You’re going to have to speak at his funeral, you know. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t, but there is no one else, and besides, these aren’t normal circumstances.
You shouldn’t have smiled.
Your father was a good man and had been as long as you could remember. Your mother used to like telling you of the days when he was not, but you were still very young when the change had come over him and remember nothing of before.
“Do your best to love others, and you shouldn’t have any regrets.”
That’s your first memory of him, although there must be hundreds of them merged together to form it. In the memory you actually have, he was sitting in his favorite blue recliner reading the newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee before he went to work and you went to school. He had on a flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows, a pair of thick black work pants with brown boots below them, and even though his hair was still dark then, he was already rapidly balding. You stood in the hallway watching him and he looked up from his newspaper, noticing you finally. He sat his coffee aside and folded up the paper, then called you over to him. Something about him frightened you, but you obeyed. He picked you up and sat you in his lap, staring at you with his brown eyes, stern and with a gravity he couldn’t possibly expect you to understand, yet did.
“Do your best to love others, and you shouldn’t have any regrets,” he said.
You nodded, then he nodded and sat you back down.
Over the years his clothes differed, his hair grayed and receded, the circumstances changedâ€”in the lap, across the table, a weekend visit, a phone callâ€”but the words and the voice never did. When you saw them, the eyes were always the same, too, but you preferred not to.
He never judged you, though. Certainly not out loud, and you didn’t think he even did so in his thoughts. For all of your problems growing up, he cast no stones and pointed out no splinters his neighbor’s (or progeny’s) eye. But then he didn’t have to. When you stood next to him, the judgments were bound to come from others, and you would always be found wanting.
“How on earth are you his child?” their eyes would ask.
“Is that really Frank’s kid?” they would whisper.
But not him. His eyes commanded you to love and live without regret, and that was all.
He always tried to live up to his words. Driving home from a football game with him, you had stopped at a Whataburger. There was a man in the parking lot begging for money to fix his car so that he could make it to the first day of work. The story was more complicated than that, but you remember knowing it was ridiculous and wondering how the man could possibly expect anyone to buy it.
“Okay,” your father said, “What time do you have to be there?”
“Six-thirty,” the man said, as stunned, no doubt, as you were.
“I have to be at work at seven. I can’t give you money to fix your car, but if you’d like, I can take you to work until you earn enough to get it taken care of.”
The man tried to ask for just a little moneyâ€”five dollars, ten dollars, whatever your father could spareâ€”but eventually agreed and worked out a plan as to where and when he would be waiting to be picked up. Then your father bought the man a burger meal and drove him to his home, the same place he was to pick up the man the next morning.
He drove there the next morning at six o’clock and waited for over half an hour, but the man never came.
“He probably found another ride,” your father said when your mom asked him about it that night, “but I made it to work early so I really ought to thank him.” And he laughed.
As far as you knew, he never saw the man or spoke of the event again, but then your father was known for such things, anyway.
Everyone remembered the Sunday a crazy black guy, shaking and smelling of all things foul came into church requesting money for food. He was very skinny, but it was obvious a lack of food wasn’t his biggest problem. Out of guilt and an embarrassed desire to get the man to leave, some people started pulling out their wallets or digging through their purses, but your father got up and offered to take the man to the grocery store, an offer the man agreed to. Another man got up to go with your father, and together the three of them went to the local Walgreens.
Originally, it was just a loaf of bread, but the list quickly exploded into a shopping cart full of canned goods, frozen dishes, and hygienic products, your father footing the bill for all of it. They drove the black man back to his home across town from where he had earlier walked and helped him unload his things.
Upon return to church, the service was already over, and other fellow who’d gone with your father had told everyone gathered outside about the whole adventure.
“And I don’t know why you wasted all of that money on him, Frank,” he said at the end, “You know if he doesn’t turn around and sell it for crack money, he’ll just let it all spoil.”
“Yeah, maybe,” your father said, “But if he does, he’ll regret not eating the food later, and I still won’t regret buying it for him.”
And everyone nodded.
Later, your father had confided in your mother and you that the conditions of the man’s home had been almost unimaginable.
“The floor was just old, broken up wood with roaches running everywhere. There wasn’t a bed, he had a mattress on the floor, and the smell from the whole place was terrible. People aren’t supposed to have to live like that. Not in this country, they aren’t.”
“Maybe if he didn’t spend all of his money on drugs he’d be able to take care of himself and wouldn’t need our money,” your mother had said, very upset since things were very tight financially for them then.
“We’ve had rough times, Mary, and we may again, but never like this. ‘There but for the grace of God,’ and we’ve used up our share already.”
No one understood why your mother decided to leave him, why despite all of his attempts to reconcile, she wouldn’t even consider living in the same city, much less the same house, as him.
“But Mary,” her friends said, “You stayed with him all of those years when all he did was drink and could barely hold down a job, and now that he’s finally turned himself into something, you want a divorce?”
They didn’t understand, but you did. Maybe your mom loved your father the way he was when they first met. Maybe she didn’t like everything about him, but that was the man she’d fallen in love with. And maybe she liked all of those years when people asked her how she could stand living under the same roof as a worthless drunk like him and didn’t like it when clerks asked her why she was buying beer if Frank had given it up. Maybe she didn’t like the looks they gave her when they realized it was for her. Maybe she didn’t want a perfect man because she wasn’t a perfect woman and everyone expected her to be.
