Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Most Significant Thing

My friend, Jenn, lost her dad yesterday. I don't know Jenn all that well, and I never met her dad, but I was trying to think of something kind to say, a condolence, a wish of sympathy that might somehow ease the grief. But what words make anything better? I suppose it's the combination of words, and the teller of them, that can heal a hard moment, but no amount of words in any spectacular construct will bring her father back. Or any father back.

My dad died three and half years ago, and not a day has passed since then that I haven't thought about him. And though it happened suddenly, a phone call in the night, I had expected it for years. There was always a certain undefinable distance between my father and I, and I'm not sure if it was just a difference of perspective or a difference of personality, but we had our differences, to be sure. I remember one time when I was in my twenties we were working on some project and an argument ensued and he blurted out, in front of strangers no less, "You've never respected me!" which hurt me. It hurt because I knew that it was partially true, and it hurt because I'd always felt that he'd never done anything worth respecting. And he knew it.

I was a skinny, unathletic kid more comfortable with a box of crayons than a ball. My dad was a big, tough, football-loving type, a man who drank seriously and worked on cars. He had a tempestuous facade, one that could not be nailed down, and I was the quiet, thoughtful type that, too, could not be nailed down. It was just about the only thing we had in common. My father never lived more than 20 miles from where he was born and never left California. I wanted to see the world, and I only needed to survive until I could escape. There came an understanding in the last argument we ever had. He screamed, "That's the difference between you and me! I'm a loud bullshitter and you're a quiet bullshitter!"

"Actually, Dad, it's called self control," and he had none. It was obvious in the drinking, the angry rages, the lack of discipline in his job. His friends and family, and finally his health, all suffered at the hand of his lack of self control. He would die less than a year after my wedding, and I remember seeing his diabetes really taking its toll. He had no feeling in his legs and his vision was so cloudy that he could barely tell the difference between his kids, and this was such a striking contrast from the man I grew up with that he seemed another person entirely. In his weakness in those final years, he found that he had to rely on those around him nearly constantly, and it was obvious that this was difficult for him, as he had never been particularly reliable himself.

And one could tell that he had given up. Even years before his death, it was obvious that he wasn't planning on getting any better or making any changes, and as an adult I had a conscious moment where I realized that I was going to have to prepare myself for that day when he would die. I had no choice, but I was going to have to come to terms with our differences, and learn to love him in spite of everything.

At the memorial service, my mother, who is a saint for loving my father, decided to speak at the last minute. No one would force her to do it, of course, and we were all surprised to hear she had something to say. She got up in the church my father never went to and told us all of the happiest days in my dad's life. What were they? I was dying to know. She said it was each birth of each of his six children. And then she sat down. That's about when I lost it.

I remember thinking how grateful I was to have so many of my friends show up at the service, even though they didn't really know him. There were no words shared between us, but just the sight of them, this extended family, helped so much. And I remember sitting with my brothers and sisters and observing how each one of us was handling the death differently, and how we began to realize that it was just us now. But we had each other, and if there is ever a reason to have more than one child, that's it: You give them each other for when you're gone. One of the last things my dad said to me was how pleased he was that I was married so that the "Hawkins" name would be carried on. I thought it a proud and selfish thing to say at the time, but I don't think that anymore.

Before he died, I knew that when he finally did go that it was going to be difficult for me, and then when the day did come the pain I felt was not the pain I expected, and it had come out of nowhere. I had thought that I would be upset for all those words that I didn't ever say, those things that I didn't ever explain or forgive, but those things couldn't have been further from my mind. What I realized was that I really did love him and that I didn't want any of those things fixed, necessarily, I just wanted him back. And I wasn't going to get that. And it hurt.

I never heard my father say "I love you" and I never said it to him, but I know now that some things we do in our life we do in our fashion, until we can learn a way to do them so all can easily understand. That first year in my marriage I had to learn to say those words out loud to my wife, and now we have taught our daughter to say them, and so the generational curse will be broken in the Hawkins line.

My family has been closer since my dad died. There are many reasons for this, and undeniably one of them is that it is easier to be together now, without having to negotiate the baggage my father always brought with him, baggage he was never able to shake. Death can be a liberation, if we allow it, and for some of us who believe in a just God, death is the ultimate liberation, and it is what I wish for my father.

In the end I never knew him, and that is the biggest regret. I do some work on my family genealogy from time to time, and my father's lineage is an endless skeleton of blank spaces with no stories attached. It feels as if half of my own story has just been forgotten, just tossed out the car window driving down the road of life. I guess that's a big reason why I try and put all these words down -to get that story back.

There are less than ten pictures of my dad before he married my mom, before the kids came along. Looking through the old photo albums, it's as if his family is all that defined him, but in the end that's really all you have that matters. It's all you live for, and all you leave behind.