I spent April 7 as I always do: with animals. Since 2002, I’ve always tried to find a way to spend that day at the zoo or aquarium, and I have only missed a few. My father loved zoos, and I have many happy memories of visiting monkey houses and polar bear pools with him. April 7, 2001 was the day he died.
Aprils in Oregon are a strange time. One can guess the phrase “April showers bring May flowers” originated here. Sometimes a bit of blue peeks out from the clouds, but usually there is grey and rain.
But my father died in Georgia, and it was beautiful that day. The dogwoods were in bloom. The afternoon of April 7 was a sunny day, not that you could tell from the ICU.
Afterwards, after talking to hospital officials and social workers, we had to stop at the grocery store. No food in the house. At the Publix deli counter, picking up meat, I wondered if I had some outward sign of what had just happened, a brand on my forehead? I thought about saying something to the clerk.
I did not.
They tell you it gets easier, and it does. Milestones are tough; “big” anniversaries, like five and ten years, are tough. The pain grows less keen, the nightmares start to dwindle. This year, in particular, has seen most of my emotional energy spent elsewhere, on other deaths.
Thirteen, on its own, isn’t particularly significant, nor is the year 2014. Dad would have been 72 this year, which isn’t particularly interesting. I think he would have liked Captain America and its sequel, so there’s that, I suppose.
And yet I find myself thinking about this anniversary in a way I did not think about twelve years. Thirteen years is a teenager, after all. In just five years, the amount of time I knew my father and the amount he has been gone will be the same. And then in six years, the imbalance will begin.
No one really tells you about that. The sharpness of those unimportant years. What twelve or thirteen might mean, their insignificance stacking up against five, ten, fifteen.
Daddy was a friend to animals and small children. Always patient, always a kind word, a smile. He loved the zoo. He would walk through the reptile house with me while Mom sat outside.
In 2002, I had to do something to mark the anniversary. I was living in Nebraska then, not sure what to do. I talked my friends into a road trip; we made the long trek to Wisconsin, to where I had lived as a little girl, to where Dad is buried. It was spring break, luckily, and we stayed with my aunt. It was 32 degrees that day, and we froze as we wandered around. And then it rained as we drove back through Iowa.
The first time I really saw Portland, in 2007, was to go to the zoo on April 7. Another friend agreed to drive me and go with me. Previously, I had only seen Portland from the windows of airport shuttle buses. Here it was in its green tree glory. It rained then, too. I had an elephant ear for the first time. Dad would have enjoyed the fried dough monstrosity.
In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers mentions how happy he is when he can start saying his parents died “a few winters ago.” Not so raw. I hoped I’d take comfort in that, too.
But “last year, five years,” these are numbers people understand. What is 13? How painful should that be? Does it hurt more or less than ten? This single event has colored every part of my adult life. Is there a year where that stops? A new color takes over?
Of course it does not stop.
Like many families, my mother bought the gifts. Once I was a teen, Dad specifically started picking out a few presents to give me. One year for Christmas he got me a South Park shirt. (He did a wicked Mr. Hanky impression.) Another year, a shirt with sharks on it. I know longer have those shirts and I have no idea what happened to them. I did not care then. I did not think to care those years.
At some point, maybe in 2004, I had to surrender a pocket knife he’d given me to the TSA. Not only had I forgotten it was in my bag, the knife had made it through security at another airport. If I didn’t surrender it (that is, if I tried to find a way to check it or mail it), I’d miss my flight. I had school.
Its loss has been important to me than the knife itself. I rarely thought of the knife or used it when I had it. Now I think about it occasionally. Usually to beat myself up. “How could you have been so foolish?!” I had it for years and I’ve not had it for more. Which are the unimportant years?
I wish I had those shirts. I wish I had that knife. I wish I hadn’t wasted my time with my dad. I never got to know him as a person. I don’t know how much of that is my fault versus just being a normal teenager. Those issues seemed so unimportant at the time, a mixture of thinking one’s parents will always be around and thinking their personhood didn’t matter.
This isn’t to end on a note of “You should love your parents!!!! They won’t always be around!!!!” How I hate the (counter)argument, “Well, at least you have a mom/dad.” Family is complicated. And so is time. Often we cannot tell what is important and what is not until much after the fact, when it is too late to act.