It's been a little more than four years since my dad died.
A few weeks ago, on what would have been his 94th birthday, I found myself alone on my couch. Peter had said that he would go out with me for red meat and vodka, two of my dad's favorite things, but he'd canceled a couple of hours earlier. "The cold is still kicking my ass. I can try to rally later and maybe come by."
"No, don't do that," I wrote back. "I'm having a rough time, but it's just a day."
"You're stronger than me in that way. Well, thanks for understanding."
I'd wanted to text back that I wasn't strong, that I was tired of hearing how understanding I was being, that I didn't understand any of what he was doing. I wanted to break down and have him rush over to try to make me feel better. I wanted none of this to be happening. In lieu of any of that, I wanted someone to go out and talk about my dad with me, share funny memories of him. I was tempted to blurt all of that out and see if guilt would get me, at least temporarily, the tiniest bit of what I felt I needed.
I didn't do it, though. I told him to take care of himself and get some sleep. It was the right thing to do, even though it hurt. I guess that was what he meant about me being strong and understanding, even though I didn't feel it. All I felt was alone.
I wandered into the other room, turned on the television, and curled up on the couch. I laid there motionless for hours, so still that my ear went numb from being pressed into the cushion, watching second-rate episodes of Law and Order. It grew dark outside, and the house got cold. I pulled a dog blanket over myself and sighed.
Finally, I shook myself upright. "What are you doing sitting here in the dark? This isn't what Dad would do. Dad would have picked himself up and moved forward, not curled up in a ball feeling sorry for himself. Get up! You're being ridiculous." Right about that time, Ween invited me across the street for wine and popcorn. I got up, brushed my hair, tugged my dad's knit cap over my ears, and headed over to her house. I felt good about honoring his memory by pulling up hard on my own bootstraps.
Funny thing, though. That's not what my dad would have done. My dad would have stayed on the couch under the dog blanket, moping to the point of making himself physically ill. I'd seen him do it, wander around the house for days in a thin, cotton v-neck and sagging sweatpants because one of my brothers didn't call him on Father's Day, or because the Giants had just ended a losing season. He did not handle disappointment or sadness well. I can't remember ever hearing him tell anyone, including himself, to buck up and move forward.
I'd made up this story about how I got that strength from him, the perseverance and the drive. "You keep going, and you don't quit. That's how Dad would have done it. That's who he was and I'm just like him." I'd idealized him, and then congratulated myself on striving to achieve that ideal for myself.
The truth is simpler and more profound. I keep going and I don't quit because that's who I am. That's what I do.
The 'whether" in this story is a choice I am constantly making and reevaluating - whether to stand up or fall down. Whether to draw into the easy cocoon of my sofa, encasing myself in a velour blanket under a hundred pounds of dog, or to reach out and grab the hands that are being extended toward me, to go out into the world and live. The cocoon is easy. Pulling away from it is more challenging. Every couple of weeks, I fall down. The trick is to figure out how to stand back up again. I'm learning.