Loosen the Reins -The Toast

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People say really dumb things about death. A friend of mine once suggested that because my father was difficult, she wasn’t sure I’d be upset about him dying. A friend of my sister’s said she assumed we’d be relieved when our dad died because he was so strict. About six months after my father’s death, a third friend casually asked me over lunch, “Do you ever miss your dad?” as if I probably didn’t. I burst into tears. I was a blubbering mess. I had to excuse myself. Not because I was sad. My tears were borne of rage.

I abruptly left my job teaching English in Istanbul and returned home to Chicago when I found out my father was sick. I lied about the severity of his condition — stage four colon cancer — to anyone who asked. When he became terminally agitated, picking at his bedsheets and asking repeatedly, “Where are we going? Just where are they taking me?” I fed him tiny pieces of watermelon drizzled with morphine from dropper bottles the hospice nurse had left in our fridge. Furious, he spit them out and denied any pain.

One morning not long after, I got up and saw that his chest was still and his mouth agape. I sat with him silently for a long time, then woke up my sister and called his caretaker. She arrived quickly, checked for a pulse, and called her agency to inform them that her patient had expired. I took the phone from her when I realized the person on the other end of the line couldn’t understand her through her thick Jamaican accent. No, my father is not on fire, I said. He expired. 

I hate that word. My father was not a carton of milk with a date stamped on his forehead. He was an optometrist and a World War II veteran. He was a man who disliked doctors and idle chit-chat, a man who didn’t want anyone to know he was sick — and therefore, in his opinion, weak — much less dying. The patient has expired. It wasn’t funny, but it was, and for a moment my sister and I laughed.

We sat beside our father until two men from the funeral home arrived. After they took his body away I made the apartment as empty as it felt, carrying armfuls of blankets, pillows, clothes, adult diapers, anything tainted with sickness down the hall, where I stuffed it down the garbage chute. I didn’t cry.

My father was a difficult man. When I took a teaching position in Istanbul, sight unseen, he was critical of my decision. My new job began in August; that spring he spontaneously decided to take an Aegean cruise that stopped in Istanbul. He’d signed up for the trip through our JCC, which sponsored a tour of Sephardic Jewish history throughout the region, including a stop in Izmir, where my grandfather was born. I found his sudden interest in our heritage highly suspicious.

When the ship docked in Sultanahmet, my father ditched his tour group, hopped in a cab and handed the driver a carbon copy of a receipt with the address of the school where I’d be teaching, which he found among visa paperwork I’d FedExed from his office. When he showed up at my new place of employment unannounced, in typical Turkish fashion the principal and the English department head offered him tea and an impromptu tour of the lovely campus, assuring him his daughter would be fine. Then my father hightailed it back to the cruise ship just before it left the port. Or so the story goes.

I was humiliated. In my version of events, his behavior undermined my professional authority. In his version, he’d saved the day by dramatically racing across a foreign city to make sure I wasn’t bamboozled into a shady situation — after all, his father wanted to leave the old country. Why would I want to return to it? I felt he didn’t trust my judgment. He thought I was too easily manipulated.

Him showing up in the flesh, forcibly co-signing my Big Life Decision, wasn’t any different from him forcibly reaching into my nostril to remove my nose piercing during my freshman year of college, or marching into the principal’s office during my freshman year of high school to demand I quit the swim team because I’d lost too much weight (which was precisely my goal), or refusing to let me attend my seventh grade class trip to D.C. to “teach me a lesson” after I’d rolled my eyes and said everyone else’s parents paid for their kids, so he had to as well. The Istanbul episode felt no different from the times he had refused to let me go on dates or to parties, or reminded me that although I got As in school, I got Fs in life because I didn’t have the kind of common sense that comes from a hard-knock life.

