I thought I’d be okay. After all, it’s been nearly three weeks since he passed. But I couldn’t make myself open even one of the letters. They were written on his signature yellow legal-pad paper. As I stared down at the pile, I could see the backward-slanting, strangely beautiful writing through the folded paper. I know his writing won’t be much easier to read once I open the paper and peer at the forward-slanting, always first-written inked words: “Dear Liesl”.
My dad wrote to me every single week when I was in Army basic training. He never missed, no matter how tired, how busy, or even how deeply into the evening’s cocktails he was. I can envision him sitting in his dimly lit office at his desk and next to his microscope (He was a pathologist.). He’d have a pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth, and his eyebrows would be raised as he started every sentence with a slight shake of his pen in the air just before the nib hit the paper. My siblings and stepmother know this move. Maybe he’d be writing at the dining room table just after breakfast. The pipe would be traded for a clove cigarette, and he’d be sipping a quickly cooling cup of black coffee while classical music played in the background. I can smell the room in which he sat right now, whether it was morning or evening. It’s good to sit there with him for a few moments in my mind.
Perhaps he was so dedicated to writing the letters because he, too, had been through the Army’s basic training, and knew the loneliness and often-felt fear a young person can feel in the same situation. But he was an officer in basic training, and regularly reported that he didn’t find it that difficult, since the drill sergeants in officer’s training weren’t nearly as hard as the ones in enlisted training (where I was). Maybe his memories of basic weren’t quite as vivid or harsh as mine. But still, he wrote. Perhaps he found writing his weekly experiences to be cathartic and peaceful. Could it be that writing them gave him the same joy that receiving his letters gave to me during those difficult days?
Or maybe, my dad wrote to me because he loved me – his firstborn daughter, the one for whom he’d saved her unique name, while the first five years brought his four sons. He wanted to show his support by tossing a literary safety net my way. He knew I was doing something very important on many levels: I was serving my country. I was doing what I loved to do. I was representing women and their excellence. I was stepping into the giant, historically all-male shoes of the military position I had won, the job that sent me to basic training in the first place.
My dad was proud of me.
It is hard for me to read those words. Don’t ask me to say them out loud without tears welling in my eyes. As I write this, I feel a terrible aching in the invisible part of the body that anybody who has ever felt grief knows so well.
I don’t remember the words he wrote over 21 years ago in those letters. I’m guessing they start out with the usual greeting, then go immediately into how the weather was in his current week, followed by the forecast for the upcoming days and weeks. That’s how the telephone calls always went. I wish now I’d called him more often, even though it was hard to strike up a conversation with a man who was suffering from the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease on top of his declining cardiac functions.
Yesterday, I spent some time going through photographs in search of any image of Dad. My niece is collecting them to show at his funeral reception at the end of the month. As I looked at the images looking back at me, I saw the fun loving eyes of the man I’ve forgotten so much about. My father was handsome. He also had the same cutting blue eyes that I and my brother John and my son have. Going from picture to picture, I realized just how much life my father had lost over the past ten years as his body deteriorated. He got old so fast, it now seems. If it wasn’t for the eyes, I almost wouldn’t know the face. My father used to be so vivacious, so full of jokes, and so full of shit, that I don’t remember many adult evenings spent together that weren’t really hilarious at some point. We did do a lot of laughing. To be honest, I loved making him laugh hysterically.
In his final days, I made sure I told him how much it meant to me that he came to my retirement ceremony, especially during a raging pandemic. I’m extremely ecstatic that he brought a new member to our family with my stepmother, Christina.
But I wonder if he knew how proud I was of him. I don’t remember if I told him. I’m still in disbelief that he is gone. I wish I hadn’t let the time grow between phone calls. I wish I knew that he’s doing okay wherever he is. I hope he wasn’t scared as he passed over to the other side.
It feels strange now that both of my parents have passed away. I think my brother Andrew said it best when he said that we (my brothers, sister and I) are what’s left. “We” never sounded stronger to me. I have so much to process with my father’s death, both good and bad. I have to do some more work before I can open the letters. But I’m up for the challenge. I feel myself leaning gently towards the fog and pain of grief. I know the messiness is inevitable.
I’m trying to make sense of the lesson I’m currently learning. I know it’s going to take a while, maybe even months or years, before the light bulb shines bright. For now, writing helps me. Maybe someone else reading this can identify with something, and can find some solace knowing they are not alone. Community, on any level, is powerful, after all. We’ve been missing a lot of togetherness in the world – in our worlds.
I suspect that that’s a big part of the lesson.
Taking small steps, but steps, nonetheless