Illustration by Andres Garzon
My father’s funeral was on a Tuesday, on my mother’s birthday. I found this fitting. After the divorce, she had said multiple times how much of a relief it was to have him out of her life. Now it almost seemed like a birthday present. She didn’t attend. The crowds of black that shuffled inside the church fanned themselves with the funeral programs I had made. We kept the doors open, but there wasn’t enough wind to sufficiently cool anyone past the last pew.
He didn’t want it in a church; I remembered that much from his will. In the few glances I was allowed, he said he wanted to be cremated in Calgary, where he had lived most of his life. His ashes were to be thrown around the city. I think he knew it would be too hot when he died to stuff people into a building. Grandma said we had to have a casket in Barrie, though, where he grew up. The shiny box was flooded with roses when we knew he hated them. There was a picture board even though throughout his life he was vehemently against taking photographs. But I liked how we refused all his orders. It made the whole thing more bearable.
It’s always easy to tell who comes to funerals because they feel guilty. I saw too many people I hadn’t seen enough in my father’s life when he was alive, and when I shook hands with them they pretended to know my name and gave me a sympathetic smile. Some didn’t smile at all. Go home, I wanted to tell them.
My grandmother gave the first speech. Even though she and my father never had a strong relationship, she pulled out old childhood stories and humorous arguments that lightened the crowd. She told us about his love of gardening and daisies. Then as we were all feeling better about ourselves, she hit us with tears when she said a child shouldn’t die before their parents.
My aunt was next and she, too, did not have a strong relationship with my father. But she brought out the same material.
“He was a good brother,” she said. “I knew it’d be hard to lose a sibling, but I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
I heard people sniffling in the row behind me and my grandmother gave a massive sob. I coughed to make it look like I was feeling the same.
I didn’t want to do a speech. I didn’t even want to be there. I told my father’s side over and over that I didn’t want to talk, that I didn’t have anything to say, but my grandmother quipped me with the you’re family line which left me with no other excuse. So when I walked towards the podium I pointedly dabbed my face with a Kleenex, pretending to wipe away old tears and ready to feign more emotion. I had a folded map of North America to use as a prop and stuffed it under my arm.
“My dad was a good man,” I began and scanned the crowd. Eager but tear-stained faces from my family filled the front row. Everyone else was a massive blur.
“I’ll always remember him as the one who took us for road trips,” I said and looked at my brother for confirmation. He gave me a faint smile.
“Jack would map them out and we’d start driving at 4am so we could get to our next rest stop before dark.”
I took out the map and pointed out the different places we had driven together. There were pen marks all over the United States and a single line from Calgary to Toronto, when my father had driven my brother out to university in his first year.
“He said his dad never took him to places like this, so he wanted to do it for us.”
I folded the map back up and looked at my grandmother and aunt. They smiled at me in agreement.
“He drove us around the city a lot if we needed something,” I continued. “There were the trips to Krispy Kreme, and Tim Hortons, and always to McDonald’s.”
The whole church laughed.
“When I was six we’d go daisy hunting in our backyard. I remember always finding more than him, and when he looked into my basket he threw them all up in the air and made me laugh.”
I actually smiled, remembering our hazy sunlit backyard, my orange dress, white daisies falling around me and sprinkling my vision. “Then he’d pick me up and put me on his lap, and we’d pick off the petals together.”
For the first time at the ceremony, my eyes threatened to tear. But I braced myself.
“Of course, there are always two sides to every person,” I said. “To be honest, there were a lot of times I didn’t want to be around him. Most of my life, actually.”
The wind carried in sounds from the street.
“When my grandmother told me to write this speech, the only things I could think of were negative.” I paused, pacing myself. “Honestly, those last three examples were the only things that showed him in a positive light.”
I looked at the front row. Grandma wasn’t happy.
“Our conversations were never deep. I never smiled genuinely around him. I think I even tried to suppress smiling if I noticed he was near me.”
Grandma’s mouth drooped comfortably into the frown lines she had built up over the years whenever she was upset with my father. I stopped looking at her.
“There was that time when I was eight, and he was running a bath for me and Jack. I sat on the side of the tub, naked because I was little, and he looked at my stomach and told me I was getting fat. I ran off crying to mom and she told him off.”
I was going to stop there, but there was a fire in my stomach.
“When I had a hard time making friends in university, he told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I told him I had anxiety and he ignored me. ‘Making friends isn’t that hard,’ he said.”
There was an uncomfortable cough.
