It’s 2013, and I’m at a gas station in Nevada, having the best phone conversation I’ve had with my father in a long, long while.
The details behind the conversation are long and complicated and best left for another time and another storyline. I am on the phone, early morning in Nevada, closing in on noontime in Boston. I had braced myself for whatever the call would bring, but instead of what I had anticipated, I have an effortless and connected talk about road trips.
I’m in the middle of my road trip to San Francisco, just a day’s drive away from California. My father is hours away from being discharged from the hospital, brought in for what would turn out to be simple dehydration. And from his hospital bed, he tells me about driving to Mt. Rushmore, about trekking across Wyoming with nothing but his camper trailer and his two buddies by his side.
There is a camaraderie in how we talk, as if this has always been our relationship. I eventually hang up, carrying the thought, “So this is what it’s supposed to feel like,” with me as I return to the car, as we set off for the Pacific Ocean. It is our best conversation in years — decades, potentially — and it will be the last good conversation we ever have. And I don’t know what tires my bones more: the fact that it would be our last good, meaningful conversation before he’d pass, or the fact that it would be two more years before he’d pass.
There was a man I never met, a man I wish I had met.
There was once a man who was ready to take on everything by storm. A man who wanted to explore the world and become a lawyer and be a leader and live passionately. A man who scaled the tallest mountains in the region and lived for the outdoors. I’d see him in small snippets from time to time, when my father would come up with a harebrained idea, or waltz out onto the dance floor with unbridled gusto. But, by that point in his life, those were all just echoes, faint sounds muffled through the layers of time, the multi-layered demons — and the older he got, the fainter the echoes became, and the less I saw of the man I was never introduced to.
There was a man who gave me part of my inheritance, and I never got the chance to properly learn who he was.
The man I did know bared little resemblance to the first one. And I spent too long refusing to take ownership of that side of my inheritance — the one given to me by the man I had bared witness to for most of my life — only to learn too late that it had taken ownership of me. I spent too much time looking at the destruction I could create, putting my head in my hands, and bemoaning, “I am my father’s daughter.” I spent so much time in Al-Anon meetings and therapy, uncovering what it actually meant to be an adult child of an alcoholic, what it meant to grow up in the toxic, chaotic environment that I did, and what in the world could I do with this particular portion of my inheritance — an inheritance that felt more like a redistribution of debt, the sins of the father moving down the generations.
But that’s only part of it, and it’s easy to focus on the negative — no, it’s needed to focus on the negative. At first, at least: know what you have been given so you know what you are capable of, so you know what to do to rise above it. Know your enemy, even when your enemy is a part of yourself.
But it can’t stay there. There’s so much more to this inheritance, to what got passed down the generations. I know this sense of adventure of mine is due in part because of my father, not despite it. My harebrained ideas and blind enthusiasm are two heirlooms handed over from the man behind the layers. I am that man I never met when I go out onto the dance floor with the same willful irreverence. I have his wit, his innovation. He is there every time I pack up the car and go on a roadtrip and ache to go through another state, another territory. He is there every time I look at a manuscript and decide, “This is the one, the one that will get me to the bestseller’s list.” He is someone who faded away before his time, but still possessed the vital gifts that had been given to me.
It’s now been two years since I got that phone call, early one Wednesday morning, my emotionally overwhelmed mother trying to tell me that the thing we had been anticipating all week had happened. I had once made a vow to never make the same mistakes he made, to never go down the paths that he had dug out for himself. But I had to also learn to vow to uphold the good I was given, to continue to be harebrained and wandering and wildly & blindly enthusiastic about things. To recognize that not everything that had been handed down to me must be caged up and monitored and examined like specimens.
Because it is through those adventures, through living my life with a wild but delicate spirit, that I meet the man I never met.