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‘Who killed Cool Papa?’ Talking to my child about my father’s death

An essay about being a daughter, being a parent, and protecting your future self from the past. By Laurel Hilton.

We were driving round the bend in a 100 km/h zone. It was roughly in the vicinity where I did my driving test as a very pregnant 32 year-old, graduating from a Texan to New Zealand licence. Weekly anxiety dreams about crashing on this bend helped me prepare for the test. I’m pretty sure I passed based solely on my physical condition.

My five year old asked: “Who killed Cool Papa?”

“Oh. No one honey, he just died.” I said.

“Yeah, but how did he die.”

Pre-motherhood, I visualised answering the tough questions with an easy, detached honesty that would inform them, not scare them, and not damage them.

“But how does the man’s seed get to the lady’s egg?”

“Well, he inserts his penis into her vagina and then the semen travels up the vaginal canal, into the uterus where the egg is waiting to be fertilised.”

Which sounds so easy and right until you’re sitting there on the couch imagining your five-year-old trying it with the neighbour’s little girl because they both fucking love babies and then visions of years of trauma and accusations and having to move start to unfurl in your brain like one of those tea blossoms and you’re suddenly mute and make some excuse about needing to pee and you run away from your little boy….

Cool Papa was called Cool Papa for a reason. He was cool. He wore Ray Ban Wayfarers and cowboy boots. He smoked Camel Shorts and smelled like Zippo fluid. His office in the basement of the college theatre building had walls covered in pictures of Lenny Bruce and David Lynch and me in my Halloween costume. He was a champion of women, teaching us how to re-wire fresnel lenses and “lefty-loosey righty-tighty.”

My father-in-law is definitely not cool. At a dinner party we had to throw because he showed up with some friends at dinner time, he asked me how my dad’s suicide made me feel.

“My dad didn’t commit suicide.”

I think?

Up until that moment, in the middle of the dinner party, I had never considered the possibility.

It was a great time to process all of this, right before coffee and improvised dessert.

I had always just assumed that Grandpa’s hospice morphine was just too irresistible for a semi-reformed addict. And that once Grandpa was definitely dead and the reminiscing with Aunt Gail had wrapped up, Dad just took a little, tiny bit too much. Just a little, tiny, bit too much.

The author as a teenager with her father

“Who left the fucking hat on the bed?!” Dad and I would say to each other when something went wrong that summer after we watched Drugstore Cowboy. “You been noticing the build up in traffic lately?” We’d say to each other when we were stuck behind a cattle truck that summer after we watched Wild at Heart.

He worked at a university, so we had summers and spring breaks together. Once we went camping just the two of us and followed a grey heron down the Buffalo River in a canoe for three hours. I hung out at his office every day after school, we ran lines and lifted weights while “Danger Zone” played super loud in the background. He always played music a little bit louder than everyone else. Preferred the lights a little bit lower. One time he bought some ginseng shots from the health food shop. He did ten in a row.

The summer before I started high school, he brought a stack of books to me in my bedroom and told me they were required reading before I could be a “for-real person.” On The Road and Catcher in the Rye (obviously). The Autobiography of Malcom X. Of Mice and Men. Island. The Sound and the Fury.

The following summer, he told my mom that it was probably me stealing her pain pills.

There were over 400 people at his funeral. Generations of students spoke to his exceptional teaching skills. It was true, he was the most patient and kind teacher any of us had ever had. He was a hugger. He collected Beanie Babies. He made Friday afternoons feel like The Start of Something Big. He sang “El Paso” to my grandmother every time because it was her favourite. He was often the quietest one in the room, unless the room had a stage in it. His eyes were transparent blue, like a wolf, but a really nice wolf that makes you feel fucking fantastic.

In the immediate hours and days after Dad died, things kept falling off the wall. Things that had been there for years. It felt like a panicked kid was cosmically bumping into the walls, fighting his way back into the living room. To me, it was (ridiculous! insane!) proof of what happened well before my fear was confirmed by the toxicology results. He was shouting at us “I fucked up! I’m sorry!” – his mantra in life and now his mantra in death, it turned out.

“Yeah, but how did he die?”

“He took a little too much medicine on the day his own dad died.”

Which seems so easy, until you’re in the 100k zone and it might actually be easier to take the curve too fast, run off the road, and flip the car. You can see people’s opinion of him form in a simple, straight line when they hear the words “drug overdose”. He doesn’t get to bloom like one of those tea blossoms.

So, instead?

“Oh honey, his body broke. His heart stopped working.”

And I turn up the music too loud and hide my tears behind his sunglasses and run away from my little boy.

Laurel Hilton is a mother of two, a recovering Texan and director of badassery at Ash Hilton Jewellery. She enjoys falling asleep watching true crime documentaries and building forts out of clean, but not yet folded laundry.

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor, anytime or call Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or the Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO.

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