For as long as my children have lived, they’ve assumed that I have only one parent: a mom. I didn’t have a dad because I never talked about having a dad. I never talked about having a dad because, in my mind, I don’t have a dad. Or, I did have a dad, but he died in 2008, two years before my oldest was born.
So, since he wasn’t living when we conceived my first daughter and he wasn’t living when she was born, he had no meaning, beyond DNA, to their lives. So I didn’t talk about him…ever.
Beyond that “reason” (if you want to call that a “reason”), I had other reasons for not talking about my dad.
Not talking about my dad beyond explanations about his death to any stranger who’d ask was my way of overcoming grief over his death.
Amidst the pain of dealing with his unexpected death, I really wanted to move on. I didn’t want to think about him since thinking about him made me think of him all the time. And that made me cry and regret all the times I didn’t cry for him when he was alive.
I didn’t want to talk about him since talking about him beyond a year of his death seemed strange. It felt strange and I felt awkward. I wanted to create distance between grieving and my “normal life” to just carry on in my “normal life” which didn’t include him. I needed to move on. So, I have no dad. My children had a grandpa, but he died. He’s dead. Move on. This was my narrative of adulthood fatherlessness.
I saw no problem with this line of thinking until my children became old enough, around two or so, to begin talking unashamedly about death and dead things. They talked about the dead crab on our sidewalk, about the chickens on their plate who once lived and are now dead. My children understand death. Though, since death has always been for them distant and unfamiliar, it’s not had the kind of emotional layer that I always imagined it would have should I ever tell them about their grandpa, the man who lived but then died.
One day a few months ago, my oldest daughter found a picture of my dad. It was a picture at my wedding during the father/daughter dance. She asked who he was.
“That’s my dad,” I said.
“But you don’t have a dad,” she said, laughing, I guess, because everyone knows that I don’t have a dad when everyone else does. Duh!
“But I do have a dad,” I said.
She paused then and said nothing more about that or my dad until months later. We were in my room, talking about something related when I told/asked her. “You remember I had a dad, right?”
“Yes, but how come I never saw him before?”
“Well, because he, he died.”
“Why did he die?”
“He…(don’t say heart attack. don’t mention the prescription drugs. don’t say depression. but say SOMETHING…something she can understand...) He died from eating bad foods.”
“Oh,” she said before I could fix my very problematic death sentence.
She didn’t say anything then, but I knew she was trying to process all that I said and why food could make a person die and that I was possibly lying since she’s good at detecting those kinds of things.
“Where is he now?”
I said, "The sky, in heaven," since that’s where I like to imagine him.
I showed her a picture then, I think, and she smiled and that was that. Since that day we’ve talked about him a handful of times. And all the times we’ve talked, I haven’t cried. I haven’t felt bad or like I’m living in the past. In fact, I feel like talking about my dead dad with my daughters has been a healing for me, allowing me to focus not on the bad and grief of his death but the redemptive aspect of that.
Friday (6/6/1956) was my dad’s birthday. Yes, he’s dead, but if he were alive he would be 58 today. In honor of his birthday, I said something to my daughters about my dad, their grandpa, on the morning of his birthday.
“My dad played in band.”
“Yeah, he did. Want to hear his song?”
She did. So we listened to my dad’s first (and only) “hit” song, recorded when he was in a group he started in high school called Faze-O. It, or the song, is "Riding High” and for longest time I thought that meant riding a purple van through wispy pink clouds.
I think if I really thought about why my dad, who was 21 when he recorded that song, wanted to ride a purple van through wispy pink clouds, I would have realized my blunder. But that’s just the thing. When I was a child, I never thought about my parents as anything or anyone but my parents.
Even up until his death (I was 25 at the time), I never imagined my dad beyond the version that I chose to see through my very limited lens of who he was and was not in my childhood. If I had thought of my dad beyond “my dad,” perhaps I could have thought it cool that my dad was someone else beyond my dad, or beyond the very limited stock character “dad” that I had known of him in his life.
I didn’t get it then. But now, hearing it again at 31, I got it, or what “riding high” meant and that made me feel cool, because once upon a time my dad was cool enough to “ride high.” My daughters may not have gotten all of this from that song, but they did at least get the latter or that he was cool and by default, so am I and so are they because we’re related.
So that he’s dead and no longer here ceases to be relevant in that moment because it’s not really relevant at all. Who he was, I realized, is who I choose to remember him. I choose to remember him by this song and all the other pieces of his life that spoke to the larger portrait of his human-ness. His secret life that really wasn’t a secret, just not known by me, is what I will remember along with the good parts of what I knew as the truth of him as a child. I’ll remember him as my dad, my dad with, among other things, a one hit wonder that has been re-dubbed by new members (according to their Facebook page, the new members of Faze-O continue to tour), sampled in 81 songs, and made into videos on Youtube.
“That’s your dad?”
“Yep. That’s my dad, your grandpa.”
Jessica F. Hinton is a writer and photographer living in the Washington, DC metropolitan area with her husband and three daughters. She writes about writing, motherhood, photography, and her year-long commitment to being more courageous on her blog, www.jessicafhinton.com. Follow her on twitter @jessicafhinton.
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