My dad died in a plane crash when I was five. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to say that sentence—awkwardly, cringing in anticipation of a response. I absolutely hate that look some people get when they hear it—wide-eyed, spluttering to apologize sincerely for something no one should ever apologize for. I adore a simple, “oh, I’m sorry,” and an easy change of subject. While I honestly appreciate the effort, my dad’s death has never seemed to me something I deserve to be heartbroken over. I hardly knew him long enough to realize what was lost when he died. But for my own edification, I have begun trying to piece together my own sense of who he was.
As my sisters and I grew up, we fell into an unspoken agreement that we never ask questions about my dad. This way, I have slowly and quietly picked up pieces of information from my mother whenever she’s feeling particularly nostalgic, sentimental or just bitter. The latter emotion tends to bring about the most interesting information. I think it’s difficult to get people to speak candidly about those who are dead unless they can shake off that fake film of reverence we learn to wear. And there is no better way to become irreverent than to resurrect your gripes with your lost ones.
I know most good things about my dad—the way he called me “L-Bert” and the fact that he loved a good bad pun. My family was never stingy with those memories. But I reached one point at which I realized there were much darker things going on behind my dad’s death. My mom sent me to therapy in eighth grade, and after slogging through four or five sessions my therapist had affirmatively concluded that, “actually, she seems fine to me.” After each session, my mom asked me what we’d covered as she drove me home in the butter-yellow retro T-bird. But after that last session, she asked me instead what I thought, which was an entirely different question than how’d it go. After some thought, I replied, “I would make a better psychiatrist than her.” To my surprise, she agreed, and told me that she had always had a problem with psychiatrists.
My dad had come back from flying planes in Vietnam with a dangerous and stupid outlook on life. His new mentality led to a lot of flipped cars and popped shoulder-sockets, one of which was mine. “I couldn’t even trust him with himself,” she said, and I watched the bones of her jaw flex beneath her skin. She said he had been seeing a psychiatrist—likely her idea—up to his death, and that apparently the psychiatrist had encouraged my dad to take the flight that killed him. She didn’t say any more than that, but I was fascinated to know that there had been some premeditation to his death. I also wondered, furiously, why she had made me go through so much therapy.
Sometime in the next year I stumbled across the government files from the crash. It was all filed into this black binder, shoved inside a warped cardboard box in my kitchen, along with some of the court files from when my parents ran a law firm together. I carried it to my room upstairs tucked under my shirt, although nobody was around. Inside the binder there were pictures with captions typed in a font that looked like it wanted no questions asked. Each caption noted frankly each bit of shrapnel, the leather of a briefcase, strips of skin shredded against the rocks, part of a skull. I flipped through, intently, slowly, keeping myself very consciously inside of my spectator self, as if watching a surgery on television. I found myself wondering, clinically, about the process of the impact, what damage it had done, and how they had gathered enough remains to have filled that heavy red-wood box with the ashes. It was all very easy until I came upon the last picture—his shoe, still shiny, sitting brown among the scraps of metal. And then I cried. Something expanded inside me, like all the memories I’d stored away were finally complete with these facts, little hard pieces of the history of my father the way nothing but pictures could tell it. Instead of the freshly-wounded feeling I’m conditioned to expect, instead I felt finally settled, like my dad’s death was a thing, a file, bright and red and brutal but also stagnant, like some bruise fading out its last.
I keep two other pictures of my dad in a safe place, two more to help round out this representation of who he was to me. The first shows my dad at a Star Trek convention standing next to my brother, dressed like a Klingon and grinning crookedly. He broke his jaw when he let a hitchhiker drive his car while he slept in the backseat, and grinned crookedly forever afterwards. I like that he was nerdy, a jokester, I like that he wore bright orange Speedos and couldn’t sing. That’s the part of my dad I’ll always wish I’d known long enough to have retained my own memories.
The second picture comes from the semblance of a funeral my mom held for him after the crash. The frame angles in on my wide, five-year old face—grinning, wrapped in his fur-lined leather aviation jacket—and next to me is a blurry red-wood box topped with a few notes, a toy rocket ship and a sunflower. My dad always wanted to be an astronaut, but his broken jaw promised that he never would be. I always wondered why someone thought the toy rocket ship was appropriate, since I sort of always saw it as a kick-him-while-he’s-down kind of thing. This picture represents the perpetual irony that surrounds my dad, which is possibly one of my favorite things about him. It reminds me that I owe it to my five-year-old-self to always take the more painful things in stride, and that is a belief that has served me well every single day of my life since.