When I was little, Dad would get into the car and say, “Let’s get lost.”
“OK,” I’d shout, sitting up in the front seat next to Dad, where kids were allowed back then, no seat belts required.
At each intersection he’d ask, “Which way?” until we didn’t know where we were anymore.
“Look,” I’d tell Mom when we banged into the breakfast room later. “Dad bought me a diary with a lock and key,” or “We threw stones in a river from the bridge.”
* * *
“Dad died,” my sister said over the phone. She was crying. “I’m with him. He just died. Dad just died.” I could tell she was sitting down.
I walked outside to tell our guests at the picnic table in our front yard. “My dad just died,” I said.
I didn’t leave right away. What was the hurry? Dad had died. It was over. I sat for a few minutes with my husband and friends. We made a toast to him. I listened to the wind in the maple leaves, the guy mowing his lawn across the street and the blood rustling around in my ears. August. It was August.
Then I left to drive the fifty-three miles from our house, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up the winding road to my childhood home, to Mom and Dad’s house, where my mother and sister would be.
“Do you want me to go with you?” my husband asked.
“No.” I wanted to be alone to cross the Hudson River, to go from when my dad had been alive to the rest of everything else.
I drove carefully, mulling over the sentence, “Dad died.”
Dad died. So many D’s. Were they plosives? Is that what they were called? I moved my lips and said it out loud. “Dad died.” The D’s made bursts of air like small, gentle explosions from a cannon filled with feathers. Yes, plosives. Dad died—the D’s soft, just T’s really, wrapped up in spider webs.
Dad. A palindrome—he would have loved that. Dad died. A compact sentence: subject, verb, period. A sentence I had never said before that would be true forever now. Dad died.
* * *
Dad had been hoping to die since way before the nursing home, and why not? He was unable to stand or walk, unable to feed himself, unable to read. For the final few months, the first thing he’d say upon waking in the morning was, “Oh shit, I’m still alive.” No kidding.
He had a dream. “I was trying to sign the check but no one would give me a pen.”
“Sign the check?” I asked.
“A check to let me die.”
“Oh, how frustrating.” I just sat there and held his hand.
“Horrible,” he said. “Just horrible.”
While Dad was in the nursing home, I worried about his being safe. I pitied him this rotten ending. At night I’d wonder if he was scared or lonely. It’s not that I wanted to be there with him, but I didn’t want to be anywhere else—there was not a moment’s peace for anyone who cared about him at all.
Still, his death was a surprise. When one’s father dies, it’s always a surprise. I don’t care if he’s a hundred and fifty years old.
* * *
As I inched up to the tollbooth on the Tappan Zee Bridge, I wanted to tell the toll collector what had happened. Shouldn’t he know? Shouldn’t people be told that everything had changed? I wanted to hand him my five singles and say, “Dad died,” look into his eyes for a moment and then drive off, having delivered the sad news.
Instead I was robotic. “Thank you,” I said. He took my money without looking up.
* * *
The youngest of four kids, I was the neurotic one. An insomniac by seven years old, I would fill my bed with books so that if I woke in the night to a silent house I’d have company. One night, as I lay working my way through Harriet the Spy (a book Dad had bought me for a nickel at a yard sale), there was a tap on the door. “Are you awake?” Dad whispered.
“Yes,” I whispered back. “Come in.”
He opened the door. “I couldn’t sleep.” He had a haggard look on his face. He was an insomniac too, and a reader, and neurotic. “I saw your light on. Want a cheese sandwich?”
We crept downstairs and sat together at the kitchen table in our pajamas, eating cheese sandwiches, two friends who had found one another, against all odds, in the massive, lonely ocean of insomnia.
Later, as the sky was going from black to dark blue, I climbed into my bed, turned the light off, and fell asleep, the crumbling, five-cent copy of Harriet the Spy in my sweaty hand.
* * *
When he had still been mostly well, before the official diagnosis followed by the nursing home, we liked to carry our lunch into Bryant Park and sit under the plane trees with strangers. We’d listen to the live piano music. He was a New Yorker, Dad was, but he couldn’t walk far anymore, couldn’t remember simple things, like how elevator buttons worked, so we would make the increasingly bewildering trek downstairs to the lobby and across 40th Street right into the park, like it was ours, like it was filled with our guests. He’d smile at the music. He’d reach for my arm and say, “Isn’t this magic?”
People die slowly, I understood much later. They don’t die in an instant like they do in the movies. It happens in the most infinitesimal steps—in tiny, imperceptible stages. He was beginning to die even then, listening to the music in the park, although I only realized it afterwards.
* * *
He stopped making much sense in the final months in the nursing home, the line between reality and hallucinations blurring. “There’s a man in a field,” he said to me one day. We were sitting on the smoker’s patio over-looking the Hudson River. It was a sunny afternoon, and I thought it might warm up Dad’s always-cold hands. “He’s standing with his legs apart, his hands on his hips. He’s shouting.”
