How do I explain to you who my father was? It all feels so fraught. I don't know where or how to begin.
He died when I was 11. He had cancer.
See, saying that word was hard. I don't want to teach you that word. People can't bring themselves to say "cancer". They say the "dreaded C word", instead. I don't want to sugarcoat it, though. The horror of the disease needs to be honored by name.
So, there. I have begun. Yet...
How do I explain who I am? How do I explain being so formed by his absence?
One hot, August night, I was baptized in the waters of loss. When I came up for air, dizzy and disoriented, I found my identity unwillingly transformed.
I was not myself when he died -- in an instant, a fatherless child navigating in the murky depths of grief. In a sense, I am not myself now. Or, rather, I'm more than I appear to be. A part of me remains hidden. I guard this place like an animal protecting a wound, daring anyone to try and come near. Your papa does not know what I have shared with no one.
But I worry you sense that a part of me is unreachable. I wonder how this history that I keep silent separates me from you and the ones I love.
Telling you is its own thorny road, though. I don't want to share childhood memories of my dad, and have you detect pain in my voice. I worry that this story of loss will change your own sense of self. How will you grapple with who "Grampy" is? My stepdad is the only Grampy you have ever known. Yet, he is not your Grandpa by blood.
It's all so confusing. Will it be too much for you? Will you fear your own papa dying?
These thoughts are too dark for a young mind. I struggle to imagine you contemplating them. I want to shield you from their dizzying and disorienting effects. Right now, you believe that the sun rose for the first time on the day you were born. Someday, I will have to tell you that the moon and the stars existed before you. Talking about my own childhood loss makes this fragile, mortal coil feel even more present. It signifies my powerlessness to protect you, just as my parents could not protect me.
I know for sure that you will never know how I lie in bed at night, and pray to God that you never have to go through what I went through. You will never know that I wake up in the middle of the night to make sure you are breathing. I fear I am cursed, and that you and your papa are too good to be true.
But silence can cause more damage than revelation, I've found. These words have not come easily for me today. Perhaps, I have written them more for me than for you. I feel no closer to knowing what to say to you when you are older. Maybe, a poet's words will help you understand one day:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead
To mourn full-throated like W. H. Auden is to honor his memory. This past is your birthright. Someday, you may take part in the grieving too, perhaps, in a desire to know your grandpa and to understand me and our history -- maybe, even to know and understand yourself.
This story of loss ends in triumph anyhow. After all, you are my father's and your grandfather's legacy, Claire...unique and beautiful, Claire.