A year and a half ago, my dad came to Los Angeles for work, and for a short visit. His visits never felt long enough, and if I got him for two nights (as I did on this particular August trip), I considered myself lucky.
My pre-teen self would have likely cringed at the thought of spending more time with Dad. He was always embarrassing my sister and me by doing things like actually talking to our friends, asking us questions about our lives, or picking us up at middle school dances—while wearing his weekend uniform of running tights—minus the shorts that were typically worn on top. He would feign ignorance at our horror, and laugh. He let it roll off his back and become one of the stories we told later that made us all smile.
I don’t know when the shift happened, but somewhere along the way it became a sort of bragging right: having a dad other people, and I, wanted to be around. And because I had him for two evenings on this summer trip, I was willing to share him for a night. My friends invited us to meet them at an outdoor park in Marina del Rey for a symphonic concert and picnic. We went, with wine and homemade kale chips and chocolate. My dad sat down next to me on the plaid blanket, batted his long, dark eyelashes and charmed everyone within minutes.
I asked him to try the kale chips; he gave me that squinty side-eyed, head-cocked look that he always gave me when I suggested something he was skeptical about. It was a look I had expected to receive when I broke the news that I was moving across the country, when I explained that I was quitting my job to travel, or when I told him that I wanted to write a book. But what materialized then instead was a hug, the kind that wrapped all the way around and enveloped me, and words I didn’t know I needed to hear: “Honey, I will always be proud of you.” I knew how deeply he meant it, how much he really wanted me to listen, when he put his hands on my shoulders and began with honey.
That night he bravely tasted a kale chip, which he washed down immediately with wine. “Not for him” was the verdict, as he reached for the cheese and crackers, and the dark chocolate chips. I couldn’t blame him, really. I inherited his sweet tooth along with his stubbornness, and his love for The Yankees and The Giants.
We watched the sun sink lower in the sky above the marina. The strings and the woodwind instruments accompanied the sailboats as they passed before us, backlit by fading golden rays of light. My picture of the sunset that night was captioned, “can it be summer forever?” I wish I had written what was even truer: “can this moment last just a little longer?”
I realized soon after, that the sunset, the symphony and I, had all lost my dad’s attention. He was captivated, enamored by a huge, fluffy ball of fur seated just behind him. The dog whisperer, I thought that night. He spent the majority of the next hour swapping puppy stories with the owners, and cuddling this giant dog. When he said goodbye to them in the parking lot later, it was with reluctance and covered in dog hair. He bonded quickly about dogs, about watches, about anything really. He so easily connected with other people, he could have led a master class in it, were it something that could be taught. My friends would text me later: “Your dad is so sweet! We love him.”
I try to encompass all the things he was, or even all of the things he was to me in limited space. I think about all of the skills he taught me: how to buy a watch, how to lease a car, how to talk to clients, how to stay calm in a small plane, how to navigate a roundabout from the left side of the road in Ireland. I endeavor to permanently imprint on my heart all of the lessons he revealed to me: how to be kind, how to forgive, how to make people smile, how to be more patient, how to love without holding back. I attempt to remember every detail: the cowlicks in his thick hair, the way he refused to wear socks with his boat shoes, the feel of his strong hand around mine, the closed smile he used for photos, and the real, eye-crinkling smile he shared in person, the smell of his skin, the precise shade of those beautiful blue eyes.
But the loss has muddled my thoughts, and blurred my memories.
Instead, my mind keeps returning to that August night in Marina del Rey: a blazing sun setting behind white sails, Sauvignon Blanc and Monterey Jack for dinner, Gershwin and sheepdogs to follow us into our dreams. And my heart remembers this one perfect night with the first man I ever loved, the one who kissed bruises and wiped away tears, the one who was always there to greet me with a hug, and give a ride home from Newark Airport, the one who made sure I knew how much he loved me every day of my life.
This loss feels like it is just mine, but of course it is shared in part by everyone who knew him, and even those who didn’t. When I left the hospital that final time, in grief’s haze, the waxing moon hung lower in the sky than I have ever seen it. To my swollen eyes, it looked heavy, like it was sinking, weighted down with our sorrow.
Or like someone in the sky figured out how to fly the moon at half-mast, to honor my dad.