Honoring the Dead With My Daughter

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“What was Papa Gary’s favorite color?” asks my 7-year-old daughter, Penelope, who’s madly doodling at the dining-room table. She is deciding how to decorate a photo of my father, Gary, for her second-grade celebration of Dia de los Muertos, which honors family and friends who have passed away. The photo is a close-up of him — 1970s mustache and sideburns — holding me as an infant. Both of us are laughing, as if part of an inside joke.

“I don’t know,” I reply.

In fact, I don’t even know where Papa Gary is buried. Or his birthday. Or the date he died.

I like to think I’ve never retained these details because visiting grave sites, lighting candles, even crying seem like rituals reserved for those who deeply miss loved ones — for those with a need to connect with the deceased. I have lived roughly 40 of my 41 years without my father, and it feels like these rituals do not, or should not, apply to me.

Papa Gary died from cardiac arrest during a routine surgery when I was 10 months old — three months after that picture was taken. My mother, trying to move on as single parent, didn’t talk much about him. And if she did, it was in the third person: “Gary and I met in the Hamptons.” “Gary was a psychiatrist.” “After Gary died, we moved to a smaller apartment.”

Meanwhile, Gary’s parents, who lived nearby and babysat often, would take me aside every year to emphasize, while sobbing, that I was their immortality. Gary was their only child and they sometimes, by habit, called me by his name. “Gary, sweetie, pick up your toys please!” my grandmother would holler. “Yup!” I’d reply, determined to forever dodge the subject.

When friends in second and third and fourth grade asked me why I wasn’t making a Father’s Day ashtray in art class, I’d say: “He died.” And then quickly add: “But when I was a baby, so don’t worry. I didn’t even know him!” The loss clearly belonged to my mother, to my grandparents. Not to me. How could I lose something I didn’t remember having?

The full answer began to emerge decades later when I had a daughter of my own.

At first it felt surreal to use words like “father” and “daddy” so often. I watched our infant smile at the sound of my husband’s voice, and then laugh after gnawing on his nose. At 10 months old, she not only noticed, but cared when he left for work and when he came home. I wondered how it would affect her if, God forbid, he vanished. Would she grow up merely thinking of him as “Amos”?

Then my mother came to visit me in Los Angeles for Penelope’s second birthday. While rummaging for backup sunscreen in my bedroom, she found an eight-by-ten picture of Gary and me, given to me by a relative after my college graduation. I’d tucked it away on a bottom shelf since it seemed too big for any visible surface in our apartment. Immediately, my mother showed it to my daughter.

“This is your Grandpa Gary,” she said slowly. “Do you know you had a Grandpa Gary?”

“Grandpa Gary!” Penelope repeated.

My shock made it impossible to maintain a fake smile. Why didn’t I get that kind of introduction when I was her age?

Penelope started including Gary as one of her grandparents. My mother had remarried years ago, to Papa George. Papa Gary simply became the grandfather who “wasn’t around anymore.” On her pretend cell phone, she would gab to Papa Gary about riding on escalators at the airport.

Once, she handed the phone to me and said, “It’s going straight to voice-mail. Here, leave a message, Mom.”

“Hey, Papa Gary!” I mustered. “Hope things are going smoothly. We’re just leaving word.”

Despite my increasing discomfort at the mention of his name, I was grateful Gary was getting proper recognition. To my daughter, Gary was who he really was: her grandpa. To me, he was not fully “my dad,” or even “my father,” but more “my daughter’s grandpa,” or “Gary.” His paternal legacy seemed to have skipped a generation.

At the same time, my daughter’s relationship with her own father became exponentially sweeter. She made insightful comments to him like, “You look way better with a beard.” I watched him lie on a recliner, pretending to be her dental patient, and squeeze into her tent while working a chef puppet with a spot-on Italian accent. When she got older, I watched her beg him to choose a favorite color, so she could customize a Father’s Day pinch pot in art class. I watched them dance the robot, beat each other at War, and throw a wild tea party at the bottom of a pool. It felt like watching a younger version of me playing with her father.

When Penelope came home from school this past October saying she needed a copy of that picture of Papa Gary and me for Dia de Los Muertos, I was suddenly eager to retrieve it. I’d been keeping the photo in my closet, telling myself, once again, that an eight-by-ten Gary was just too big to display. Per her instructions, I snapped a shot with my iPhone, printed it out, and carefully placed it in her backpack. She asked about his favorite color while doodling project ideas at the dining-room table.

A few weeks later, she brought her completed memorial home. It consists of a large but narrow open cardboard box, painted blue, with the eight-by-ten photo glued inside. Outlining the image are tissue-paper flowers and handfuls of glitter. A purple heart, dangling from the top as a sign, reads, in 7-year-old handwriting, “Gary.” I quickly cleared a shelf in our dining room and centered the box on top.

Soon after, I asked my mother the questions I never had: Where was Gary buried? What was his birthday? What was the date he died? I wrote it all down in a notebook. I still don’t know what I’ll do with the information, but for the time being, and, perhaps more fitting, I have Penelope’s vibrant tribute. It shines from our mantel, long after Dia de los Muertos.

Lessons About Death From a 7-Year-Old