Today is either the thirty-sixth anniversary of my father’s death or the ninth. The inconstancy of this calculation is entirely the fault of the Gregorian calendar and stems from the desire of the sixteenth-century papacy to ensure that Easter fell on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox, which also explains why Easter (and, with it, Lent) remains both a “moveable feast” and a holiday that virtually nobody can keep track of without consulting an almanac or the internet.
To be fair, some orthodox sources (in all senses of the word) reject the above definition, calculating Easter instead on the basis of Paschal Full Moon dates established for the first time in 325 A.D. and insisting that the Spring Equinox (or, perhaps more accurately, since it is not spring in the southern hemisphere when it is spring in the north, the March Equinox) has nothing to do with Easter. Perhaps. Knowing a little something about the way Christianity developed, however, I’m unconvinced. The somewhat arbitrary placement of Catholic holidays near so-called pagan ones is historically well-documented, and it’s intriguing that the English word “Easter” is apparently a borrow-word from Old Teutonic that incorporates the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. In Italian, meanwhile, Pasqua (Pâques in French, Pascua in Spanish) is inarguably related to the Hebrew word, Pesach, as is the word “paschal” in English.
On February 29, 1968, my father had his first open-heart surgery. Precisely four years later—on February 29, 1972—he died during a second surgery for the repair of one of the valves that had been installed in 1968. He had turned fifty-six just six weeks before.
The fact that my father’s deathdate officially returns only every four years has always struck me as one of his ways of disappearing. On the last day of February, in all of the thirty-six years that have passed since he died, I’ve never failed to think of him; but in years without a “leap day,” the observance (so to speak) of his death has seemed to hover in some strange and relativistic dimension between February 28th and March 1st. If I imagine, that is, a moment between those dates when it is neither still the 28th nor yet the 1st, that is where he is.
If my father had not died in 1972, be would have turned 92 last January. In other words, given that the average male life expectancy in the United States is between 77 and 78 years, and given that comparatively few of us make it to 92 (or even 82), there’s every probability that he would already be dead. Or, to put it in terms that only make sense if you hold them up to a certain angle of light, if he had lived, he wouldn’t have lived.
This is his third way of disappearing. If, for twenty years or more after my father’s death, I could locate him in a sort of parallel existence in which he engaged with me in conversations about world events or approved (or disapproved) of what was taking place in my life, that has been impossible for some time. Even my fantasy father aged; eventually, he became too distant to respond, and after that I stopped being able to sense him altogether. Perhaps, over time, he shuffled off his need for connection with the earth.
I don’t think I can say I miss him, because that implies I am still forming around his absence, the way the bark of a tree curls inward to cover the place of a severed branch. And yet. I know he is not here. By now, I have lived without him for three-quarters of my life, and with every day I am alive the fraction of my life in which he is present grows necessarily, proportionally smaller. That is his fourth and final disappearance.
I remember him the way he was, which is to say I remember him the way I was, though it isn’t precisely accurate to describe these as memories. They are like songs or stories I know by heart. I know them so well that I don’t know how I know them, and so it seems they have always been with me. The fact of being able to tell them—the fact that they exist in my consciousness and not someone else’s—is what gives them their place in the weaving of this skein of time. They could be different stories, but they’re not. They are stories only I can tell, and for that I feel … grateful.
Thirty-six years after his death, my father has become a stranger to me again. I don’t say that with any particular sadness. He’s not a hostile or indifferent stranger. He’s a stranger in the way he was a stranger before I was born: inwoven, inevitable but unknown. Then, I was coming forward to meet him, and now it is happening again.