Dad was the one who taught me to climb trees. Mom worked night shift as the auditor at the hotel that Granddad ran, but Dad worked morning shift at a breakfast restaurant. Mom was home from 6am to 9pm; Dad was gone from 7am to 3pm. Mom made me breakfast in the mornings, usually toast or pancakes from instant mix, sometimes toaster pastries or fruit, and went back to bed as soon as the bus picked me up. Dad was the one that packed my lunches, and made me dinner. He met me at the bus stop every day and walked home with me.
If I was closer to him than to Mom, that was no surprise.
Dad taught me to climb trees because, he said, every girl needed to know how to climb a tree. "Just in case you need to escape a rampaging moose." That we lived in California, where there were no moose, did not deter him -- "what if you end up somewhere they live? What will you do then, hmm?" Though he was a grown-up, he always climbed after me, swinging himself up onto the lower branches with one arm, making it look easy.
Mom sighed when she saw this, as she often did during summer, when we'd stay out until 8pm playing. "David," she said. "What are you teaching her?"
"How to escape a rampaging moose," Dad said. "Just in case."
Mom shook her head, and muttered something about how I'd break my arm, every time.
When I did fall out of the tree and sprain my wrist, she was the one to take me to the ER.
"Your dad could stand to be more careful," she said, when the x-ray came back with no broken bones, but she didn't forbid me from climbing.
I knew they loved each other. For all that Mom sighed over Dad's puns, his tendency toward what she called recklessness (teaching me to climb, biking to work even in the snow), she danced with him in the kitchen on her nights off, washing and peeling vegetables for him, acting as his sous chef. Dad, too, was obvious in his affection. He packed lunches for her, same as he did for me, and included little notes in them -- usually jokes, but always signed with, "I love you". No matter what, before he left for work every morning, he'd kiss her and tell her: "I love you! Have a good day."
I felt safe and secure and loved, too. How could I not?
If I was a little too complacent, when my best friend's parents got divorced, who could blame me? I knew that mine wouldn't -- their relationship wasn't like that.
They loved each other. I knew it.
I thought my parents were untouchable. I thought, nothing bad can ever happen to us.
I finished elementary and started middle school, and Dad and I didn't climb trees anymore. I said it was because I was getting too old for it -- I'd accepted that I wasn't going to be outrunning moose anytime soon, that there were few situations that could be fixed by shimmying up a tree.
Dad accepted this with his usual good humor, laughing at my fervent proclamations that there were no moose in California and anyway I'm getting too old to be caught up trees all the time. I was twelve, going to be thirteen in a few months -- he recognized the signs.
"You do you," he said. He left me alone, handing me his Nokia and telling me to be careful when I went out with friends to the local park, or else walked to someone else's house. He required that I check in with him after school, but he was lenient about this, too: as long as I checked in within half an hour of the usual time the bus dropped me off (calling to say that I was fine), he didn't require anything of me. I was a good student, I'd never gotten in trouble, and we were still close. On nights when Mom was working, now, I helped him prepare dinner.
"You're a good daughter, Jessie," he said, and I beamed.
He loved me and he loved Mom. Both of us knew that, and neither of us questioned that.
Dad got sick my sophmore year. It wasn't anything serious at first, or we didn't think. He was tired all the time, but he'd always complained of fatigue. He wasn't a morning person, but he forced himself to work early-morning shifts at the diner, because he liked the job, liked the owner and the menu they'd put together, and he didn't want to compromise that by choosing a different restaurant.
"You could always change jobs," Mom said, one of the first times she caught him napping. "Since Jessie's old enough to stay home by herself now."
"Jessica," I corrected. "Mom's right, though. I'm sixteen -- I'm not exactly going to burn the house down trying to make myself dinner. You taught me too well."
Dad shook his head. "I love what I do. I just don't have the same energy anymore, I guess. I'm turning into an old man."
Mom poked him. "You're not an old man."
"Oh, but I am," he teased her. "I'm an old, old man. Soon you'll have to put me in a home, and then what will you and Jessica do?"
