This personal essay titled ‘Disrepair’ is part of the ‘New Mom Diaries’ series.
As I enter the stained-glass church through the dark-wood double doors, my eyes center on the life-size crucifix hanging on the back wall above the pulpit. Jesus is so life-like, his wounds so real, I feel raw and protective. My right hand circles counter-clockwise over my pregnant belly and the polyester fabric of my navy-blue maternity dress with tiny white flowers on it. Now in my ninth month, my presence overpowers every space I enter. But not this one. Here I feel wrong. Out of place. It is life, not death, that doesn’t belong here.
I’ve known for the past six months that the next time I’d see my father would be at his funeral. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon. Six months ago, I wrote a letter to my father telling him that I didn’t want him to contact me anymore. I told him Matt and I were having our first baby, and we wanted our child to be free of the consequences that came with his unpredictability. After all, I didn’t even meet my father until I was ten years old. And after that, his reappearances in my life were random, infrequent, and disruptive. It had been difficult for me to live that way, never knowing if or when he might arrive unannounced for a brief moment in my life before disappearing again for a year, or two, or ten. I’d thought it kinder to tell him that I forgave him, if forgiveness was what he sought from me. It was all true. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truest reason I needed to be certain that he was out of my life for good. I didn’t tell him it was because he had hurt me beyond repair, and as a mother, I could not be in disrepair.
By calling me, abruptly coming back into my life last year when I was 30 and he was 50, he’d managed to undo so much of the work I’d done to gather myself into a competent, focused adult. I’d worked hard to earn a job as a high school English teacher, just like my mother, and I was becoming good at it. Against the odds, I’d married a man who loved me more than my father ever could comprehend.
I didn’t blame my father for his shortcomings. He was an addict. After reading several books about addiction, the most I could gather is he’d never grown into a self-possessed person. The addiction got in the way and made him incapable of loving me. It didn’t help that I was the second child, the one whose impending birth ended my parents’ marriage, as opposed to their first child, my sister, whose conception had started it. According to the books, it made sense. I had to remind myself of that.
If there was no blame to assign and I had forgiven my father’s inability to love me, then why did it hurt so much when he resurfaced after nearly a decade without contact, told me he’d call me every week, and then failed to follow through over and over again? Why did it hurt so much when, during those few phone calls, he talked about his other children, the two young sons whom he had with his second wife, as well as my sister, as if he knew them well when he showed so little interest in getting to know me? Why did it hurt so much to be rejected by him, yet again, even though I understood he never would accept me?
I might have escaped what would have come with his daily presence in my life, but I could not escape what came with his absence. He was my father, and I always would crave his love.
His body now lies in an open coffin ten feet in front of me, and I possess none of the feelings it seems I should have in this situation. I don’t feel loss, at least not a loss that I haven’t been feeling for years. I don’t feel sadness, except that which comes with all death – the sadness of endings. I realize that I’ve never spent this much time in a room with my father before and that’s because this time he can’t leave the room. The sadness of that thought overwhelms me, and I begin to cry. Now, at least, I look the part.
The priest addresses the mourners scattered throughout the vast space of the abbey. He announces that we are here to say goodbye to Michael and pray for his soul. He asks if anyone wishes to speak or honor my father in some way. My cousin, who I just learned shares my father’s first name, stands up, walks over to a CD player that sits in a nearby church pew, and plays a recording of him singing and playing the piano. I hear my father’s singing voice for the first time as it echoes through the vaulted ceilings of the church. I’ve never heard my musician father sing or play music before. His voice is soft. His music is clear. I have the realization that he was a person who made soft, clear music. And just as I begin to feel the music as fully as I can – a light touch on piano keys and a quiet, raspy voice making words – my cousin Michael stops the recording before the song is over, removes the CD, and returns to his seat.
Inadvertent cruelty runs in the family, I guess.
The priest continues to speak about a person I don’t know and never will, and I can’t hear anything because I’m trying so hard to concentrate on that music – to keep it in my mind for as long as I can. The baby kicks, distracting me. I’m two weeks from my due date. I shift my attention to the baby’s movements.
This is love. This is much more than an unfinished song.
The priest announces that my father is “survived” by his four children. The word “survived” is odd in this circumstance, and yet so appropriate. I am not suffering from the loss of a loved one in the traditional sense but I certainly have survived him.
With a final prayer, the ceremony is concluded, and we leave in procession, the four most important survivors leading the way. I take my place behind my sister as the second-born of his children, followed by his two sons, who truly knew him but must walk behind the half-sisters they’ve never met before. As far as I know, he raised them. He was physically present in those boys’ lives up until his recent divorce from their mother. They’re only twelve and fourteen years old. I turn around and tell them I’m sorry that they have to know this loss at such a young age. As they shift uncomfortably at being spoken to directly, they remind me so much of my students. They both just look down, seemingly aware that I’m related to them but confused by what to do with that fact. I feel the same way. One of them looks like our father. In some subtle ways, this young boy looks just a little bit like me – blond highlights, a certain profile, something in the chin or the jaw. The baby kicks, and I wonder what he or she will look like. For the first time, the possibilities about that frighten me a little.
I carry so much inside me.
That’s all I can think about as I sit in my mother’s back seat, listening to her and my sister quietly sniffle as we join the procession of cars driving to the cemetery. At the burial site, the funeral director leads the men carrying the coffin up a large hill. After several minutes, they come back down empty-handed. The priest instructs our procession of mourners to climb the steep hill to my father’s grave. Again, I take my place in line. I climb slowly up the grassy slope, careful not to ask too much of my swollen body. I follow my sister, playing a part as one of the four most important survivors, and drop the yellow flower I’d been handed earlier into his grave, just like my sister did.
I don’t stand at his grave long; I’m a bit out of breath after the climb. I look back at the cars parked at the bottom of the hill – bumper to bumper in one slender, curving line that leads to a one-car-wide exit. With a swift panic, I realize that I’m trapped. If the baby should come now, how would I get to the hospital in time with all these cars blocking the way to one tiny exit? I walk cautiously down the slope and wait impatiently with my mother and sister at the bottom of the hill for the cars to move, so I can leave this place. I don’t belong here. I don’t want to belong. I can’t play this part anymore.
I glance across the group of mourners and eye my two half-brothers who stand together looking at the ground. They will have work to do. His absence will weigh them down. I feel the sadness that I couldn’t feel at the funeral. They’re children, just like the one kicking inside me. They were babies once, just like my baby is now. It occurs to me that my baby is like I was when my mother left my father: unborn and vulnerable.
The line of cars begins to snake forward. I ask my mother to drive me home. Matt will be returning from work soon. I’m eager to see him and for him to see me. I look down at my bulging belly, solid with life. I need to rest. I have a baby on the way. A baby I can’t wait to meet and already love.
What makes me a blahcksheep is that I’m honest. I have a need to tell the truth no matter the consequences. In my experience, it can be harmful to alter the truth. Even a lie of omission could lead to suffering. Life is hard enough without having to search for facts that someone has buried under a lie. But not everyone agrees with me on this issue. A lot of people, it turns out, prefer to select which parts of reality they acknowledge. And to those people, I’m a blahksheep.