“She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?” ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The first anniversary of my father’s death is in three weeks, January 14, 2018.
As a kid, I thought about death a lot. I would get that electric panic that the self sends jolting through the body when it contemplates its extinction. I would jump up and down or turn on the television to block out the dread. I was fifteen when I read the passage in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess contemplates the date of her own death, “a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year.”
It stuck with me.
Every January, when I fill my planner and move my hand across twelve new and unopened months to add appointments and birthdays, I think of the quote.
I thought about Tess on the drive home from the hospice center after my dad died. It was a freezing Maine winter night, so cold that the snow squeaked when we walked outside with my dad’s body to the hearse.
The date of my father’s death had been revealed.
My dad had a handful of touch stone stories that he repeated often. One of his favorites was about how he spent his senior year at boarding school consumed with planning a post graduation, venomous diatribe against one particular teacher. Instead of a cathartic explosive finale, the story ended with a sigh and a tilt of his head.
“It all didn’t matter in the end,” my father concluded, “I crossed the stage, was handed my diploma, and it was over. Just like that. I shook his hand and left the campus.”
The story seemed silly to me when I was a complaining teenager, a waste of rage.
For much of our adult lives, my dad and I overtly and covertly struggled against each other. I visited several times during his slide into dementia, hoping for a neat closure that would finally make everything better between us – a moment that would erase a lifetime of scratchy discomfort.
During my last visit, I apologized for being a difficult teenager and thanked him for how much he sacrificed for our family. I told him that he had done a good job and that his efforts mattered to my mother, brother, and me. He looked surprised and then softer. He turned to my mom and asked, “Did you hear that? That’s really something. I did a good job.”
The exchange held for longer than most conversations but it was soon lost to his disease. Unlike my fantasy, it did not dissolve all the hard feelings that passed between us. Later the same day he looked at me with a familiar annoyed expression and I felt frustrated when he became argumentative in the evening.
Our dance continued.
By the time I arrived at the hospice, my dad was already unresponsive and we would never have another conversation. My mother and I were on either side of my dad when his chest jumped and his face tightened with his final breath. He fell back and suddenly looked younger, at peace.
On the first night when I returned home to Austin I dreamt that I was running through my parents’ house. It was ravaged by termites and about to fall down. I saw my father standing across the street in a park. He looked like he did in a picture that was taken with his best man a couple of days before he and my mom married. In my dream my dad was twenty-five, slender and handsome, wearing a madras shirt and pressed kakis. I told him that he had to leave the house immediately, that he and mom were in danger.
He smiled the most loving smile I had ever seen directed at me and said, “I already left, everything is ok.”
I bolted up. It was as real of a moment as any in a wakeful state. It was then that I knew exactly what my father’s high school story meant and the scratchy discomfort was gone.