"I'll visit you every day," I offered. "We'll pick a nice home."
"The nicest we can afford." Mom made a face. "But really, David -- you could always find another job. It might be nice to see each other regularly."
"I'll think about it," he said.
When he kept napping and the fatigue didn't get better, when he developed a fever that wouldn't go away -- that was when Mom prodded him to make a doctor's appointment.
He grumbled about it the entire time -- our insurance wasn't good, the co-pays were high, and what if they wanted to run tests? We were doing okay financially, but not so well that a misstep wouldn't send us spiralling down.
"Go," Mom urged. "David. This isn't normal."
By the time he went, Mom had already been on the Internet, looking up potential answers for his symptoms.
"I'm so afraid it's cancer," she said, when I asked her what she was doing. "I keep telling myself it's not, but..."
I knew too well what she meant.
Dad came back from the doctor without answers. "They want me to go in for more tests, and then...I guess we'll know?"
Mom balled her hands into fists, her face unnaturally calm. "What do they think it is?"
"I don't know," Dad hedged. "They're not sure. It might be a vitamin B deficiency, maybe anemia. They had me do a blood test..."
Mom's hands didn't relax. "What did they say, David?"
"They don't know, Polly."
"Okay," she said. I almost felt I could see her crumbling in on herself, the worst of her fears suddenly confirmed, simply because no one knew. "Okay."
"Mom," I said, laying a hand on her back. "It's probably nothing serious, right? It can't be anything serious. Dad's young and he's never been sick a day in his life, right?"
"Not a day," Dad said, forcing himself to smile. "It's probably nothing."
When he went in for more tests, and then more -- I think Mom knew.
When the doctor called and requested that Mom come in to the appointment too, we both knew. I watched her answer the phone, book the time for the overlap they had, where both of them would be available, thank the receptionist on the other end, then crumble into herself.
I made dinner that night, Mom and Dad both hollow-eyed sitting at the table, and thought about how I'd always felt so lucky, that nothing could ever happen to me, that nothing bad could ever touch us, touch this.
This is it, I thought. The last even close to normal night we're going to have.
They diagnosed him with leukemia. A rare form, they said. There were treatments, things they could try, but the 5-year survival rate was 25%.
Mom explained all of this to me, dry-eyed and dispassionate. She might have been giving a presentation on something that had happened to someone else, not to us.
"That means that there's a 25% chance your dad will still be alive in five years," she said, as though I hadn't understood just what the number represented.
Our lives began to revolve around illness. Dad had a schedule for treatments, when he was supposed to be at the hospital, what to expect and when. There were numerous pamphlets with gently-colored cartoon people that explained just what to expect, what would happen next, written by the kind of people who had never suffered from cancer themselves.
"What do you know, more literature," Dad joked, every time he brought home another one.
"David," Mom said, in that way that meant this isn't funny.
"I know," he said. "I know."
He died between graduation and my first year of college.
He'd managed to make it to my high school graduation, something that both Mom and I had wanted. That was the last outing.
Two weeks after he came to my graduation, Mom hired a hospice nurse.
Six weeks post-graduation, he died.
That summer flew by, a blur, the funeral barely a blip. The church was packed, an endless stream of people coming to pay their respects -- people from his days in the Navy, people from the hotel, people from the restaurant, old friends and acquaintances, family that we rarely saw outside of weddings and funerals.
Dad's best friend, Harry, gave the eulogy, because Mom couldn't hold it together long enough to get through the first line. I said something, or tried to. I started crying on the podium, and Harry had to help me gently back to my seat.
"I wanted to tell them about moose," I said to Mom, later. "About falling out of the tree, and brownies after school, and..."
She hugged me. "I know."
"About feeling lucky," I finished. "How lucky we were, and we knew it."
"I know," she said again, because what else was there to say?
Mom and I avoided each other that summer. Every time we saw each other, we'd cry.
She helped me pack the car. She stood awkwardly in the driveway and asked if I wanted her help moving things into my dorm.
