Sometimes my dad would let me stay up late on Fridays to watch Dave with him.
The two of us were never particularly close—he was 41 when I was born, and rededicated himself to his job after finding himself with another, unexpected mouth to feed. I’m also his only daughter and he never knew how to talk to girls. He got angry when I was 11 and told him that my best friend started shaving her legs. He wound himself up when he picked me up from my middle school and saw me sharing candy with a male classmate. He didn’t like it when I wore makeup or showed my shoulders or gave anyone the suggestion that I had a working clitoris. But he liked it when I stayed inside with him. He liked it when I watched his nightly television with him: local news at 6, Seinfeld rerun at 7, 60 Minutes rerun at 8, national news at 10, Dave just after 11.
We called him Dave, like he was our old friend, someone who lived in our house but who we only saw for an hour every weeknight. I liked his gap tooth and my dad liked his hair in the ‘80s. Dave was one of the few people who really made him laugh: his big laugh, where he threw his head back and let out a big scream. Then he’d sigh and readjust in his chair. I always wanted to make him laugh like that but rarely did.
My dad likes Johnny Carson but he loves David Letterman, who started hosting Late Night with David Letterman nearly a decade before I was born. By the time my Indian parents settled in their second house in suburban Calgary, Alberta, with their preteen son and a new baby girl, Dave was well-ensconced in my dad’s nightly ritual. If I woke up in the middle of the night, it was likely I’d hear the sound of the show floating up from the television on the main floor: Dave and Paul chatting, or Madonna doing something nuts, or some leggy blond celebrity gently flirting with him on the other side of the desk. Even now, blue and yellow remind me of Dave—his Late Show banner—and my dad, too. As if the two of them are old buddies who just haven’t met yet.
Now my dad is 65, retired, and I’ve since moved across the country from him. He likes it when I call every day for trivial updates on the weather or what I ate or if I’m feeling “weak.” That’s always been his big concern. “You sound weak. Are you weak?” he asks me. I think he’s trying to ask if I’m sick, but it always comes off more menacing: Are you able to take care of yourself without me?
But the two of us always had TV, the shows that were likely too mature for my then 10-year-old brain. It was my little rebellion, the only one that he was complicit in: Seinfeld on Thursdays and The Simpsons on Saturdays and All in the Family on Fridays and David Letterman during the week. By the time I was 12, we folded The Daily Show into it as well. When I broke a rule, I was never grounded or forbidden from seeing friends—the only punishment my parents would dole out was no television. In the seventh grade, I was caught prank-calling my social studies teacher, and my parents didn’t let me watch television for a month. It wasn’t so much the removal of a mindless indulgence as it was a prohibition on the only thing that my dad and I shared. By that point, I was tired of going to badminton with him. I didn’t like jogging like he did. But we still both loved comedy and we liked weird white men and we liked laughing. He forgave swearing and sexual indecency and rudeness only in the pursuit of a big laugh. For that month, we barely made eye contact.
Now, my dad can’t punish me by taking away my shows. Instead, he just shuts down. He’ll give me the silent treatment, refusing to communicate; he’ll sometimes answer the phone and say, “Just a moment” before passing the phone to my mother. Over Christmas, he didn’t talk to me for the week I came home because he didn’t like the dress I was wearing. (Too short; too bright.) Three months ago, he refused to talk to me because I was planning a trip to Thailand (“Why can’t you wait until I’m dead and then go to all these dangerous places?”). The worst one was two years ago, when I finally told him about my boyfriend: he’s white, he’s significantly older, and he’s not a guy my dad handpicked. He iced me out for three months.
But it’s rarely just the silent treatment, and that feels even worse. He sometimes grabs the phone when I call and gives me monosyllabic answers in language more formal than one would offer their only daughter. “Are you well?” he’ll ask, in his most flat, disaffected tone. Instead of just ignoring me entirely, he’ll give me a small glimpse into his well-being—just enough to know that he’s mad, just enough to ensure that I won’t feel whole until he gets over it. It doesn’t lasts, but it’s always crushing.
I never feel more than a breath away from temporary disownment.