“Is he friendly?” I asked.
“What’s he shouting?”
“He’s shouting for me to come to him.” Dad closed his eyes and I thought he might be falling asleep. Then, in a wobbly voice, he began to sing without opening his eyes, stanza after stanza after stanza of a song I’d never heard. When I was a kid, we used to sing in the car together when we were trying to get lost. I thought I knew all of the songs that he knew, but of course, how could I?
I kept still. If I interrupted, he might lose his train of thought and stop singing.
I felt the sun beating down on our clasped-together hands. I almost felt the river below us pushing past. The Hudson River seemed very old, and I thought how it had been there before either of us, and how it would be there after Dad was gone, and after I was gone too.
“I can’t remember the rest,” he said and we opened our eyes. “Why are you crying?” he asked. He mimicked my expression because it was what lay in front of him, knitting his eyebrows together like mine, his eyes tearing up.
“Nothing’s wrong, Dad. It’s just nice to hear you sing.”
He began to pick imaginary threads from his shirt and hand them to me. I took a few and then told him, “You can drop the rest on the floor. The nurses will sweep them up.”
“That wouldn’t be right,” he said, “to throw them on the floor for someone else to clean.”
* * *
After the Tappan Zee Bridge, I took back-roads the rest of the way, roads Dad and I had biked once. I felt like my heart was wrapped in a thousand, paper-thin blankets, beating somewhere outside of my body.
I knew that the moment one’s father died was something a kid owned, and I was still his kid, regardless of my age. It was mine, his death. I owned it. I was aware from somewhere outside of myself that this was a rite of passage, something whose effect I would only later understand, and only maybe, even then. It was mine alone and something that connected me to almost every other person on earth. I mean, everyone’s dad died, right? Eventually?
As I got closer to home, I passed neighbors’ houses, but those neighbors hadn’t lived in those houses for decades: Mrs. Whitfield’s house, the Rowells, the Giovincos, the Sloans. Everyone I knew was gone. People I’d never met lived there now. I turned on the radio and then turned it off. Everything but my heartbeat distracted me.
* * *
He hadn’t always been perfect. I had hated him for saying mean things to my sister when she was trying to learn her multiplication tables. He was bossy and moody and unpredictable, and rotten to boyfriends, really rotten. Later on, though, he asked me over and over again to forgive him. By then I had my own life, and he had mellowed and I wasn’t mad at him anymore. We were friends by the time he began to apologize.
A few weeks before he died, I told him, “I think about you here and hope you’re ok. I think of you all the time.” He sat there a minute. I couldn’t tell if he had understood me.
He leaned forward the tiny bit that he was able and paused. “It’s time,” he said, “for you to stop thinking about me.”
I was irritated at first. “I don’t want to stop thinking about you,” I told him.
“I should have been dead a long time ago. It’s time you stopped thinking about me now.” He nodded and, leaning back in his wheel chair, closed his eyes. He was right. I needed to make my own mark. He was headed away from me, in the opposite direction from where I was going.
* * *
I drove in second gear past the nature center where we used to sing Christmas carols with neighbors. That memory hurt, like it was a kite tied to one of my ribs, tugging at me, pulling me backwards toward a suffocating nostalgia.
I drove along Spring Valley. The road was so narrow that the August vines seemed to be reaching for my car, trying to yank me backwards.
Then I turned up the road to Mom and Dad’s house, which was now just Mom’s house, I realized. As I neared it, the feeling of being pulled back and back by the vines and the kite in the strong wind of the August afternoon intensified.
Dad died, I thought, and my desire to be a child again welled up with such sudden force that I felt the kite string strain and strain and strain, and then SNAP! the freed kite lofting up and up into the windy blue sky. The vines seemed to retract as I pulled into the driveway. I turned off the car and sat there feeling his absence like it weighed something. It was time to stop thinking about him, but I’d stop thinking about him later.
I remembered, as I sat there with the motor off, how getting lost with him had been such fun. “Right, left, or straight?” he’d ask at every intersection, and as we’d get farther away from familiar terrain, he’d say, “We’re totally lost now! Boy, I hope we can find our way home!” and we’d laugh at that, because it was exciting to be on unknown ground, and because we always found our way home eventually.
— N. West Moss
“Dad Died” is from a short story collection by N. West Moss. All stories are connected to Bryant Park in New York City. “Dad Died” is about the hour after her father died in 2013. Moss is a MacDowell Fellow. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Memoir Journal, Hospital Drive, and elsewhere. She won gold medals for best essay (2013) and best short story (2014) from the Faulkner-Wisdom competition. Her first novel is set in New Orleans in 1878, and she is currently working on a young adult novel.