By Erika D. Price.
Maybe there really is a Jungian super consciousness that our minds all float upon, like ice atop a still liquid lake. Maybe it’s just that some ideas are so obvious that everybody has them. Whatever the reason, I keep running into other people, other women specifically, who speak of their membership to the Dead Dad Club.
The idea first occurred to me very shortly after my dad died. I was eighteen, living in the freshman dorms at The Ohio State University. He died randomly of unchecked diabetes after a two-year period of mutual estrangement.
The whole thing came as a shock, but an easily buried one. I kept it a secret from everyone around me, except for my then-boyfriend, who was on a Valentine’s Day date with me the moment I got the news. I went upstate for the funeral, I invited a handful of childhood friends, none of whom came, I got drunk and crawled into bed with my little sister, I went back to the dorms, I didn’t miss a day of class, I didn’t miss a day of work, I said nothing. I felt so much. I cried so little.
A few weeks later, a girl down the hall lost her father. Heart attack. I had met the guy; he had a pleasant, square face with handsome features and rich bronzed skin. Their relationship was good. A widespread email told everyone in the dorm of her troubles. We were all encouraged to go to the funeral, to give the girl our regards. People rose to the occasion. She took a few weeks off.
I resented the massive embrace that she received and I had not, even though it was my fault for not telling anybody. I resented that people were warm and sympathetic to her. I resented that my boyfriend forgot about the death in no time flat. I resented, even, that her relationship with her father was healthy. But I could not hold it against her for long. After all, she was a member of the Dead Dad Club.
One of my sister’s friends lost her dad relatively young, sometime after this. She had a strained relationship with the guy, but lionized him after his death. This hypocrisy irritated my sister immensely, but she didn’t raise the issue. After all, her friend was a member of the Club.
The Club has burdens. You can’t bring it up, if you’re young; people get far too uncomfortable. You must act like it is not tragic, that you are fine. You must not be visibly annoyed when people cry and complain and mourn the loss of their grandparents or great-grandparents or their fucking dogs and cats. You must not speak of the Dead Dad Club to a non-member. You must not bring someone into the club if they are not ready. You must not let membership to the Club visibly taint your relationships, lest you become someone with D-word Issues. That is the worst fate of all.
In graduate school, I made friends with a girl whose mom died when she was a child. I tried to bond with her over it; she belonged to the Club! But it was not the same club. She lost her mom young, they had a good relationship, it was her mom, not her dad, and so on. I tried to tell her about the Club anyway, to commiserate.
She told me that sometimes she suspected her mom was still alive, somewhere out there. I tried to tell her that I had never seen my dad’s body, there was no urn or coffin at the funeral, and sometimes I thought I saw him, too. But she was too busy talking. She could not stop talking about her dead mom, herself, her sorrow, her few memories, herself. It never became a conversation.
Recently, I was reading the comic Sex Criminals by Chip Zdarsky and Matt Fraction. The protagonist is a young foxy librarian who can stop time with her orgasms. She lost her father when she was very young. In a flashback, she says, “I was the first kid at my school to become a member of the Dead Dad Club.”
Reading that, everything inside me dropped a few inches.
I read Fun Home by Allison Bechdel. In it, Bechdel recalls the death of her father. She was nineteen, away at college. He was a troubled man with a temper. He died in a way that might have been intentional.
Bechdel and I belong to a very small, very specific subset of the Club. We are in a Club within the Club, a Club perhaps consisting only of Allison Bechdel, my sister, and me. When I met her at a book signing I made excessive, plaintive eye contact. I wanted so badly to tell her I was in the same Club. She seemed a little weirded out, and reasonably so.
My sister is in another kind of Club: a sorority. Each year they have Mom’s Day and Dad’s Day, celebrations with scheduled events and potluck meals. Each year the attendance is lower on Dad’s Day than on Mom’s Day. Our own mom attends both.
There are other girls in the sorority with dead dads. When a new girl with a dead dad joins, the rest are hesitant yet excited to welcome her. Eventually they get the courage to ask: “Do you want to be a member of the Dead Dad Club?” Once, a new girl mentioned the Club on her own, without prompting. They were just sitting around hanging out and she said it: hey, we’re all members of the Dead Dad Club, or something like that.
How does everyone know?
Dads are a funny thing. So many of us have strained relationships with them. Dads are unknown sometimes; sometimes they are distant or ill or very disordered. Some do not know how to love. Some know only how to hurt. Some are mediocre but try very hard. Some disappear. Some lose contact through no fault of their own. Some die too soon. Some die at the appropriate time. Some never exist.
Some people believe that your relationship with your parents determines your political leanings. A motherly government is a Democratic one; a fatherly government, Republican. Some people think individuality is created by having a strained relationship with one or both parents. Some people think your relationship with your father determines your beliefs about God.
I don’t know that I agree, but mine do track: I see both God and Dad as hapless, unreliable, unreal, dead. I see a lot of men that way. I am one of those girls with D-word Issues. I suspect that everyone I know might reject me at any moment, verbally abuse me, and suddenly die. I am sick of acting like that’s not true, or that it’s shameful. I have decided that “getting over it” means simply absorbing your trauma and what it’s done to you into your broader sense of self.
A childhood friend just lost a father to prolonged illness. He was on dialysis for a very long time; his death was salient long before it came.
He was a good man. They had a good relationship. He was a sweet, expressive, creative, and kind person. I think his death was “good”: it brought peace, and came at a time when all his children were on good terms with him.
Based on social media, my friend seems to have made her first, tentative peace with the loss. I want to see her. I want to send a message, saying Welcome to the Club. Let me know if you need anything. Let me be your mentor.
But I will not. Every member of the Club must recognize the Club and declare her membership herself.
Erika D. Price is a writer and social psychologist living in Chicago. Her work has been featured in The Missouri Review, The-Toast, The Paper Machete, on Chicago’s WBEZ, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She eats a lot of dried fruit.