How a father’s sudden death released a son’s true feelings about him, feelings he still struggles to let go of.
I have never really mourned my father, unless you count a few minutes of weeping as mourning. He died more than 34 years ago and, yes, his death certainly did shake me up; no one this close to me had died and my father’s death was sudden. But for one week there were no tears, and I worried about this. Well, maybe it’s because I had to “be there” for my mother, I thought.
She had been with my father when he died. As she told the story, they had gone to shop and he had gotten into a dispute with a young woman over a parking space. I could imagine his rage, a rage of which I had always been the most common victim.
He lost the argument and he and my mother drove off. Moments later he pulled over clutching his chest, and he died before the EMTs got there. He was 68 and I was 35.
It was a Sunday. My wife and I, along with our four-year-old son, had just driven the 160 miles back home from a visit to her parents and, having done all the driving, I was tired. We walked into the house, and the phone rang. It was my mother, who lived some 90 miles away.
“Daddy died,” she said.
My first reaction was complete shock. My dad had not been sick; yes, he had had a minor stroke the year before, but had recovered fully. He had never had heart problems and was still active at his work as a physician. And now, just like that, he was dead? No, this couldn’t be.
My next feeling, the most memorable one, the uncensored feeling you get when you hear of someone’s sudden death, was a release from fear. I didn’t have to be afraid any more. All I could think of were fairy tales where the dragon is finally slain and the townspeople can, at long last, breathe free. Until that moment I didn’t realize that I was still afraid of my father. I was 35 years old, he had not hit me in more than 20 years, and yet the terror was still there.
But he was my father, and as the week wore on I kept asking myself, Why wasn’t I crying? Maybe it was numbness, I said to myself. And having to do things. Having to drive the 90 miles down to Queens, having to go with my brother to identify my father’s body at the morgue, to go with my uncle and brother to pick out a casket, to make coffee for the people who came back to the house after the funeral and during the week of sitting shiva. And most of all, having to do my best to comfort my mother.
But even at the funeral and burial, I didn’t cry.
“What’s wrong with me?” I kept asking myself.
I returned home the following Sunday, and went into my college office on Monday. The chairperson of my department approached me in the hall, and she was clearly ready to embrace me; I am certain I would have cried then. But at that moment, a male colleague came out of his office and shook my hand as he expressed his condolences. So still the tears wouldn’t come.
The next morning I took my son to nursery school and as I hugged and kissed him, he said, “Bye, Daddy, see ya later.” That did it. Somehow I made it back to my house, a few minutes drive away, before I lost it and sobbed.
But that was it. In between, in these 34 years, I have barely shed a tear for my father.
Rationally, I can understand that he was a man with his own problems, a man whose own father committed suicide when my father was 21. I know that rage is a way that many people typically deal with fear or sadness. But when you are a child, you have no way of comprehending this and because parents are gods – or dragons – there is no way, even as an adult, truly to see them as simply human.
I certainly couldn’t do this with my dad. I knew this because I had actually tried it once. I was 10 years old and was in the car with my younger brother. My dad had just dropped his mother off at a restaurant, and just before he emerged from the place, I decided that I would look at him as if he were just a man, a man I didn’t know. When he came out of the restaurant and started walking back toward the car, I tried it.
And it worked. Suddenly, he was just a middle-aged guy walking along a Brooklyn street.
It was instantaneously and overwhelmingly terrifying. I had stepped out of the child’s universe and had learned an unspeakable truth: that our parents are just ordinary human beings. I immediately let go of this and never ever tried it again. Fear of my father’s rageful verbal abuse and of the hard spankings he would give me didn’t come close to the terror of seeing him as ordinary.
Perhaps if he had grown old gracefully or if he had ever become physically frail, I could have let go of the fears I had and could have seen him, if not as ordinary, at least not as a dragon. There was a sad, struggling man in there, but my childhood experiment that might have allowed me to see that was a disaster. I needed a god, even if he was a fearsome one.
Will I ever be old and brave enough to try again to see him as just a man?
This is a revised version of a piece originally published in the Elder Storytelling Place.