We’re talking about a man who often said “My house is a dictatorship, not a democracy” with absolutely zero irony. A force of nature who barreled through my every decision. A double Virgo. It was simply how it was. My father was a child of the Depression who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. A World War II Navy veteran who ran pontoon boats in the South Pacific so he could go to college on the G.I. Bill. A single father who married and had children late in life, then divorced and wound up raising my sister and me in his 50s and 60s. In the stories he told of his life, he was always the martyr or hero, supporting his family or looking out for those weaker or less fortunate. His stories amounted to a myth about a man with no chinks in his armor. It may sound naive, but he so convincingly spun a personal narrative of invincibility that it never occurred to me he would one day do something so common, so banal, so mortal, as dying.

The irony is not lost on me that when I took a leap to live abroad and take greater control of my own life, my father forced a sharp curve into my own narrative, bringing me home. But his tight grip on the reins was slowly loosening. In his final weeks at home in hospice care, he was unable to walk, and therefore completely dependent on others. (That irony isn’t lost on me, either.) Still, he wouldn’t give it up. If his blanket wasn’t quite right, or his toast wasn’t burnt enough, or his tray wasn’t tiled just so, my sister and I wouldn’t hear the end of it. My mother would come visit periodically, and they’d hold hands — the first time I’d ever witnessed any tenderness between them. Later, he’d yell at us for letting that woman into his house.

To an outside observer, it might appear that my father approached death the same way he did life: With a heavy hand and a critical gaze. It may seem like his pride and stubbornness made something difficult — dying — harder than it already was. But it was I, not my father, who was difficult. I hadn’t put up with him. He had put up with me — a narcissistic, entitled brat who didn’t see the big picture. In every instance I’d felt restricted, unfairly punished, or hurt, it was I who’d been too defensive and self-absorbed to recognize his actions were borne of concern. Those earnest attempts at personal expression and empowerment? They were foolish and self-indulgent. His crazy trip to Turkey? It was actually incredibly loving to travel around the world for me. Perhaps he’d even sensed he was not long for this earth, and truly wanted to revisit his roots. Did I miss him? Of course, but that wasn’t the half of it. My newfound perspective on the past only added salt to the wound.

In the wake of my father’s death, my character was cast in a humbling, unflattering light. The scene had shifted dramatically. The lighting was brighter, the characters sharper. My father provided everything I needed, and I had been angry because my feelings weren’t validated and my spirit wasn’t nurtured? What bullshit. Of course he was overprotective and angry. So what if he had a temper? Didn’t others see how difficult it was for him to raise two daughters, three generations removed? I was nothing I fancied myself — a hypersensitive individual, a rebellious spirit full of wanderlust, a creative soul. I was simply callow, selfish, and vain.

For awhile after his death, I Imagined some redemptive deathbed scene. I envisioned perfect scenarios playing out in an impossible future. If I ever got married and my father were still around, I imagined, I’d be flawless both inside and out, and of course we’d be happy, stable, agreeable, practically bathed in a golden light of mutual pride. But the more likely truth is that if my father were around for my wedding, it would be rife with conflict. Like every guy I ever brought home, he’d probably criticize my husband, and the food, the centerpieces, and how much it all cost. I’d be hurt and angry that he put down my big day; he’d think I was ungrateful. As much as I’d like to think we’d be different, I don’t know that we would.

I can’t reconcile a past that keeps changing, or end a story that keeps shifting. I’m far from the raw intensity of immediate grief, but my fingers are blistered from writing and rewriting this story. I’m sick of untangling knots and then tying them right back up. And the further I get from his death, the more versions I have of the story, and the harder it becomes to tell. I don’t trust my memories — neither the ones hyper-sharpened by grief, or the ones blurred through a youthful filter. And as long as I keep orbiting around my father’s life and he remains at the center, anchored and still, there will never be a resolution to this story.

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Review of Books, at The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. A former high school English teacher, Alizah taught in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Istanbul before moving to New York. She's an ice cream connoisseur, a wanderer of foreign cities, and a proud organizer of BinderCon NYC.

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