I wish you hadn't, but I'm glad you're dead, dad
Today it’s with some ease and rehearsal that I speak about the passing of a parent. It’s both remote in time and a part of my identity, I suppose. And yet I can still remember down to the finest details a day walking along the Seine with my sister Hannah some nine years ago, dissecting our father’s death. Not quite an emotional autopsy, but some deep grappling with the tentacular implications of something we had up to that point gingerly avoided addressing.
I remember the day we put words on the “renegotiations” which endlessly occur between the dead and the living. The relationship we had with our dead Dad as kids, the new phase of relationship with our dead Dad as adults, and perhaps most pertinent of all, the extent to which that informed the relationship we survivors created as a family. These are transactions and must be seen as a giving and taking, a loss and a gain.
It was refreshing to voice the collection of blasphemous thoughts I’d curated about my dad’s passing and his subsequent absence to the open ears of my sister. And to hear many sentiments echoed.
Sentiments that felt wrong. Feelings that betrayed the image of grief I’d been raise to see as ‘normal’.
I could voice that I was in some queasy way happy he had died. That I felt fortunate for the bond that it provided my bleeding, grieving family. That the entire life I knew, a move across the country, bonds I shared with friends who had also lost parents years and years later, the subsequent schools I went to, opportunities I was able to seize, all of this was spawned from a few fortuitous moments in a hospital. A death. A martyrdom.
I could finally voice that losing our father made us more reflective, more empathetic, wiser and more human. That deep down I’m not sure I would be quite as kind, quite as good today had I been brought up in my largely white, largely privileged Lake Tapps, Washington and never known suffering.
I could voice that my dad’s sudden death taught us to live with a sense of urgency. To waste no time. To travel and explore the breadth of human experience as much as possible. We learned to not be afraid. We learned to love those we meet along the path with no reservations. We learned to burn like fire.
I could finally voice that I was happy to have gained some level of emotional competency. An ability to discuss at depth the emotions that tortures us- those stalking predators of the unrehearsed mind. I learned to talk about hard things and use it to build bridges between hearts.
I could voice that the lurking shadow of a phantom, angel father- some semi-mythical creature who sat in an urn beside the piano and had been raised to the status of a family deity- had given me some supplementary concern to perform. A concern for ‘adequacy’. To do more. To do better. To live up to a standard. I was constantly reminded of being looked down on and wanted (needed?) to make ‘him’ proud. What would he say if he could see these lives we’ve made? That prowling presence, that connection with some concept of a transcendental legacy was- in some strange way- a gift.
I know now that death is in fact a life journey and, of course, that each life is unique. I know that no words can soothe, and that even the suggestion of comparing, let alone understanding an experience like death can be perceived as an insult to the sufferer. Truly no other knows what it feels like. But we survive. And we thrive. And we do it by taking it day to day, and sharing with others. Coming together. We all experience death some day.
I’m afraid I’ve just rambled on. It’s early in the morning and I always have too much I want to say. I hope that even one of these words may impart some solace on you, dear reader.