My father died suddenly when I was 21 — a heart attack, which he must’ve known on some level was going to happen, because in the two weeks before he died, he called everyone — friends, relatives, colleagues, people he hadn’t spoken to in years, people he loved, people he could’ve done without. I, however, was taken by surprise, and went from hearing he’d died to riding in a van with my step-mother, my Dad’s friend, and a cemetery rep to look for his burial spot. This was at a cemetery in Paramus, NJ, and although Paramus was not where I’d imagined my father would be buried (nor, I believe, had he), I was too shocked to say anything. I’d wanted him to be near the water, which he loved. Dad was once a lifeguard in the Rockaways — a Bronx boy, he found it easier to sleep on the beach than commute the 50-plus subway stops. And at 19, spending nights under the boardwalk was no big deal.
The cemetery we drove through had markers, not headstones. I’d never seen a cemetery without headstones, and didn’t like it — I felt like it was fighting against its nature, as if it wanted to cloak itself as a park. But when we were driven to a spot near an apple tree, I felt a sense of relief — it was sweet, peaceful, and with my Dad buried under a tree in a cemetery without headstones, I knew I could find him.
Then we were driven to another spot — a blank field — nothing poetic, nothing special — but worst of all, I would never be able to find him, the markers were too flush to the ground. “I want to bury him here,” said my step-mother, and she left the van to make arrangements. That’s when it hit me that I’d never see my father again. Looking at the field I began to sob. “I’ll never find him! I’ll never find him! I’ll never find him!” At least if he were by the tree I’d have some reference point. I have a terrible sense of direction. But now he was truly gone.
My Dad’s friend got out of the van and said something to my step-mother — I don’t know what, but the next day Dad was buried under the apple tree. It was the only act of kindness she ever showed me after he died, and even then it was under duress — or possibly a threat. She did have the last word though — the marker not only contains her pet name for him — “Bunky” — but also conjoined wedding bands above the word “Forever.” The first time I saw it I wanted to yell, “He was my Dad for 21 years — he was your husband for eight!” But might makes right, and I was still way out of plumb.
My father was the “hail fellow well-met” type — raised in a Bronx Irish family, he was full of tales of dubious veracity, a city boy who loved nature, who took me on walks in the woods and taught me to swim. He brought me to planetariums. He taught me about history through guessing games. “Who conquered the Incas?” he’d ask. “His name sounds like ‘pizza.’” “Pizarro!” I’d yell, and to this day I know more about explorers from him than from anyone else. And I was even born on Columbus Day. While Weekday Moms have the luckless responsibility of making sure you go to school, do your homework, and go to bed, Weekend Dads host epic slumber parties and let you stay up late watching TV. But with Dad there were also late nights staying up to make sure he got home.
One of the reasons my parents split was because of my father’s drinking. It was something he’d curbed for awhile, and my mother assumed that if he did drink, it wasn’t around me. But he was still a young man — 36 or so — with alcohol as a crutch and a little girl on weekends. We’d go to The Misty, a watering hole in Staten Island where everyone had names like “Buster” or “Doc” or “Mom” — an elderly lady who was the den mother of The Iceman Cometh group. Dad would give me quarters to play the KISS pinball machine, or the jukebox. (Though after five times of playing Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” they begged me to pick something more upbeat.) The bartender made me Cokes filled with cherries and I felt at home — as an only child I was more comfortable with people older than I was. Still am.
As the years went by, the drinking increased. I was now old enough to stay home on weekend nights, while Dad went to see Buster, Doc, and presumably search for the next Mrs. Quinlan. I knew he was drinking, so I stayed up until he got home. I felt more like his mother than his daughter, but if I didn’t look out for him, who would? He was so charming, so endearing, how could I let something happen to him? It didn’t help that my family was cursed with drunk driving fatalities — my grandmother’s brother, my grandfather’s brother, and my father’s brother, Danny Boy, dead at 22. By standing guard at home I was keeping Dad safe from the terrible Fates who had it in for us.
