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Dead Dad Day

                                    Sheila Squillante

It begins each year with a grocery list: green cocktail olives, a tub of cream cheese, Genoa salami sliced paper-thin, pepperoncini, Progresso-brand caponata (unless I have time to make it and I usually don’t), bread sticks, hard Italian table cheese (maybe Fontina this year), Stone Wheat crackers, one piece of exotic fruit (star, kiwi, persimmon). Each year I prepare practically the same antipasto, give or take an ingredient depending on what I can remember. I chop the olives into the cream cheese and spread them liberally onto crisp crackers. I drizzle good balsamic vinegar over shards of pungent cheese. I wrap finger-slim breadsticks with prosciutto, salami, or sopressata—the marbling fat melting as it enters my mouth. I pop vinegar-tart green peppers one at a time and follow them with the strange and unlikely contrast of sweet fruit or savory eggplant.

Each year I also plan a dinner menu of something I have never made before. I look through my cookbooks for Italian, Spanish, Indian, or Korean dishes that look challenging and satisfying. I hold myself to the following criteria: the recipe must include more than three steps; it must be something new to me; I must be able to imagine sharing the meal with my father. When I find a recipe that meets all criteria, it is then time to invite my guests—usually only my two or three closest friends, those people who understand this ritual I’ve created to celebrate my father’s life, and the name I’ve chosen for it: Dead Dad Day. The date is always the same: August 6, the last day of my father's too-short life.

This year I am rolling sushi with cucumbers, pickled radish, and shitake mushrooms on my new bamboo mats. When I was a sophomore in college, my father took me to my first sushi bar in a little neighborhood of White Plains, New York. We had a habit of meeting for lunch then, as his office was just ten minutes from my campus. It was a surprising time in our relationship—me just beginning to live an adult life and him beginning a new one after his divorce from my mother. I always felt like we were on the edge of some new discovery about each other, and the weekly luncheons in local and ethnic restaurants only added to this sense of anticipation and mystery.

We walked into the cramped, dark space, ornamented with red paper fish banners and straw floor mats. I could tell he had been here before as he led me not to a table, but right to the bar where we could see the pink and gray fish glisten, the octopus and squid shine next to the chef’s large knife. We sat on hard stools and my father ordered two cups of warmed sake for us while we deliberated our meal. The menu was entirely in Japanese, and though he often traveled to Tokyo for business, he didn’t really know the language. Instead, he ordered based on the color photographs, pointing and nodding at the dour-looking sushi-chef for each selection. This was the day my face grew warm as rice wine, the day I learned about the sweet tang of miso soup, and the day I first tasted the soft, heavy salmon sushi I have come to love.

It’s hard to remember what we talked about. More than likely, the conversation was about his traveling, his adventures in food and culture as an executive for IBM. Milk-fed New Zealand veal. Peanut satay on the street in Indonesia. Prawns, “this big,” next to Sidney Harbor. I probably did a lot of listening, a lot of watching him gesticulate wildly as he bounced from talking about food to eating it, his wooden chopsticks moving with grace and punctuation among the sushi, the shumai, the edamame on the small counter in front of us.

Strangely, my father was not a talker unless he was either talking and eating or talking about eating. At least, he didn’t talk much to me except for at these moments. Growing up, our family discussions were clipped and brusque. He worked sixty or seventy hours during the week and apparently did enough talking there. When he came home, he mostly sat on the couch, read the paper, and watched the Giants game, Charles Kuralt, or Nova. My father seemed to dwell in silence, and his silence swallowed all of us whole. My mother wasn’t allowed to chitchat about her day at work (also at IBM—a way to get closer to him?) because that was “shop talk” and he wouldn’t have it. My sister wasn’t allowed to talk about her day at school because most of the time her presence irritated him out of wanting to hear her voice at all. Either she was wearing too much lipstick or her skirt was too short. “Go upstairs and change,” he would say.  “Not another word.”

