Wednesday would have been my dad’s 77th birthday. He only ever made to 71; ravenous disease consumed his lungs, his bones, his brain. Cancer is insidious, and in his case noiseless and quick — like a kidnapping.
It was such a shock. He was irascible, impervious, and seemingly invincible. In both body and mind, it felt like only a bulldozer could take him down.
I woke up full of stories, reaching for my computer just after opening my eyes. I see Dad sometimes in my dreams; other times I just hear him in the background. He often is just out of the frame, like I don’t trust myself to fully acknowledge or engage with him. In this way, dreams imitate life. With Dad, it wasn’t always clear what you were getting into, or who.
There was discerning Dad; adoring husband Dad; workaholic Dad. There was counselor Dad; short-fuse Dad; alcoholic Dad. He could — and would — turn on a dime; silly to severe in six seconds flat. He was a charmer who lined the floors with eggshells.
The part that really sucks is I don’t know if I really knew him when he was alive. Maybe that’s not exactly true; I knew his personality, his ways, his hang-ups and hangovers. I knew how he was, and I knew some of his history. But that’s a lot different than knowing who he was, and why.
He meant a lot to me, largely because he was my father and the closest person to me to die. But it’s taken me years of processing, researching, and remembering to really connect any of the dots. There are still so many things I want to know; so many things I wish I’d asked. More than a few things seem easier to understand now. Just as many are mysteries. With a few, I have neither the evidence nor the authority to draw conclusions. One way or another, we all learn to make peace with not knowing.
I’ve made it clear that he wasn’t an easy man, be it as a son, a brother, a husband, or a father. But I always thought of his temperament in terms of its effect on me directly, or via people I loved. How easily the young fall into self-righteousness. How difficult it is to imagine someone gone when they’re a recurring source of pain. How quick we are to think of others — and everything, really — in terms of ourselves.
Sometimes I wonder how useful all of this modern messaging about living our best lives, speaking our truth, and discovering our path really is. It’s not like we’re the first folks grappling with these notions. It is human nature to wrestle with direction, purpose, and soul; we’re just the latest to do it, and maybe the first ones to indulge ourselves 24/7 with an overwrought public narrative about it.
This irony isn’t lost on me. Much of my writing is about all about me: my struggles, my successes, my journey. Beyond the likelihood of annoying or offending someone from time to time, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that — on the surface at least. I do believe that candor peaks curiosity, and empathy. Offering one’s details creates an opening to where real truth lives, often in the shadows. But how good are we at listening to others’ details with deliberate non-judgement — without inserting ourselves into the story?
I didn’t have a lot of empathy for Dad. Often bluster and bristle and booze, he didn’t elicit much. He worked hard and played hard and didn’t expect any special treatment. He dedicated his life to creating distance between himself and his story, which was a thin script with few detailed scenes. His childhood never crystallized for me the way my mother’s did. The way I figure, he broke the R off the gearshift about 17 years old, and took off barrelling toward the horizon, never looking back.
The gift of premature death, if there is one, is the invitation it offers. File cabinets, photo albums, and oral histories show up like stacks of permission slips, or buried treasure under the sea.
So I’m diving in. I feel an urgent need to know my father — to see him in the context of himself, and not just him in relation to me, or my mother, or my siblings. Who and why was he?
I wonder what I’ll find. I’ll be sure to keep you posted. In the meantime, do me a favor, will you? Ask someone for the details of their life: what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned, what they did wrong and what they think they may have done right. Ask. Just ask, and practice warmhearted listening — perhaps even with a pen in hand. I bet you won’t regret it.
The Beth List – Questions That Get People Talking
- When you picture your mother, where is she and what is she wearing?
- What were the first pair of shoes you remember?
- What did you do after carving the turkey and cleaning up?
- What historical event do you remember most clearly?
- Who in your family did you want to be like?
- Who or what was the first thing that broke your heart?
- Have you seen someone die?
- When, where, and how was your first kiss?
- Did you parents love each other?
- Tell me, what really matters most?
Photo credit: Laure Lille