I said nothing about this to anyone, until one Christmas when I was 12 and he drove back from a party with me; intoxicated, he drove on the shoulder. Self-preservation kicked in, and I did the one thing I knew would nip this in the bud — I told my Mom. She had a frank conversation with Dad where she said, “You never have to worry about Heather when she’s with me, and I want to feel the same way about you.” I was just as blunt. “If you drink anymore, I’ll never see you again,” I told him. He quit cold turkey that day.
Ironically, it was then that he did find the next Mrs. Quinlan. She and I got along alright, though the sewing room in their apartment that was to become my bedroom was never cleaned out; I slept on the living room sofa. In their second apartment, the guest bedroom that was to become my bedroom became another sewing room. I never saw my step-mother sew. Gifts I gave her stayed wrapped. I wondered whether my father noticed these things. Perhaps he thought I didn’t care, perhaps he just didn’t want to rock the boat. Neither did I, I kept my mouth shut.
In the meantime, though Dad had quit drinking, his addiction found a way, this time with food, and he grew to nearly 300 pounds on a 5’7” frame. With that came the inevitable — diabetes, high blood pressure — which made me worry about his health. But I’d never experienced the death of someone close to me, so I didn’t think he would actually die, at least not from that. Drunk driving, yes. Donuts, no. Meanwhile, he and my step-mother made all manner of pastas, pies, and the like. He was a grown-up, I reasoned, he could make his own decisions about his health. And yet — he couldn’t! Which is why I’d transferred the title of Mom to my step-mother. So why wasn’t she taking on the responsibility?
Dad died on the same day as his brother, 34 years later. I blamed myself, I blamed him, I blamed the Fates, I was heartbroken, I was numb. After he was buried, I learned he’d died without a will. He’d sold life insurance for a living — death was a part of his job — and yet, as is the human condition, he didn’t want to think of it in relation to himself. My step-mother got everything, whatever that was. To this day, I don’t know, she stopped talking to me after she got it. Maybe I should’ve asked for my own bedroom after all.
Over the years I would visit Dad at the cemetery, guided by the apple tree. People talk to their loved ones at their gravesites, and yet I was mute. I missed him terribly, but I had a hard time letting go — of the fact that he died. And that he hadn’t made sure I was taken care of after he was gone. Perhaps he was ok with that? As many times as people told me he adored me, I couldn’t reconcile it all in my mind. What had I done wrong?
Last winter my Mom, Stepfather and I went to visit Dad, but we couldn’t find him. The apple tree had disappeared. “Oh God, he’s really gone,” I thought. My Mom eventually found the marker, treeless, and with dirt and newspaper pieces stuck to it. My step-mother had buried Dad in Paramus so she could be near him, then moved away and never visited.
I went again last summer. Now I couldn’t find Dad at all. In a desperate act, I yelled, “Dad?” “Dad?” realizing I hadn’t called out that word for years. What would’ve happened if he’d answered? “Over here!” Or, “Let me rest in peace, wouldja?” There was nothing, just silence. And even though all that happened was that a storm had uprooted the tree, I drove away feeling like somehow he had done away with the tree because he didn’t want to see me.
A few months later I called the cemetery and asked if I could pay to have a tree planted. I wanted to get one there before the space was used for more burials. But to my surprise, the woman on the other line told me a tree had just been planted that day — a cherry tree! My heart soared, and for the first time ever I couldn’t wait to see my Dad’s grave.
So the next time my Mom, Stepfather, and I paid Dad a visit, I dashed from tree to tree, feeling like Natalie Wood at the end of “Miracle on 34th Street,” when she ran around to find the house that Santa Claus left her. Seeing no Quinlans, I wondered if Dad had still turned his back on me. Then Mom spotted the tree and I spotted him — Robert J. Quinlan. The three of us paid our respects and gave the tree some water. The tree is still a newborn, a little Charlie Browin-ish, but I can’t wait to see it grow. Because you didn’t turn your back on me, Dad. I thought you had, but you never did.