When I first saw a picture of my dad when he was twelve, I was twelve, and I was terrified. It was me, but with a shaved head. I had never seen someone who looked so much like me in all my life. I had always thought I was one of those kids who sort of looked like a mixture of both parents – not drastically similar to either of them but a kind of thrown together semblance of the two of them. I wasn’t the only one who was surprised at the likeness. It seemed my dad’s siblings had forgotten what he looked like when he was younger, and I’m not sure if my mom ever knew.
“Yeah, that really does look like your twin,” my mom said, wide-eyed staring at the photograph of my dad smiling, sitting on the couch with the rest of his family. “You definitely don’t look like me.”
That’s not entirely true, though. The older I get, the more I’ve started to look like my mom. But for the majority of my life, my face only showed signs of my paternal half. When I saw how much I looked like him, I was ecstatic. I don’t know many girls who are thrilled to look like their father, but for some reason, I was. It wasn’t only our faces like were alike, either – we had the same skinny bowed legs, the same laid-back attitude that my mom got sick of, a love and talent for all the same sports and activities – many things made us close for the first twelve years of my life. And then I became a teenage girl, and our differences seemed to grow exponentially.
Not that we stopped connecting altogether, there were just a few years where we both kept making mistakes in the father-daughter relationship sphere, and the old days seemed to be particularly far in the past.
My dad died when I was 21. A lot of other people died that year too: my grandmother, a best friend, my cat and family friends. My dad’s death in particular was a complicated one. He was a drinker, which always complicates things, and I was just beginning to emerge from the cloud of teenage stupor to join the world once again. Our final years together were spent miles apart: he and my mom at home in Missouri and I at school in Vermont – with infrequent visits home once in a while. We fought to become close again, but it was, of course, too little too late.
In the frenzy of months that followed his death, I attempted to piece my life back together. I returned to school two weeks after I told him goodbye at his bedside, though he was unresponsive, to take my final exams. I finished the year with good grades, but was facing somewhat of a quarter life crisis. I managed to book two solo trips out of the country back-to-back – my version of a 50-year-old man buying a red Corvette. I wasn’t sure why my impulse to travel was so strong, but it was evident that I needed to get out, and that is what I intended to do.
When the plane landed in Edinburgh, Scotland and I had only the backpack my sister leant me filled with stuff I thought I would need for the next three weeks, I was quite disturbed with my spontaneous decision. It was my first time in Europe. My first time travelling alone this long, my first time staying in hostels, and the first anniversary of my dad’s death was just a few days away. I dreaded spending the day alone, but I had no intention of spending it with people either.
Since I was in the birthplace of golf, I decided I would go to a driving range to celebrate his life. My dad and I golfed together a lot, it was one of those things we had in common. He taught me to golf. It ended up raining and the driving range was rather expensive (something my dad certainly would not have approved of – one year my sister asked for books for Christmas and he bought her “Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny” by Suze Orman). With all of my family together in Missouri without me and no one in Edinburgh to talk to, I surrendered and went to a pub to eat fish and chips. I brought along a book I had bought from a bar back in Brooklyn that reminded me of my dad. The bartender was genuinely confused when I tried to check out at the bar: “I don’t think anyone has ever actually bought a book here before.” It was “The Red Pony” by John Steinbeck. I always knew he loved Steinbeck, all of his works. We had often bonded over our taste in music, books and movies. We liked depressing things that did not have particularly happy endings. “Winters Bone,” “Catcher in the Rye,” Willie Nelson. He also let me play Eminem in the car sometimes, while he smiled to himself.
So I sat down, ordered a Stella Artois, fish and chips – even though I’m a vegetarian – and ice cream, because that seemed like the proper meal of the day. I opened the book.
I read the whole thing in a couple of hours; it was just over a hundred pages. As I finished the last page, I realized that even though he and I had grown apart when I hit puberty, there would always be a bond of similarity between us that neither the twists of life nor the turn of death could break. I understood the book like I knew he would. I wished I could call him and talk to him about it, ask him about that one part in chapter two, ask him if he cried too.
Two days later I was in a new town in Scotland, Inverness, perusing a three-story bookstore that was as overwhelming as any of the retail shops in SoHo. I asked my brother what books our dad liked. I walked out with “East of Eden,” “White Fang,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “To Build a Fire.” I read them frantically in cafes, on benches, under trees on hillsides, in my bunk bed with the light from my phone while everyone else in the hostel room slept. Through them I learned more about him and how we are alike. How even though our relationship in life was complicated and his death was complicated and my life is now complicated, there are these things through which I can feel our bond continue to grow. Twenty-one years is not a long enough relationship for father and daughter, and so I have to make it last. And as Willie Nelson plays softly over the speakers in this café on the Isle of Skye, I know that my dad agrees.