I couldn’t talk to him, though maybe of all of us, I was the one allowed to. We might have talked about school because I was always doing well. I had learned to ask questions, to seek information neutrally, academically, and to defer to him for answers, so we might even have been able to talk politics and religion. We tried for a while, for as long as I had no real opinion of my own. But I was aware of the way he silenced my mother and my sister with his terse dismissals and, though I wanted nothing more than to garner his approval, to ally myself with him, I was mostly unable to use this meager allowance because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Later, conversations were all but impossible because of boyfriends he didn’t like and my burgeoning liberal opinions about the world. But this was years later, and in the meantime, I learned to go without conversation and communicate with him instead through food.

Sunday mornings my father would leave before any of us were up, put on a pot of strong coffee, and head out to the market and the bakery. An hour later, he would stand at the butcher block kitchen counter pulling “gnoshy” foods out of the paper bag: hard and spreadable cheeses, stick pepperoni, kalamata olives, crusty semolina bread. Sometimes he would also bring pastry: cherry turnovers and Lithuanian coffee cake. Black and white meltaway cookies. This was his favorite way to eat, picking at small bites all afternoon, watching the Giants lose again. I would sit on the floor of the family room, next to the battleship hatch-cover coffee table he found at an antiques clearing house, and slice pieces of meat and cheese as he did. I felt close to him then. In communion.

My friends will be here in less than an hour, and I can’t seem to get the sushi rolls to come out straight. Sticky rice is stuck to the counter, the cabinet doors, and the floor. The seaweed sheets won’t stay together even after I moistened them with water. The truth is that I don’t really know what I’m doing or how this will turn out, but I’m determined to get to the point where I will be dipping savory little packages into soy and wasabi, letting the burn wash my sinuses, wiping tears from my face as I reach for another and another. Part of Dead Dad Day, it seems, is a kind of gluttony. My father was a sensualist, a gourmand. I never saw him exercise any real restraint when it came to food or living. Not even after he was diagnosed with diabetes in his early forties. Even then we would find blue tins of Danish butter cookies under his bed. This was a man who entered a restaurant, knew the waiters’ first names, and ordered one of everything.

My father died on August 6, 1992. He was forty-six years old. He’d not been particularly well—he was insulin dependent and not monitoring his diet. He’d had a mild heart attack and developed pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac around the heart—but neither of these illnesses, as far as we can tell, contributed to his death.

At first we thought he had suffered a stroke. He had woken up in his condo in Danbury, Connecticut one morning in late July to find that he could not walk. His left side muscles drooped. His speech was slurred and unintelligible. In the emergency room, he tried to talk to me, to yell, to continue a fight we had been having over my boyfriend at the time, but I couldn’t understand anything he said. I could only see the frustration in his cramped hands, in his enflamed face. I remember I told him to calm down. That we could talk about this later. That he should concentrate on healing—there would be plenty of time to work this out.

That was the first day of his death. There would be nine more days that followed, but we didn’t understand any of this right away. The diagnosis went quickly from stroke to bacterial infection of the brain, and the doctors began to treat him with a heavy regimen of strong antibiotics. He did not improve much, was still partially paralyzed, but seemed to get some of his speech back. He was moved out of ICU after two days and sent to a regular room. The expectation was that he would survive this infection which had clearly damaged the area of the brain that governs motor coordination, and go on to a long rehabilitation.

During the days my father spent on the eighth floor, family from both sides overwhelmed the waiting room and the chairs next to his bed. My sister and my mother (now divorced from him) would flank his head, saying comforting, encouraging things, pouring him water from the sallow yellow pitcher and holding his head up while he sipped from the bendable straw.

Often he would cry, which terrified me, as my father was not a man who expressed weakness or vulnerability. He was an academic, an intellectual. He analyzed and rationalized everything. I felt a small measure of comfort, my world-order reestablished, when the doctors explained that the crying was most likely a result of the way the infection had spread to the limbic system—the emotional center of the brain. He couldn’t control it.