People tell you that your parents will make more sense to you the older they get, but my dad is only getting cloudier. He rarely, if ever, acknowledges his own tantrums. Sometimes he’ll brush off his behavior and mutter about how old he’s getting. “You can’t change a leopard’s stripes,” he’ll say and I’ll get so flustered at that misunderstood idiom that I’ll barely hear him follow up with, “I’m not going to be here forever.”
But no matter what he does or says, we always have Dave. We talked about Dave after I moved away from home and we weren’t sure how to have a relationship over the phone. While my mother was in the hospital for mysterious chest pains two summers ago, and I choked on tears at a party miles and miles away on a Saturday night, he brought up last week’s Top Ten to calm me down. There has always been TV, and I’ve always panicked when one of Our Shows left the air. I called him as soon as Law & Order stopped airing new episodes. We both seemed breathless, struggling to find something new to talk about. This has always been the middle ground we’ve found between an immigrant baby boomer and a first-generation millennial with different politics and priorities and cities and lives. Dave, at least, made sense to both of us.
The last time he got mad was a month and a half ago. I told him I was going to move in with my Old White Boyfriend, and he ran through the full gamut. He threatened to disown me publicly, screamed so loud and long that he ran out of breath a few times and I could hear him put the phone down and take long, recuperative gasps. He accused me of “giving” him chronic high blood pressure.
We didn’t speak for days. But he did, eventually, call with his sternest voice, asking me his vaguest questions about my “well-being.” This went on for weeks. The only moments of warmth I got from him was when I brought up Dave’s glasses. He wants some for himself, so I found a similar pair online. “They’re cheap,” I said. “We can pry your front teeth apart and you’ll look like a tiny, brown Letterman. We’ll get a pet turtle to be Paul.” It made him laugh, not his full laugh, but a small chuckle. Enough to know he’d come back.
Old White Boyfriend and I moved in together four weeks ago. No one spoke to my dad about it and I never brought it up again. He knows, but he isn’t acknowledging it, for now. My mom has asked me to avoid bringing it up, and that’s fine with me because I know what’s inevitable. He’ll get angry about it, and it’ll come the way it always has: a sputtering of fury in the form of everything you’d ever regret saying to your child, all in the name of fear. I’ll swear him off like I always do: why should I engage with someone who tells me I’ve disappointed him? But then a few weeks will pass, maybe a month or so, and I’ll, say, watch Dave talk to Tina Fey. Finally, there’s a reason to call him and ask, “Did you watch her rip her dress off?” and I’ll get a second of him. Just a clip. Nothing longer than a minute or two of my dad, but it’s something to cling to while he continues to sulk.
My dad doesn’t seem all that upset about Dave leaving late-night television, but me, I’m angry that Dave has the audacity to go. I wish my dad were angrier. I wish he raged at Dave like I do for leaving us, not just because we like him but because we need him. What are we going to talk about how? How are we going to talk at all? How can I keep him here?
Admittedly, I stopped watching Dave regularly years ago, but whenever I anticipate one of my dad’s mood swings towards fury and inexplicable isolation, whenever he complains that I’ve grown up too fast and become too stubborn and left home too soon, I’ll check in on Dave and see what he’s been up to. I’ll watch a recent segment. I’ll see what he and Ricky Gervais were up to last week. I’ll make a comment about his socks, since my dad likes his bright socks. I’ll talk about old segments with Amy Sedaris where she talks about her rabbit and her seamstress who’s missing part of a finger. Whatever it is that’s bothering him, whether it’s about something I’m doing or did or about how my brother didn’t call or that his knees are hurting and he’s remembering, again, that he can’t get any younger, I can pull him back. He can sit with me for a minute on something present and funny and good, something that tells him everything is going to be fine, that I’m still around too.
But the show is over now. We didn’t prepare. We haven’t figured out a replacement. I haven’t found anything close enough.
I just don’t know what we’re going to do without him.
Image via Getty.
Scaachi Koul is the managing editor of Hazlitt magazine. Her first collection of essays, The Pursuit of Misery, is forthcoming spring 2017 (Doubleday Canada).