June 3rd, 2017 – Four Months Before
Do you know the Netflix Password?
Most of our text messages were mundane. “Are you at work right now?” he once asked. “Yes. Off at ten,” I texted back. We were quick with each other. We left it there. I don’t remember now if I called him after this exchange.
Some nights, I was too tired. I didn’t want to talk after eight hours of meal prep. Elaborate bowls of jasmine rice and pickled vegetables, shishito peppers fried and doused in sesame oil, hot dogs made out of falafel. The vegan restaurant on Cambridge St. My first job, hot and noisy and small.
I used to bike home from closing shifts, feeling alive without a helmet on. Eleven o’clock at night, I pedaled through small pockets of pedestrians lingering outside of bars. Near misses with cars and city drivers. I listened to music. I listened to Tig Notaro comedy albums. I laughed a lot. I relished the wind against my skin, cool on warm summer nights. I felt stupid and young. I moved fast.
My dad and I texted out of necessity. “Did you get the checks I sent you in the mail?” he asked when I left my checkbook back home in Pennsylvania. “Yup! Got ’em.” “Did you get your oil changed?” he would ask. “Not yet, but I will,” I said, even though we both knew I probably wouldn’t. On June 3rd, 2017, I asked him for the Netflix password. He didn’t remember it. He told me my brother had changed it to something simple.
“Try ‘password,’” he wrote. I told him that couldn’t be it.
I was trying to log back in to watch a movie with a girl I had a crush on, who was with me in my closet-sized bedroom in an overpriced apartment my dad was still helping me pay for. I was annoyed with him.
“Can you call home?” he typed back. “No,” I lied. “I’m at work.”
I wonder now how many times I lied to him about being someplace inaccessible. Telling him, “I can’t right now,” when I really meant, “I don’t want to talk to you.” I wonder how often he felt the truth.
It’s cliché to think of all the things you would do differently if you only knew way back when. That I would have been nicer to him. That I would have called him every day and talked for hours. That I would have recorded the sound of his voice, filtered through the cell phone static. The texture of him and his laugh. Maybe I would have done this.
I always knew my dad would die. It was only ever a question of when, and how, and would it be painful? Would it be long or instantaneous?
The girl and I ended up watching a pirated movie and making out.
June 22nd, 2017 – Three Months
Sorry. I just to tell again that there will always be a Devon room in mom and my house 😘😘😘
His text messages were rife with typos and riddled with emojis. Dads love emojis. My dad particularly loved the kissy-heart face, the rabbit because I had a pet rabbit for a few years, the red balloon, and the face with two red hearts instead of eyes.
In the summer of 2017, my parents were thinking seriously about downsizing. I grew up in a large house in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania. My dad’s personal oasis, his dream house. But they were getting older, the kids had left the roost and, as we would come to learn later, the money was gone.
There were many discussions about where the two of them would live next. My dad wanted to buy a plot of land and build something new, something custom. That was his way. He was particular. My wife calls me particular, and it’s true. In many ways, my dad and I are one and the same. Always picking things apart. Always looking for the next great thing. My father and I are restless, curious folk. Sometimes, I consider this a curse. Sometimes, it makes me proud to be so much like him. Sometimes, it scares me to be so much like him—our indecisiveness, our absentmindedness, our mood swings, the way his mind would slip out of touch, his personhood retreating back into the unreachable recesses of his mind, his body a mere shell. The early stages of dementia were only ever speculated about, but still, they were there. He would lose his temper when we talked about it. Fear is an angry feeling.
By late June of 2017, the talks about the move were getting serious. They had even put the house on the market. It was time, my mom said. My dad was less settled in their decision. He was an emotional buyer, an emotional seller. Our old beach house, a two-bedroom apartment in Wildwood, New Jersey, had been sold five years prior without the consent, or knowledge, of the rest of the family. One day, it was there. The next, my dad had given it up.
My mom was furious. My brother cried; he loved it there. In the privacy of my dad’s home office, the sky dark outside his windows, I asked him one night why he did it. He told me he was sorry. He told me he couldn’t bear to tell us. It was too painful. He just needed to rip the Band-Aid off. He thought it would be easier if he just took care of it. I understood this.
My dad was good at taking on family burdens. If you needed a new phone, he knew the guys at the AT&T store. If you had a flat tire on the side of the highway, he would drive out and wait there with you for AAA, or even better, he would let you drive his car home so you didn’t have to wait at all.
But there was privacy to the way he worked– selling the beach house, for instance, or setting up the Netflix account without sharing the password. So many patriarchs, just like my dad, lock themselves away to make the hard decisions. They see it as noble. They never consider that by locking themselves in, they also lock everyone else out.
