Happy Birthday! I really wanted to post a picture of you or of us, but I’ve found that since I’m on the road, I don’t have any pictures on this computer. Yes, I’m still vagabonding around the country. I’m like you that way, I can pick up and go and travel and just have this boundless and wondrous energy for overturning stones and finding new places to dig into. Yes, I’m keeping a journal. Yes, I promise to write that book you always wanted me to write.
I wanted to tell you a story. It’s about Joe, or Papa, or my step-dad. Yes, we never really got along when I was a kid, you know that. There was a lot of power-struggling going on and competing for my mom’s attention. You heard a lot of it over the years. But all that really started to change when I left for college and our relationship got better as we both aged. Four years ago, the first Christmas that he and my mom separated, when it came time for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, I invited you as my date. Having you there sharing that special annual tradition was a one of the best nights of my life.
The following year, you were not able to make it. You weren’t here anymore, we had lost you. After dinner was over, and the guests had left Papa told me this story:
He told me that all those years I had been growing up that secretly he had a relationship with you. Since you and my mom never had a speaking relationship, you would call and talk to Joe. And it was a secret you two shared. You would ask about my grades and then about the types of boys that were coming around to take me out on dates. You called about college and to see how I was adjusting, you called and asked how my post-college blues were and how my job-hunt was going and discussed where you thought I’d fit best.
Of course, I told you so much. You were the only one I felt like I could confide in for most of my life. My whole life, if you picked me up, you were always five minutes early. Early! No one is early anymore Dad, that’s the one amazing quality that I have never found in anyone else. If I came up to your apartment you were waiting at the elevator banks when the doors opened so the first thing I would see is you. Whether I stayed for dinner or the whole weekend, we would get a rotisserie chicken from George Aiken’s on Murray Avenue (and when they closed Giant Eagle) and eat it for dinner and then have the leftovers cold the next day with lots of ketchup. I would curl up next to you on the couch, even as a young adult, and you would ask me questions about my classes and my friends and I would talk about how I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life. How would I ever find my way? How I would ever find my “thing” as I used to say it, the piece that is supposed to make me feel whole. When I couldn’t turn to my mom or my step-dad, you were there.
But what a shock all these years later to find out that you and Joe had actually been in cahoots to take care of me. That you cared to call and talk about me and that he cared to talk back.
So in the final hours of that Christmas eve, Papa continued to tell me this story of a friendship between two men that I never even knew was there. He said frequently he would be sitting at The Coffee Tree in Sq. Hill and you would go by and he’s stand up and say, “Les, my man, how you doing?” And the two of you would embrace and talk, sometimes about Pittsburgh politics, and sometimes about the weather and sometimes about me. And you’d go walking down the street and Papa would sit back down with his buddies and they ask “Who was that you just talked to?” Papa would say, “That’s Sloaney-girls Dad, Les.” And they would say, “Isn’t it a little strange to be so friendly with him?” And Papa would say, “There is no greater bond that two men can share than the love for their daughter.”
Hearing this story, knowing now what I never could have imagined back then was just enough to send me into a gushing waterfall of tears. Of course you always said that I was the most sensitive one, but just never let people see that side of me.
I’m sorry I could never talk about you those first two years. Maybe even 2 1/2 years. I felt an actual lump in my throat whenever I waned to bring you up and I just couldn’t do it. If I did talk about you, it was in the present, as if you were still here. That I could do. I didn’t think it was lying if I said I visited you when I went home on trips to Pittsburgh. After all, I did visit you. I drove out to the cemetery and laid on the grass, cold with snow, damp with spring rain or sunny and wrapped my arms around the Earth until my clothes were soaken wet with tears and dirt and I would tell you all about what was going on in my life. But to tell people you had died. That you were gone? No, I couldn’t do it. I certainly didn’t tell any of the boys I dated or new friends I made, or new coworkers. There were people who knew me before, and people I met afterward, I just avoided the topic.
I know they say the best way to honor someone’s memory is to talk about them. But I just couldn’t find it in me to show that incredible weakness that caused the tears to flow at the sudden memory of you. Slowly that changed. Grief has stages. And eventually and slowly I have been able to say that you’ve passed on without the waterworks starting. I even told a friend recently multiple stories about you and didn’t even think to cry. I found the most miraculous thing, in talking about you, and asking people for help and support on days when I didn’t feel great and when I was in the depths of my sadness, I allowed myself to be human. And I allowed myself to be seen as human by others and not just this go-go-gadget bundle of energy that never stops. I was a real live girl Dad. In letting some of those good friends into my grief, into the parts of us that are “human,” I strengthened bonds with friends that I never knew could exist. The best silver lining was my ability to learn to ask for help, and to know that my friends would be there for me when I needed them to be.
In the past three years my life has changed so much! I’ve come into my own and I owe a lot of that to you, all you wanted was for me to move back from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh and be close to home. You weren’t subtle in your hints! When you died, I realized if I was going to be 3,000 miles away, I needed to make it count for something. I’ve been on a roll ever since. Your hero was Winston Churchill and the quote I gave at your eulogy was, “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”
That has never been more true than now.
If I could have just one wish, it would be a hug from you and to hear you say you’re proud of me. Proud of this journey I’m on and confident that the next steps will fall into place just as they should. I know you traveled all over Europe and I just can’t believe I don’t know if you ever visited New Orleans. You would have eaten this city up with its rich culture and European ways. I would have loved for you to come visit me here.
Here in New Orleans they have something called the “Second Line.” It can be a parade or a dance but it’s meant to celebrate those who have passed. It’s the second line behind the casket. It’s a celebration of life. As I’ve been here, I’ve noticed so much of the loss around Katrina reminds me of you. Catastrophic loss, I’ve had people tell me, only matches the loss of a parent. Yet, as New Orleans recovers and gets back on its feet, I found over the past year I have done the same. I am ready to celebrate you. I’m ready to lead a second line in your honor.
On your birthday, I’m going to do what I’ve done the last three years to remember you. A secret that I’m not quite ready to share yet. But the day is dedicated to your memory and to the creation of four beautiful daughters, the youngest of which is still finding her way in the world, but oh boy, Daddy-O, I think I’m really starting to come into my greatness and I know you’re looking out for me every step of the way.
I miss you.
Your Little Girl,