Thirty-five years ago today my father died from the cancer that had taken over his body so much that I was not allowed to climb onto his bed because it would physically hurt.
I was four, and that is one of my two memories. The other is me sitting on the floor of our living room when it’s dark and a man in a trench coat and hat comes in the door, slips me a brown paper bag which I grab and run to my room. Inside the bag is the much-coveted paint with water book that I’ve been begging my mom for constantly, for which she has repeatedly rebuked my requests with the commonly heard, “we can’t afford it”. Dad brought it home and slipped it to me when she said no.
That’s all I got in the way of memories, but what I have are The Tapes.
See, my father had the presence of mind all those years ago to grab an old cassette recorder and a pack of Memorex and talk as long and as often as he could about life, for his kids.
I discovered them on a hunting trip through my mother’s dresser once when I was in grammar school. (She had all sorts of treasures in there, with stories behind them that you’d never hear if you didn’t bug her about this ring, or that Miraculous Medal or this Navy dog-tag or those pictures of her in the fancy clothes.)
I have listened to the tapes countless times over the years, hearing something different every time. When I was young, I mostly heard the voice of Joe Paterno. Weird, as Joe’s from Brooklyn and my dad was from Pennsylvania mining country, but that gravelly, take-no-shit voice resonated with me at age 7, so that I’ve always been an inexplicable cheerleader for Penn State Football even though I’ve never set foot in Happy Valley.
When I was a teenage girl who hated her mother, as teenage girls are apt to do, I heard in those tapes my dad refer to me as his baby and that was enough to get me through feeling like I was all alone in the world. (You’re meant to read that in an overly dramatic teenage girl voice.)
When I was a young women who was projecting a lot more confidence than I felt, I heard him speak about feeling just the same way-unsure, undeserving and scared that the more he achieved the more he could just screw the whole thing up. Knowing I came from that kind of stock made me feel like I wasn’t so crazy after all. It also showed that you can beat your thoughts, and live a pretty good life. At least until the cancer comes.
When you live most of your life without a father, there are things that just plain suck. But because of those tapes, because he had the mind to leave us something behind, I feel like I didn’t miss out on everything. Not only did they help me to know my dad, but listening to them also prompted me to, over the years, start conversations with my mom I may not have had the courage or desire to start.
In essence, my father dying helped me to know both my parents that much better. In an effort to find gratitude on a day that still makes me very, very sad, I can honestly say I’m grateful for that.
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