Life is just a series of things we do and things we don’t, choices we make and their inverse, people we have and people we lose. I’ve always been obsessed with “what if,” the moments where it is clear (often only in retrospect but sometimes even in the present) that a concrete shift occurred.
These days, the tiny murmur that comes after “what if” is always the same. Would he still be alive? Would he still be alive? Would he still be alive?
The last time my dad visited Oregon was 2015. He came with my mom and my brother to celebrate my birthday. It rained, hard, for 19 days in a row that winter, and he was not that impressed with the new place I called home. I was dating a person who picked fights with him; a lot of the visit felt tense.
Then my own relationship with my dad became tense. I don’t remember if he offered to visit again before I moved back to the east coast in 2018, but I know he would have come if I’d asked him to. I didn’t ask.
Just a few weeks before he died, in December of last year, he told me he wanted to visit in the spring. I teased him because the vaccines were not readily available yet. Do you have a secret vaccine hookup I’m unaware of, I asked. He laughed, good natured. Our relationship was less tense by then. No, he admitted. I just miss you. I’m over the pandemic. I smiled, patient. I know, me too, I said. But you can’t fly until you’re vaccinated. Maybe I’ll see you in Portland this summer.
It’s summer now. But, you know.
I tracked blood around my bedroom for a few minutes one recent Sunday morning before realizing I was leaving tiny smudges of red all over the hardwood floor. I’d been trying to water all my indoor plants before going away so they wouldn’t dry up from neglect while I was gone; it’s important to pay attention to the things you want to survive, especially when you have to be far away for a little while. But there’s such a thing as too much attention, or over-tending, or simply not focusing and fucking up: I over-watered every single plant that morning, causing water to flow from the jug to the soil to the dish at the bottom of the pot and all the way out, cascading over the surfaces each of my seven houseplants sit on in my bedroom.
Most worrying was the monstera, because it is the only plant placed atop my unfinished and unsealed wood drawers, which meant the water flowing out from my negligence (or over care — again, are they versions of the same thing?) was not only seeping down the back of the piece of furniture and dripping down my freshly painted pale pink wall but also soaking the wood itself, and the contents inside each drawer. I grabbed the white ceramic pot, the one I paid $35 to a local shop to have delivered to my front door so it could hold my most prized plant, and tried to rush it into the bathroom where I could dump it in the sink and let it drain while I mopped up the spills. But no, the task could not be that simple.
It was Father’s Day. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, hadn’t had any caffeine yet. Grief made me clumsy. My dad had been dead for almost six months.
My elbow caught on the side of the bathroom doorframe my fingers slipped the dish shifted I screamed no the white ceramic plate shattered to the ground I screamed fuck at least I didn’t drop the whole plant helplessly I stared at the shards of ceramic on the ground helplessly I set the plant itself down help help help there was no one home to help I was entirely alone.
It took three towels soaked through with water, each taken from the linen cupboard in the hallway one at a time, dutifully pacing back and forth to retrieve one, then another, then another, before I noticed the blood on the floor. My foot didn’t hurt; you never notice the slice until you do. Fuck, I said again, louder this time. I hadn’t cleaned the ceramic pieces off the floor in the bathroom yet. I was supposed to pick up my boyfriend and our dog in 40 minutes. We were driving to Southern Oregon because I had anticipated Father’s Day being terrible and wanted to let myself be somewhere safe and beautiful to experience it.
I cleaned the pieces of the pot off the floor. I wiped up the blood. I rinsed off my foot and could not find any antibacterial ointment so simply slapped on two bandaids and a sock. I eventually packed up the car and drove to my boyfriend’s house. I started sobbing as soon as I got there. I did not go to Southern Oregon.
My brother turned 30 at the beginning of July and he asked if I would come home for his birthday. The day fell on the six month anniversary of my dad’s death and he doesn’t love his birthday at the best of times. Flying right now is a genuine nightmare but I would do anything for my brother, now. I came home.
He decided to celebrate by grilling for his closest friends. He’s gotten really into grilling this year. My dad used to be the one in charge of the grill. My brother requested three cakes for his small party and my mother and I agreed. She made a traditional chocolate cake and I made a cookie cake and a three-layer Nutella cake.
While working in the kitchen on my baking assignments, I couldn’t stop crying. My dad loved chocolate cakes so much. The last time I made a cookie cake at home was last summer, when I lived with my parents after graduating while trying to figure out what my next move should be during the pandemic. The last time I made a Nutella cake was last summer, too. My dad would always ask to lick the bowl.
No one licked the bowl this time. When I finished dividing the batter into three pans I put them in the oven to bake for half an hour at 350 degrees and then I put the bowl in the sink, filled it with soap and water, sat down on the floor, and cried.
At the party everyone loved the cakes. My brother had a nice birthday. The three of us — my mom, my brother, and I — all managed to laugh, to smile, to genuinely experience some joy. It’s not nothing. But I kept thinking about how much my dad would have loved the party. How he would have loved celebrating my brother. How this time last year we were eating chocolate cake together. How now we never will again.
Right after my dad’s death, literally just a few days later, my mom, brother, and I all huddled around my parents’ landline telephone while my dad’s cardiologist patiently answered our questions.
Was it because he drank a tiny bit of champagne on New Year’s Eve?
Was it because he exercised too much?
Was it because of a blood clot we thought had resolved?
These questions are all versions of “what if.” What if he hadn’t had the champagne? What if he exercised less? What if he’d paid even more attention to the clot that all the doctors told him was okay, asked for a third opinion, a fourth, a fifth?
What if, what if, what if, what if. Things happen, things don’t. There are no answers, but I can’t stop asking the question.
Hello, happy July. I hope Cancer season is ruining your life slightly less than it is ruining mine. I’m here to tell you I’m teaching two more writing classes this fall, and you can sign up to take one (or both!) of them right now. I am teaching with the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute, and the course I’m offering is titled You are the Expert: a Craft Class about Writing Memoir. You can find details about the September/October course here, and you can find details about the November/December course here. The classes are not workshops — they are craft classes with a focus on generating new writing, reading a wide-variety of inspiring work, and creating a container to encourage and celebrate each other. They each meet for 5 weeks and will be capped at 12 students. The class I am teaching this summer (which starts in one week and which I could not be more excited about!) sold out in about 10 days, so if you want to learn and write with me this fall, sign up as soon as you can! As always, you can email me with any questions you have — just hit reply to this letter.
Thank you for reading, for listening, for witnessing, and for sitting with me in my grief. I love you and I’m rooting for all of us. Only 16 more days until Leo season! xo.