My Dad as an old man is a mystery.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s right—or if it is, I must qualify. My father, who would have been eighty years old on May 8, is the sort of mystery that is blankness, unanswerable, beyond the reach of workaday comprehension. This isn’t the mystery of suspense, not a whodunnit enticing you forward with tantalizing clues. Dad’s story is over. We know how it ends, and when: dead of brain cancer, aged 58, in December 1997.

His life ended, but my Dad still exists, which is the enigma. I’m grateful for the half-life a person lives in thought and memory, but I didn’t ask to be a keeper of his legacy. I’d rather he were still here, in charge of his own representation.

More than twenty years after he died, I still get lost in the hollows of “What would…?” Those hard questions settle like cobbles in the unfirm watercourse of memory, too heavy to be thrown out by the current of passing time. Such queries swirl and spin in hopeless entrapment, carving depressions, bowls, chambers. What would he be like now? What would he look like as an old man? What would he think of these times, our issues of the day? What would we talk about? What would our love look like?

When I’m with my family, we acknowledge such questions even as we sidestep the blankness they imply. My personal favorite is to ask “Can you imagine him with a cell phone?” deftly steering the conversation clear of confrontation with loss, diverting us into hyperbolic speculation and laughter about the many ways he’d never be away from the infernal thing. As it was, back before wireless technology, he always managed to be on the phone, tied to his desk by its springy cord, vanished from the bar or the restaurant table to a payphone in the hall by the bathrooms. Even while driving, he’d chat on the CB radio or raise the operator on the mobile telephone service: “Edith? It’s Jones. Can you dial….” To be in public with him meant making do with his divided attention.

As one of the curators of his memory, I want to be a good proprietor, but certain dishonesties are inevitable. I cannot see the world the way he did, and my perspective on even our shared history veers wide of his. When I was young, I knew plenty about his infidelities and indiscretions—more than a daughter probably should—but there’s lots more I don’t know, and don’t care to. During my college years, I sometimes got dirty glares from cute female bartenders, women who bristled when I walked in to be greeted with a grin and a hug and a kiss, women who visibly relaxed when I was introduced as the daughter. He wasn’t cynical, and whether he rationalized away the cruelties of his relationships or simply found a way to ignore what was, to him, collateral damage, I don’t know. I do think he was sincere in his affections and honest in the intensity of his passions. He loved people, loved drinking and gambling, loved the mountains and fishing and hunting. He’d claim he had no regrets, but I was with him enough in his final months to believe that he was haunted by at least a few. This belief is just my opinion, of course, or it could just be whitewashing; either way, it’s another part of the mystery.

Gregarious and entrepreneurial, my father was compelled to be in company with people. He was constantly working deals, ever-ready to propose a get-together, spontaneous to the core. Meet me a the Elks in 30 minutes for a beer (although he would most likely be late); Let’s swing by to see __ on the way through town. We’re going camping on the Piedra this weekend, want to come?

What he wasn’t, and never will be, was old, and there are layers to this fact that trouble me more the older I myself become. It bothers me that picturing my father at eighty takes imagination, that he is, at that age, a fictional characterization.

He’s locked in memory as that familiar fifty-something guy, bearded, blue eyes bracketed with creases carved by an easy smile and a too-short lifetime of squinting in the Colorado sun. My mind’s eye involuntarily puts him outside, a bandana scarf around his neck and a sweat-stained cowboy hat on his head.

If the vocabulary file in my mind offers the word “ageless” in response to this image, the rest of my brain pounces, snarling. Anything but ageless. Gone way too fucking young.


  1. Hi Andrea, I am sorry about your dad. (I lost mine in 2010 and it still feels like it happened yesterday.) May I say, your last line is perfect.

    • C.M., I learned a lot from my dad (including how to curse); what I never anticipated was how much I would continue to learn from him after he died. It’s no compensation, though.

    • Thank you, Tanja. Sometimes our relationships with loved ones are complicated, and loss doesn’t end up simplifying things much.

    • Beth, thank you. Losing parents is one of those peculiarly complicated human experiences, isn’t it? Just when I think I’ve re-established equilibrium, I find out I haven’t. Warmest thoughts to you.

  2. Oh my. As you know, I am an advocate of using strong language –profanity– only where appropriate. There’s even a quote–which even Google will not give me– to the effect that “If you habitually say s___ before the ladies, you have nothing left to say when” something really bad happens. I think it was Twain. Well, if ever there was a piece of writing that had to have that last line, it’s this one. I may never use the word again without thinking of this essay. And at the same time I am saying this, I am in tears at what it means, and picturing you– tough as anyone I know, able to mask your feelings very well– and what it means to have you say this. Thanks for a valuable lesson in writing.

    • Linda, I think this little essay was the hardest writing work I’ve done in years, even though it came together in fairly short order. I dithered over whether to leave the last line as-is from the working draft, but I decided to punch it. Although I am, as you probably know, an incurable potty-mouth in person, I don’t tend to swear in print–but that was pretty much, is pretty much, how I feel. At least I didn’t need to root around in the thesaurus for something flowery….

  3. This is an exceptional piece, AJ, full of depth, courage and truth. I’m sorry you lost him so early, but glad the what ifs are accessible to you even if sometimes painful. My father was a huge figure in my life, too, both difficult and loving, but most of all just so incredibly formative.
    Thanks for putting this one out there. I will share with others because it deserves exposure.
    This has been a challenging year for me personally, so ba d at keeping up with people while I’ve been focused on healing my leg. Today as I write this I am in the Vail hospital where I just had surgery to remove all the hardware. It went very well and should really lead to full healing after I just recover from this latest surgery. I really want to catch up with you this summer!

    • Pat, thank you for sharing the link to your essay about your dad. I’ve begun to think that the informal learning we do in the company of family gets hidden in the mash-ups that are our young adult socializations, but surfaces, eventually. That idea of physical skill as character is really lovely, and puts a phrase to an idea I would struggle to express.

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