The Closest I’ll Get to a Father Daughter Dance

I was walking from the train station one sunny summer morning, headphones on, listening to Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” in my last few moments of solitude before work. Suddenly, it hit me, seemingly out of nowhere but with such force I knew it to be true: this was the song my dad and I would dance to at my wedding. I am not a person who has dreamed of and planned my wedding since I was a girl, and for many years I swore I’d never get married, but then I fell in love with a wonderful man who brings me peace and we started thinking about marriage. I was not even engaged, let alone wedding planning, but the first decision made was apparently going to be the Father Daughter Dance. The song was one of my favorites, and the lyrics had always reminded me of my dad, evoking hard work, an adventurous spirit, and being thankful for the people that love you. Part of me wondered if Elton John was not rock and roll enough for my dad, but the song felt so right I thought, “He will just have to get over it.”

An hour later my brother called and said my dad was dead. 

In the days that followed, I flew from the heat of Australian summer to snow on the ground in Missouri; “arrangements” were made like some mafia euphemism; I cried, couldn’t cry, laughed, felt guilty for laughing, made every decision–from funeral music to what time to set my alarm in the morning–in the name of “what Dad would have wanted.” The day after I came home I stood in the backyard snow, snotting into my brother’s chest, sobbing that my dad would never walk me down the aisle or dance with me at my wedding, would never be a grandfather to any future children I may have. Dad used to chuckle with tears of mirth in the corners of his eyes and tell me, “I can’t wait to see you with a herd of your own little hellions. Payback! Now that will be funny!” 

Isn’t that the way it goes? I didn’t know I wanted a wedding or kids until I knew my dad wasn’t going to be around to see any of it. Sometimes I think mourning is less about remembering the good times than tallying up all the possibilities you’ve lost. I spent my days–still spend my days–thinking of all the things I wish I could talk about with my dad. I need his advice on how to convert a van into a tiny home on wheels. I want to tell him how my football game went. I want to curl up in his lap even though I’m much too big now and tell him that I love him and hear him tell me he loves me, too. And the thing I want to talk with my dad about most is this pain of loss, which is a bit ironic, I suppose. I know he would understand more than anyone this feeling I have, that there’s always going to be a part of my life that’s missing, a part of myself that has been changed and bruised and plunged into the depths of grief to learn there is no other side, just longer and longer moments of keeping my head above water. I used to ask my dad what he would wish for if he could have anything, expecting him to answer like I would: fame, fortune, the ability to time travel. But he said, “I want to spend one more day with my mom and dad.” I thought to myself, “What good is one more day? That’s no time at all.” Now I know it’s all the time in the world. 

Weeks went by and the ebbs of people and casseroles receded until it was just me and Mom most days. We spent our days poring over old pictures of Dad, giggling at his 70s cutoff jean shorts, tearing up at him holding each of his babies and grandbabies. I found his YouTube playlist of music videos to “Watch Later,” and on it were a couple Elton John songs. I guess Elton was rock and roll enough for Dad. Mom went to bed every night at nine o’clock and I spent the next four hours watching old episodes of Cops and avoiding every B horror movie that would remind me that this was our time, when Mom would be asleep and my night-owl dad and I would stay up watching laughably bad movies about aliens and ghosts. Inevitably, about thirty minutes into the movie, he would say, “I think I’ve seen this one before.” The nights felt so empty without him.

Mom went back to work and I was alone in the home whose every surface my father had sanded, stained, or hammered into existence, surrounded by his bee hives and his 52 ounce QuikTrip cup and his cowboy hat with its salt-sweat rings. I thought about the day my dad died, before I had found out, the lull between his spirit passing on and my brother delivering the news, and I remembered it was in those moments that I had been so sure that Dad and I would dance to “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” at my wedding. I felt silly and mistaken, like at the very instant my dad was dying I should have sensed it, not been so damn sure of some stupid meaningless ritual that was never going to happen. Now I think the clarity and closeness I felt to my dad in that moment was him saying goodbye on his way out. I feel like he was saying, “Mary Darlin’, you haven’t thought about your wedding or our dance because you haven’t needed to, but I’m leaving. And once I’m gone you will think about it, and you will wonder what song we would have danced to, and every song that reminds you of me will make you wonder if I would have liked it, so I’m telling you now that I approve. Elton rocks, and if things had gone differently and I could have stayed, “Mona Lisas” would be our song. I love you, daughter.”

I began to piece this video together, matching the lyrics to the photos of me and my dad I pulled from the old boxes in the weeks after he died. 

Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through

My dad had a tough life. He married my mom and joined the Marines at the age of seventeen, and the next 43 years of his life were spent working to support his wife and three kids, driving trucks across the country, on the road for weeks at a time. He never had much money, and most times didn’t have enough money, and his body wore down from years of hard work. In the last few years of his life, he was able to buy a home on one acre of land, and I watched his eyes light up when he spoke of growing tomatoes, building beehives, and one day owning chickens. It was a simple dream, but it had finally come true for my dad.
 I’ll go my way alone Grow my own, my own seeds shall be sown, in New York City My dad instilled into me a deep spirit of wanderlust. He often spoke of his adventures across America, picking up hitchhikers in his big rig, watching the snowfall on evergreens in Oregon, being stationed in Hawaii during his time in the Marines. Whenever my dad had the chance to travel, which wasn’t often, he would take roadtrips out to the Grand Canyon, Zion, and the Badlands. When I wanted to travel or study abroad or move to Australia, he was the one who said, “Go for it,” the loudest. He knew what it meant to feel restless and want to see everything that’s out there, and he provided the security and encouragement for me to be confident enough to explore the world on my own. And I thank the Lord There’s people out there like you I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you  The sorrow I feel losing my dad has been unlike anything I’ve experienced before, but I know the depth of my pain is equal to how much he loved me and how much I wish he were still here. In my darkest moments I think, “I have no dad. I am dadless. I am in the land of no fathers.” But I cannot hold onto that thought for more than a moment, because even though he is gone from this earth, I still have a dad. And I’m so thankful I knew him as long as I did, and I’m thankful he is still out there, sending me love.  

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