“He told me I was closing doors on people on purpose. He told me to force myself to be social. He told me I would be a drop-out. And he expected me to trust him when he couldn’t even trust me. I couldn’t make eye contact with him. He was unreliable and headstrong and nothing I liked in a person.”
I was looking at the back of the church. It was at this moment that I dared to look at the other pews, and it was the silent mass of stony and sad faces I had expected. I took their silence as agreement.
“I wish I could say that I loved him. I wish I could say that I enjoyed his company or he made me laugh or he was one of the best fathers a child could ever know. But the truth is he wasn’t, and being dead doesn’t change any of that.”
I snuck a peek at my grandmother and could barely recognize her. Her face was contorted into a glare, all narrowed eyes, and furrowed eyebrows, but she didn’t speak. I don’t think she could figure out what to say.
My aunt studied her fingernails in her lap. She must know I’m right, I thought. But when she looked up at me, her eyes were full of tears. She shook her head. My stomach dropped.
Jack was as somber as he was before I spoke, and I knew he didn’t like confrontation, so he wouldn’t say anything to me until after. But he bit his lip, which I knew meant he felt guilty. I looked away.
I walked away from the podium and towards the doors. I heard people whispering about me in the pews as I walked by.
“Why did she say that?”
“Is that really his daughter?”
“What a horrible child.”
But I ignored them just like I ignored my father every time he tried to tell me he was right.
Happy birthday, mom, I thought as I finally exited the church. The sun was bright and the heat embraced me. I feel as relieved as you do.
I woke up today with a headache. It’s still so hot outside, and even though I kept my window open last night, I couldn’t escape the stickiness of overnight summer sweat. But the heat reminds me. Today’s the day.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. The funeral was only a month ago, and since then my family has refused contact. Jack updates me on everything they’re saying behind my back, even though he doesn’t agree with what I did either. I don’t blame them for talking about me, but deep down I still think they know I’m right.
Jack says their favourite line against me is, How could she say that about her own father? He helped raise her, didn’t he? Sometimes I want to send a message back to explain. But I never do.
I thought ranting about my father would make me feel better, and I did in the beginning, for the first two weeks after the funeral. But then one morning I woke up with so much guilt I couldn’t move out of bed. I didn’t want to do anything except think about how I ruined the ceremony.
The day after that I told myself I’d redo everything at his grave the next month. I’d say a proper speech and remember him in a good way, even though my mind was filled with bad ones.
That’s today. I put on the same outfit I had on a month ago, and drive to the cemetery.
His grave is way in the back because everywhere else is filled up. I remember when he told me he paid to keep two spots open closer to the gates for himself and my mother, when they were still together. A few years went by until he realized he couldn’t afford it. I remember arguing with him about how he was spending his money, which ended with me not speaking to him for three weeks. I laugh as I drive past those two spots now, reading the names of people I don’t know: my way of telling them how happy I am that they got those spots instead of my father. But I wonder if I’d be more inclined to visit him if he was closer to the exit.
He’s in the middle of a row, and after I pass everyone else’s pretty potted tulips and orchids I come to a plain stretch of dirty grass and weeds. I’m surprised no one picked up the cemetery’s gardening bill, after all the emotion and kind words said at the funeral. But I guess all of that really did mean nothing.
I’m standing in front of him now. I look at his name for much too long, study the way it’s carved into the grave and how neat the dates look underneath it. I’ve forgotten why I’m here.
And when I do remember, nice words refuse to come out. Instead there’s that fire again, that fire I had a month ago, and it’s erupting inside my throat and now I’m yelling at him, yelling at his grave, yelling at dirt and weeds and a piece of stone that bears his name. I yell until I start to cry.
But when the wind changes and the sky is overcast, I slow myself down. I don’t know how long I’ve been here but it feels like the longest I’ve ever wanted to be in his company.
I had brought the map from the funeral with me as a symbolic thing, to show him where we went together for the last time. But I rip it up now, in front of him, getting rid of any evidence. I don’t need it anymore.
I’m about to leave when I see a single daisy flopping back and forth in the wind, right beside his grave. I pretend it’s him in flower-form, asking for forgiveness. And I pretend I’m six again, and dozens of the same flower are falling around me, dotting my vision, and I’m about to be picked up and held in his lap. I hope he remembers.
The daisy loses its petals in a strong gust and I watch them disappear in the grass. Then I turn my back on him for the last time.
I really hope he remembers.
MAIA KOWALSKI is a Canadian writer who is finishing up a Masters of Creative Writing in Paris, France. Originally from Toronto, she plans to move back home after she graduates to work on her first short story collection.
Copyright © 2019 by Maia Kowalski. All rights reserved.