This time last year I sat for days with my father in his room at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, recording his voice as he narrated the story of his life. “She’s helping me write my memoirs,” he quipped to the endless parade of nurses passing through to change the dressings on his legs, take his blood pressure, administer meds. It wasn’t the first time he’d been in one of these rooms, and it wasn’t going to be the last, but by then he was well known to the staff on the eighth floor, as well as their allies down in the ER and upstairs in the CCU, and they took my winking iPhone in stride.
My dad had actually started writing his life story a few years back, inspired in turn by a slim account written years before that by his father that traced his family history back to medieval Scotland, with a healthy degree of fancy. My grandfather, a prolific writer and a great fan of Trollope, wrote in the slyly satirical vein of the Barchester Chronicles, crossed with that of a genteel Talk of the Town columnist, circa 1935. My father’s voice, by contrast, was franker, less polished, but equally observant.
It was intimate there on the cardiac ward, listening to him talk, reminding him where he had left off before he’d been interrupted by lunch, or a visitor, or yet another wailing machine. I learned a lot of things I hadn’t known—facts about his younger life, such as the Navy days spent monitoring H-bomb tests in the South Pacific, and the trip he took to Italy with debonair Uncle Ned. But what really stuck with me was how very large his own dynamic father, who died in 1974, at sixty-five, the day after my sixth birthday, loomed over his story, even forty-one years later. It got me thinking about the power our fathers have to shape our own senses of self, and about the ways in which children try to seize some of that power for themselves.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fathers lately because, well, it’s Father’s Day, and because I have thought about my own every day since he died last September. And also because of the toxic fathers real and figurative shaping the public narrative these days—whether it’s the enabling papa of the Stanford rapist, or the abusive daddy who dominated his “family” at Chicago’s Profiles Theater, or the homophobic bosses of G4S, the national security complex that employed the Orlando shooter, or the hate-mongering bully who would be the next father of our country.
My father and I walked a rocky road at times. He could be difficult. Demanding. Bossy and infuriating. But I never once doubted that he loved me, and these days, choking in this polluted sea of patriarchy, I remember how gentle he was beneath the bombast and bluster. How he, himself, felt on some level unheard—by his father? Perhaps.
All last summer we passed transcripts of our hospital conversations back and forth through the ether, as I edited them down and then he added details he had forgotten in the moment. I haven’t yet been able to go back and listen to the tapes we made, and I haven’t finished cleaning up the text. But as he lay dying at home last fall, I read aloud the story of his life from those files. It seemed to soothe him to hear his words repeated back in his daughter’s voice. In the darkened room his restless legs calmed and his agitated mind grew quiet, and when, in time, he died I felt his stories cut loose with his last breath to fly into my chest and settle near my diaphragm, so that I could continue to breathe them in and out.
For better and worse we are our fathers, and they are us. It took me years to figure out how to hold my own with mine—to be able to listen to his stories and get him to truly hear my own, and I’ve found this personal struggle mirrored in my own halting attempts to enter the public conversations around toxic masculinity and privilege as well. I wrote a small piece about my father, and being heard, last summer, for The Rumpus’s Letters in the Mail, and I’m proud that in our almost-two years at the Sunday Rumpus, Zoe and I have published some potent stories about fathers and fathering by others.
If you have time this Father’s Day, we recommend turning back to Eiren Caffall’s wonderful May essay Through the Vitrine, about the loss of her own father when she was twenty-nine, and the foggy path she found through grief to understanding. In a similar vein, Amy Monticello’s powerful A New and Magical Life, which we published way back in 2014, rejected easy equivalencies as she pondered a surprise pregnancy in the wake of her father’s death.
Also this past year:
Ariel Gore, in Blood-Red Bouganvilleas, traced the legacy of male violence in her life from her father to the man who became the father of her child.
Andrew Higgins, in Admission of Guilt, took an unsparing look at the almost fatal consequences of his mistakes as a new father.
Ibi Zoboi contemplated the intersection of family history and rape culture in her searing Forgiving My Father, The Serial Rapist.
And way back in January 2015, Matthew Daddona uncovered startling paternal connections that resonated beyond time, space, and biology in Photos That Remember Us.
Last but not least, attention West Coasters! Sunday Rumpus co-editor Zoe Zolbrod is headed your way this week to celebrate the release of her memoir The Telling, a fearless and exquisitely crafted investigation of her childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a cousin and, among many things, a love letter to another complicated father-daughter bond. Look for her at upcoming events in Oakland, Portland, and Seattle.