The last time I saw my father alive I was 22 years old and working at the Metropolitan Opera. I wasn't making much money but that is a relative statement, given that I had an apartment in Manhattan instead of a double-wide in mid-Michigan, like most of my childhood friends. It was the first time I truly believed I was not just getting out but staying out of the poverty that haunted our family tree.
The phone call came on a Tuesday while I was at work. This was long before I learned not to answer calls from numbers I didn't recognize. It was a hospital. My father had fallen and broken his back, and since he lived alone, no one had found him for 24 hours. He was still alive, somehow, when a cleaning lady discovered him at the bottom of the stairs and called 911. The hospital social worker found my phone number in his wallet. It was the only number of any kind that he had on him.
He was ready to be released, and they needed next of kin to sign him out. He wasn't going to be able to live on his own any longer and needed full-time care. As calmly and quietly as I could in a performance hall renowned for its excellent acoustics, I tried to explain that I lived 700 miles away and was in no financial or logistical (not to mention emotional) position to do any of those things.
The hospital really didn't care. It just had to be done. Medicaid wouldn't cover his stay much longer.
I gave him the name of the pastor of the church my father attended, the same man who rented my father his apartment. I also gave him the names of my father's three younger sisters. Surely one of them would rise to the occasion. Hanging up the call, I hurried out the stage door as calmly as I could. I hoped to experience my very first panic attack outside my place of work, not within it.
What exactly was my responsibility as a daughter? Is anyone so terrible that they deserve to die alone? And what would it say about me if I were willing to let that happen?
I was in utero when my mother left my father. Her one great moment of bravery was defying the Baptist church and walking out on her abusive husband with a two-year-old and a half-done bun in the oven. I think she relied so heavily on her backbone in that moment that she was never able to stand up for herself again.
I never got the full story on why my parents got together in the first place. I knew they met in the singles group at church after they discovered they had both attended Bob Jones University. I knew my mother wasn't entirely sure about marrying him, but my grandmother told her she was 26 and that this was her one shot at getting married. I also knew my father was the kind of person who made sure everyone knew he had two masters degrees, spoke five languages, and had spent three years in West Africa in the Peace Corps back in the '70s, where he had two pet chimpanzees and grew his beard out in his one on-trend moment. He was tall and rather dashing, if you didn't know him, of course, and he had a way with winning people over on the first conversation.
But five years later, after he'd isolated my mother by taking her 2,000 miles away from her friends and family, and after the emotional abuse spilled over into physical abuse as well, it was clear that, despite the church's opinion, divorce was preferable to a life with him.
The stack of paperwork my mother kept from the divorce included a letter from a court psychologist who had ruled him a clinical sociopath and not fit for custody. It described him as "immature, self-indulgent, hostile, manipulating others to his own end, and resentful of any situation that requires him to take personal responsibility." It went on for another two pages: "Long-term relationships will tend to be superficial and unsatisfying. Suspiciousness, hostility, and a feeling that he is being mistreated can be expected. In response to increased stress, he is likely to exhibit violent outbursts of tempter and threats of punishment." My grandmother, with whom we lived after my mother left my father, often confirmed that diagnosis with a half-dozen anecdotes told on loop to demonstrate his flawed character, though it was hard to tell, sometimes, if she placed more blame on him, for his behavior, or herself, for orchestrating the marriage in the first place.
At first, my father's visitation rights were limited to supervised visits in the nursery at our church, with a pastor present for the day. But he petitioned the court for more time and after a year or two, they granted him two weekends a month at his apartment in Flint. Given the testimony of the court psychologist, I'm not sure why the judge ever believed he was to be trusted with small children, or why his one-bedroom apartment was deemed suitable for overnights with two girls, but that was the decision. He moved apartments twice more, but never anywhere more spacious, so my sister and I continued to share a bed that unfolded from the living room couch, puberty be damned. In these close quarters, he crossed a line when I was still a child. I'm not prepared to explain the details of the assault. But suffice it to say that he knew better than to repeat the offense as I grew old enough to fight back.
The summer before I turned 13, my father got pretty gnarly brain cancer and told me and my sister to fuck off, though he used the Christian phrasing. And then he survived brain cancer and lived another 19 years. So that was awkward.
But my sister and I held him to his word and happily fucked off. He stopped showing up for visitations and we didn't remind him. My sister saw him once more, when he crashed her high school graduation, and then had nothing to do with him. She lives in Nashville now and has two toddlers. She's pretty great at compartmentalizing things, and that compartment was sealed in 1995.
I didn't shed him as easily. After he showed up at my high school graduation, I figured I was done with him, too. But as I stretched into my grown-up self in college, I had to confront some frustrating truths. Many of the things I loved most about myself I inherited from him: my height, my sense of adventure, my curiosity.
