We Are The Cosmos Dreaming of Itself

My mom had this little bit of film from her and my dad’s wedding– the party before and some of the actual wedding preparations and reception, and I just had it digitized. It’s grainy and there is no sound, it’s also 7 minutes long, so it’ll probably be boring for anyone not directly connected. But for people like me who love old film, here it is. My mother is in the white sweater and my father is in the plaid shirt at the night before party but if you skip to the 1:50 mark it’s the actual wedding prep and party, which is a bit more interesting and looks like it could be research data for Mad Men.

To me, it’s poignant. They were so young, so clueless, so beautiful, and completely unaware of what life had waiting for them around the corner – five kids, my dad’s early death, my mother’s difficult rebirth from housewife and mother to sole breadwinner. It wasn’t easy, but that can be said for most everyone anyway. As my great Aunt Nonno used to say, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

I don’t react to death the way many people do. I don’t feel it fully right away, it kind of just colors everything over time. As a result I am still processing my father’s death, which happened a good 37 years ago, in 1984. I don’t think any of us come out of the deaths of loved ones unaltered, but I’m guessing most healthy people don’t file it in a box in the back corner of their brain and then have it manifest as bad behavior or overreaction or just simple sadness at the most inopportune times. Or maybe they do? Grief is such a weird, non-linear experience.

I was sheltered and oblivious to the ways of the world when I left Michigan to go to college in NYC. I chose Parsons School of Design, which is/was difficult to get into, and very expensive. My dad made mention of the cost, but I had never had to support myself and money was pretty abstract to me. Especially his. My parents made me get a high school job and tried to teach their kids the value of work, but my dad always bailed me out when I got in over my head. So with college I think I had an ego about knowing I could get myself accepted into this prestigious school and beyond that I didn’t consider that he was working very hard to support a large family.

My dad flew with me to do the interview, which had to be in person. I dragged him up and down St. Mark’s Place, which was a magical rock and roll fairyland in the 80’s. We walked past Iggy Pop and people with giant hair and Malcolm McClaren and Lauren Hutton walking arm in arm. I could barely contain myself, I was vibrating with joy a and excitement to finally be there after a young life as a mopey Edward Gorey character surrounded by cheerful muggles in pastel colored ski jackets with lift tags stapled to the zipper. My dad was sort of a Tony Soprano lite kind of guy, he was Italian and a bit macho but mostly just funny and charismatic and very loving toward his kids. He stood at the front of Trash and Vaudeville in his suit waiting while I tried to get the snotty staff to help me try on clothes that I didn’t need. One of them asked if he was my bodyguard. He was amused by that.

When it was time to move to NY he took one of the kids from his office and the two of them drove me and all my stuff for 14 hours to stay at the fleabag YMCA on 9th Avenue and 34th Street, an old school flophouse where Parsons had set up student housing amongst the nearly homeless. I sat in the back of his giant luxury dadmobile while a small Uhaul jittered around behind us, packed with hatboxes and milk crates full of record albums and all kinds of crap I wouldn’t need. When we got to the Y, he and I took the rickety, dead slow elevator up to my floor. We opened the door to my room, which was like, 8′ x 12″, to a stained mattress on a cot, a dirty window with a broken blind, and a lone cockroach lumbering slowly from one side of the room to the next.

I was so scared. I said, with tears in my eyes but trying to lighten the mood, “Welp. This is what I wanted!”

He said, “I don’t know how you’re going to get all your stuff in here, Mare.”

I knew he didn’t want to leave me there, but he did. I waved goodbye from the sidewalk as they pulled away, then I went to that tiny, shitty room and started unpacking the mountain of vintage shoes I would never wear.

Turned out I hated fashion design, which was my chosen field of study. I thought I would enjoy it because I loved drawing, clothes and sewing. Alas, I did not. The teachers were lovely for the most part, but the workload was unforgiving and tedious. I sat up into the morning for nights on end painting watercolor swatches that I could never get right. I couldn’t drape for shit, there was no fun or fashion at that point, though I did develop the awesome cool people social life I always envisioned for myself.

So sometime during the second semester, when I was full and well flailing academically and didn’t give a shit about college anymore because nightlife was infinitely more interesting, one of the other students knocked on my door to tell me I had a call. It was late in the night/early morning after I’d returned from a party, and my mother was on the house payphone. It was the only means of communication for a full floor of probably 40 students so I knew if she was calling enough to get through the constant busy signal it had to be important.

When I picked up she was crying, and said, “Dad’s gone.”

