Losing Daddy

Eric Milner Landscape Design

Eric Milner Landscape Design
My father’s garden drawing

The man who inspired my love of gardening died when I was a little girl. I remember the heat of the day, not unlike this one. When I flip the calendar to August, it may as well be 1969.

I hate August. I hate the smells in the air, the oppressive heat, and that burdening longing that ricochets around in my chest. I’m 52 years old and I miss Daddy.

As a girl, my grief went on forever. I performed a ritual each night before I went to bed: I would kiss his framed picture on the desk in our tiny two-bedroom apartment, and then I would touch his cane and the memory book from the funeral home. Only then could I fall asleep. I’m not sure why the artifacts from the end of his life had special meaning. Perhaps my young mind was trying to reconcile the impossible; that the man in the picture was gone.

Eventually I could tell people he died without falling apart, but then follow-up questions like “how did he die” would trip me up. At some point I crafted the self-contained sentence, “My dad died of lung cancer when I was 9,” incorporating the most oft-asked questions with hopes of putting all of them to an end.

When my at-home ritual and obsession became too much for my Mom, she got angry and threw away the funeral home book. I understand now that she was suffering from her own grief and profound loss, but her anger and frustration stung me. Perhaps it did help me move forward. I only remember the shame when she said, “you have to get over it!”

Grief isn’t linear. It’s impossible to chart its course. Who, more than me, wanted to get over it and move on?

My father’s death and burial were shrouded in mystery. I don’t know why no one took me aside to explain what was happening. One of the most poignant things my therapist asked me was “where were the adults?” One morning I woke to find that our frail father was taken to Peninsula Hospital in the middle of the night. I went with my mother for a “visit” but was not allowed into his room. I sat imagining all sorts of horrible things. Later I learned on the play ground from my older sister’s friend that Dad was in a coma. Finally Mom sat us down and said “your dad isn’t going to make it.” I made her say the words “your dad is going to die,” because I needed to know exactly what was going to happen. I went to sleep each night, telling myself that I wouldn’t cry when I learned he was gone. Ironically, when the news came it was true. A loss like that cuts you to the core. Tears eventually came, but on that early, hot and oppressive August day when I walked in on my mom destroying some of his papers, I simply called out “no.”

We didn’t attend our father’s funeral. I recall that either we were afraid to go, or my mother decided we were too young. She had been traumatized seeing her own father buried and wanted to protect us from the same. Whatever the reason, they are now part of family legend, with no surviving parties to corroborate.

In reality, trauma was piling on all around us. No one explained that he had cancer or what that meant. I didn’t understand that he was dying. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, alive and weak in the hospital or graveside after he died. I thought I saw him walking down the street one day while riding the school bus home. I broke out in a cold sweat. I desperately needed to get home and tell my mother.

Unfinished business is exhausting. It follows you like your own shadow, lurking and ready to pounce when you least expect it. I’ve spent years in a therapist’s chair, on a yoga mat and in creative writing classes sorting this out. In the late eighties, with the help of a friend, I was able to locate my father’s grave. I went alone and wandered in the shade of the trees and took comfort in the tranquility. After that visit, I never felt the need to go back.

Yet here I am all these years later, continuing to write about Daddy.

Green Thumbs are Genetic

Dad was a horticulturist by trade; a gardener by hobby. It recently struck me how much he loved both. Because I was so young when he died, I’ve had to work hard at separating the gentleman from the myth, the man versus the legend. I’ve coveted every detail our mother could share until her memory faded with age and dementia. In 1989 I met his sister and my name sake Aunt Alys at her home in Northwood, England, returning with a fistful of photos.

What I’ve learned is this: he was a beloved brother, a generous spouse and a dad who loved his kids. He involved us in his hobbies, took each of his daughters on individual “dates,” and regularly brought home small gifts that he would hide behind his back till you guessed “which hand.” He was also a big tease, finding ways to “steal” your desert when you weren’t looking. He enjoyed photography and home movies and filled them with images of his children, the cats and the garden. He painted with oils with our mother as his muse and taught us what it meant to have compassion and integrity.

One of the most precious gifts our mother gave us was to say “your father would be so proud of you girls.” Daddy, the feeling is mutual.

Eric Milner: Landscape Notebook

Eric Milner: Landscape Notebook

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