My cell phone rang as we were driving through Rushville on the way to my mom’s Thanksgiving morning. And I could tell from the way my husband passed me the phone, that my father was dead.
My dad had been born in a sleepy Indiana town like this, and when he could, he had left. First moving to Wisconsin, where my brothers and I were born, then to Oregon, where he had lived for almost 30 years, most recently in a home overlooking the ocean rather than a farmer’s field.
He had died in his sleep, my stepmother told me. He was not in any pain. No small thing. For years, he took a pill to keep him from remembering his dreams. Otherwise, he would wake up screaming, he’d say, so awful were the stories invented by his subconscious.
I had learned he was in the hospital the night before, but his impending death was not sudden news to him or his doctors or even his wife. They knew he had liver disease brought on by years of drinking, self-medicating really, for depression. My brothers think he kept it a secret because he thought it was a sign of weakness. Could be, I say. Or not. As I see it, it is just one more gap in what I don’t know about him, one more story left unfinished.
That night, while my own family slept, I padded into the hotel bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub, and wrote about my dad. And I thought how much easier it would have been if I had never known him. As a biographer, I might have felt that a portrait or a diary or a handful of letters was enough to understand my subject. Instead, what I have are mismatched puzzle pieces: the memory of his laugh, the sound of heavy footsteps in the hall, the smell of gin.
There comes a time when we must separate from our family and create our own stories. For some of us, it is hard to stop being a blank page others write upon. That familiar handwriting of a mom or dad can appear when you least expect it—in the way you walk, or an expression you use, or the way you drink.
I used to write to understand, but I realize now there are things I will never know. These days, I write to discover what is there and what is not. I write to get into someone else’s skin—a country western singer perhaps, or a single mom with twins. Writing lets me live another life, though that journey always leads me back to myself. Which brings me to the last reason I write—so that I can be known, and while I know I may occasionally confound those who love me, I hope I will not be as much of a mystery to my own children as my father was to me.