I asked, not comprehending, “Well, where did he go?”

He had had a heart attack and died almost immediately. My mom felt terrible because she was a registered nurse and hadn’t recognized the symptoms. He couldn’t sleep and went downstairs from their bedroom and she heard a thump and he was on the ground and I think gone by the time she got to him. It just seemed so out of the realm of possibility, although it really wasn’t. He was a slightly overweight, stressed out, pipe-smoking product of the time, meaning that he pushed through uncomfortable feelings and ignored warning signs. He was in his 40’s at the time, younger than I am now.

Like most families, mine had its own dysfunction. And I had been taking my mother’s side whenever there were disagreements. I didn’t understand or see anything the way it really was, I saw it with a child’s eyes. I was preoccupied with my new life and hadn’t spoken to him on the phone in months, it was always my mom. Then he was just gone and I could never say the things I would have said to him if I’d known that drive would be my last chance to hear his voice or feel his hug.

My diary entry for that day has one paragraph about his death, and then 3 or 4 about a date I had gone on. I felt a deep shame about that for many years. One day, many years after, I broke down and told my therapist about it and asked how  could I be so shallow? What was wrong with me? He reassured me that I wasn’t a sociopath, just someone who shut down because it was too big to process. I was so relieved.

So when he died I quit school, despite the fact that a family friend offered to cover the remaining tuition for the remaining years. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I gave away all of my pens and brushes and exacto knives and markers and paints and started this rock and roll life. And over the years following I would find myself in one crappy relationship or another, and often when it would get to be too much I would overreact and become irrational. Usually when I would get too  drunk and cry over a boyfriend, I would find myself talking to my dad.

One time I laid on my kitchen floor sobbing, completely inconsolable over whatever the latest shitty boyfriend had done, talking to my dad (or the ceiling) out loud. Suddenly a  light bulb shone through the haze. It dawned that this had little to do with the boyfriend and everything to do with my dad. I stopped sobbing, sat up and wiped my snot-filled nose with the back of my hand and thought, “Oooooooh.” Then I realized my dad wasn’t coming back and I still had terrible taste in men and I flopped back down and wailed into the floor again.

Good times.

One of the lovely things about transitioning into adulthood is getting to see your parents as people rather than extensions of your greedy child self. I have so much compassion for those two kids, doing what they were expected to do, marrying when they barely knew each other because that’s how you managed raging hormones and societal expectations back then. How could they not fuck up? I’ve been fucking up my entire life, the only difference is that I had the wherewithal to know it wasn’t a good idea to bring kids into my particular brand of crazy.

So I’ve never fully gotten over this loss. I don’t think about it all the time, I’m not mourning per se, but every once in a while I’ll be doing something mundane and some moment or thought will remind me of him and a wave of sadness will wash over me, like stepping into a hole that wasn’t there a minute ago. Maybe this is true with everyone and their  dead loved ones?  I do believe we are all permanently changed by loss. For me, each death or disappearance of someone I love softens me, makes me more gentle, more compassionate. But the price for that depth is sorrow.

I have had dreams where my dad came to me and we talked some things out, and I do believe it really happened. But that was still about me and my needs. So I carry this feeling that I failed him somehow. That I didn’t SEE him when he was alive. That I never told him how grateful I am and how awesome he was to all of his kids. That he was a special, amazing person outside of being a dad. That it was an honor to be his kid.

So this bit of film transferred to VHS, then digitized, means the world to me. It’s a window into my parent’s true selves at that age, before they became just mom and dad in the eyes of their kids. I feel so much love for these two babies trying  to be grown ups. And I am grateful that my mom and I have been able to talk about our lives as people outside of our mother/daughter relationship, to dissect things that have happened and to find common ground and the occasional forgiveness. 

I hope when I get to the other side I can see him again in all his magnificence: this handsome, vibrant being with the weight of kids and work and life no longer on his shoulders. I hope that I can tell him how desperately I missed him during all the ordinary and grand moments in my life, and how I wished I could have had conversations with him as an adult. But I am guessing that he has moved on to other lives, and maybe on the other side none of this Matrix classroom of suffering and confusion bullshit means a thing. Maybe we’re all just at peace and no longer fathers  or daughters or people who have to keep photos and videos  to remember and understand.

To that thought, I’ll leave you with this audio from a recent show called Midnight Mass, which is ostensibly about vampires, but surprised me with the one of the best explanations of life and death that I’ve heard. This monologue floored me:

Sending love to you, my friends.

%d bloggers like this: