For some reason, when my brother told me our dad was dead, I immediately went and listened to my voicemails. He left me silly voicemails often and I wanted to hear his voice.
I came across the last voicemail he ever left me, a month before. This one wasn’t silly. It was the one he left me when he confessed he doesn’t want to see me ever again. I can’t bring myself to listen to it again. But if I scroll back far enough I have the message he left me after I got engaged. He was positively giddy and I smile just thinking about it.
A lot happened in between those two voicemails.
My dad was a wonderful father. He also suffered from the disease of addiction. I wasn’t aware of this for most of my youth and if I’m being honest, I’ll never quite square these two versions of him. It’s like he had an alter ego that his old friends knew well but I only saw the aftereffects of: A divorce or a bankruptcy or a job that didn’t work out. But later in his life, I became more familiar with that alterego.
So when my phone rang last August at 4 a.m., I knew what it was about. My dad was dead at the age of 54.
Up until that moment, whenever I’d see friends suffer the loss of a family member, some pre-planned mechanism would spin into place. The last wishes of the deceased were obvious. They had set aside money. Or at least mentioned what they wanted to have happen next. Those friends were then free to grieve a terrible loss.
My dad had no living will. No life insurance. He wasn’t married. He owed more money than he had to his name. We eventually learned his house was in the foreclosure process (shoutout to the lawyers that continue to try and bully my brothers and I into paying). There was no “estate.” I wasn’t even thinking of asking him about his plans for such a thing. I was hoping he still had decades left.
And in those hours after someone dies unexpectedly, you stop thinking rationally. You just hone in on one tiny detail like you’re on a high ledge and you can’t look down. I became desperate to find some note, or message. Something that told me what he was up to for his last few months when we weren’t speaking. Something that explained his internal tug of war, these two sides.
I knew I had to start coming to grips with the fact I might never know more about him (and his wishes) then I did at his passing. There were two versions of him, and I only really knew one of them. I knew the one that would make sure I took my school work seriously. The one that taught me how to stand up for myself physically and intellectually. The one that never missed a soccer game. It was the version I didn’t know until very late in my life, his alter ego, that killed him.
The day after he died, my two brothers and I went from room to room opening drawers and turning over furniture. Maybe there was something on his computer? His phone?
That’s when, rummaging through boxes in the basement, we found his journal. I opened it and cried. He wrote on the inside cover “Upon my death this book is property of [my sons], I ask you all to read this and protect it and keep it with the family treasures.” It was a discovery that, if I saw it in a movie, I’d roll my eyes and change the channel. But 48 hours after he died, he threw us a life raft.
The journal is a window to my dad’s inner workings. He kept that journal for four years writing on and off in both times of darkness and moments of clarity. The handwriting goes from illegible scribbles and back again often.
It was a window into the mind of a loving father. It was a look into the fraught thought process of a deeply analytical man. A religious man who knew he was sinning. An addict who was self-aware, and still couldn’t pull himself out from the abyss. It was Jekyll talking to Hyde. Bruce Banner talking to the Hulk. And, in honor of my dad I feel I must also include: It’s Data talking to Lore.
Flipping through the journal I arrived on one page where he wrote a note to my wife after meeting her for the first time when we were dating.
“Tonight, I had one of the most wonderful days of my life,” he wrote. “I met Sean’s #1 love.” He then asked her to take care of me. “I can’t be there anymore, but you can.” And he even drew a picture of all of us as a new, bigger family. It’s one of a few times in the journal it became heartbreakingly clear: He knew he was going to die soon—something he never touched on when I spoke to him.
The journal, like the man, is complicated.
The night after my father died, my brother would eventually read it cover to cover in a night. That’s when he found the passage. The one where he said what he wanted us to do if he were to die. And it involved a family tradition we had: going camping in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a remote area in South Jersey best known as being on the way to the Jersey Shore and a place where mobsters supposedly hid their bodies.
His request was for us to revisit our favorite campsite:
“I feel like I may not be around forever so please…go to Hawkins Bridge campsite, spend time together and create a new traditional for each of you and your children. You are each the crown of my life and what God has given me…Your children are nothing more than the memories they spend with you. Please learn from this.”
For the first time since his death I felt some degree of relief. We didn’t have a will. But we had a journal. And we could make sure that our dad would always be with us whenever we followed his instructions.
After his funeral, my brothers and arrived at the campsite, still wearing our suits with a box containing my dad’s ashes in the back seat. It was the campsite we had spent so many weekends with our dad. We have boxes of pictures of us all together there. It’s where he taught us how to drive, throw a football, and crack a joke. And now, this time, we came to bury him.
My brothers and I split up, gathered firewood, cleared the fire pit, and then arranged the kindling. And then we sat around the fire and enjoyed each other’s company, just like he taught us.
The weather was beautiful, filling the air with light, warm air. The normally oppressive August sun was filtered by the pines, so soft rays of light dotted the woods. If God asked me to lock Earth’s weather to one day, I’d choose August 30th, 2017. In the previous two years my brothers and I lost our uncle, our grandmother, and our dad. It seemed that after the losing most of our family tree in a three-year span, the Blandas got a tiny break.
My brothers and I didn’t talk much. It was the last bit of closure and it was important we did it correctly.
We walked down the trail to Hawkins Bridge and ambled down to the shore line. We were three grown men in tailored suits, our most expensive shoes, and a box of our old man’s ashes.
Some campers clad in camo gear nearby watched us pass by. We made eye contact but didn’t exchange words.
I took my brother’s pocket knife and opened the box. I tip-toed down to the river bank and slashed the plastic bag containing his white ashes and let them spill into the Batsto River. They took on the consistency of smoke that danced in the cedar river, sprinting under the bridge, and into a ray of sunshine. I like to think it was the peaceful resting place he deserved.
My brother and I then stood on the bridge. We separated. One of us smoked a cigarette. We took our last moments alone with our dad.
My brother pulled out the journal and read a passage from his journal. It was the second part of his request of us. It was the closing paragraphs of what he wanted to happen after his death.
“Teach your children who I may never meet with the Lord inside you. God must be inside you for how could you have lived the life you lived?…God bless you and thank you for making me a better person and a child of God.”
We shared a hug. My younger brother etched my father’s name into the side of the bridge. He lived here now.
Our task was done and we could start to grieve now. And after keeping it together for most of the week I hugged my brother, I suddenly found myself unable to stand and sobbed as he held me up.
My dad didn’t have a tidy ending. I won’t. And neither will you. Our lives will not be a slow positive upward slope before we die in our sleep surrounded by our loved ones.
My dad loved us unconditionally. He kept his darker side a secret from us for years. I’m mad at him for that. But I’m glad he did. I saw him the way an oldest son should look up to his father.
I like to think that was my dad’s goal. To show us the full picture he couldn’t when he was alive. To make sure he wouldn’t become some caricature to my brothers and his future grandchildren. It’s through the journal that I realized the internal struggle he was going through. And that sometimes the worst part of ourselves will win. And I’m not sure I could have handled knowing the full extent of that when he was alive.
My brothers and I will hold onto that journal for the rest of our lives. When my future children are old enough, I’ll encourage them to read it cover to cover — they’ll need to meet their grandfather and know where he lives now.
Dad, it’s only after all this that feel like I know who you were. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I miss you and I’ll see you in the Pine Barrens soon.