My family and I have been extremely fortunate. Despite our relatively large size (my father’s side is comprised of four siblings, and my mother’s a whopping seven), horrible luck with motor vehicles, and history of both heart disease and alcoholism, we’ve suffered only the death of my father’s father, who passed in his seventies, a perfectly respectable time to go. My mother’s father has battled a barrage of heart attacks and is still going strong, and her mother recently celebrated her 80th birthday and shows no signs of slowing down. I’ve similarly never suffered the death of a close friend, and so the concept of grief is completely foreign to me. Or was, until September 7th, when my father passed away suddenly.
Weeks later it still feels a bit surreal, and even as I finish cleaning out his apartment there are fleeting thoughts that he could appear at his door, shocked that I’ve ransacked the place and laughing demands that his vast assortment of Midwestern themed furniture and Kokopelli figures and dozens of thriving house plants be returned. I’ve learned that grief comes in waves. For the week after he passed I simply felt somewhat numbed to the world. I wasn’t interested in my work, about which I’m normally incredibly passionate. I wasn’t really interested in anything. I mostly laid on the couch smoking weed and watching the first two seasons of Game of Thrones back-to-back and RedLetterMedia reviews on repeat. During the times when I wasn’t actively thinking about him, it seemed that he must still exist in this world. Still be hitting it hard at the gym or exploring a new secluded hot springs just miles away. It was only when my thoughts focused on him that I recalled that this wasn’t true. That he’d died, and that whatever his existence as a human was had ended and succumbed either to the inevitabilities of science or the mysticism of the ascension of the soul. “Sad” isn’t the proper word for it, and neither is “depressed” completely accurate. “Numb” really is the closest I can get. I suppose that’s what grieving is.
The process of carefully examining every detail of a person’s life is unnerving and overly intimate. Even though he was my father and I knew him for thirty years, I’d never dived completely into his conscious before as I’m forced to do now, going through his private and personal things. My father and I had a difficult relationship when I was in high school and college. I never doubted his intentions, and I know he’d wanted to be a good man and a good father, but seemed incapable, constantly sabotaging his relationships with attacks of guilt and morality, though he himself was invariably in the wrong. I didn’t understand this as a child, because he was my father and he was right. As I came into maturity myself I saw the lack of maturity in my father, and began to distance myself. Now I find plans for houses he’d wanted to build and I wish I’d talked to him about them, having gone to architecture school. Comprehensive hand-written lists of movies to collect, those already purchased outlined in perfectly straight pencil lines, that mimic my own comprehensive lists of video games and that I’d have enjoyed helping him complete. Yoga routines and physical therapy methods I’d researched myself, and now wish I’d discussed with him. Self-help books and numbers for quit-lines and handwritten notes to himself to quit drinking and be a better person. Notes of which I could find near identical copies in my own sketchbooks. A vast number of these notes.
His family knew he had problems with alcohol. His friends may have not. A very functioning, almost invisible alcoholic, but one who drank rum&coke from a coffee thermos while driving, and who, when I was young, kept a constant supply of alcohol in his veins. Much like I did throughout all of my 20s, popping open cans of chū-hai or pouring orange juice and shō-chū for breakfast. I’d thought he’d started to get his drinking under control, but considering my own problems with alcohol and the history in our family, I suppose it’s not a surprise that it’d actually gotten worse when his children reached adulthood. But he wouldn’t have told anyone about this problem, last of all his children. He had to appear strong. He was incredibly fit, composed, and adored the outdoors above all else. He thought he was strong emotionally as well. A warrior. The definition of the suffer-in-silence type, famously going deaf in his right ear in his late forties, ignoring our insistence that this wasn’t normal and that he be examined, finally having an MRI done by a friend in which a tumor was discovered, refusing to have it removed because of the cost and because it’d “be okay”, even when said friend offered to remove it for free, and finally succumbing to pressure nearly a year later only when the tumor had doubled in size.
Though I may never be exactly sure what sort of troubles my father went through during childhood, I must guess that there was some physical and emotional violence. My grandfather was known to keep a belt hung up, on display; I don’t know whether or not he used it, but I’d certainly not be surprised. It goes hand-in-hand with alcoholism. But my father never hit us. He was known to nearly lose control on occasion, grabbing us by the shoulders or ribcage and slamming us against the wall in a rage, occasionally lifting us high in the air to do so. But this, while scary at the time, didn’t really hurt us. What he never did once was raise his hand to us or to my mother, and for this I’m deeply thankful. I’ve never doubted his love for all of us, and even after his passing I feel that breaking this cycle of abuse was one of his greatest wants in the world. He wasn’t successful at stopping the alcohol abuse. That passed on to me, and will continue to be one of my great challenges. But I’ve never raised my hand to a woman, nor has the thought ever so much as flit through my head. Nor will I hit my children. Nor will my brothers, I’m certain. So he was successful in that.
And despite all of the strain in our relationship, from recent years with him I have nothing but good memories. As I go through his hundreds upon hundreds of photographs of us, and look back on the memory of each one, I find that while older smiles may have been forced, recent ones are genuine. As his sons became men and his responsibilities educating us as a father dwindled, he was able to relax and focus on simply becoming closer to us. He seemed to have reflected on his failures and genuinely want to win us back. He became our friend. This he did well. He was not equipped to educate us, but he did love us.
So whether the soul takes the form of a human spirit, traveling the earth experiencing beauty it wasn’t able to during its life, or whether it’s a magnificent ball of light, ascending to some heaven to reunite with a divine presence, or whether it’s an explosion of a trillion trillion neutrinos, spreading across the galaxy and eventually the universe, I hope that my father’s soul sees what I write now: You were a good man. I say this truthfully. You were not skilled at being a husband nor at managing your addictions. You were a man of many weaknesses and problems. You were perhaps on your way to finally overcoming these problems and my heart aches that you were taken before you could. But this was your fate. We are seldom allowed to learn all the lessons we should in our lifetimes. You did learn to be a good father, despite considerable difficulties. You learned to be a good friend. I was amazed at the height to which people spoke of you at your memorial. You brought joy to people’s lives through your work. I have seen this in their eyes. And now the world is a bit less alive without you. I am proud to have known you. Godspeed, fallen warrior.