I changed my name back to my maiden name today. There was no great pomp or circumstance, the change was simple with a bit of typing, a few clicks, and a relatively painless trip to the DMV. Nothing happened really, aside from a few friends getting a Facebook alert that the change had taken place. Divorced for nearly three years, this was a decision I had waffled on for a while. Keep a last name that matched my youngest son but also matched a man who tormented me for the better part of five years? Or go back to my maiden name?
You see, this past summer the man who gave me my maiden name died two weeks after turning 58, from multi-organ failure due to alcoholism. I had spent the better part of two weeks visiting him in his living room hospital bed—the first time I had set foot on his property in nearly eight years even though he lived about a half-hour away.
In those first days, when he was still relatively lucid, he made condescending remarks about my new glasses. In the days to come, he’d mutter nonsense here and there—jumbled words from a once athletic, handsome man now coming from a tiny, yellow lump with sunken eyes and hollow features, weighing less than 100 pounds, under piles of blankets although the humid East Tennessee heat was nothing short of offensive in June.
He never said he loved me. He never said he was sorry.
I never really said anything either, ever more resentful that his friends had tracked me down on social media, begging me to come throw the death bed Hail Mary to repair our relationship at the last possible second.
Being a Garner really meant nothing to me. I suppose it should have, being the only child, and a girl one at that. I gave it as a middle name to my oldest son, a gesture less symbolic and more out of obligation after years of hearing, “Our name dies with you,” as if I was wholly unaware of the traditions surrounding marriage and the typical female custom of taking your husband’s name for your own.
Having never changed my social security card, legally I was still a Garner. A few bills and subscriptions, my social media accounts, my driver’s license all changed, so I lived for seven years with a foot in each world . . . new last name/old last name. But, recently, with a growing business and some official documents that were being held up by my inability to pick a last name, I finally decided to transition back to the first one I was given. In that decision, my grief rolled around yet again.
Grief hits in waves. Complicated grief hits in tsunami swells—sad, mad, love, hate, resentment, longing, and back again.
When my mom’s mom, my beloved Nana, died I remember standing at her graveside service thinking this was it. I couldn’t limp through life without her. I wished they would just bury me with her. What was I going to do without someone so entirely special? Sitting at my dad’s service I listened to the eulogy—funny little anecdotes that made the crowd chuckle, like the time he and my uncle moved me from Manhattan back to Tennessee. Words falling out of the speaker’s mouth like a glossy highlight reel, no mention of the torture he put me through for years.
I’m sorry, Dad, OK? I’m sorry I called you to do it but I literally had no one else. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to get home? Isn’t this what parents do? Who would you have had me call? You know what? Just never mind. My constant rebuttals fell on deaf ears.
Every line read, more funny stories, more laughs. No one talking about the elephant in the room, that this man refused help, treatment, turned on everyone, didn’t know his grandchildren. My eyes focused so intently on the river across the street that at one point I nearly blacked out.
As a child, he was the love of my life. He was a wonderful man and a devoted father. Later though, when the addiction took hold, he seemed to alternate between tolerating me and hating me.
As the years went by and our relationship, or lack thereof, got worse, I distanced myself from him and him from my children. On the rare occasions we were together, the scent of cigarettes and vodka announced his presence before he physically appeared. Sifting through photos the day after he died, photos of a man’s existence so rife with promise, I said over and over again, “What a waste.”
My dad taught me little things in life I never realized I retained until now. I know if I’m trying to fit a screw into a stripped hole I can fix it with a toothpick. I mix bubble bath like he did, using my hand and arm as a giant mixer, churning the water while my toddler screams with delight. I started and grew a business with nothing, fleeing from a terrible marriage. Now, when I talk about having the courage to do so and not being crippled by fear, the words he’d shout at me when I’d hesitate at tumbling passes in gymnastics classes come falling out of my mouth, “Do something! Even if it’s wrong!”
Watching his talent as a contractor slowly fade from him as he swam deeper and deeper into the bottle keeps me regimented in my furniture business, never having a glass of wine or an afternoon beer if I have a client’s project to tackle later in the evening. I catch myself saying or doing something he would have often these days, maybe because I’m hyper-sensitive to it now.
There’s good and bad to summing up my life with him as a parent.
Somehow, I thought deep down that escaping his last name, even if it meant keeping one I hated, would in some ways cut the ties that bound me to him. It didn’t and I guess it never will.
In a name change came a reckoning of sorts—no matter what my last name was I would still forever be his daughter. The daughter of a troubled and stubborn man, whose hurt and rage and anxiety all funneled together, changing him at his very core into someone unrecognizable both physically and mentally. A smart, strong man who grew weaker and weaker until one Friday afternoon when he faded into nothingness and two men with a gurney took him to a cold sterile building before saying, “You’re a writer? You should write the obituary,” which I inevitably did.
I changed my name back to my maiden name, watching a queue tick red numbers, holding a stack of paperwork I prayed was enough to get this errand off my to-do list, while sitting in a hard chair trying to read a book, and apparently, that was the easy part.