And maybe you weren’t perfect either, and that’s why you’d chosen to go live with her instead of him.
You still loved your father and enjoyed the every other weekend you spent with him. Some of your fondest memories are sitting in front of the television, eating Ramen Noodles with him in front of the television (because your mother had always cooked, and he didn’t want to give you burned or undercooked food to eat). He asked you about how things were going at school, how your mother was doing. You talked about other things, too, but that was all he really wanted to know, and his stern eyes turned to water every time you left again.
You loved him, but he loved you more, and you both knew it.
No one understood why your mother had left him, but you did, and when she died, you were one of the few true mourners she had. She never stopped smoking and the doctors didn’t catch the cancer in time. It was slow and it was painful, and she didn’t quit smoking until the very end when all the tubes got in the way.
Your father drove up the same night you told him for the first time how bad things really were. He was there the next day when she slipped away and they unhooked her from everything. He held you while sobbed, just like you were a little kid again. And he sobbed too.
You sobbed together again as they put her in the ground, but he sobbed harder. She was the most important woman in either of your lives, and you missed her. But he missed her more. Because he loved her more. And you hated him for it.
You barely spoke to him in the years after your mother passed away. You were busy with other things and it was natural to drift away, especially once you had your own job, your own life. When your aunt informed you he was in the hospital following a serious heart attack, it came as a complete surprise. News of it had spread quickly, though, especially once members of his church found out about it. The waiting area outside the emergency room was packed with people, crying and talking in hushed tones, and holding hands in a circle, praying. Everywhere praying.
By the time you got in, he’d already died and been brought back three times.
“Oh? You’re Frank’s kid,” they said, “You should have seen it. It was a miracle. He should have been dead, but Jesus isn’t quite ready for him to go home yet, I guess.”
They poured out their pity onto you, hugging, patting your hand, whispering tearful words of encouragement into your ear. It wasn’t really meant for you, it was meant for him, but you were the only one there to accept their attention. And why shouldn’t you?
A nurse came in every half hour or so with the latest report on his condition.
Your father could go any moment, be prepared for the worst.
He was recovering, but no one should get their hopes up.
He was stabilized, still in the emergency room but he should be okay until morning. Everyone could go home for the night, nothing was likely to happen for a while. He was still unconscious but family would be allowed in to see him in a few minutes.
You hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, and as the people in the lobby rejoiced at the latest news and shuffled out, you realized you still had a long night ahead of you. You went over to the snack machine to get something to eat. Cheetos sure would hit the spot. You put the coins in, pressed the buttons, grabbed the fallen bag, and began inhaling them.
And that’s what you were doing when the doctor came out the doors.
“Are you all here for Mr. Frank Thompson?” he asked those of you remaining in the room.
“Yes,” your aunt said, “Is it all right for us to see him yet?”
The doctor hesitated, and in that hesitation everyone knew, but they didn’t let themselves realize.
“A little over ten minutes ago he suddenly took a turn for the worse and we lost him. We haven’t been able to bring him back yet, but people are still trying. With the amount of time his brain has been without oxygen now and the previous damage doneâ€¦” the doctor sighed, “Even if we succeed in bringing him back, there’s no guarantee how much or if any of his cognitive skills would be the same. I’m sorry.”
He looked directly at you now, and everyone else’s eyes followed his. You didn’t know what to say. Your orange stained fingers brought another piece up to your mouth. In the silence of the room, everyone could hear the crunch.
Your aunt put a hand on our shoulder.
“Frank wouldn’t want to live like that, Sweetie. He lived a good life, now it’s time for him to go home.”
You nodded and ate another Cheeto.
“Okay,” the doctor said, “I’m calling it.” He turned to walk away, but stopped and turned back. “I’m very sorry for your loss. From what I saw in the people here today, he was a great man.”
Then everyone started crying as they let themselves realize what had happened. It was a violent, uncontrollable outpouring of emotion, and everyone felt it. Everyone but you. There was no shock. The only surprise for you had been that he hung around as long as he did. Mentally, you’d been preparing for this all dayâ€¦ or hoping?
Your aunt had been the first to pull herself out of her own sadness and turn to you, thinking you would need comfort right then. Both sets of your grandparents were long dead, your mother was only an only child, and so were you. Except for your aunt, no one should have been closer to your father than you, no one should have grieved his loss more. She, your last remaining blood relative, had looked to you expecting that, expecting at the very least to see some trace of it on your face. You’d known she was looking, too, but hadn’t been able to control it. The twitch betrayed you.
She jerked away suddenly, and when she did the others looked up and caught it, too. It hadn’t been more than a second, if that. But they’d all seen it. They’d all seen it.
You’re going to have to speak at his funeral. You should say something stirring, emotional. You should probably break down crying a few times. You should proclaim your love for him and what he meant to you as a dad. What he meant to you as Daddy. You should call him that, in fact. You should make sure they all go home worried you’re going to kill yourself out of grief and distress. You should do anything to get their mind off that night in the hospital.
You shouldn’t have smiled.