This summer has felt unusually long and unfortunately abbreviated for nearly all of the same reasons. My father suffered through an extended illness which ultimately claimed his life; he also left us sooner than either he or his offspring had expected. When anyone is ill, the degree of the malady notwithstanding, we tend to hope for the best but secretly, silently, so as not to attract the darker side of fate, steel ourselves for the worst. It is always an intellectual exercise as the reality of death, the loss of a loved one can never be sanitized so that one’s emotional state is unaffected or even altered to the degree that it accomplishes little more than public self-restraint; privately the shadows commingle with memories and resurrect feelings as powerful as when we “lived” them for the first time.
Having surrendered both mother and father to the intangible realm of memory in the span of two years, leaves one with the kind of independence that is unhinged and unsatisfactory; one’s point of reference must be redefined, recalculated, relocated within a geometry that is devoid of a living vertical connection to the past. Memories are scattered like captured plunder among the living and left to the interests of individuals who may find more solace in a self-imposed amnesia than in recollection. And, as is often the case, one may be plagued by the countless what-if scenarios which invariably arise: what if questions had been asked when they could have been answered instead of being relegated to a ruse of speculative meandering based on cumulative versions of the same or similar anecdotes?
With the passing of my father there are few living members of my family remaining who were witnesses to a life before my own; I have aged from son to gatekeeper, a chronicler of memories, facts, and even fictions, all contributions to the people we were and have become. My father quietly tended a trove of memories. As my genealogy research hit snags, particularly involving family in my father’s generation, I would often get him to tell me what he knew concerning an incident I’d heard about or to corroborate my own speculations regarding family; whenever facts were available for comparison his recollection always proved to be accurate and informative.
Despite our many conversations, especially the ones following the death of my mother, my father and I never ventured into the maze of memories which involved the earliest and most volatile versions of ourselves, the ones with which we created memories best forgotten, if not correctly interpreted with the help of both perspective and stoic dispassion. I have often wanted to compare the memories we shared, the hard ones, the ones that invariably pit extreme against extreme, will against will, anger against anger, father against son, man against boy. To venture into that terrain was probably a folly neither of us had mustered the courage or the foolhardiness to attempt. While relating an anecdote about one of my uncles–my mother’s favorite brother–my dad said that I was spoiled by my grandfather and that particular uncle. My father was referring to the time he was in the army in WWII and serving in Okinawa; I was born after he was shipped to the Pacific Theater so I was over a year old before my father ever saw me. By my mother’s telling, he and I did not hit it off well; I was a baby and hardly culpable but someone had to shoulder the blame; apparently, it was me.
To suggest that life for me consisted of one traumatic moment after another would be disingenuous despite the incidence of many trying episodes such as being bitten by a rat one night while asleep in one of the rent houses in which we lived, one with no inside toilet; quarantined for a year when my father was stricken with polio; witnessing my father shot by his brother just after all of our belongings were lost in a fire when the house that we had just moved into was destroyed by fire. There are more incidents but such an inventory serves no purpose beyond the fatigue its weight produces.
My father’s emotions were rarely conveyed with tender sensitivity; however, I fondly recall one time when I was very ill that he allowed that hard veneer of his to fall away. As I lay in bed on night, I sensed his presence near me. Not a word passed between us as he hovered over me protectively, and finally offered me the gift he held in his hand: a porcelain, Boston Terrier. It was black and white; a color combination that often characterized the starkness of our relationship, especially during my adolescence. Our relationship became so intolerable when I was in high school that I moved out one summer and demanded an apology from my father. There appeared to be no solution to the stalemate, summer was almost over and school would soon be in session, which compounded the problems I faced. We were both so willful that neither would consider conceding, that is, until a face-saving détente was announced by my father. As I was walking by my aunt’s house one day, my father happened to drive by recognized me, stopped his car, rolled down the passenger’s side window, and gruffly spoke, “Your mom wants you to come home”. I was stubborn but not stupid and knew that was as close to an apology that I would ever get so I returned home. Neither my father nor I ever talked about that incident; and, honestly, I do not have the faintest idea what event or offense precipitated our ill-considered reactions. If I were to speculate, it probably had something to do with corporal punishment and verbal abuse both of which my father could mete out suddenly, vigorously, and paradoxically–predictably and randomly.
I have never been able to recreate the sensation of physical pain in my recollections; it seems that even the most acute feelings when stored as memories are laundered in the process; the images may remain vivid but the pangs of injury and hurt are removed. Reconsidering the past therefore is not a matter of reliving each incident in its entirety, physical datum is extracted and replaced with an intellectual counterpart, a placeholder, in effect; for example, one becomes a witness to the re-enactment of a significant moment of one’s past and may examine what transpires as a means to resolving elements of conflict or simply as a means of accumulating and recording anecdotes for posterity. Our motives tend to cover a wide spectrum ranging from charitable to self-self-aggrandizing, and even liberating. We may never be able to escape our past, and, perhaps that is not what we truly desire. My father’s death was many things: a loss; in some respects, a blessing; and, an integral aspect of life itself. No doubt there will be moments when a word or a gesture or some otherwise insignificant phenomenon will trigger a memory of, or related to, my father; life is not static, it is not an object to be hidden away or possessed, or something from which one flees. Life offers us only one course of action: it must be lived even if we are bent under its weight and lament our loss. The past may evoke emotions in us similar to those felt by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth in his poem, The World Is Too Much With Us. His world was in the thrall of the Industrial Revolution; our world has its own array of conflagrations and private miseries. Each one of us bound to our past and fleeing it will never lead us to freedom.
The World Is Too Much With Us
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.