Perhaps what I gained most from my father’s death was experiencing his humanity in real time. Not just as my dad. But as a man.
I’ve been thinking about water a lot lately. Arguably the most prolific duet on earth (I’m looking at you H2 + 0), water is just everywhere. And it sincerely doesn’t give a shit what you, or nature, throws at it. We are born of water. We can’t live without it. Its presence here is so ubiquitous that we hardly ever think about it. Our bodies and planet both comprised almost entirely of the stuff.
But this is not really a story about water. The water is just a metaphor. Placed strategically at the top of the page. I am telling you this so that you don’t have to think too much about it. It’s just a fucking metaphor. No, this is not a story about flowing water. This is a story about death. My father died two years ago. His brain ravaged by a merciless mutant. When he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma (a particularly aggressive brain tumor) in 2012, it was akin to discovering that all the water I’d ever known was going to evaporate. Quickly. But in slow-motion. A time lapse of mental and physical decay. One day an otherwise healthy man, well built even at sixty-seven years of age. Whip-smart and curious. We watch him deteriorate. It’s devastating. Especially for him. The intelligence and curiosity no longer utilized. The man didn’t want to know what was happening. He wanted a life raft. He wasn’t interested in the truth. The truth was bleak and inevitable. The ignorance of floating on the imaginary life raft gave him hope. I admired his fight. But I knew there was no life raft. Nobody was going to rescue him. He was going to float away until he drowned. And drown he did.
Fatherhood is a relatively new phenomenon for me. I’ve got a four-year-old daughter and a two-week-old son. My dad was a parent for thirty-nine years. He wore it well. It’s amazing how watching somebody comprehend and acknowledge their own mortality forces you to see them as the person that they actually are. Perhaps what I gained most from my father’s death was experiencing his humanity in real time. Not just as my dad. But as a man. A flawed, troubled, loving man who was staring out over the horizon and seeing nothing but darkness. The path stretching behind him was filled with love and family, work, success, failure, joy, pain, the mundane details of anybody’s life. Ahead was a lonely journey. Those of us that loved him most propped him up and softened the blows when he fell. But he was really walking alone. Eventually, he would be the only passenger left on the ship. Women and children first. My dad, last, alone, sinking.
I wish he were still here so I could pepper him with questions about parenting. All I have now are the memories of being his son. Memories that I will always relish. They are not particularly instructive though. They are the memories of a child. Memories that even at their most vivid are photographed by a most unsophisticated instrument. I think about my own daughter, who at the age of four, is only just starting to cement memories. We moved from Brooklyn to Toronto when she was three and a half. What will she remember of her life in New York?
I have a photo that was taken of my dad and I when I was about two years old. I’m wearing a camel skin coat and red rubber boots. I can picture the day it was taken. Where we were. What we did. I’ve had this memory for most of my life. Except, when I brought it up to my mother recently, it doesn’t sound like any of it was true. Just the accumulation of early memories and a life spent staring at that photograph. An unsophisticated instrument indeed.
Would that I could speak with him about the anxieties he felt in raising children. In moving to another country. In starting his own business. Did he feel successful? Was he concerned about failing his kids? His wife? Did he ever dream of a life where he was not burdened by the responsibility of keeping us all fed and clothed and educated? He lost his temper a lot when we were young. So I can only imagine the answer to all my questions would be, “yes.” But I crave some nuance. Sure, I can ask other men of his age how they felt. It won’t provide a biological context for my own anxieties, though. I need to know how MY existence made HIM feel. How the existence of MY brother and MY sister impacted HIS life. These are details I’ll never suss out.
He confessed to me near the end that he hadn’t ever liked vegetables. Given the choice, he’d have preferred to eat French fries at every meal. But he knew that he was supposed to eat vegetables. He did all the right things to stay healthy. Never smoked. Exercised regularly. Ate well. He drank alcohol nearly every day of his adult life, but never to get drunk. He knew his limits and stayed fascistically south of them. That’s why it took a brain tumor to kill him. There are myriad clichés I could throw in here about the futility of making plans, but suffice to say I can boil it down to resenting Keith Richards for outliving my father.
When he died, in addition to a very old, very beautiful and expensive watch, I also inherited a half dozen pairs of his socks, a few shirts, a bottle of his after-shave and a pair of gloves. The watch lives in a safe deposit box so I don’t have to worry about it. I visit it from time to time and will wear it on very special occasions. But it is the less valuable of his belongings that I have the most contact with. I have a long history of losing gloves, tearing holes in the bottom of socks, shattering glass bottles on tiled floors. So leaving the house on a cold day has an added specter of death. If I were to lose a glove, it’d be like losing the last vestige of physical connection that I have to the man. Two pairs of socks already have holes in them. I’ve twice fumbled (and caught…) the bottle of after-shave when hurrying too quickly to get out of the bathroom. I wear these items to keep him close to me. But in doing so, I am confronting the fragility of his, my, all of our lives. It’s a conundrum.
I feel his absence daily. Sometimes I almost forget he’s not here. I fleetingly think to myself, “I should speak to Dad about that.” It’s nice for that millisecond to not know he’s dead. Not so nice for the next five minutes when I ruminate on the fact that he is. When he appears in dreams, he is less a ghostly vision than he is an ordinary guy who I was sure was no longer alive. All of this is to say that I have an ongoing dialog with him. In death, he is still my father. I don’t think of it as a two-way conversation. Rather, it’s a meditation. I am the lone participant. I have no illusion that we are speaking to one another. Yet I find comfort in the act of speaking unconsciously; in the fluidity.
There it is again—fluid, liquid, water. The great ocean I knew to be my father has vaporized. The energy that inhabited his body floated skyward with his dying breath, leaving an endless drought in its wake. Such is the nature of our lives. We live as best we can, hoping to give and receive love in bountiful quantities. Insuring that when the well dries up, those we leave behind can still drink and bathe in our memory.
This article originally appeared on Medium for Human Parts. Reprinted with permission.
Photos courtesy of the author.