There is no good way to start a letter to your dead father. I could say that I miss you. I think of you ever day. I wish you were here. But those truths are so obvious they border on mundane. They are truths that apply to many people and places and moments now gone from my life. Isn’t that what we do as we live — remember? Don’t we all wonder and wish about our experiences? Did you? This isn’t why I’m writing this letter to you though.
Instead, I want tell you that I planted tomatoes all over our yard today. The seeds that I didn’t think would germinate did. The tiny fragile tomato seeds that everyone warned “You can’t direct sow those. You have to start them inside”–I think every single seed that I planted sprang up. They were huddled together and would have starved each other had I not split them out. So I did. I gave some away and then planted a dozen or more all around the garden. I have this memory of you growing tomatoes. You used rusty coffee cans that were open on both ends and put them around the base of the plant to create a well. To hold the water. Do you remember? And then you mixed Miracle Grow and sloshed it into each can. I don’t know if this is a real memory or not. I must have been very young. We were living in Waco. You never gardened after we moved from Waco. Why did you stop growing tomatoes?
I’m worried about what you are becoming in my memory. I keep thinking about you telling me once that I was acting superior. I didn’t understand what you meant. You also told me once that my laugh was crass. I had to ask what the word crass meant. I remember how disappointed you were when I pierced my belly-button. Like I had failed at some test you were secretly giving me. And sometimes, when I think someone is mad at me and I feel fear welling up in the pit of my stomach, I wonder if it has something to do with you.
But then I think about the tomatoes again. And you fussing over them. You trying to explain to a 5 year old why you had to use an old can for the fertilizer and water. How doing so would make them the sweetest and the plumpest and keep them from splitting. I remember the unnatural turquoise liquid pooling around the tomato plants and then slowly draining into the soil. A row of green plants soaking in their own private baths. I have no memory of ever eating a tomato from any of those plants. Only the cans and the little swimming seedlings.
I have always heard people say that I am just like you. That I look like you and that I behave like you. I leave my shoes around the house and forget about appointments like you did. I am passionate and intense like you. The comparisons are meant as a compliment to you or to me, I’m not sure. You are just like your dad, they say. This makes me anxious. It feels like a prophecy. Foreboding.
I want you to know that this isn’t the first piece I’ve written about you. There have been many. And always they seem to stall out. Like I can’t quite get to the point that I want to get to. That I’m not quite sure what the point is exactly. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it’s just a recitation for me. A naming of my haunted memories. Naming a thing gives you power over it, doesn’t it? Death deals directly in powerlessness. Makes a mission out of it.
I can’t blame Death for the way I feel. I felt powerless before you died. Begging you to stay alive. I remember begging. Exclaiming that you would never see me married (you didn’t) and that your grandchildren would never know you (they don’t). I wrote it in a letter that turned out to be a prophecy of its own. I hate that I predicted it. I hate you for making it true. It did dawn on me recently that I am angry at you for dying. Fucking livid actually. I’d like to say you could have tried harder. You could have. You should have. I needed you to try harder. And now I’m 40 and you’re dead. I’m raising my own children and feeling like a child myself. On some days I am begging you to please Stay! I am wailing and wounded and small. Don’t go!
I’ve been silencing that little kid for a long time now. Nodding at people who tell me “time heals all wounds.” Agreeing with people who suggest I “see a counselor” about it. Thanking the people that say nice things about you on Facebook when it’s your birthday. I have been trying to explain the hurt, as if understanding is what does the healing. Understanding something doesn’t heal it. Hearing it heals it. Loving it heals it. Whatever it was that made you give up, I know it wasn’t me. That was your story, not mine. And I have arrived at a place in which it just isn’t the main story anymore. You living. You dying. You leaving. It is one part of one story of so many. I can see that daughter that pounds the earth screaming “Why?” and just wants her daddy and wants to know why he left. And I love her. And I know you love her. I can see her and be her at the same time.
Today though, I am the daughter that writes you a letter and cries some while she writes.
I am the daughter that plants tomatoes in every sunny spot in the yard and loves you.