Once Dad’s Gone, The Good Memories Can Grow

Graduation Day at Bard College

It’s happening. Just like I thought it would.

Four days after my daughter was born, my father died. He actually stopped breathing on what had been my wife’s due date. In the four days between, my brother set up a Skype call so dad could see his first and only grandchild. I don’t know what he felt. It seemed he was in so much pain and his mind so clouded by suffering, he was mostly eager to die.

Five years later, his memory has unfolded as I’d hoped. Memories, I know, are reconstituted every time we draw them up to our conscious experience. They’re not fixed and immutable. If we remember the pain or anger, those memories are reinforced, and details around those feelings are strengthened. We forget how kindness or feelings of joy can flow within us to create a confusing and nuanced soup of emotions in the moment.

My father was a difficult person and I’ve put a lot of time and thought into putting the hard parts to rest. I wrote about this here. I’ve met others who had unresolved conflict within them, around a parent no longer around; I’d seen them put these thoughts down and let them go by sharing them openly. I think this is a powerful tool for emotional healing. We gain strength through vulnerability, solidarity with others through our shared pains. We all should be able to share our darkness without friends or family distancing themselves, and similarly be attentive and open when they offer to share the same.

In recent years I’ve been blown away by the power of focusing on the positive. This can be done without blindness to abuse or suffering. And even the most conflicted and harmful people have their moments when they shine, when their gifts lift up those around them. These may be tiny or brief, but I’ve never met a person who was pure sadism, nor have I met some kind of demi-god who was exclusively uplifting. We all contain ebbs and flows of subtle intentions and feelings.

When my father was gone, I chose to focus on those positives and capture them here. Now when each Father’s Day arrives, my memories of him as a good man and committed dad grow with those passing years. The hurt and bitterness fade. I’ve been meaning for instance to write a post on having an “adventure mindset.” It’s a set of intentions that transcend our circumstances, go beyond any limitations of time or resources and help us to engage in each day with wonder, curiosity and awe.

My dad taught me that. He showed how being a single dad of 3 kids could involve road trips all over North America and Europe. He modeled an unfortunately rare quality in parenting, a carpe diem attitude that begins in infancy and can continue undiminished through our years of parenting, when many choose instead the common course of predictable routines, of going to sleep at the wheel.

Dad taught me to love books and play, the value of moving beyond my comfort zone. Though he may have been stuck and burdened, he transcended the circumstances of his birth, reached further and learned far more than if he’d done exactly what his mother had asked of him. Dad wanted to understand the nature of consciousness and the terms of our human condition. His understandings were different from mine, but the way we both have sought answers is the same.

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