Something kids of dead parents know is this: it gets better, but only when you accept the pain and look the suffering in the eye and ask, “What do you want me to know? What is it you want me to know?” That’s what I’ve come to understand since my dad died.
It’s only then things get better. You can try to run from it. You can try to hide from it. You can push back against the pain all you want; you can drown your sorrows in alcohol, religion, work, or exercise; but until you look it square in the eye, it will always have the upper hand.
If you’re a longtime reader here, you’ll know that I’ve written about my dad at length. Writing about my dad is my way of remembering the person he was; it’s how I work through his death, even now eight years later, and calm the unsettled emotions his death brought about in me and some of which are still within me; it’s how I talk to him. Even though he is no longer here with me, he is still here with me.
My dad didn’t see me get married or buy my first house. My dad found out he had leukemia a month after I proposed to my girlfriend. He died a month before I got married. One minute he was sitting in his favorite recliner, the next he was in a casket being buried at Midway Baptist Church in Old Well, Virginia.
My first full day as a husband was Father’s Day. I woke that Sunday morning and was in a car headed to Georgia for my honeymoon when the thought arose that I needed to call my dad and wish him a Happy Father’s Day — only there was no one to pick up on the other end.
He was never bestowed the title of grandfather. He will never hold my daughter’s small hand in his or sit on a pond’s bank with a rod and reel before him and fish with my son. They will never hear his laugh. I can imagine he would have shared his ice cream with them, but they will never share a spoon from his bowl.
In saying all this, I say this too: I don’t think my dad is dead.
That’s a confusing concept to many in our culture, but I believe it to be true — and coming to this understanding has helped me more in my grief than perhaps anything. I am a continuation of my father, just as he was a continuation of his father and his father’s father, and so my son will be of me, just as my daughter is with me. Just as my wife is with me. Just as my friends are with me, and I of them. We none truly ever die.
Death is not just physical.
I do not need to wait until the afterlife to be reunited with my dad. Why should I wait when there is the here and now? My dad will always be here with me in the present so long as I make room for him — and to clarify, I do not mean specifically through memory alone or appearance or laugh or anger or angel.
We have this belief that we are separate individuals who walk the earth, who live, who perish. Sometimes we join together with another and say we are as one, and we are, but we are also not.
We are separate, but we are not separate.
We are not independent of the elements of earth.
We are the sun.
We are the air.
We are the water.
Subtract an element, we cease to exist.
A flower is only a flower if it has the sun, the air, the soil, and the water. It is not just that it is dead if it does not have all of these. It is that it cannot be a flower if it does not have all of these elements, because it is all of these elements.
Without my dad in the past, I am not me. Without my dad in the present, I am not me. The elements that created him, created me. He died in the western sense of the word, but he did not die. Death is a very real illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. There is no real death no matter what it does to our physical bodies.
There is only continuation.
Writes Thich Nhat Hanh:
If you ask the cloud, “How old are you? Can you give me your date of birth?” you can listen deeply and you may hear a reply. You can imagine the cloud being born. Before being born it was the water on the ocean’s surface. Or it was in the river and then it became vapor. It was also the sun because the sun makes the vapor. The wind is there too, helping the water to become a cloud. The cloud does not come from nothing; there has been only a change in form. It is not a birth of something out of nothing.
Sooner or later, the cloud will change into rain or snow or ice. If you look deeply into the rain, you can see the cloud. The cloud is not lost; it is transformed into rain, and the rain is transformed into grass and the grass into cows and then to milk and then into the ice cream you eat. Today if you eat an ice cream, give yourself time to look at the ice cream and say: “Hello, cloud! I recognize you.”
Thanks for reading.
Photo: Peter Heilmann. “Dying Flower.” CC BY 2.0