There was also the reckoning that comes around that age when you realize two things: one, your parents are just people, and nobody is a saint and nobody is a sinner and everybody is somewhere in between; and two, memories from ages four through 12 aren't necessarily the most reliable record, and perhaps not everything was as I remembered it.
So I wrote him a letter. I figured the man survived five tumors on his brain and two on his spinal cord and so I should carpe-fucking-diem and ask my questions while I could. I asked him how badly he abused my mother when they were married, as though there might be a degree that could be palatable. I asked if my memories of sexual abuse were real or just a confabulation after years of therapy or whatever. I asked why he dropped us like a hot potato upon his cancer diagnosis. I actually mailed it.
When the response arrived in my campus mailbox my nervous system went white hot. There was a ringing in my right ear and my eyes refused to focus. I also felt ashamed. I hadn't told my grandmother or mom that I was writing him, and this felt like I was switching sides in our civil war. What if what he had to say was reasonable? What if his actions were defensible and it was my grandmother and mother who were the unreliable narrators in this story?
I ghost-walked through the rest of the day—a cryptography midterm, choir rehearsal, and a meeting with the theater company I ran. It felt like racing to the end of a novel you know will devastate you but you have to finish anyway.
My pulse was skittering as I unfolded the handwritten pages and spread them out on my desk. There were seven altogether, a mix of looseleaf and copier paper, with three different colors of ink and a range of qualities to the penmanship. It had been edited, with large paragraphs circled and connected to other places via red squiggly arrows and whole sentences scratched out with replacements provided in superscript. It was in English, but it was not cogent.
I extrapolated as much as I could, but he provided very few answers. He did admit to having a bad temper and an occasional violent streak, but in a twisty way that accepted no responsibility and offered no apology. He skipped the questions of sexual impropriety altogether, and placed the blame for ending our relationship circa his cancer diagnosis entirely on my sister and me. He may have been right on that final point. I was livid nonetheless. I put the letter in a drawer and tried to forget about it.
A month later a package arrived. It had an envelope of pictures with my name on it and one for my sister. The photos were mostly from our visitations with him in the late 1980s, some of which I had seen before but many I had not. He also included a few from his time in Côte d'Ivoire and of his pet chimpanzees. Turning them over I discovered he had provided third-person captions for each, written in parallel in English, French, and Spanish.
I replied with a short note of thanks but neglected to repeat my unanswered questions, and was surprised to get an envelope in return just a few days later. It was thin this time, just a single tri-folded page: a copy of the receipt from Walgreens where he had printed the photos. He was requesting reimbursement.
I no longer had the energy to be angry. I didn't reply and the mail stopped coming. I put everything in a filing cabinet and decided I would forget about him.
Outside the Met, I emailed his eldest sister from my flip phone while I shivered: If she would figure out how to get him into a nursing home he could afford, I would fly back to Michigan and pack up his apartment. She agreed.
Three days later, I landed in Detroit and drove my rental car the 70 miles to Flint. It was snowing and I was an inexperienced driver, having delayed getting my license until college and then moved to a city with exceptional public transportation. As I inched along, I was sure I would either pass out or vomit. Twenty minutes from his apartment I pulled over and did the latter.
As I approached the apartment, I felt a sense of strangely comforting panic. Any questions I had about the reliability of my memory was gone. What my brain may have forgotten my body very clearly remembered.
The pastor let me in, and I automatically started to climb the stairs. He called up to me with a warning: Your father wasn't in his right mind in the end, so it won't look like you remember. I nodded silently and ventured upward, opening the door slowly, unsure of anything anymore.
Stacks of books, videotapes, and boxes covered the floor. These makeshift stalagmites nearly reached the ceiling in places and were meticulously organized by color or category, some alphabetized, others by size. Nearly every item was duplicated, sometimes in pairs, others with a dozen copies. Each photo featured third-person captions on the back in multiple languages; every VHS tape was still in its shrink-wrapping. The refrigerator held a dozen unopened bottles of ketchup. The hall closet contained five boxes of laundry detergent and eight tubes of toothpaste. Whatever money my father once had had been spent at the dollar store.
And on the walls, on the cheap wood-like paneling, was a handmade three-foot-tall, multi-panel comic strip featuring African animals cut out from National Geographic magazines, talking to each other in hand-drawn speech bubbles, telling the Gospel story of salvation in shaky magic marker. And above this piece of low-budget Post Modern art was a dot-matrix banner proclaiming "AFRICA NEEDS JESUS!"
