I’m in the bathroom when the grief descends. I am caught defenseless. One minute, I’m thinking about a blog post, feeling annoyed by a phone call; the next, an old memory comes to me, one I haven’t replayed in months, if not years, and I find myself lying on my bathroom floor and sobbing.
It has been six years since my dad died. It’s a fact as much a part of my reality as the rain or sun. It simply is. Thus it is something I can go many days without fully noticing. When there is occasion for me to talk about him, or his absence, I draw from my repository of well-worn dad anecdotes, and can usually get through them with the ease one feels recounting the outcome of a sports game or describing the weather.
Not so on this night.
It could be fatigue; I really haven’t been sleeping enough since I moved to New York. It could be the feeling of rootlessness that’s come with the move. It could be the shortening days and their unsubtle reminder that time moves inexorably forward. It could be that my fear of losing more people I love, a fear never far beneath my consciousness, finally burst through in an unguarded moment. Whatever it was, my body reacted, and I had to drop to the ground and stay still for a while.
In the six years since his death, I have written a lot about my dad. I’ve talked about him even more. I’ve told my story—of learning of his diagnosis, of watching his health decline, of receiving the call from mom that we’d “lost the battle.” This is what grief counselors and books suggest you do. Memories of illness and frailty have mostly given way to memories of the strong, vibrant, tenacious man my father was. I tell funny stories; he left me no shortage of those.
But tonight, the story itself fails me; words fail me. Solace is replaced by anger, which says, He should fucking be here. He hasn’t seen a fucking thing.
Unlike my dad, I grew up with the assumption that I’d go to college one day. He didn’t go; it wasn’t really an option. In all likelihood, he had a learning disability in an era before people knew what that was, and he wasn’t the best student. Regarding my relative academic success, he often joked with his friends that he didn’t know where I came from. “Just like his father,” they’d say, laughing heartily.
Williams College. That was the one my dad wanted to hear about. He lived to see me get into a few colleges, which news he received with fist-pumps and hugs and brimming pride. But Williams—that was the most prestigious of the bunch, at least in his mind. When he was in the hospital for what would be the last time, he wondered aloud to my mom about what I’d do if Williams let me off the wait-list and gave me enough money to go there. “That’s not going to happen, Bob,” my mom told him. It was May; it was too late in the game.
And then the day came, and dad was already gone. That’s the memory that emerges from the nowhere of my mind and cuts me down at the knees and moves me to seek unplanned respite on the bathroom floor.
The memory is vivid. I’m sitting in the leather recliner in my living room. Laptop open, I am working on dad’s obituary. (He’s been dead two days.) On the couch to my right sits our friend Jack McCarthy, a man who went above and beyond the call of duty in taking care of my dad toward the end; our codependent shepherd-huskie-lab mix Rudy is on the couch with Jack; my mom is on the loveseat across the room from me.
I take a break from writing to check an email, and I see it—the one from Williams—and I find out I’m in. I say, “Mom, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to handle this right now.”
“What is it, Billy?” she asks.
I tell her. She jumps up from the loveseat.
“You got into Williams?”
Jack hops up, too. Rudy follows. My mom hugs me, then Jack hugs me, and Rudy tries to jostle for position.
It’s a memory I’ve seen many times, and a story I’ve told many times. Usually, it makes me smile. I am not unaware of the fact that there are greater tragedies than getting into a good college after your dad has died. And I had a really good, attentive dad, which not everyone can say. That, too, is a gift.
But absence is absence, whether you are experiencing its full weight or not. Tonight, that’s all I felt. I could see the memory as clearly as the day it happened, more than six years ago. I saw the room, and the people in it, and the dog, and the email. I looked for my dad, and I didn’t see him.