It’s been over a year since I last wrote you a letter. Two years since I stood in church clad in a black dress that mom told me was more appropriate than the orange one I wanted to wear.
I had thought about that dress the whole 12 hours we drove home from Cape Cod, in the silence that filled the car between the calls. The calls about death certificates and funeral receptions and Valium prescriptions. I thought about it as we drove past New Haven and I made Billy stop the car so I could walk on the Green just as I had 15 years before. Just as you had 40 years before.
I thought about it hanging in my closet at home, the tags still dangling, and for some reason that still baffles me, it made me smile.
When mom told me, diplomatically of course, that orange would be too gaudy, too cheeky to wear to your funeral, I should have just said of course. But instead, I stormed off to Nordstrom to buy a black dress I never wanted, leaving a trail of tension and discord in my wake.
In retrospect it wasn’t ever about the dress. It was about control. Perhaps subconsciously I did want to be disrespectful, as if my refusal to bow to the conventions of proper funeral attire was my way of giving death the middle finger.
It was silly to get worked up over a dress, even an orange one with a scalloped neckline, and she was probably right, but it burned me up nonetheless.
As I angrily pawed through racks in store after store like a sullen teenager, I heard your voice gently telling me I needed to let it go. That just as the orange dress was my way of trying to exert control over a situation that could not be controlled, mom was doing the same.
That sometimes yielding is more courageous than fighting.
I knew you were right. You were always right.
So I took my stack of black dresses and went to the dressing room, but nothing was right. They were all ill-fitting or too racy or too casual or not orange. One by one I threw them off until they littered the floor around me.
Alone for the first time since I saw you lying on the ground with your glasses askew, I sank to the floor and surveyed the carnage. And a barely audible voice that I did not recognize as my own asked “Oh Daddy. Why did you leave me?”
The question hung in the dressing room, swirling around me and finally settling on my chest. It still hangs in the air.
There are years that ask questions, said Zora Neale Thurston, and years that answer.
There are years that do both.
The last two years have asked and they have answered, sometimes rhythmically, the way that questions and answers often present themselves in tandem.
Sometimes the questions and answers appeared disjointedly, broken in space and time by gulfs that seemed too big to cross and loneliness that found me crumpled on the floor of my kitchen with my back against the dishwasher, lying on the beach with my back against the sand, or in the shower with the hot water scalding me.
Sometimes the questions were too big to answer at once. Sometimes the answers were too simple to ignore.
These years asked me “Can you?” And they answered yes.
They asked me “Will you?” And always they answered yes.
They asked me “How?” And they answered you yield.
So I did.
I yielded to the grief over the future that died with you, but also to the magic of the present.
I yielded to the anger, but also to the comfort that our life together, while too short, was complete.
I yielded to the needs of others, but also to the determination that my path could be different.
I yielded to the emptiness, but also to the love of friends who gave me a soft place to land.
I yielded to all of it. I accepted all of it. I was impenetrable when I chose to be and vulnerable when I needed to be. I allowed myself to bend, but not break. I allowed myself to accept the good with the bad.
And here I am, two years later. Another July 3rd. They say the second year is easier. And I suppose that is true. There came a time when you weren’t the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning. But now when I do, the timing is unpredictable and the pain is more acute. It prickles my skin and gurgles up from a place deep inside where words do not exist.
The boys both won reading awards at graduation this year Dad. After the ceremony Jack quietly slipped his hand in mine and asked why my smile hadn’t been bigger watching them approach the podium to receive their awards.
Just like you, he can read the lines on my face and measure the size of my smile down to the milimeter.
I didn’t tell him that it was because in that moment my heart ached with exquisite joy and exquisite pain at the same time. That it was enlarged by what I was lucky to have and what I was lucky to miss all at once. That I felt not just your absence at graduation but everything you will not see, every part of you they will not know, every word they will never hear.
I thought of how I strain to hear your voice in my head, to conjure the image of you brushing your hair from your face, to feel the way you used to pull me into your hugs and hold on as if my life depended on it.
I cursed the resilience that allows me to move forward by forgetting what has passed.
Truth be told, I feel like you are still with me most of the time. But sometimes you leave a calling card. Just to let me know you are here, when I least expect it but most need it.
The other day I was finally cleaning out the office and I found this. A letter you wrote me thirteen years ago.
It might seem strange to other people to receive a formal note from their father, but it was so perfectly you.
You who were brimming with words of support and praise and love. You who knew that spoken words were fleeting and easily forgotten.
You who knew that one day I would unpack a box from years past and find a card with your handwriting. That I would gingerly hold it in my shaking hands and quickly brush away the tears before they could smudge the ink. That I would hear your voice in my head. Those words are from another time. Another life. Another me.
I know too that you are still proud of me, of all of us. Not for being strong or stoic or responsible. But proud that we are still the people we were before you died. That we are still becoming the people we were meant to be. Proud that we listen to the questions and wait for the answers.
Someone told me that I would never be able to wear the dress I wore to your funeral again. That it would be forever tainted with the memory of that day. But I have worn that black dress many times over and felt nothing.
It is the orange dress I have not worn. It still hangs in my closet, the tags dangling from the hanger.
It sits there, reminding me that yielding is sometimes more courageous than fighting and that love never ends.
I love you Daddy. Until our trails cross again…