In his bedroom, I scooped up some sweaters and shoes, tossing them in a shiny black trash bag. In went a few books, the contents of his medicine cabinet, his spare pair of glasses, and a drawer full of underwear. Knotting the bag I spotted a collage on the wall, a black panel a bit larger than a sheet of legal paper with dancing figures comprised of shells and beads. Next to it was a crude musical instrument, somewhere between a ukulele and a mandolin. On the back of both were inscribed the words "Central African Empire, 1978." I grabbed both and fled the apartment, barely shutting the car door before skidding out of the driveway. They could torch the rest of it for all I cared.
Pulling up to the nursing home, I leaned out the door to vomit one more time.
The air inside was curdling with a stench that had likely been trapped inside for the last decade. There were only a dozen residents, all with mental illnesses. I later learned it was one of the few facilities in the area that took Medicaid patients. My father had become a ward of the state.
Lugging the black plastic bag behind me, I tracked down a nurse, Shelly. This is for my father. It's his things. No need to use his name, he was the only male resident. Shelly insisted I bring it to him myself. He hadn't had any visitors since they picked him up from the hospital. She had wondered where his family was. I was mute.
Shelly led me into the common room where a bald man with an unruly beard sat in an easy chair. His glasses were so thick his eyes were doubled in size. He lifted his head; a strand of saliva stretched southward from the corner of his mouth as he met my gaze. There was no flicker of recognition. He slumped back down.
I brought you some things. Clothes, some books, your other glasses.
I didn't know what else to say. Remember me? The daughter you molested? Do I look a little like my mother did at this age, just a few years before you started hitting her? Do you realize you're here, alone, because you've alienated literally every person who has ever known you? How's the chocolate pudding?
Instead I stood there suffering in silence, willing myself not to cry. He met my gaze once again. Do I know you? He said. You seem familiar, but I can't place you. I had brain cancer, and my memory isn't so great anymore.
I shook my head no. No, I'm just delivering some of your things. You don't know me. I actually need to go now.
Wait, he said. My family should be here any moment. You should meet them. I have two daughters, in the 7th and 9th grade. They are really smart, though the little one is kinda fat. I hope she grows out of it. Their mom might come too. But I hope they don't bring their god-awful grandmother. She's a real bitch. Don't know how her husband puts up with that woman. I'd have socked her by now to shut her up.
I felt my fists ball up and anger wash over me. I needed to leave immediately. I didn't want to find out how much of my father I had in me.
Let me give you a hug, he said. Thank you for your help. My shitty family never helps. They probably don't even consider me family anymore.
He leaned forward and I froze. He smelled like I remembered. I could not decide what to do. Run? Spit in his face? Hug him back? I had forgotten how to make my body do anything. While I stood there, paralyzed, he kissed me on the lips. I staggered backward. He just laughed. I ran to my car, drove two blocks to the Tim Horton's, and sobbed in the parking lot.
It wasn't until I arrived back at the airport that I realized the collage and the instrument were still in the back seat. I didn't know what to do. They were relics of a country that existed for all of three years. I couldn't just trash them along with my half-drunk Diet Coke at the rental car return counter.
I took them back with me to New York and put them on a shelf. I did not tell my family about this trip.
Ten years later I am making my first cup of coffee to take back to bed with the Sunday New York Times when my phone lights up. A Facebook message from my aunt. One of my father's sisters.
I had accepted her Facebook friend request seven or eight years earlier—along with the request of my father's other living sister, both of their husbands, nine out of 15 cousins. I didn't know them, but it was the one communication channel I left open so I would know when my father died.
I glance at the screen. PLEASE CALL ME IMMEDIATELY. IT'S ABOUT YOUR FATHER. So it's going to be today then.
I call her while texting my sister an SOS. She'd sent me a similar one three years earlier when my grandmother was on her deathbed. I had been in the middle of a conference call with the board of my startup, acknowledging that we were on the brink of shutting down. As soon as I saw her text, I hung up the call without warning and grabbed my Go Bag, still packed from Hurricane Sandy, dialing her number while flagging down a taxi to the airport. She'll know this text is important.
My aunt meanders for a few minutes before I demand the short version of the story: He is in septic shock and on ventilators. Despite a 19-year lead-time on dying, he never made a will or outlined final wishes. She knows he doesn't want to be kept on machines, but she isn't next of kin. My sister and I are. We have to call the doctor and tell him to unplug the guy.
I have grown weary of being next of kin.
I call my sister next. Our father is forcing us to decide when he dies. He didn't bother to write down his final wishes at any point in the last two decades. Any issues with pulling the plug? Nope, she says. Great, I'll tell the doctor. He may call you to confirm you agree. Be sure to answer. I know how you screen unknown numbers.
I'm feeling eerily calm while I phone the doctor. Shouldn't this be harder? Shouldn't I be sad? When we made the decision for my grandmother my grief sliced me open from throat to gut. We'd slept on the floor in the hospital overnight, waiting to see if she would make it to morning. She was a strong-willed woman in many ways, much of it a coping mechanism to survive her own poverty, childhood abuse, and mental illness. But she stuck it out as her organs began failing her. So we held hands, my sister, mother, grandfather, and me, and we told the doctors to let her go.
