Her father dies three times. The first time, in ‘69, she’s six, and her mother tells her, “They lost him; he’s missing.” But she knows they’ll find him, and he’ll find her, even after her mother packs a folded-over mattress and her three daughters in the back seat of her white VW bug and drives them from their mobile home near the air force base in Corpus Christi to a cold apartment in Vermont. She knows her father will find her, even after she stops believing in Santa, even after she understands that her parents divorced before her father left for the war in Vietnam, even after she gets a new stepfather and moves again, this time to New York. She holds on inside, even after his photos vanish and no one ever speaks his name.
The second time her father dies, she is sixteen. The Air Force declares him dead, not based on new information, but because a missing pilot has to be paid and a dead one doesn’t. She and her two sisters each get their own set of medals in velvety black boxes and a folded American flag in the mail. Her stepfather asks to adopt her, but she says no. She has a father, and though she doesn’t say it, she isn’t about to let him go.
Another fifteen years pass before she realizes that her father is not the only one missing in action. On the outside, she’s done well, graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth, won a Dean’s Fellowship to graduate school at Penn. But on the inside, she is grey, half-dead and disconnected, uncommitted to anything or anyone besides her aging half-lab, Molly. When she hits thirty—the age her father was when his O-2A Skymaster disappeared over Laos—she can’t pretend anymore, not even to herself. Her friends are graduating, getting married, having kids. She is still in school but not sure why, in a relationship she knows is going nowhere, without a future she can’t begin to imagine.
She is afraid, like Rilke, that therapy will kill off her angels as well as her devils, but she doesn’t know what else to do. Luckily, she finds a therapist wise in the ways of grief. Having lost his own mother as a child, he assures her that being fully alive doesn’t have to mean forgetting. He helps her see that part of her is stuck at six, still certain she’s done something terrible to make her father leave, still sure her hope is the only thing holding his plane in the air.
It takes a lot of going backwards before she can move on. She drives around Texas visiting places she lived as a child. Back in Philly, she spends evenings cross-legged on the worn wooden floor of her grad school rental, flipping through folders of dental records and personnel evaluations. The answers to her questions aren’t there, not even in the one-page Facts and Circumstances summary of what the Air Force calls “the incident,” and she calls “the day my Daddy disappeared.” Her questions aren’t so black and white. Why did her father leave her? Why didn’t he come back? How can she go forward in a world without him in it?
The third time her father dies, it’s 1996, and she kills him herself. She puts his dog tags around her neck for the last time and stands between her sisters in the tiny family cemetery in Mahomet, Texas. She shivers in the hot April wind as her older sister sings The Beatles’s “Let it Be,” as her younger sister recites John Magee’s poem, “High Flight.” And finally, she steps forward to explain herself to her family and her father, borrowing words from Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods.” “In order to live in this world…” she begins, but then inside she stumbles. How can she do it—choose to let her father go?
He never said goodbye, but in the sudden cemetery silence, she hears her father’s voice. She’s six again, at the Marina RV and Mobile Home Park in Corpus, and her father is home on leave, his long legs loping beside her hand-me-down two-wheeler, steadying her seat until suddenly he’s not. “You’re doing it,” he calls after her as she pedals fiercely, her wobbly progress leaving him behind. “That’s right, Kitten” —his voice is fading— “You’re doing it! Now just keep going!”