"It's forty-five minutes away, Mom, and I've visited campus a whole bunch."
"I know," she said. "But..."
If Dad were here, it would have been him, I thought. I buried it quickly. "It's fine. Don't worry about it."
Our relationship, never strong, unraveled quickly. Dad had been the glue that held us together; without him, I didn't know how to talk to Mom. Phone conversations were awkward, and eventually I invented reasons not to call. During breaks, I stayed with Granddad and helped out at the hotel. He let me work the morning shift, laying out the continental breakfast, and never asked me what was going on between Mom and I.
"Your grandma died when Polly was a junior in high school," he explained. "It's not -- grief isn't something you're going to let go of overnight. Give it time."
I tried to listen. I went to Christmas at home every year, even though it was weird.
I invited Mom and Granddad to my graduation.
"I wish your dad could have been here," Mom said, as soon as we were reunited after the ceremony.
I took a deep breath and tried not to cry. Not today, not today...
"He would have been so proud of you." Mom started tearing up, and just like that, the day was ruined.
My entire adult relationship with Mom was colored by loss. The graduation. The day I accepted my first "adult" job. When I introduced her to my first serious boyfriend, then to the man I knew I was going to marry someday.
"Your dad should have been here for this," she said, and collapsed inward, and it took everything in me not to say, Mom, it was ten years ago, can we start healing from this now, please?
At my wedding, I put my foot down.
"Nothing about Dad today, okay? I'm sad too, but Granddad is going to walk me down the aisle, and he's going to be the one that dances the first dance with me, to Dad's favorite song. We're going to honor him, but this is about me and Eric, not Dad."
"Oh, honey," Mom sighed. "I'll do my best."
"Mom," I said. "If you've ever done anything for me, I need you to do this, now. There's no statute of limitations on grief, but -- this should be a happy day, for both of us. Can you do that?"
She sat quietly throughout the whole ceremony. When we shuffled into the reception hall, she was there.
When we gave the toasts, and I talked about Dad and how meeting Eric had made me think of him, of the best things about him, she disappeared.
Granddad went to find her.
"She's outside," he said. "She needs a minute. She..."
"Okay." I shut my eyes. "No statute of limitations on grief, right?"
"She's not doing this to hurt you," Granddad said.
"When you lose your partner..." he hedged. "It's not something you get over, overnight. Even a decade on -- big moments like this -- you wish that they could have been there, too."
"I know," I said. "I just -- it's not just her hurt. It's mine, too. I'm trying to be patient, but I can't talk to her without this happening like clockwork, every time."
Granddad sighed. "Give it time."
"Good. That's all you need to do."
Mom reappeared as we were talking. She waved at me, and I saw that her makeup was gone. I took a deep breath, and I waved back. No statute of limitations on grief.
I invited her and Granddad to Christmas at our house that year, and the next eight years after.
When she got teary-eyed as Eric said a quick thank-you to our guests for sharing the holiday with us, before we ate -- "I'm sorry, I.." -- I told her, "I miss him too."
At birthdays, my cousins' weddings, the family get-together on the 4th of July, when she met her first grandchild, Maggie -- whenever something would remind her of Dad and she'd get the look, I would tell her: "I know. It reminds me, too."
I didn't know what else I could do.
Eric and I could afford childcare. We worked the same shift, and put Maggie in daycare, but we took care of her every weekend.
Our house was tiny, but it had a tree in the backyard that she could climb, one that bordered our neighbor's yard.
One weekend, when she was about five, I saw her try to climb it.
"Do you need help, honey?"
"No!" She tried to climb again, her shoes slipping against the bark. "...maybe."
I gave her a boost. "You'll have to learn to climb a tree," I said. "You might need to escape a rampaging moose someday."
She scrunched her face. "A moose? In the city?"
My child, I thought, and laughed.
"Moose -- meese -- are serious business, kiddo."
She gave me a withering look from the lower branches of the tree. "Can you climb?"
