Aaron Draplin is an incredibly talented and prolific graphic designer, and I’m a huge fan. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few years back. Even got to shake his hand (solid, warm grip), get a signed South Cackalackee Draplin poster, and grab a photo with him. He was as great in person as I had imagined him to be. Who lives up to that? Awesome.
I follow Aaron’s blog and work, and like all of his friends and fans, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of his Dad’s sudden passing last October.
If you’ve been on this site before, you know I did a lot of writing about my Dad after he died in 2009. I did a lot of reading, too. All, I suppose, in an attempt to make sense of his death, his life, my feelings, and who in the world I was supposed to be without him. And, I suppose, to keep him “alive” even after he was gone.
Aaron wrote about his Dad, too. His 30 Day Sad For Dad series is full of heartbreaking, funny, warm, and honest moments of grief and memory. And I couldn’t be more grateful that he wrote his way through them. Some men speak kindly about their Fathers. Some men revere them.
It’s strange. When Dad died, I learned that the fathers of two friends from high school had died around the same time. In those early days when my grief was at its most raw, I thought of my friends and imagined what they were going through. Sometimes they commented on posts I wrote about Dad, and I think somehow it all helped us feel a little less alone.
Reading Aaron’s posts about his Dad made me remember those feelings, even now, 4 1/2 years later, and again, I feel less alone.
Thanks to Aaron for writing down the things we’re often afraid to even say. And, for sharing his Dad with us. I wish I could’ve met him. And I wish he’d met mine.
Today would have been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. Early this morning, my sister called to tell me that she dreamed of Dad, our aunt, and grandparents. She dreams of them all often. I began to cry while she was telling me the dream, overcome by a wave of missing, not yet awake enough to try and stave off the sob. The suddenness of the moment reminded me of Holly Hunter in that scene in Broadcast News, when she sits on her bed, holds the phone off the hook, and cries…hard, for a minute or two…daily. Hard cry. Done.
A little later, I spoke to my Mom who was heading to yoga (I love this), then to the cemetery to visit Dad’s grave, and finally to a one-year-old cousin’s birthday party, which somehow all seems appropriate.
On my way to work, I phoned my brother, also at work. We made small talk, and I eventually told him that I called because it was Dad’s birthday. I guess I just needed to talk to everyone that I knew loved him as much as I do. I asked my brother if he remembered Dad eating Entenmann’s Hot Cross Buns, a seasonal item only available around Easter…and Dad’s birthday. He remembered, and laughed, and I did too. “Those were AWFUL,” I said. (I love you Entenmann’s, just not your hot cross buns.)
As was standard with any bread product or baked good my father devoured, he generously buttered each piece before eating it, and washed it down with lukewarm coffee.
I can see him in my mind, sitting at the kitchen table, sunlight streaming through the windows, the Sunday paper spread out everywhere, eating those hot cross buns, sipping coffee. Content.
In some ways, it didn’t take much to make him happy. In other ways, I’m sure it was the hardest thing in the world to do.
That’s who we all are, I guess. Simple. Complicated. Content. Wanting. Ever so beautifully flawed and flawless.
I recently read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, who died at age 39 of pneumonia and septic shock.
This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book full of grief; vivid, happy memories – and a long list of questions about what it means to be a mother, a writer, an aging woman, and the surviving member of your own family.
For a few weeks after I read Blue Nights, I found myself thinking nonstop about how old, or rather young, Quintana was when she died, mostly, I’m sure, because I am the same age. I thought of my mother and where she was at 39. It was 1976 – she was married, had three children: ages 16, 9, and 4 (me), and was making beds and dinners and building people. I cannot fathom what my life would have been like had we lost my Mom when was 39, any more than I can imagine what my Mom would do if she lost me right now.
The truth is, none of us can fathom loss, expected or sudden, until we are in the midst of it – and even then it carries a surreal quality that, at times, feels so foreign we catch ourselves watching ourselves from the outside in.
Even when we “have time.” Even when we “say what we need to say.” There is always the thought. It wasn’t enough time. I need more.
During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Didion shared a conversation she and Quintana had near the end of her life about what kind of mother Didion was. “Quintana, to my surprise, said, ‘You were okay, but you were a little remote,'” said Didion. “That was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it.”
What are our parents to us and we to them? A collection of tics, idiosyncrasies, stories, secrets, assumptions and hyberbole? Do we ever truly know one another, or are we bound by our own definitions of parent and child?
A friend whose father has terminal cancer told me recently that her father is cleaning out dresser drawers and organizing things. “It’s almost as if he were a pregnant woman nesting,” she said. I was so struck by that – the notion that what we do to prepare for a new life could so mimic what we do to prepare for the end of life.
As our conversation continued, I spoke about my Dad, who died nearly two and a half years ago. I heard myself say, “I’ve adjusted to his death, but I don’t think I’ve accepted it.” I could not have surprised myself more.