This time my hands grip a coffee cup, and I issue the directive without tears. The doctor confirms my wishes and then says he'll call when my father has died, warning it could be anywhere from a few hours to half the day.
It's a beautiful Sunday in October, one of the last great days we'll have before winter sends us burrowing indoors. I decide to bike to Coney Island with the man I just started dating. He has no idea what he's in for today.
I probably should text my mom.
The day passes in a haze. Coney Island is a perfect distraction, and the new beau deals with the abbreviated story pretty well, though I can tell he has more questions than he feels comfortable asking. Instead he takes the opportunity to blurt out that he loves me, which is sweet, even we both know though it's not true. We get ice cream and change the subject.
Back in my apartment that night I try to go to sleep, but fail. As a champion sleeper, this is devastating. One of my three superpowers is the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep any time, anywhere. Unsure of what to do in this unfamiliar situation, I glance at my phone: I have a voicemail from an unknown number.
I'm sorry to leave this in a voicemail, but it's late and I wanted you to know immediately: your father has died.
Out of nowhere my heart cleaves in two, and I shudder through rolling sobs. I don't understand this wave of pain that washes over me. It physically hurts. I curl up in my bed and wail until there is no water left in my body to wring out through my eyes. And then just as abruptly, it ends, and I feel nothing. I fall asleep immediately.
The next day I get a series of messages from my aunt, asking if I want to participate in his funeral. Interwoven are suspicions he suffered from foul play and that we should bring a lawyer into this and sue the nursing home. I decline both counts. I want nothing further to do with him. She points out I have to sign some paperwork to authorize his post-funeral cremation, since he didn't leave behind enough money to fund a casket or burial. Not to worry, though, the funeral home has one we can rent for a few hours so he could still have an open-casket service.
Yes, because that's what I'm concerned about: the open casket.
I'm ambivalent about attending the funeral. It will be a double-whammy of judgmental proselytizing and obsequious deification of a shitty dead man. Plus I'd be attending alone. My maternal grandfather is in hospice, and will pass away himself just three months later. My mother half-heartedly volunteers to join me, but I decline: they'd been married all of five years and divorced for nearly 30. The statute of limitations on mandatory grieving has long since expired. My sister isn't interested.
No one will fault me for not attending. Except maybe me. I tell myself that by going I'll know how the story ends and can finally close the book, never to think of him again. And yet, here I am, writing this. Maybe the story is not actually about him.
I fly in from New York that morning and retrace the path to Flint, parking in the nearly empty funeral home lot and slipping in the back as quietly as I can. Unfortunately, I am not one to go unnoticed. At six feet tall in bare feet, I tower three inches higher in heels and stick out in head-to-toe black among the pastel sweaters and sports jerseys. Two dozen heads turn in my direction, only three of which I recognize: an aunt, an uncle, and the minister from my father's church. My aunt motions for me to come sit with them in the front. I shake my head and choose a seat in the last row, closest to the exit, with someone to block my view of the casket.
The preacher starts in on the wages of sin (spoiler alert: death) and then my aunt and uncle stand up with a guitar to lead the assembled in a rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross." I have to pinch the webbing between my fingers not to laugh at this turn of events: the same hymn was also sung at my grandmother's funeral three years prior and I'm not sure which of the two of them would have been more annoyed by this fact.
The anemic service wraps in under an hour. No one can really come up with any stories about his life that don't make him sound like a total dick so they cut the testimonial part short. And there's no procession to the graveyard because there won't be a burial, so the group disperses. I walk back to my car and return to Detroit, boarding my flight and ordering a whiskey ginger before realizing those were the first words I uttered all day. I guess there isn't much left to say.
As the plane takes off I unfriend and block every person from his side of the family.
I'm not sure if I feel peace or if I'm just buzzed, but I'm ready to close the compartment. I did my duty as a daughter and as a human. And I feel pretty strongly that I am at least 51 percent good, the mathematics of DNA be damned.
I text my sister as my plane touches down at LaGuardia.
She responds almost immediately: It is finished.
Yeah, the chapter he's in? It's done. I sink into the back seat of the cab and breathe a little easier.
Christina Wallace (opens in new tab) is an entrepreneur and writer living in Brooklyn. She is also the co-host of The Limit Does Not Exist (opens in new tab), a podcast on the Forbes network focused on the intersection of STEM and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at @cmwalla (opens in new tab).
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Christina Wallace is an entrepreneur and writer, living in Brooklyn. She is also the co-host of The Limit Does Not Exist, a podcast on the Forbes network focused on the intersection of STEM and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at @cmwalla.
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