It’s a cold, snowy, icy mess outside, not unlike the night 15 years ago when my father suddenly died of a heart attack. The world had just survived Y2K without any major apocalypse, but our small family wasn’t to be spared. Little did we know that our universe would be irrevocably altered barely six weeks into the new millennium.
My father’s death hit us all like a tidal wave. He’d survived quintuple bypass surgery a couple of years prior to his death, but his prognosis was positive and he’d recovered. His operation was performed by Dr. Mehmet Oz – yes, that Dr. Oz – years before he became a modern-day snake oil salesman in a quest for ever more fame and fortune. In retrospect, perhaps my dad would have lived longer had a different surgeon carved him up.
My father’s longtime cardiologist had given him a clean bill of health a couple of weeks before he died. It was a new century and we were all hopeful for the future. My parents, finally financially secure after a decade of hardship, had recently bought a weekend home in upstate New York, an oasis we endearingly baptized Frog Hollow. Born a city boy, grown up into a surburbanite, he relished escaping the frenetic pace of his job in Manhattan to commune with nature at the “family compound.” He marveled at the property’s idyllic setting – it was so very different from his Brooklyn upbringing. To him, Frog Hollow represented peace.
The call from my mom came in the early morning hours – such a damn cliché. I’ll never forget the ring of the phone and her voice at the other end of the line. It was February 10, 2000. My dad was 57 years old. I was 31.
For about a decade after it happened, I didn’t think too much about how old my father was when he died. To my mind, he was far from ancient, but he certainly wasn’t young. Barely into my 30s, the mid-50s was too far away to seriously contemplate. Yet almost everyone at the funeral and in the weeks after his death expressed a common refrain: “Your father was too young to die.” Even today, “He was so young!” is the inevitable reaction when I tell people about him.
Two months ago I celebrated my 46th birthday. I can’t help but do the math. 57 no longer seems that old or that distant.
I was in my second year of law school when my dad collapsed, looking forward joining a large international law firm as a summer associate the following May. I would spend half of the summer in their Paris office. A dream job. I loved nothing more than to discuss my plans with my father, who took enormous pride in my success as a law student. He talked my ear off about the the well-known firms that had offered me summer positions. “That place is really white-shoe, not your cup of tea” or “They have a great corporate department,” he’d remark with an air of authority, as if he’d conducted personal business with the firms. He hadn’t, but I didn’t care because contemplating my future as a lawyer provided an excuse for us to bond, something that didn’t happen frequently during my adult years.
I was devastated that he wouldn’t see me graduate or be able to follow my nascent legal career. I was even more devastated that he would never be a grandfather. I was angry that he left my mom a widow at the age of 55.
The remainder of my 2L year was a blur. I do remember how eager I was to spend time in France again. I had my mom and my aunt visit me in Paris before my husband’s arrival. It was during their stay, almost four months after my dad’s death, that I learned I was pregnant with Chloe. I was thrilled. I was bereft. Truth be told, I didn’t know how to feel. It was a crazy time. I had moments of thinking, while in the throes of my conflicted emotions, that my dad was looking out for me from beyond the grave. And then my non-spiritual, ever-so-rational brain would take over and remind me that he wasn’t looking out for me because he was DEAD. DEAD. DEAD.
At one point during my pregnancy, my ob-gyn predicted a February 10 due date. The thought of my child being born on the first anniversary of my father’s death made me physically ill. As it turns out, Chloe was born on the sixth anniversary of her French grandfather’s death, who was only 55 years old when he died in 1995. In my bargaining with the life force growing inside of me, I forgot to ask her to avoid January 30, too.
Chloe and Sophie were born into a world where they’ve only ever known one grandparent – my mother. I’m incredibly grateful for her presence in their lives, but it saddens me that she’s the sole representative for that level of the family tree. I haven’t talked much about my father with the girls. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because I’ve never known where to start.
My father was complicated. Gentle, but often tense. Unfailingly generous, yet selfish, too. Stubborn and quick to blame other people for his misfortunes. Rarely satisfied, always longing for more. Smart, yet arrogant and insecure, traits that led him to do incredibly stupid things on more than one occasion.
I kept a diary for a year after he died because I was desperate to record my memories of him before they became foggy or, worse, embellished with the passage of time. I suppose that sharing my journal with the girls would be a good way to introduce their grandfather to them.
I often wonder if my career trajectory would have been any different if my father were still alive. Would I have stayed the course as a corporate lawyer if he’d been there to encourage me and console me when the going got tough? When I continued to struggle as my legal marketing career advanced to find a balance between work and the rest of my life, his untimely death lurked in the back of my mind. His work was stressful and often made him unhappy, and I am certain this made his sick heart even sicker.
As I got older, I resolved that I wouldn’t fall into the same trap. When the financial and intellectual rewards of my work no longer justified the stress the work induced – I am my father’s daughter, after all – his was the insistent voice inside my head telling me it was time to recalibrate my priorities. It’s been almost two years since I happily, if not anxiously, left the corporate world behind to focus on my family and my writing.
His reassuring voice still makes itself heard from time to time. I refuse to mute it. It’s his final gift to me and echoes a hopeful refrain: “I’m proud of you, goose. You should be proud of you, too.”