Most days I would sit in the straight-backed chair across the room and watch the people flit about him. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I kept my distance. I felt like an outsider. I felt angry and sad as I watched my mother maneuver his pillows and adjust the bed angle. I watched my grandfather, his father, lather my father’s face and then shave him, calling him “sonny boy” as he pulled the blade across in slow, careful swathes.  This one image almost did me in entirely, and I still think of it as both the most loving and the most pitiful act I have ever witnessed. I watched my uncle, the restaurateur, feed my father a spoonful of his favorite pasta: farfalle with walnuts and peas in a tomato cream sauce. I knew this was a special treat for my father, as he had had very little solid food since being admitted. But he couldn’t choke down more than a few small bites. A fungal infection had developed on his tongue and in his esophagus that made swallowing almost impossible.

When my father did not respond to the antibiotics the way the doctors had hoped, one young intern suggested that perhaps the infection was viral, not bacterial. His correct diagnosis came too late for the anti-viral drugs to really work, and one morning when I called the hospital to check on his condition, the nurse told me my father had slipped into a coma over night. My family and I spent two more days in Danbury Hospital, waiting to see what would happen; waiting, really, for my father to die. By this time, we had a name for his affliction: viral encephalitis of unknown origin. He was pronounced brain-dead on August 4th, and on the night of August 5th, I went to his room, sat closer to him than I had been able to in the days before, and said goodbye. I knew I wouldn’t be in there the next morning when the life-support machines were turned off.

I made the choice not to grieve publicly partly because the whole ordeal had been such a circus—family everywhere, crying, keening; disaffected doctors who couldn’t say how or where he had contracted this disease; and the uncomfortable woman—the “Patient Liaison”— assigned to our case. It was her job to prepare us for the hard questions: voluntary termination, autopsy, organ donation, funeral, cremation. I knew she was trying to help, but whenever I heard her rubber-soled shoes squeaking toward me and saw her face twisted into plastic pathos, I wanted to disappear. I knew my father would hate all of it too, so I opted out for both of us, crouching beneath the public payphone in the hallway, clutching a hot cup of tea, as my sister, mother, grandparents, cousins, uncles all pushed inside my father’s room, encircled his bed, witnessed, and filed out, weeping.

My sister and I came to the term Dead Dad Day together, a few years after our father’s death. Though I cannot say precisely when, it must have been two or three years later because it takes that long to form a shell around grief, a mesh cage through which you can still feel, but which allows you to keep safe distance as well. We are our father’s daughters, and he taught us to communicate through sarcasm and dark humor. I imagine that one year I called her, sensing that we should acknowledge the day but not being quite sure how to without descending into a funk. Even then I had an instinct to keep my real grief to myself. On the phone, we might have said things in our father’s voice: “Y’okay?” and “Yep, me too.” Terse and abrupt but underscored with concern. “Well,” I might have said haltingly, nervously, “happy Dead Dad Day.” Did we laugh then? I don’t remember. But today it’s like a secret, sad joke between us.

Dead Dad Day is a phrase that depends on a particular kind of humor, and not every one understands it. Our mother, I think, was initially shocked and undone by it, but now, with years, she too has come around to calling me and my sister on August 6 and wishing us “Happy Dead Dad Day—or whatever you call it.” It’s a phrase that perfectly reflects my complicated relationship to his death—my anger and my flippancy, on the one hand; my deep private grief that seeks company on the other.

When I cook elaborate meals for my friends on Dead Dad Day, it is akin to prayer. It is because I cannot remember my father without thinking about food, and it is because I cannot eat without remembering, and missing him.

Today, in his honor, we will start with the antipasto (as always), move on to the sushi (regardless of the state it’s in), dip into cucumber salad with sesame oil and scallions, and sample steamed pork dumplings I bought at the Asian market across the street. We will not watch our portion sizes and will likely drink two bottles of Shiraz, toasting him many times. I want to swoon from food today. I want to be firmly in my body on the day my father’s body failed. Because Dead Dad Day is for me as well. Choosing the recipe. Shopping for ingredients. Preparing the complex dishes on which we now dine—all while thinking of him and me and our trips to new flavors and textures. This is how I can talk to him about everything that has happened in my life since he’s been gone. In his language. In ours.

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