3rd Daughter first shared her story with us in Letter #10 Dear BioDad. She generously took us deep into her path, bringing us along the push and pull of anticipatory grief and love for her imperfect biological father. 3rd Daughter's journey continues today with The Watchman.
YOU GAVE ME A WATCH for my son, for when he becomes a man. Your mother gave you that watch when you graduated college at 51, after two devastating strokes, a pile of seizures and two years of rehab to get you walking with a cane and a brace, to teach you to talk and read again. You were blind in one eye and 75% of the other, paralyzed on the left side. You'd be disabled for life but you went back to school, graduated with honors. They wrote about you in medical textbooks. The man who'd survived. You were six years sober, twenty years divorced, a father three times over, and you'd just then become a man in your mother’s eyes. Your mom wasn't the gift-giving type. I know how much that watch meant to you. Your brother Daniel was jealous, and said so.
It's a lovely watch. Platinum and gold band, navy blue face with tiny diamonds to highlight the most important numbers. You inflated its value of course. Saying it was worth thousands, telling me the designer's name again and again. My wife googled it — the watch is worth $678.45. The beat-up leather box it came in decreases the value. But also, it's priceless. His Grandad's watch. For when my son becomes a man.
It was easy, at first, not to cry in front of you.
I didn't let you see me cry when we got to your house in Florida, three-month-old in tow, and you were a hundred pounds smaller, staring at the floor, wrapped in your Irish blessing blanket and a cloud of pot smoke.
I didn't let you see me cry when we took you to your last AA meeting in Florida and you told your home group, the people you'd say with every single morning for seven years, that you were going to New York to “work on a new project.”
I didn't let you see me cry when my wife quietly went around the room afterward during fellowship to make sure that the people who loved you understood that you weren't coming back.
I didn't let you see me cry when we sat down with your new oncologist in New York and you started talking about plans for chemo and beating this thing. I didn't let you see me cry when I asked him to please tell us point blank if chemo was ever going to be an option for someone like you whose cancer had metastasized to every corner of your body.
I DIDN’T CRY when your brother Daniel called me at midnight to assure me he didn't want to criticize how my sisters and I were handling things but shouldn't somebody be seeking a second opinion, signing up for clinical trials, had I heard about that new light chemo? You were in New York by then, at my stepmom's house, dying in the home you'd once inhabited with her and my sisters, when they were babies. Daily you were puking bile because you hadn't eaten in months, your esophagus was an angry rock. I acted compassionate with Daniel but made my voice firm as I explained: the liver, the bones, the lungs, the adrenal glands and lymph nodes. Kidney failure. Organs shutting down. We were on our third opinion by then, you were fading in hospice, having already lived longer than anyone expected you to. He wanted to know why we weren't doing everything possible to extend your time on this planet and I explained about quality of life over quantity. I explained about acceptance, and how our hopes had shifted from “more life” to “a good death.” I tried to do patience with him.
I held his rage and fear and anguish and I didn't cry because he was your nemesis your whole life — your best frenemy, your strongest competition, the one who, when you came to find me, got angry because before I was a thing, he’d had the oldest grandchild and he felt usurped, accused me of seeking you out for your money. The thing he didn’t know, couldn’t see, was that I hadn’t come looking for you. I had a dad and resented the intrusion of you into my life.Also, he didn’t know but you were poor when you found me, newly sober and just starting to get on your feet with a grown-up style job and a rented apartment with a front porch and big windows, third-hand couch sagging comfortably surrounded by plants and guitars. You didn’t tell me just then about Daniel’s mistrust, about the lies you’d told your family for years, denying my existence and my paternity. I found out later and it didn’t hurt that much because by then I understood that when you came to find me, you were being your best and truest self. And for years before that, the person Daniel knew, the person he competed with and fought with and sang in a band-width, well, he wasn't the most truth-telling guy. The layers of hurt between you and him are old and crusty, love glues you two together, but so does pain and rage and one-up-man-ship. I didn’t cry when Daniel called me at midnight because crying in front of Daniel would've been worse than crying in front of you.
I DIDN’T LET you see me cry that night in Florida when you staggered out to the living room at three am in your underpants. I was on the porch smoking cigarettes in the dark and you looked like a stick figure, your heard wobbling uncertain on a pipe-cleaner neck, your tightie-whiteys sagging like my 1997 Jncos, your grey thighs like old French fries. You were looking for something, your phone maybe, and you leaned on chairs and the TV stand on your slow way around the room. I sat in the dark and ached at the question mark your body formed and I didn't let you see a tear.
I cried in bathrooms, in cars, on the subway and in bed. I cried loudest in the car. Choking and snorking and apologizing unnecessarily to my wife who just held my hand and kept driving. “Cry,” she said. “It’s ok. Just cry.” I cried while singing lullabies to my son, wetting his sweet head. I sobbed, curled around my cat on the couch. I cried at certain songs and one night on a road trip, when Delilah on the radio read aloud a story of a man who went and found his daughter twenty-one years later. I wailed but I didn’t let you see.
I cried in the hospital parking lot with my stepmom, once. On the highway with my mom, twice a week for months. On the train platform with headphones in my ears, Lin-Manuel Miranda singing “look at my son, my son,” my own son sleeping sweetly on my heart. I cried on my couch while texting with my sisters, searching out a new home for your cat. With my journal in hand I let the tears drip, writing writing writing trying to make space for these fucking feelings all these unsayable things knocking about in my heart.
But I didn’t cry when you cried. I didn’t cry when explaining to the night nurse that a bathroom call from you WAS an emergency, that because of the stroke you wouldn’t know you had to go to the bathroom until it was almost too late. I didn’t cry when you told me she accused you of peeing yourself on purpose. I didn’t cry when I met with the social worker, when I argued with your doctors, and I didn’t cry during conference calls with the hospice team.
But when you put that watch in my hand and said, “for Harry” I took a breath and the breath caught and when I tried to respond I said “Chris do you want to tell me what occasion I should give it to him for?” And I couldn't stop it, it was only a choking moment, a wet face and blurry vision, but I’m pretty sure you saw. I’m pretty sure you know I was crying when I took that watch and you said,“you'll know when.”
“you’ll know when”