Put a hole in a man’s head, even one as small as 9 millimeters and it is amazing how many ghosts can come out. Michael Dorman knows firsthand.
Put a hole in a man’s head, even one as small as 9 millimeters and it is amazing how many ghosts can come out. It shouldn’t be so surprising but it is. I mean how well do any of us really know ourselves? Do we spend time each day to think about our hopes and our fears? If we don’t always know what lurks within our own hearts how well do we truly know the hearts of our fathers?
Memories of my dad from when I was a child are mixed. The man was a genius and as such his mind was on many things besides parenting. He was better at everything and knew more about every topic than any child could ever aspire to. This made him intimidating and distant. I fell into the trap that so many young men fall into—I didn’t want to grow up to be my dad. It was a conscious decision that I carried with me like a weight. Truth be told I am a lot like my dad and I’ve always known it, I just never wanted to admit it.
But I’m also a son, a father, a brother and friend and when my father died I didn’t grieve. I don’t know how I do it, but I just took those feelings of grief and I wrapped them up in a little box in my heart. Wrapped in brown paper and neatly labeled “grief for the loss of a father” I just tucked them away to deal with later. I don’t think it was the wrong thing to do; I had a family that needed my support more than I needed to deal with those feelings. So they waited there, on that shelf.
Next to them on the shelf I put a couple of other boxes. “Grief for the loss of a wife”—lost to the bottle not a bullet, but lost nonetheless. I never knew the depth of my love for her until I peeked in that box and saw the size of the scar that loss left behind. There are other boxes there as well, collecting dust. “Anger for the abuse I took” “Fear for the future” and a particularly odd and irrational little fear I called “If I’m so much like my dad and he blew his brains out all alone in a parking lot, do I have to be a suicide too?”
From time to time little bits of pain and grief seeped out through the cracks in my emotional armor but truthfully that armor is pretty thick and it mostly held tight. I don’t know where the quote comes from but it became a sort of motto for me that first year: “when the burdens of life are difficult to bear, don’t ask for a lighter load, ask for broader shoulders.” I had a lot of help from a lot of wonderful people and I staggered my way through the first year overloaded but strong. The stresses mounted and soon I quit my job, sold my house and went to consulting part time. It wasn’t a particularly good financial decision but it gave me the free time to finally deal with the contents of some of those boxes. I knew I was numb and that sooner or later I needed to deal with all the ghosts.
My dad was a Steppenwolf. Part human of lofty spirit and intellect; he was also part wolf of the steppe. He didn’t really belong in this world of men and our petty pursuits. Perhaps like the Steppenwolf he saw himself comprised of two souls. One soul of wonder and spirit and another of that lone animal. For as Hermann Hesse so rightfully pointed out “He [man] is nothing more than the narrow and perilous bridge between nature and spirit.” I think my dad spent a great portion of his life isolated from the world around him. What a terrible pain it must have been for him bear. Alone and yet surrounded by joy and peace, he was wrapped up in his own mind consumed by his own thoughts. And yet haven’t we all felt this? Hasn’t every man come home and said to himself that famous line from the song? “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife, how did I get here?”
Unlike the Steppenwolf of Hesse’s book, my dad wasn’t able to transcend himself, to see that all men have multifaceted souls. He never became an immortal, as he should have been. Instead he became a suicide. The ghosts of those souls he never acknowledged in himself kept slipping out of that little hole he put in his head. Like ashes from a far off wildfire you can’t always find their source but they settle on you and they sting. They clog your eyes with tears and choke your lungs with a terrible burning. That distance I so willfully put between us in my youth didn’t allow me to see it before. I finally realize my father was a man, with his own demons to haunt his heart. He belonged in a world of intellect and high spirit but he was trapped here in this world of men. In the end, not knowing how to deal with the ghosts of those souls he had ignored all his life he took the “emergency exit”.
At the time, in my heart I instantly forgave him. I’ve already forgiven him for leaving all those ghosts behind for us to clean up. I wish I could be angrier. wish there was some hate in me that would allow me to ignore those ghosts and leave them to settle on their own. There just isn’t. I’ve finally realized that like it or not I too have a multifaceted soul. Just like every other man. I suppose in some ways some parts of that soul are (were?) shared with my father. For how could it be otherwise?
I’ve come to accept (mostly) many of the ways I am similar to my dad. Oddly I feel closer to him now that he has passed away than I did before he died. Accepting that part of my soul has allowed me to accept others as well. Like the Steppenwolf, I struggle to transcend myself and to find balance. I seek that resolve to “drink life’s bitter agonies to the dregs”.
But I have an advantage my dad never had, a little secret weapon he never had access to. I am not a genius. Nor do I have any responsibility to save the world from itself or to make the world a better place. Because one way I’ve learned that I’m very different from father is this: I belong in the world of men. I feel pain and joy, loss and desire. I delight in the petty pursuits of friendship, fatherhood, and humanity and that is why I can forgive him. I only wish I could have helped him to find these parts of himself and to see that perhaps they could have been enough.
I miss you dad, and I love you.
Thanks to the rest of you for letting me look inside that box for a bit.
Photo: Paul L Dineen / flickr