2014 was the year my father died, something we’re still coming to terms with. His death was particularly hard to make sense of, because everything felt so unfinished. It’s not just that he was pretty young (under 60) and seemed healthy enough. Dad took some selfish and inappropriate actions in May that caused a crisis in my parents’ marriage. My last post was mostly an attempt to answer my despair and anger over the situation, trying to reconfigure my anguished “I NEVER want to be like him” into some kind of statement of what I wanted to stand for, some kind of affirmation to fill up the void left by repudiation. Family meetings were held, Dad expressed a wish to fix things, appointments with mental health professionals were made. And then, suddenly, he was gone. The timing was so paradoxical that almost all of us initially assumed suicide, but no, it was just a weird medical accident: no resolution, no answers, no teleological purpose written in the night sky, no meaning.
I wrote the following piece less than a week after his death, trying to put my emotions in some kind of order. It’s still a process, I still feel guilty sometimes for missing my grandmother, who died 2 years ago, more than him. But life isn’t some big-screen narrative where all the loose ends get tied up within ninety minutes. What I do know is that healing is sometimes helped by a little honesty and transparency, hopefully here with the right balance between obscurantism and oversharing.
Early one Thursday evening, perhaps six hours before I learned that my father was dead, I watched my then-11-month daughter playing with a wind-up music box. Our little one is not exactly a calm baby–she is always crawling toward the next toy, pulling herself up on furniture or diving headfirst off the edge, loudly telling us what she thinks about the world as if her language is completely obvious and logical (which to her it is, I suppose).
But for a few minutes, she was transfixed by the tune of her music box (some timeless masterpiece like “Jingle Bells”), rocking gently from side to side, singing softly under her breath, totally enraptured. These are the kind of moments that fill up a parent’s heart with love for no good reason whatsoever.
I have always envied those people who seemed to have a loving, close relationship with their father. To be brutally honest, my dad was just plain bad at relating to his children (and most people) on a personal level: talking to us, sharing wisdom, asking questions, getting at what made us tick. His blindness prevented him from fulfilling a lot of your typical “dad functions”–taking us fishing, teaching us how to ride a bike or drive stick-shift or change our oil–but I always felt like he could have made up for that by being a moral role model. The anger issues he dealt with for the first half of my life (which resulted in severe screaming matches but fortunately never any kind of physical abuse) certainly didn’t help my impressions of him, although to his credit he really did undergo a kind of healing about fifteen years ago that severely blunted the edge of his rage. I only clued in later in life to some of the mental illness and past trauma that had partly made him who he was, but by then it seemed hard to relate to him with any emotion warmer than pity. When I thought of his legacy, I could only seem to point to many of the traits that I most disliked about myself. Passivity. Laziness. Social awkwardness. The inability to carry on a satisfying conversation. Coming across as intelligent by mastering rote facts instead of critically analyzing them. Blundering over words.
But despite my frustrations with Dad, the way he had seemed to squander so many opportunities to connect with people or do something with his life, I couldn’t help but circle back to my daughter’s response to her music box. As she listened to it, she felt secure and purely in the moment, interacting with something beautiful, something that made her happy. She felt loved, even if she doesn’t have the abstract capacity to understand what that means yet, and from that place of stability, of fundamental safety, she was able to experience a sense of wonder. This wonder, or what one psychologist has theorized as “flow,” doesn’t have to emerge from a sense of love, but those two things are among the most necessary ingredients in “the good life,” something I’ve been trying to figure out for quite a while. Could my dad have experienced such feelings himself, or even the kind of tenderness I feel toward my daughter?
A scene from a South African film called “Tsotsi” has stuck in my mind for years. In it, a thuggish teen points a gun at a crippled beggar, a character portrayed in the film as truly pathetic. “Why should I let you live?” he asks. (Subtext: you don’t contribute anything to the world, and your existence is desperately unhappy.) The beggar’s halting justification for his own survival–“Sometimes, I like how the wind feels warm on my face.”
At some level, we’re all faltering through, trying to find that warm wind. We know that “the night is dark and full of terrors,” but we clutch forward, believing that the day will return and bring with it some small joy. We construct coherent systems of thought and tell ourselves that there is reason to hope that everything will be well in the end, but ultimately we don’t really know. We understand much less than we think we do, and at the best moments we’re not all that different from babies experiencing simple joys for the first time, without even a vocabulary to describe what it is that’s happening, but just feeling loved and safe, perfectly situated for wonder.
At least, most of us start out that way, and then bump up against others blundering through, maybe a little more aggressively than we’d like, trying to snatch their own piece of the light; we bruise, develop calluses and rhino skin, forget that many of our experiences of wonder are better when they’re shared, all the while learning how to push others out of our way to get what we want.
My dad blundered around more than many. Honestly, if I thought that I was ever going to cause as much pain to my wife and family as he did, I’d just give up on life now (yes, I’m still young and naive). While he probably didn’t fully intend the consequences that his actions brought, he still made many horrible and selfish choices, over an extended period of time, progressively warping his character and leaving us still scratching our heads in disbelief. But he too was once a dearly beloved darling baby with parents who thrilled over his every move as if it was world record-setting; later, he too experienced that sense of love, that sense of wonder, probably not least as he felt my own tiny 11-month hands in his own. And there is at least some part of him in me and in my baby girl. I wish I had gotten over myself sooner and tried to show him, in a way that he would have understood, the love that we all desperately crave but are usually too arrogant and stupid to reach for.
Dad, you were deeply flawed, and my anger toward you is honestly still greater than my sadness over your death, but I promise to carry on what good there was in you by loving Rosa unreservedly and unashamedly.