After a tragic loss, a father and his sons struggle to redefine the heart of their family.
My Mom died of cancer in the late evening hours on May 17, 2008. I remember standing behind my dad as he huddled over her bed, his huge hand holding hers and his other covering his own face. I listened to him, unnerved by his uncontrollable sobs, as he called her name over and over again. This was, to me, the culmination of both love and loss from a 43-year relationship with a life partner in the purest sense. With only a shaft of light from the hallway keeping the darkness at bay, I glanced at my father as he fought to bring his emotions under control. Everything was going to be different. Although it was my mom who had died, I lost both my parents that night.
My mother was an amazing woman of patience and the matriarch of our immediate family. A teacher by trade and in life, she was the nurturer, supporter, and the subtle but firm hand that guided our family. It was with those hands that she held the lose thread on our family tapestry. We were just three men now: my father, my older brother, and myself. We did not know how to weave. With my mother gone, our family tapestry, a masterpiece 43 years in the making, began to unravel. It would be my dad’s hand that would guide the family now, but it lacked my mother’s soft but strong touch. My father’s hands were strong, no doubt, but also worn and calloused. Hands with scars and arthritic joints formed after a lifetime of experiences protecting and providing his family.
My father is a very emotional and sentimental man, but like many men of his generation, is not able to express it without great difficulty. My mother spoke my father’s heart for him instead, a liaison of love between him and his sons. Many of our talks began and ended with my mom saying, “We are,” followed by affectionate words of love, pride or affection. My father would sit beside her, smiling with a supportive nod. He did not, however, have a problem expressing anger or disappointment, and with me as his youngest, it was usually justified.
As the threads in our tapestry loosened and sagged that first year, I began to see how far the profound depth of my mother’s influence kept the weave tight. One of my mother’s greatest abilities was to find the positive potential and talents that each of us had and make them shine. She also knew that these talents represented both our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses. Without her guidance, we found ourselves burrowing back into the safety and comfort of our weaker selves.
My father is the protector of the family and its history. This is one of his many great talents and great weaknesses. I believe that two of his biggest fears are loss and change. The loss of tradition, loss of history, loss of values. Changes in relationships, changes in politics, changes in society. My mother’s death brought these two fears screaming to life, and they threatened to bury him in a very deep emotional hole of depression and anger. Rather than succumb to these fears, he needed to find a purpose to climb out of the hole. A purpose to go on. He found it by protecting the family tapestry.
In order to do that, he created his own ideal of what our family had been and how it should culminate in the future. Any change to that was deemed a threat and betrayal to the family dynamic—another hole in the weave of the sagging tapestry. A tremendous amount of pressure landed on my brother’s shoulders and his family to live up to this ideal of our family. Driven by a restless worry and impatience, my father would fall back into long bouts of depression. He lost sight of the good that remained and instead only saw what was lost. The more he focused on protecting his ideal, the more pressure was pressed on us to achieve his unattainable standard of family. The very values and traditions that made our family strong and unique were now the things that were pulling us apart.
It was only just this past year that a break in the cycle appeared. My father, exhausted from over three years of protecting the tapestry, admitted defeat. It was on Christmas Eve. “I’m tired of worrying about everybody,” he said. By realizing this he inadvertently passed us the tapestry, not to repair, but rather to use as the heart of a much larger tapestry that we, his children and grandchildren, would weave. It gave him the freedom to focus on his own life and desires. It allowed him to close a chapter and start a new one. It allowed him to adopt a lovable Australian shepherd puppy to take with him on his fishing trips, and it allowed him to consider moving to Montana.
I realize now that my dad’s fears of loss and change were really symptoms of a much bigger fear that lies in the hearts of most men. The fear of losing a family legacy and in doing so, losing your own sense of immortality. If the family tapestry is left to rot, forgotten on some dark wall, the values, traditions, and lore of the family dies. We represent his creation in this world—a creation that validates the value and meaning of the last 46 years of his life.
But I also know it was not just this deep rooted fear in the male psyche that pushed him to the edge of exhaustion and despair over the last four years. It was his fight to preserve my mother’s immortality as well.
And he did.