My Dad lived a full life, 80 years, and by his last days, he was not living the way he nor anyone who loved him would have wished for him. And yet. But still. Grief is muted and morphed by time. And I still long for the sound of his laugh, his eyebrow raised in jest, his warm hand on the top of my head when I was young. As Didion writes, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
Because I don’t have your opinion to ask anymore, I often feel uncertain. My self-esteem sometimes gets tied up and dependent upon silly things that seem crucial at that particular moment. Later, I shake my head at myself for doubting my capabilities and capacities. I try to think of things you said to me years ago when I was in doubt, or in tears. I make decisions more quickly now, but I don’t feel confident in many of them. I make them, and hope, if they’re wrong, they will quickly reveal themselves as such. This is part of it – the loss of you. Me feeling uncertain about me because you are not here. Me feeling somehow unsafe. I could not have guessed how those feelings would and have manifested. Mostly because the way in which they manifest differs daily, vastly.
More than two years ago, two friends and I drank a bottle of gin, piled onto a moped and took off downtown to “watch the moon rise over the water.” At first, I protested, still lucid enough to realize the inherent danger and stupidity of this undertaking. I quickly caved to the collective “come onnnnn…”
As we three drove over the bridge, I told my friend that my butt was, in fact, falling off the back of the moped and soon the rest would follow. “I’m falling off,” I said urgently. She responded by silently gripping my butt with both hands.
I didn’t fall.
I remember looking down at the asphalt as we sped on, thinking how quickly everything could go horribly wrong. No one with a helmet. All of us careless, yet somehow carefree.
I was certain you were watching this from wherever you are. The moon, always my sign for you, was out, big as a beach ball, lighting up the water. I imagined first that you were angry – then, laughing.
I was much too old to be doing something so reckless, so stupid. And yet, somehow, I felt alive in my fear, exhilarated by the knowledge that I was purposely doing something I knew was dangerous and irresponsible.
For some reason, I had to feel like I could actually die. To see if you would save me? So you didn’t seem quite so dead?
I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe the gin does.
Two years to the day that we sat in a room that smelled of newsprint and coffee as you silently slipped out the door, just as you did when I was a child falling off to sleep. I am still sometimes surprised and amazed by your absence. I am still sometimes surprised that it’s possible for me to exist as flesh and bone when you don’t.
Lately, you’ve taken form as Ella Fitzgerald crooning for the crowd at the bar where I wait for a friend. You’re the tiny end table with the hand-painted cherry design in the antique store – the same table that served as home to your ashtray, corncob pipe and lowball glass of Budweiser that I’ve never seen since. You’re the smell of Skin Bracer aftershave in a crowd, though I can never find its source. You’re the shared eccentricities infused into each of us: the lone eyebrow that raises on its own whim. You’re the harmony of the hymn sung in a rare visit to church. You’re the “do you remember” moments we share like a secret language. You’re the bend in my path that I cannot see past. You were and will always be, the moon.
It’s nearly Father’s Day, and I acknowledge the ache of missing him. I acknowledge the gratitude I have for my memories: the sound of his laugh popping into my mind at unexpected moments. The words and phrases that entertained, infuriated, taught and shaped me into this ever-changing lump of clay that will always be his daughter.
When I was a server:
If you put on some rouge, you’d make better tips.
Get around this guy! He’s loafing in the left lane.
On the golf course:
Keep your head down. Don’t try to kill it.
On any professional athlete who showed poor sportsmanship:
He’s a bum.
When I playfully squeezed his bicep:
Be careful. You’ll hurt your hand.
Teaching me to drive a stick shift:
Again. Try it again.
At the end of any long list of questions:
Want a punch in the eye?
When pushed to the limit of his patience:
Gee Zuss Christ!
On any ex/bad boss/person:
(S)He’s a bum. (recurring theme)
You better [whatever I was supposed to be doing] or I’m gonna land all over you!
After my haircut:
Your face is hanging out.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad and all the dads still giving advice and tossing out one-liners.
While drying between my toes after a bath the other night, I remembered how the four-year-old me used to stand on the closed toilet lid and hang onto the towel bar as you dried me off after my bath. “Left leg,” you’d say and I’d hold it out for you to dry. Each limb in turn.
You dried toes vigorously, and it’s that moment that strikes me. The thought of my own small toes in your large, towel-covered hand, how you meticulously dried each one, your brow slightly furrowed in concentration, how I could still feel the strength of your hand.
And I, standing tall on the toilet seat, obediently following your instructions, waiting for you to look up, pleased with yourself and me.
I saw him
Across the grocery store parking lot
White hair, aglow in sunlight
Glasses glinting, pushing a cart
I stopped mid step, staring
Trance-like, a bird dog losing itself in its task
Synapses firing, thoughts caught
But also, nothingness.
I should call out
A sob creeping up to close my throat.
It’s not him.
He’s too tall.
Unlock car. Sit.
Recall the advice.
It’s a process.
Grief is a fickle bitch.
It’s not been long.
In a parking lot?
Is denial having its way?
Did I see what I wanted to see?
In a minute’s time
The ghost drives away in his beige Camry.
