Originally published in Scarab Magazine
Whenever a new acquaintance discovers that my father died when I was four, the confession never comes at a moment where such large topics are, or should be discussed. It usually comes as a short side note—rushed through, between a set of implied em dashes—to a banal anecdote.
“That’s a cool t-shirt,” someone will say, at a party where I am wearing a vintage tee emblazoned with some brand of liquor. When my dad was alive, he was a manager for the New Hampshire State Liquor Commission. Though my parents hardly drank, my childhood was punctuated with all sorts of alcoholic tchochkies.
“Yeah, my dad—”
How the conversation proceeds from here depends on certain variables. It is possible the person will know that my father works as an office manager at a tire garage. They do not yet know that he is my stepfather. In the least complicated scenario, the person is not on track to becoming more than an acquaintance. So, I will say:
“Yeah, my dad was a manager at the State Liquor Commission.” Was. It is deceptive, but not lying.
If it seems the person will become ‘part’ of my life, then I figure they need to know more.
“Yeah, my dad, when he was alive—.” Their face contorts in surprise, so here’s where the em dash comes in: “—my dad died of esophageal cancer when I was four—.” Then I continue with the small talk, “he worked as a manager…” It is clear that the talk is now anything but small. The listener will most likely proceed in varying degrees of awkward trepidation.
Other times, even in the case of an acquaintance, I will slip and say something like:
“Yeah, my first dad—”
This suggests that there is a second, and requires me to insert the em dash statement, knowing from the get-go that the conversation will turn from light party talk to tones of sympathy and shock. I will now be forced into a longer chunk of scripted text in order to explicate the confession, hoping to relieve any empathetic obligation.
“Yeah, he died, but I don’t mind talking about it. I was so young, so I really only remember flashes—collecting tadpoles, an IV next to the couch. I’m not depressed about it, and it’s not like I’m mad at God or anything. Plus, my mom got remarried to a guy I’ve always called ‘Dad’ with no qualms. He is my dad. Really, don’t feel weird about it.”
But they always feel weird. Thirty seconds prior the person was just chatting, holding a lukewarm Miller High Life. Now the beer is chilled by the icy sounds of ‘died, father, was.’
I want to just say ‘thanks’ when someone compliments my shirt, but I am doomed to repetition. The em dash blurb is loosely zippered into my cheek, ready to be formed at the slightest provocation. It is as if I am thinking, “Perhaps, this time, it will make more sense.”
© Bryan Parys 2009
Interview with Scarab editor Brian Wilkins where I discuss this piece and my creative nonfiction work in general: