Since my dad passed two years ago a great many things have changed. Most of these differences have nothing to do with my dad or his death. In some ways that makes his absence that much more surreal. In the uncharted country of time yet to come, my lack of a father rarely seems to have any measurable impact on the world around me.
Inside my head it is a different story.
When I was really young and (thanks to my OCD) I was unavoidably preoccupied with the possibility of my father’s death. He was always working, commuting over the hill to San Jose and then San Francisco for almost three decades. On top of the daily grind he often went on ‘press checks’ and as a child it seemed to me that if he was not in a car, he was on a plane.
Always out of my sight and beyond my control.
I would have episodes where I just couldn’t stand the thought of him up in the air in something so flimsy as an airplane. He was, of course, totally at ease with the traveling process and had a hard time understanding my anxiety. He would patiently explain to me that air travel was nothing to worry about, statistically you are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport than in a crash.
This did absolutely nothing to ease my fears. In fact, it made me burst out in tears. He drove everyday! (Those who have driven with him know that much of the time these drives were preformed at warp speed.) I became totally convinced that before I hit double digits, my dad would die in a fiery car/plane crash.
Ever the logical problem solver, my dad decided to approach this problem from a different angle. He pointed out that anytime we were not in direct contact, wether it be separated by just a single door or a thousand miles, the part of him that lives inside of me is still just as real. He said that when he died (an eventuality he did not deny or diminish) my internal thoughts, memories and love of him would not be changed by the outward lack of his body.
This was an argument I could not counter and I derived a great deal of comfort from this line of reasoning. I was used to my dad not being around physically. For many years of my life, my mom was alone in her daily parenting. My dad was off, affording us the pleasure of having a stay at home mom.
I still couldn’t get my head around accepting the concept of a world without him that was any shade of OK. So I changed tactics. I told him that it makes me sad because if he dies it will hurt him and I didn’t want him to be in pain (insert fresh outburst of tears.) He smiled and told me not to worry about that part either; it’s just like being a lizard in the middle of the road.
This was a confusing statement, even for him.
He continued; to the lizard sunning itself in the middle of the road the event of an oncoming car can have a few outcomes. One, the middle of the car passes over the lizard and the lizard is aware of a large shadow that comes, covers and is gone just as quick. Then it goes back to sunning itself, maybe now postulating theories about The Great Shadow.
The second option is that the tires of the car smash the lizard, ending it’s scaly little life. In this event the experience of the lizard is not painful, one moment there is sun and the next nothing (or lizard heaven if you like.)
I was still not quite following how plane crashes and lizard roadkill were related.
He concluded that when he died, the experience for him would (probably) not be anything for me to feel badly about. I would be left with the bits of him I always carry with me, just like an extended press check of sorts. He took it one step farther and explicitly instructed me not to feel sad, that even if he died tomorrow (twenty some years before it would actually happen) he had lived a good, happy life and was at peace with it being over.
This conversation, in our sunlit kitchen in the redwoods over two decades ago has been with me often recently. I am every grateful that we had these difficult and uncomfortable talks while we had the time to do it. Even more bizarre is how his particular death was sudden and unexpected just like the sunning lizard.
Recently, I have take on a job north of us. I now have a commute similar to the one my dad preformed for so many years. Over the mountains and through the woods. I have time with the Dennis I keep inside of me, I replay moments like the one I have detailed above. Most importantly I take the time to look around and enjoy the journey, something my dad always highlighted as a perk of his daily routine.
Separated by time and thousands of miles we travel through god’s country together. His death did not diminish our relationship it only gave it perspective. I understand him better now than I did before and it was in such moment that I looked up to the trees blurring past me and saw a bald eagle, sitting there watching the cars go past the lake.
I promptly pulled over and turned around, camera always at the ready (again, thanks internal dad) I snapped a few shots right as it took wing.
I had a second where I wished my dad could have seen it and then I realized that I don’t know with any certainty he didn’t.
I know I will always miss him, like I always have when he’s not around. I am grateful for the moments we truly listened to one another. It would be nice to tell him all that has happened. In a way he already knows because now, I do the knowing for both of us.