I used to envy my little brother, who unlike me was raised in a unbroken home. Our father crawled around on the floor with him and took him bike-camping and strove to instill in him good Suzuki cello habits. Around the time my brother turned 4, the age I was when my parents divorced, I became particularly attuned to the injustices I'd been suffering from early childhood onward.
As I grew older I knew I was experiencing the intensified greenness of the more distant grasses. Whatever my alternate, non-existent life might have had in store for me, it wasn't the life I saw playing out in front of me. In fact, the life I saw playing out in front of me used the toys I had loved for a long time, and I still got to play with them. The songs Dad used to sing or play on his recorder were still there for me, and the House at Pooh Corner stood where it always had, anchoring my bedtime memories. Nothing my brother had was unavailable to me.
Later, I had trouble with the love Dad shared with his neighbors, specifically the kids a half-generation behind me. They all seemed to grow up into engaged, enjoyable adults with partners and babies and the habit of intentional conversation with my father. To hear he had a monthly lunch with one and an ongoing musical conversation with another gave me pangs.
Luckily, I became aware of these relationships around the same time I became aware Dad was dying. I used my envy to remind me that if there was something I wanted, some engagement, some focused time, some casual hanging out – any of that was available to me, and none of it was threatened by his lifelong friendships with kids he'd known from infancy on.
As sharp as some of my envy pangs were, I knew I had a unique relationship with Dad, and a unique opportunity to be with him more, and be more myself with him as I probed who he was and what he'd been through. I spent a great deal of time in 2011 and 2012 starting difficult conversations with him, and after his stroke, following along as patiently as I could his trains of thought.
Sometimes he bored me, and thoroughly. Another reference to the BBC adaptation of “The Forsyte Saga” (the original 1967 version, not the 21st-century reboot) or the life and films of Alexander Korda or the symposium on the mathematical works of Alfred Tarski, and I thought I'd lose my mind. However, I see boredom as a sign that I'm not getting what I want, and what I wanted was contact and connection with Dad. I decided to stop resisting and start trying to understand why these particles of culture were touchstones in his last months. We could ride these trains of thought together, and our conversations about arcana became the basis for the memoir in three voices my sister and I are now writing.
The neighborhood kids (all in their 30s) didn't get to have those conversations. They didn't get to sit with him last fall while he read the poems of Lewis Carroll and T.S. Eliot and A.A. Milne into my digital recorder. They didn't get to spend hours asking him to take one more drink, or running out for Thai iced tea, or going through his absentee ballot with him line by line so he could participate in democracy one last time.
I still have envious wishes, the whispers of a hurt little girl who never really understood why her daddy had to move out. Yet in order to get through the last days and months, I had to let go of what could have been and focus on what was. And I had to allow myself to shape the time we had together into something good, something healthy, and something imperfect. I gave Dad the best I could at the time, and I know he did the same.
I just didn't get everything that little girl wanted.