Blank Inside

I went to Walgreens to find a card to send to my mother. It’s been a year today since my father died and, while I plan to call her, an artifact seemed… not appropriate, but necessary.

We are not an emotional family, which is to say, like so many families, we drown in emotions we’re culture-bound to not share or acknowledge. (Except for me on the internet, apparently.) I loved my father and still have threads that will now never be resolved. To a certain degree, I knew this would be a fact a decade or more ago. I know that, god bless her, when my mother passes, the same situation will exist. I understand my parents to a degree I never thought I would and, well, I am who I am in no small part because of who they are (or were, as it may be). But we will not have those deep, Oscar-worthy conversations at The End of Things.

My father was a stoic, clockwork figure in our household. His morning routine was rigid: up at 6am, pray, rouse me from bed, and then cook one egg whisked with a fork and fried in a 5″ cast iron skillet, served on one slice of toast. That sandwich (?) was eaten over the course of 10-ish minutes as he read a devotional and the corresponding Bible passage. I would stumble through his routine to the shower, returning as he cleaned his plate over my mother’s meticulously-cleaned sink, careful to mop up any soapy water that splashed out of the basin.

Friday’s were special, as breakfast happened in a restaurant. My father would get ready at 6am and then join a set of colleagues at one of two restaurants open for breakfast; one fancy, one less so. Breakfast was the same at either place for him: 2 eggs, bacon, white toast, jelly. When I was a young teen, I was invited to join him on Fridays and it felt like I’d been promoted to the adult table at Christmas. I’m sure I was a know-it-all prick, but I loved every second of being around people in suits and dresses drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes over newspapers and eggs.

My fondest memories of him are watching him play softball on a rural baseball diamond, as I sucked on a candy cigarette, keeping box scores, and recording balls and strikes on a scoreboard control panel that resembled a 1980’s Cold War prop. My father was, at that point, reliving his youthful glory days, basking in the late sun of Michigan summers along with dozens of men he’d played against in high school, college, and quadruple-A baseball leagues. All of them knew stakes didn’t exist and yet played like Sparky Anderson might call them up anyway.

I remember him getting hurt during a game. A nasty inside pitch he thought he could hit, but probably was meant to brush him off the plate. He decided to swing, realized late it was going to hit him, and fell, twisting away from the ball, and landing on the butt end of his bat. Two bruised ribs later, he slowly started to pull away from the league, first to the outfield instead of pitching, then to coaching, then to spectating once in a while. I don’t remember when he stopped going, but it was after I’d started playing in high school. He rarely came to my games; we played right after school and corporate wasn’t flexible around schedules in those days.

I was a terrible ball player and he really never gave me advice. I’d watched him pitch and knew that both his brothers had done the same for Michigan State. For many years I thought he didn’t coach me because he knew I was never going to be as good as he was. The focus of his life had also changed from baseball fields to the backrooms and pews of a church. Yet my teenage brain always wondered why he had time to console members who’d lost loved ones, but not teach me or my brother about the things he loved. Looking back now, I believe it was a time issue; high school time schedules didn’t mesh well with corporate hours and travel itineraries. I also believe he was trying to not impose his desires and nostalgia onto my life; I didn’t have to be a good baseball player to be worthy of his pride. But I will always wonder.

I don’t say this out of spite, or anger, or hurt. I miss him terribly and regret all the times I stopped short of asking him a litany of questions. I wish I’d asked him about his youth, about his father, about the things children perceive but can’t name in their own household. I have pictures of him that look a lot like me, but from a time I don’t recognize. I want to hear those stories, understand a photo, know his feelings about things.

But that was not our relationship. What time I had after I realized what I’d wasted in my own youth was stolen from both of us by Parkinson’s and distance. And my own conflicted feelings of my origins. Because while I have questions, I don’t know that I would have dared ask some of them, much less expect–or want–an answer.

The last year was stolen by COVID. Locked away in a facility, he survived COVID pre-vaccine. My mother stood outside his window, cell phone pressed to her ear, watching desperately as he failed to understand how he was talking to her. Facetime calls ended in confusion as he searched his room for where she was. I never got to visit him as he slipped away, his condition relayed to me like so many stories I’d heard growing up. “Do you remember Ryan’s father, Marlin? Well…”

It’s been a year since I sat in a funeral home, alone in a room with him in a casket, weeping not just for the man–the father–passed on from this world, but for all the withered time I had wasted. I loved my father, despite a relationship I thought was required to conform to rules I’d absorbed over 20 years at home and in a community. Leaving home and living in the broader world made me realize too late that those rules were constructs, yet they were rules he lived within. I could never bring myself to break his rules, especially just for my own curiosity.

In his last years, I often fantasized about going to their home and, NPR style, deploying microphones and recording gear to ask him about family history, about his life, about how all the coded stories actually played out in his life. But I didn’t because it was, from his frame of reference, clearly mad to do and I knew it wouldn’t play out like I would have hoped.

He died one year ago today, with my mother at his side, in a nursing home about an hour from where he was born.

I will never sit next to him arguing about how to fill out a box score only for him to vindicated via stadium announcement. I will never have the chance to ask him any of a thousand questions that will live in my mind until I die. I will never hear his laugh, I will never see him look across the room at my mother like he’d only just met the most beautiful woman, I will never again receive a proudly-built yet terribly-constructed woodworking gift. His name will never again appear on my phone or inbox.

The world is less in his absence. And so am I.

The card I bought at Walgreens was blank inside. Every sympathy or thinking-of-you card was trite or saccharine and my mother would have seen through the awful language in them and know it wasn’t from my heart. So I bought a blank card with the full intent to draft a meaningful message on this anniversary. In the end, the card contains exactly what I was feeling: “I don’t know what to say, and I’m not sure there’s anything to be said. I love you and think of you often.” It may not be literature, but it was honest.

I hope you found peace in the next life, Dad. I love you and miss you.

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