I am sitting in a Five Guys mindlessly shelling peanuts and waiting for my hamburger when in a sudden and nearly breathtaking moment I miss my father. I realize I will never again see him, talk to him, try to understand him, make him understand me. His laugh so distinctive and infectious floods my mind. I miss his cockeyed smile, the way for so long I believed everything he told me.
He has been dead more than five years and I have never missed him like this, acutely, painfully.
Perhaps it was the six years that I watched him slowly, painfully, die, pieces of his spirit breaking off with each tragedy: a heart attack, a stroke, another of each, yet another of each, emphysema, congestive heart failure. The way I saw his lovely black hair thinned and grayed and his strong body shrink and bend. The years I watched him shuffle behind his walker, the way he was tethered to an oxygen tank. The way he was attached to his illnesses by steel and plastic and rubber and the damned inconvenience of it all.
Or perhaps it was the way he spent my whole life pushing me away in some fashion or another; telling me the things I talked about were too serious, making fun of the laugh that was just like his, telling me I was a bitch like my mother, disparaging the career moves I made or didn’t make. And then when he got sick the way he slapped my hand away when I tried to help him cut his meat– his hands shaking and useless from the stroke–, or the way he shrugged off a helping arm as he tried to get out of the car, find purchase on the walker, make sure the oxygen tank was secure and giving him his breath. The way he pushed and pushed and pushed me away every time I tried to draw close to him.
Those silly peanuts. They are the memory that brings him back full force into the fluorescent lighting of a hamburger joint, just the kind of place he would have loved. He was a man who ate a cheeseburger every day for lunch for forty years, ignoring the danger of it, as he did his smoking, and the damage his vices would do to him. Eventually. He was a man who never thought the future would catch up with him.
Those damned peanuts. A bowl of them waiting each night with his scotch and water when he came home and greeted his wife, freshly bathed and made up; the two of them sitting on the couch in the den as we children floated around them wanting, wanting to be so glamorous and beautiful and all grown up.
Those peanuts, Spanish ones at times, so petite in their silky brown jackets that slid off in your hands. I put a dime in the machine at the airport and out they spilled into my palm. I parsed them out one by one as I waited for his plane and then my sisters and I ran and ran right onto the tarmac to welcome him home.
Those peanuts. He split them open and pulled out the tiny inside pieces, the “babies” he called him, and lined those babies up to be eaten in one big gulp, as he slid them down his fingers in his mouth. We learned to eat peanuts that way, just as we learned the art of taking an entire runny egg yolk in a single bite. Just as we learned to lick the sticky sugar off our fingers when we ate a donut. Just as we learned that if he liked gribenes, the curled pieces of chicken fat my mother would roast in the toaster oven and the slick marrow that slid from soup bone and was spread on toast and salted, we would, too. We would sit and wait until take he had had his fill and then we would take our treats as though they were gifts from him. He liked caviar, the good stuff, and taught us to like it too. But save for the yiddishe dishes from his past and that odd adult craving for elegant fish eggs he was a childish eater: steak, hamburgers, potatoes, kippers and eggs. He didn’t like most vegetables. He taught us to eat badly and we loved it.
In fact, in some ways, he was always childish. Never quite fully grown up. He told bad jokes, and refused to understand why they were bad. He teased his daughters as if we were all schoolchildren together. He could be a bully, too. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with children who grew up and talked back. Often he just bulldozed us out of the way.
And yet. Five years on I am just realizing that he is gone forever. That is what happens when a presence looms so large, so powerful, and sometimes so terrifying. When a presence is so portentous it hangs around this earth long after its physical manifestation is gone. It is just now, half a decade after his death but years after I had already lost him, that I can remember my father’s softer side: the way he wept at my wedding, the way he gazed rapt at his first grandson mere days after he came into the world. The way he spoiled all of his grandchildren and played with them in ways he never played with me. The way he held my son’s hand. Just the way he held my boy’s hand.
I was a gullible child and my father played on that. He told me fantastic things about himself that I wanted so to believe. That he went to Hebrew School with Abraham Lincoln, for example. Long into my twenties I was still half-convinced he was an agent with the CIA. Because he liked fooling me. He liked thinking that he could convince me of anything. I don’t know why. He was a generous man with his money if not his time, he was successful, he was smart and he was handsome. Everyone liked him. He wasn’t a small or insignificant man in any way and yet he seemed to need a larger profile than he had: he seemed to need his daughters to believe he was magical. I don’t know why and I can’t ask him that question, which would be a good one: Why did you think you were not enough as you were, Daddy? He wouldn’t have answered me anyway. That kind of talk was nonsense to him.
He thought it was a waste of time to spend any part of my life trying to figure him out. Perhaps it was. I realized finally, perhaps too late, that any amount of time trying to get him to understand me was also a waste of time. I regret that time, that energy that went for naught. Had I loved him better and with less expectation perhaps he could have loved me better, too. I did love him, of course, despite his indifference, despite the way he seemed to disapprove of everything I did, everything I was, but that love was overshadowed by a desire that he not only see me but that he approve of me. It was love with a purpose. I see the same struggle in my own daughter with her own father and it makes me sad. I tell her to just be who she is, to be loving, to be kind even when he isn’t, and most of all to not ask for more than he can give. The only way to truly love is to understand the limitations of the person you love. To understand what it is that they can and cannot give, and to try and stop yourself from asking for more.
I expect now, years on, there will be many other moments, ordinary moments, into which the memory of my father will intrude. The space I am in will suddenly feel a bit surreal, I will take a deep breath, and I will miss him. Terribly.
But I will go with that feeling. I will not dissect it. I will sit with the sense of loss I feel that my father is no longer with me. I will sit with the knowledge that there truly is a hole in the universe where he once was. I will sit with the knowledge that the years since his death have taught me something valuable. Love is a choice. How we love is a choice. And how we let that love affect us is the largest choice of all.