I wrote this while riding the train from New York to Maine on Monday, November 2nd, 2020. My father passed away four days later.
My dad has been preparing me for the day of his death since I was a very young child. I was born in 1975 and my parents were 31 and 41 years old respectively the day that I came into the world. Nowadays, new parents in their 30’s and 40’s are very common. But back then and in the rural New England town where I grew up, it was strange. It was another painfully obvious trait that set me apart from other kids. (The others things being having a weird name and coming from a country most people couldn’t find on a map.) I had parents the same age as most of my friend’s grandparents.
My dad would often half-jokingly/half threateningly say to me, “I may not be alive to see you graduate,” or “I’ll be dead before you [fill in the blank with some common life milestone].” When I was very little, this scared me because I didn’t know how to live a life without a father. I’ve never really understood why he felt the need to keep reminding me that he could be gone at any moment nor why he did it with such easy nonchalance.
As I grew up and became an independent and bold teenager, our relationship became more combative. It bothered me less to imagine not having him around – or at least it enlivened me to see a day when he would not be in charge of my everyday life. My father was a serious man who could blanket our house with his foul moods for weeks if not months. We never knew why; we would just wait for the anger to break, like cautiously watching the horizon for the edge of a storm. One day we would wake up and the air would be palpably lighter. Suddenly, it was okay to open the refrigerator or turn on the television. We could speak out loud without fear of offending the quiet of his home. We never knew what changed when he stopped being miserable. But we knew to not get too comfortable and we waited anxiously for that darkness to re-emerge because it always did.
I was bright and popular and seriously interested in having a normal American social life. My siblings, by contrast, were shy and reclusive. My parents were completely unprepared for me. It was at though my very being threatened the meticulous balance of my father’s household and so we fought constantly. One time, I ran away and lived with a friend and he called and left a message on their machine saying he changed the locks to our house so don’t bother trying to come back. After one particularly impressive yelling match, he ordered me to pack a bag and leave and when that didn’t happen fast enough, he threw my things out into the snow and turned the porch lights off. I stood at the end of our long gravel driveway in complete darkness with sleet pelting my cheeks and I got in the first car that stopped for my outstretched thumb.
At age 17, I moved out of my father’s house. My relationship with him improved with every year that I was able to show my ability to be self-sufficient and prove that despite his fear of my rebellious spirit, I would actually become a successful adult. But we have never been traditionally close like some parents are with their children. I love and respect him but I would never call him and just chat about things. We never developed that kind of friendship that seems to evolve for so many people when they become adult aged children. I think when you learn to not trust a parent to be a source of comfort as a child, it becomes impossible to create that kind of connection as an adult. I’m not angry or hurt by that. I’m fine. It’s who I am. But, I never gave up trying to make him proud of me or prove myself to him.
I went into contract on my first home in February this year – a studio apartment in the West Village in a mid-century high rise with a view of the Hudson River. When COVID hit, my plans to purchase went up in the air along with the future of the business I run and, well, everything in the world for the foreseeable future. My biggest disappointment about the sale possibly not happening was not being able to tell my father that I finally did it; I finally did something huge that I was sure would show him I am actually capable of taking care of myself. I had it all planned that he would be the first person in the family I would tell. I would FaceTime from the empty apartment the day I signed the papers and got the keys.
On July 1, 2020, despite all the odds, I did exactly that.
My mother called me today. She said, “Daddy is dying.”
I don’t want to write about the details of his last weeks, but it seems inevitable now. He is 86 and his body is failing him. My father’s death is no longer a dark threat that he would tease me with as a way to keep me prepared for the inevitable future. It is a very real now.
Because of COVID, I’m not sure if I will be able to see him before he goes. I got a rapid antigen test so I could board a train that will take me to the closest town that Amtrak can bring me to that will be near enough to the hospital that someone can pick me up. It will be an unremarkable town in southern Maine with one hospital and one high school and a main street punctuated by a large building that was probably once a paper mill. The streets will be unnaturally quiet and most of them will be named after trees or dead presidents.
I have lived in New York City longer than I ever lived in Maine. The city is my real home and I have not left it since the pandemic began. It is the opposite of Maine in every way – loud, abrasive and full of millions of people who don’t look the same. For months I did not leave my apartment. I have been hesitant to imagine travel during the time of COVID, but I certainly did not wish for my first trip using public transport to be back to the state I gleefully fled as a teenager.
It is with undeniable shame that a part of me is grateful for the excuse of COVID to possibly miss the moment of my father’s passing because I don’t know if I can handle it. You would think I would be more than prepared at this point. He has told me this time would come and he was not wrong.
My father jumped on boats in shark infested waters surrounding the tiny island where he was born in the Philippines because he wanted to see something new. He has survived cancer more than once. He served in the US Navy for twenty years and worked as a civilian at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for 30+ years after that. He refused to quit his job even though he was well past retirement age because he swore that that would be the day that he would die – the day he stopped working.
He has stubbornly proceeded through life with a hard head and a tougher heart and survived everything through sheer will. Annoying tenacity is something I inherited from him. It’s helped me achieve everything I have. And yet, I sit here typing these words because despite all his warnings of this day’s coming, I don’t know how to say goodbye. I don’t want to. I’m not ready.