care of that before he left…that and how to change spark plugs. Never had to use either. But I was prepared.
Now uh, Dad?…about those boys…