July 7, 2021 / Samantha Paradiso
I don’t know my father, but I do know myself.
Upon entering my home today, I was faced with an elephant present in my living room. I shook his hand, exchanged the usual pleasantries, chatted to my heart’s content. But when the time came to address one another, I was at a loss for words. How do you begin to address the elephant in the room when you have no name with which to address him? I stare into the face of this massive giant, tracing each wrinkle for a recollection of his name. Inch after inch, I search to no avail. A being whose presence is so painfully obvious but represents the lack thereof — your absence, my Loss.
Loss, a noun, meaning perdition, ruin, destruction, being deprived of, or the failure to keep. The word’s origins date back to ca. 897. Its presence we felt far before our ability to articulate it; its meaning I learned in your absence. Performing the role of griever and emotional etymologist, I’m left to decipher what it means to be your daughter in the wake of your death.
I am forever wading in my own sentimentality, consciously bobbing my head above water so as not to drown in melancholy. Floating through boundless seas, all-consuming nostalgia. Constantly teetering the line between dreaming and drowning. I peer down at the water and see your colorless reflection, a cruel illusion reminding me of my solitude in this flowing expanse.
Your spatial absence. Your mental absence. Your emotional absence. The absence of your absence. Why do I cry so deeply for someone I can hardly see in my mind’s eye? On her deathbed, my mother shared a dream she had. A dream of you. I often dream of her. Never of you.
When will you come see me?
Absent in life and my dream state, too.
A mother’s favorite china. A father’s cherished record collection. Family heirlooms that brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandchildren fight over, combing over those earthly belongings that no longer hold human ties. What do I have to remember you by? Decade-old memories tinged with forget and childish ignorance.
Mourning your loss is like waiting for a set of teeth that never came in. Constantly rubbing my tongue along pink gums, knowing a wall of ivory is meant to stand erect in place of its absence. Never quite finding the words to express myself, rendered speechless. Is it a loss if it was never mine to begin with? A phantom ache for the immaterial “what should have been.” I resent what little time we had together. And I resent that the time we did have will forever live in the ambiguity of a childhood I’m too young to remember. There is so little about you that I know.
As a child, what did you muster the courage to say? Manipulating your foreign tongue to meet your lips and teeth, a triumphant trio in producing a most precious sound. A most precious memory. Baby’s first word. I wonder what yours was. Mine was “water,” but you already know that. Like water, a necessity, I needed you to live. Finding my breath in yours, consciously mimicking the rhythm at which your chest rose and fell, I wanted to make myself an extension of you. It’s an unspoken desire for most to have their child utter their name. A silent race to the finish line, where tongue and teeth collide. Who will it be? A child’s unbridled preference for one parent or the other.
Who will it be?
It was you.
What deep satisfaction you must have felt to have your baby girl choose you. To know it was you whose head she filled her thoughts with, her affection on full display alongside the memorabilia of your fatherhood. How two syllables, hardly a word, could provide you such profound validation. I know this was a point of contention for my mother. Scorned by her lover, reliant on her daughter, only for the word to come out of my mouth to be “papá.” It pains me to know this declaration stung her. I only hope you didn’t make your satisfaction too apparent.
But what did you like to do as a child? What was your favorite color? Favorite pastime? When you hurt yourself, did you like to be rocked by your mother? In times of sadness, who did you cry out for? Who did you cry for? Did you cry?
Or did you have the best childhood, full of white picket fences and tire swings? Juice boxes and scuffed knees. A wide-grinned smile with a missing front tooth. Baseball games and charbroiled hotdogs. Sunday strolls and drippy ice cream. Matching overalls and sticky fingers.
But I know you didn’t. How I wish you would have had a hand to hold. A friend to confide in. A shoulder to lean on.
Did you cry?
I know you did.
I do, too.
For months, I have considered what your thoughts were at that last moment. Did you know? I often reflect on the last time I saw you; only then I didn’t know you’d pass away shortly thereafter. How lying in your hospital bed, you chose to show me a magic trick. Inhaling deeply and pressing your lips together, you held your breath. Your pink lips turning blue. A round of applause for my magician. My uncontrollable giggles, your pleasant amusement, my mother’s hissing disapproval. She knew this was no laughing matter, and you did too.
I wonder if, in your last moments, all you hoped for was a hand to hold, someone to embrace, a voice to comfort you. The reassurance that it would all be okay. Did you kick and scream and fight your way to the bitter end? Or was it quiet, unprotesting, hopeless resignation? Whom did you last think of when you took that final breath? They say you see your loved ones before you pass to the other side. I wonder if anyone was there to help you cross the finish line or if you had to do it alone.
No one deserves to die alone.
I’m afraid that in my last moments, when I’m reviewing the story of my life, I’ll be forced to leave my paternal link unfilled: “Father Unknown.” So when it’s my time to go, I only ask that you come to me in a dream. Two people separated by a stream, you’ll tell me it’s time, and I’ll wade my way through the water to your embankment. Finally reunited — if not in life, then in death. Come to me as I take my last breath, a magician’s final trick. Until then, I’m left to pick up the fragments of my existence, which is so inextricably tied with yours.
How do you begin to mourn the loss of someone you never knew?
In writing this letter to you, which is more for me than you. ■