I sit glassy-eyed gazing, still in sunlight,
Watching an empty parking space
For evidence of the hereafter.
My brother and I spent the better part of a day traveling to and from our Uncle Bob’s funeral on Monday. We began in the pre-dawn winter darkness of Wooster, Ohio, traveled to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan and found our way back to Wooster as the pale sun fell into its pink then blue place below the snow.
Along the way, dressed in funeral attire, we talked about family (memories of Uncle Bob, of our own Dad who died in 2009, growing up and its accompanying angst and adventure), politics (the economy, the 2012 election, John “tan” Boehner, Barack Obama and the tragedy in Tucson), music (John Lennon, The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, Gerry Rafferty to name a few) and movies (Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Big Lebowski, High Fidelity and Elf). It was an eight-hour ride.
While The Beatles were playing, I asked my brother where he was when John Lennon was shot. My brother is a huge Beatles fan. In fact, the first album he ever gave me was The Magical Mystery Tour. His answer, “at college,” reminded me of our 12-year age difference, which nowadays seems a much smaller expanse of time. He told me that he came home just days after Lennon was killed, and the news coverage was exhaustive, much like it’s been since the Tucson tragedy. My brother said that Dad, tired of the constant coverage, said in frustration, “He’s just a man.”
My brother said nothing back – but that moment was one of alienation and misunderstanding. My brother grieving his hero, a musical, social and political voice of his generation, unable to share any of it with Dad. And Dad, viewing Lennon as an aimless artist, hippie, troublemaker – who he didn’t even respect as a musician.
I sat with that for a moment when my brother finished. And I told him that I recently read an interview with Yoko Ono in which she spoke with pride about John being “the first man to push a baby carriage…no one did it before John.” I told Steve that whether or not that was true, it was amazing to think the effect one man could have had on a generation of fathers – a collective unconscious agreement to perhaps take a more hands-on role than their fathers had.
Interestingly, our own Dad was very hands-on with us when were babies. Not surprisingly, when we were old enough to voice our own opinions on the world, our relationships got more complicated.
I wonder if my Dad ever came around to John Lennon – understanding what a tragedy his death was, not just for his fans, but for his wife, his sons. And our culture. Did Dad respond that way because of his own fear of death? You’re walking through your life and suddenly, you’re gunned down in front of your home? Or one day, your mind simply stops working the way it once did. Was his quick anger simply his confirmation that we are all, always, vulnerable?
Now, at Uncle Bob’s funeral. A chance to honor the last of 11 children, a man full of life, a storyteller who often spoke of himself in the third person, a devoted husband, dad, grandpa, uncle, friend. A doer of good – in his church, in soup kitchens, with children less fortunate, with friends and family. A stubborn, funny, crystal blue-eyed character.
The minister said it out loud: “We are perishable. What has happened here will happen to us all.”
I looked out the window to the churchyard, where Uncle Bob spent hours cleaning up, tending the lawn and flowers. It was snow-covered now: a large birdfeeder hanging from a leafless branch.
The minister continued, “The pain is over for Bob…and he will live on forever through God.”
I didn’t feel convinced.
But a covey of doves flew into the churchyard and began eating from the feeder. That was something.
A mutual friend of Uncle Bob and Aunt Georgia’s delivered the eulogy. It was laugh out loud funny at times; poignant in others, as all good tributes should be.
Afterward, we gathered with cousins and church folk for a luncheon. I joked with my brother, taking bets on whether or not ham would be served. (It is the Midwest, after all.)
There was ham. And chicken. Pasta. Potatoes.
And literally, a table of desserts.
Everyone wins with that kind of grief buffet.
When I hugged Aunt Georgia goodbye, I felt her physical strength through her heavy wool coat, though I knew her heart was aching. She had spent 62 years with Uncle Bob and today, for the first time in 62 years, she would go home alone.
What she has, what we all have, is memory, the way in which her life is different and richer because of the moments contained within it.
It’s not for me to say if Uncle Bob is somewhere laughing now with his 10 siblings, parents, even with my Dad.
I have an armload of memories. I have every present moment. I have a snowy car ride with my brother. And it is more than enough.
My Uncle Bob passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer.
Dear Uncle Bob,
Thank you for always being an example to me of a life well lived. My memories of you and Aunt Georgia are filled with love…of warm, homemade cookies…long swims in your pool until my fingers and toes were wrinkled…vivid summer flowers Aunt Georgia tended…the kaleidoscope of colors of the jukebox in the basement…watching with wonder as you talked about your job…the heat of the sun-warmed cement lulling me to sleep by the pool…the way you always both talked to me like I was a person, not just a kid, even when I was a kid…the comfort of knowing I was safe and loved…safe enough to fall asleep in your car on the trip from Findlay…loved enough to strive to live fully as you both do…
The moments I spent with you are precious beyond measure. You taught me so much with your honesty, humor and compassion. I hope what I’m writing now is something you already knew, already and always felt from me. But I wanted to write this so that it’s clear. I love you and am so very grateful for all have brought to my life.