"Yes." I kicked off my shoes, and shimmied up the tree. It wasn't the graceful way that Dad had climbed, but it was enough to impress my daughter.
"Yup," I deadpanned. "I've had to run from a lot of meese in my time."
She looked thoughtful for a moment, then: "Show me how to climb!"
So I dropped to the ground and showed her again.
That night, when Maggie was in bed, trying to wheedle Eric into reading her a third bedtime story, I called Mom.
"Hey," I said, when she picked up the phone. "It's Jessie."
"Remember when I was little, and Dad told me I had to learn how to climb a tree because someday I might need to escape a rampaging moose?"
Mom sighed into the phone. "I remember. I also seem to remember telling your dad it was a bad idea to each you to climb that high. How many times did you fall out of the tree?"
"Half a dozen, easy," I laughed. "But Dad caught me almost every time, and the one instance he didn't, it was because I was too stubborn to wait for him to come out and look after me. I never realized that's what he was doing -- I always thought he was extremely serious about moose safety."
She laughed a little, a sudden rush of sound into the receiver. "There aren't any moose in California. I told you that, and you got so indignant, you went out and told him right away."
"And he said --"
"'What if you end up somewhere with a moose and need to escape? You'll be able to climb a tree!'"
I laughed. "He was a character."
"He was," Mom agreed. "He always knew how to make both of us laugh."
"Yeah." I hesitated, unsure of what to say next. "Mom?"
"I taught Maggie to climb a tree today. I told her Dad's line about the moose. Meese."
She laughed again, a shaky sound. "What did she say?"
"She very wisely pointed out that there are no moose in the city." I paused again. "But she asked me to teach her to climb."
"Just like you," Mom said. "Your dad would be so proud of you. He would have loved being a grandpa."
"I know," I said. "But -- Mom?"
"You can help me with that. We can -- we can talk about this stuff. What Dad would have done. What he would have said. You knew him longer than I did. We can talk about this." Not just about moose, I added silently. Not just happy memories. Everything. We can talk about everything.
She took a deep breath.
"Okay," she repeated. "Your dad -- he would want me to tell you. He'd want Maggie to grow up with a grandpa, but beyond that, if he couldn't be there -- he'd want to know that someone still cared enough to pass along his little jokes and traditions."
"Yeah," I said. "He used to say..."
"You're not dead as long as someone remembers who you were."
"He's not dead, Mom. He's gone, but he's not dead."
Silence, then: "Did I ever tell you the story about where the moose joke came from?"
She rattled it off into the phone, and I listened, rapt, about a hunting trip gone wrong, my dad's dad grabbing him and pulling him back through the woods, to the campsight, sure they'd seen a moose, only to find out that it was a cow, wandering lost through the woods.
"Thank you," I said, when she finished and I'd stopped laughing. "I..."
"He would have told you, if he'd ever thought of it." She paused. "I know that it hasn't always been easy, Jessie, but --"
"I know, Mom."
"I love you."
"I love you too," I told her. "Thank you."
We hung up a few minutes later, after talking about my dad and more of his antics, reliving the memory of the emergency room trip after I'd fallen out of the tree, Dad's relief when he'd seen that my wrist wasn't broken, just badly sprained.
Eric came into the living room. "Maggie's asleep. It only took four books this time."
"That kid." I shook my head. "I called my mom."
"We talked about my dad."
"Oh." He blinked. "Oh!"
"It went well," I informed him. "We're -- we're going to talk more, going forward. I..."
Eric hugged me, and I cried -- not for my dad, but for my mom and the missing connection that I was just beginning to restore.
"It's a start," he said, when I finished snuffling. "A good start."
"I know," I told him, and then: "Did I ever tell you my dad's joke about moose?"
"Sitting pretty" doesn't mean that you'll always be in that position. No one is invulnerable.
This is fiction. I lost my 'second dad' recently, one of the two people I was hoping would make it to my wedding. I miss him, and this prompt reminded me of something he used to say.
Thank you for reading.