Making this slideshow posed a question for me: “Do I have actual memories of actual memories? Or just photographic memories of photographic memories?” (Both are blurry!) After all, I’ve poured through family albums for most of my life. One snapshot I know for sure was pure memory, and not a photograph, was of my dad’s final days. There are no snapshots of those, except for the ones in my mind. I’m not sure I’d be able to visualize my dad’s face clearly from memory alone, except for that last disturbing image of him I saw in the casket. That one is indelible, as is the one from the night he died, watching him struggle, gasping for breath, before I was taken away to a neighbor’s house. I didn’t know that was going to be such a fateful night, that I’d never see him alive again. When my mom picked me up at the neighbor’s later and I saw a friend unloading a bag of my dad’s belongings from the car, I naively, and excitedly, asked my mom, “Is Dad coming home?!” My mom replied, “No, he died tonight.” With that, I buried my face in her stomach, and cried, for the first and only time.
I didn’t even get to say goodbye. In fact, no one ever talked to me about such topics as cancer, and the possibility of an impending death. Perhaps he and others thought I was too young, or didn’t know what to say to me, or think it necessary to say anything. Likely, it was just too painful to surrender to such an idea. That meant giving up hope, when hope was all there was. He was sick for almost a year. The signs were there, and obvious, but a child NEVER thinks her parent will actually DIE. Parents are invincible, aren’t they? Especially dads.
Intellectually, my past became part of my “story,” as I casually, and awkwardly, recounted, “My dad died of cancer when I was 8,” a statement which was also casually, and awkwardly, received. It took me getting divorced for all that grief and abandonment trauma to resurface, in a big way. It was only after joining a Jungian dream analysis group, and staying on to have a session with the psychotherapist, that I got my first dose of truly feeling listened to, acknowledged and understood. “Wow, that was a lot for a you to go through, how painful that must have been. It makes sense how it affected you, and is still affecting you now,” she said. I thought to myself, “Do you really think so? I guess it was? And is?” Then she suggested that I was suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress, based on my need to be constantly vigilant, and my anxiety, as well as other health problems. Then, as I worked with Dr. Metz, and received the same affirmations and feedback from him, along with his energetic bodywork, I gradually started to make mind-body connections. I realized that the layers of unexpressed emotional pain (i.e. grief, guilt, anger, overwhelm, fear and anxiety) got displaced into my body, contributing to much of the physical pain and illness that “mysteriously” plagued me after my dad’s death, persisting, as I said, well into my adulthood. No amount of prayers, or faith, helped, or took away the pain. No amount of doctors, drugs, or lifestyle changes helped me. Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t “out grow” anything either. Nothing seemed to help, until those mind-body (spirit AND science) connections were made, and I began to re-associate, fully embrace and heal those lost parts of my emotional self. It’s been a long haul.
It’s hard enough losing someone when we’re an adult, but imagine being a child who loses a parent? Their very existence is rocked to the core, and speaking for myself, it changes their life forever, in my case I think ultimately for the better, BECAUSE of the pain. There can be many outcomes from painful experiences. For me it evoked compassion and appreciation, making my own spirituality a priority. What an important lesson, on so many levels, at such a tender age.
Fortunately, certain sweetnesses DO also prevail. For instance, I remember that my dad had a penchant for nicknaming just about everyone and everything. Somehow “Pappy” became one of his monikers, called so by my mom. To her Pappy, she was his “Cushy”, short for “Macushla” (long before it was used in the film, “Million Dollar Baby”). It is a Gaelic phrase meaning, “My Darling.” I can still see him affectionately giving his darling a love pat on the backside as she was doing the dinner dishes. I can still see him standing in the hall, facing the bookcase, when the 1969 earthquake jolted, causing a book to fall on his head, cutting him, making him bleed. I can still see the black and white television screen of a man walking on the moon, which he got me out of bed to witness. I can still feel the thrill of adventurous fun on our last great road trip, in what Dad called our “Golden Chariot”, words that transformed an ordinary camper into something of mythical proportions. Not surprising, coming from the same person who named my Teddy bear “Horatio” and my pet cat “Hildegarde” (von Bingen).
There are other details I know for sure: He had a red, sun-tinted, bald head with freckles, prominent lips with a crooked-tooth smile, and a tattoo of the Sacred Heart on his hairy brown arm. He liked to have an American can of beer at the end of the work day, and an occasional cigar (the smoke of which still brings back thoughts of him). He had one pair of black wingtip shoes, and another in brown, that he wore with everything. (No one really wore jeans back then.) He had a black round-topped metal lunchbox, with a thermos in the lid, that he carried with him to school everyday. He was a grade-school teacher. He loved to play baseball, it’s one of the things that got him “removed” from seminary school, almost cost him his job as a postman, but made him very popular on the playground. He could do forwards, and backwards, push-ups with me sitting on his middle. He could run faster backwards than most of us can run forwards. He liked to blare John Phillip Sousa Marching Band tunes to rouse us kids out of bed on a Saturday morning, and thought it was pretty funny. He was also the one to rock me to sleep at night, while “tracing my face” and sticking his finger up my nose to make me giggle, telling me stories of his life, teaching me Catholic prayers, and little bits of the Greek alphabet, with the train whistle blowing in the background of our then semi-rural town. I still love that sound, for that reason, and the fact that we both shared rumblings of itchy-footed wander lust. 🙂 The reason he brought my mom to California, is that he had seen the “Promised Land” while working on the Union Pacific Railroad. Mom said too that he liked that the grave sites they had picked out together years before he got sick, were on the cemetery’s periphery, next to the open road.
It’s too bad my photo reproductions are of such poor quality…but here too, art reflects life, and the realities of the passage of time. I don’t think we’d remember half the things we do, if our lives weren’t documented in photos, or other some such way. “Was I really that small? Did I really have a Dad once?” Life can be so surreal. Photos are proof that our life really happened. Photos or not, from one’s own memory or family lore, personally and collectively, we never really forget our loved ones…tender moments of time spent and details that for some reason become part of our consciousness, while others fade away. Sadly, most our sense impressions eventually get dulled, becoming fuzzy and a little out of focus over the years. Things get to feeling so far away, like eons ago.
Neither life, nor art, is perfect. I used to try my best to make it so, but wisdom has broken me of that habit. I still have hopes and dreams, but not forced expectations. I have let go of the things that were lost, and can’t be retrieved or recreated. I still value being conscientious, but seem to be more forgiving of myself, and others for not being perfect. Now I actually relish “going with the flow” and my bouts of imperfection. I feel more in balance now, after years of trying to compensate for a less than perfect childhood…a childhood that also taught me the value of each moment..not to leave things unsaid, or undone, to spend my time wisely. “Everything, in moderation”, my dad would say. I say, “Carpe Diem ~ Seize the Day!” We may think we’re immortal, but we don’t have forever to prove it! I have tried to live my life in such a fashion.
I’m sorry Dad that your life got cut short, that WE got cut short. You didn’t get to enjoy making it to retirement, traveling more, having a landmark anniversary party celebrating your marriage of 28 years, or seeing me grow up. But what you DID have during the short time you were here, was a positive influence on the lives of your family, many friends, compatriots, colleagues, and students, by just being a really good person, a good role model.
Here’s to you Dad, 37 years later, for an honorable life, well-lived, and the brief time we shared together on the Journey…