For the new house, there was a more open conversation, though a splintering one. My dad wanted new construction. My mom was less certain. She was open to options. Maybe even an apartment. A retirement community. Something manageable, the basic necessities. She told me this over the phone: “We really only need two bedrooms.” My dad called out “Bullshit” from the background, his voice familiar and distant, like a ghost already. “I want my kids to have a room in my house.” I laughed at this. I was moved by it, but I agreed with my mom. They didn’t need that.
An hour later, I got a text from him after a phone call I had missed because I was out and busy. “There will always be a Devon room in mom and my house.”
August 2nd, 2017 – Two Months
XO you call if you need company on way home. Love You Dad 😘
The last time I went home before it happened was in August 2017. I drove with my pet rabbit in a cage in the passenger seat beside me. My parents would look after her while I went back to Boston and packed up the rest of my things for the next apartment, a cheaper one, a dirtier one. I was starting grad school in the fall.
Drives home to Pennsylvania were sinusoidal. The highs, the lows, the music pumping through the speakers of my Subaru Forester. Coldplay, Blink-182, The Killers. Leaving Boston, flying westward on I-90 carried the same loose ecstasy of riding my bike home without a helmet. I was going away. I was on my own time. I was flying fast at 70 plus miles per hour.
The state of Connecticut is the geographical minimum value of the sine graph, and it seems to have the maximum period—the distance between two maximum or minimum points. By Connecticut, my coffee was already gone and the caffeine was wearing thin in my veins. It was no longer exhilarating to be someplace new. I just wanted to be home, but I was far away from Boston, and I was far away from Pennsylvania. There was no good answer but to keep going forward.
That year, I was tense, worried about traveling with the nervous rabbit. I had read somewhere that rabbits, if sufficiently terrified, can drop dead out of fear. I didn’t want to kill my rabbit.
I listened to music for the first three hours, then switched to comedy albums. Maria Bamford. John Mulaney. Tig Notaro, who I liked because she was a lesbian and also a butch. I had come out to my parents the year before. My mom told me they had been waiting for it. Dad said, “That’s incredible. I love women! I hope you find a great wife!” Months later, he sent me a text. A photo of two women in pure white wedding gowns, with the caption, “Love comes in all shapes and sizes.”
I think of this whenever I am frustrated with my parents. All the misguided, awkward, mixed-up ways they have made me feel so impossibly, unbearably loved.
Without fail, my mom calls me every time I’m driving back home to Pennsylvania, usually around the time I’m hitting the southern part of New Jersey, about to cross over into Philly. I hate talking on the phone when I’m driving. She knows this. But, on that drive I answered, and she asked me how the ride was going. I told her it was going fine, she told me what she was planning to make for dinner, and I told her whatever it was sounded great. We hung up, and I was irritated and cranky from being alone and driving all day, and did she really have to call me while I’m on the road, goddamnit?
My dad never called. He texted. I would read his messages at the gas station, filling up for the last stretch home. A gentle offering. A nudge, maybe. A plea. Call me. He used to sign off, “Love Dad.” When I told him he didn’t need to do that, he told me he wanted to.
“I want you to know it’s from me and that I love you,” he said.
September 6th, 2017 — One Month
Thanks for such a great weekend! So glad we got to meet Jes she seems very nice. And by the time we left the apartment really grew on me.
One thing, please get your oil changed it’s very important, and I know it’s overdue.
XO you so much.
The month before my dad died, he helped me move. The new apartment had two floors. The first with a small kitchen, two bathrooms, an oddly shaped living room, and a single bedroom. Up the rickety flight of stairs, there were three bedrooms clustered in a horseshoe. My bedroom was way up there to the left.
My dad hated it from the start. I loved it, mainly because we had an entire wall of exposed brick in the kitchen and my room had slanted ceilings, a quirky feature I had always wanted. But, the floors in that place were constantly chipping flakes of finish onto the bottoms of our feet. The stairs were carpeted, steep, and filthy. Later that year, my roommate spilled a cup of coffee in an upstairs bedroom, and the liquid leaked through the floorboards, down through the ceiling light socket, and into our living room just below. When we told our landlord, he told us to “clean up the coffee.”
Move-in weekend was filled more with work than with love. My parents and I moved and rearranged my furniture. We ran errands, made trips to IKEA, Home Depot, Target, and Trader Joe’s. We sweated a lot. My dad took a nap on my bedroom floor while my mom and I constructed a new frame for my bed.
By dinnertime, we were sick of one another, through with the day, our bodies sore and tired, our faces still warm from the sun and all our effort. We ate in silences that were comfortable only because we were family.
The last night they were in town, we went to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Allston. We ordered fresh summer rolls and crispy spring rolls and pho. I had just gotten back together with my first girlfriend from college, Jess. We were in love, and I was missing her. My parents hinted that they would have liked to meet Jess. I felt stupid for not inviting her along and still a little self-conscious about being gay. I texted Jess from the dinner table, “Feel like grabbing dinner with me and the folks?” She texted back, “Of course! Like, now?”
In some ways, it feels like that last weekend was destined to be our last weekend. The first big post-college move. It was the first time I ever owned my own dresser. It was the only time my dad ever met the person who is now my wife. A momentous weekend. A pivot point for change.
It was a short dinner. Jess had just moved, too, and we were all tired, and it was very hot outside. After, all four of us drove through the city in my mom’s SUV for one more run to Target. My dad asked Jess what she did for work, and I could tell he was impressed when she said she worked in a high school as a college counselor. In Target, we laughed at all the empty shelves. College students had run rampant through the aisles, back for fall term.
The text my dad sent me after that weekend feels like the final punctuation mark on our time together. When I look at it now, it feels like he is telling me goodbye and that I will be okay, and, of course, to please, please get my oil changed.
October 1st, 2017 – My Birthday – Three Days
23 years ago today I finally got my baby girl I’ve always wished for!
You are the best daughter I could ever wished for.
Love You with all my heart! 😘🍰🎈🎈
It was a tractor-trailer. He was rear-ended on his way home from breakfast on Wednesday, October 4th, 2017. He was in a Toyota Prius, which is not so much a car as a Styrofoam box on wheels. It was sunny that day. There was a photo in the local paper of his car all banged up. I kept a screenshot of it on my phone for a year. I checked in regularly with the local paper’s comments section online. A lot of readers were angry at the paper for posting the photo of the car.
“What if his family sees this?” one reader wrote.
“This is disrespectful to the family,” another reader said.
I’m the family, I thought.
Three days before he was killed, I turned twenty-three. Jess got me lots of presents. She took me out to brunch. We went to see an old movie at the Somerville Theatre. I hadn’t enjoyed my birthday in years. Young as I was, the day had taken on the same tired nostalgia of Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Melancholic and strange. But that year, it was a good day.
My mom didn’t want to see the car or the photo of it. She wanted his eyeglasses back, but they were never found. Sometimes I picture them on the side of the highway. My brother didn’t want to see the car, either. To my knowledge, neither of them have ever read the story in the paper.
The Prius was totaled, of course. But, in the photo, it doesn’t look so bad. The back of the car is punched in, but the rest of it looks pristine. The car is white, sleek, with curved edges and gleaming metal. It was sunny that day. The tractor-trailer looms close behind, looking ordinary and unchanged. Its cabin is a deep midnight blue. Its grill is a startling silver, chrome.
In the photo, he is not in the car. There is only the absence of him.
October 4th, 2017 – A Final Text
On October 4th, 2017, I saw an article entitled “Peek Inside 22 Lesbian Pulp Novels” on my Facebook feed and thought it was funny. The book covers are deviant and strange. Old fashioned like Alfred Hitchcock posters. I wanted to frame them and hang them in my home. I meant to send the article to a friend that morning, but I accidentally sent it to my dad.
It was 11 o’clock in the morning, and he was already dead, but I didn’t know this yet. At first, I was embarrassed by the mistake, but I thought I’d wait and see what he had to say about the article. I imagined his response. “What the fuck is this?” or “What does this mean?” or “What’s a lesbian pulp novel?”
This was my final text to my dad before he died, or rather before I learned of his death. Some days, it feels comedic, fitting even, for the strangeness of that day, the surreal feeling of knowing and still not comprehending he was gone.
When I got the call–my brother’s voice on the phone, carefully restrained; a fatal car accident– I panicked. Had my dad seen the text? And if so, was this really our final exchange? I had blown my last chance to say something meaningful to him. Or maybe, I had distracted him at the wheel. I reminded myself he had been rear-ended. I reminded myself he had already been dead by the time I sent that text. My dad died at 8:37 that morning.
The panic was in knowing I could no longer correct myself. I could no longer reach out to him and say, “That was a mistake.” I can no longer reach out to him, period. Our relationship is frozen in time this way. Crystallized in that moment, and in so many small memories, and in recorded conversations that are never quite enough. Perfunctory, full of mistakes, miscommunications, minor arguments, and typos.
My dad will never know me outside of 23 years old. I am haunted by the finality of that and by the opposite feeling that because I am still unfinished, we are still unfinished. I dive back, and back, and back into the scraps I have left over in my phone. What was he feeling when he wrote this? How did I make him feel with my response? In the wake of him, I find myself ironically and newly in tune with his feelings.
I keep a small portion of his ashes in an urn the size of an egg on my windowsill. When I pick it up in the winter, it’s cold from the poorly insulated windows, and I feel guilty about that. In the summer, I place it in the shade. When I am nervous, I hold it. When I am sad, I kiss it. Sometimes, when I am lonely or unsure of something, I try to talk to it. An old reflex. I am still waiting for his reply, and will keep waiting, because we never stop being our parents’ children.