What is it like when your father dies?
I’ve been trying to articulate the feeling for a long time now, ever since August 11th when he passed, but I haven’t been able to put it into words until this Christmas Eve morning when I woke up thinking of James Joyce’s story “Araby,” and suddenly, the words were there.
It has been many years since I taught this story, but it used to be a staple of my freshmen literature courses. Powerfully succinct, filled with tons of details that students can pick up on that evoke symbolism and theme, it’s one of those pieces everyone seems to “get.”
I think I grew tired of it, though, so I dropped it from my syllabus, but today, there it was again, and I found myself reading it at 6:30am.
As we do with stories, we see different things at different points in our lives. I always read this story in the past as an ode to unrequited love. I remember asking students if any of them had ever done anything silly to get someone’s attention. Did any of them remember having a crush on someone and convincing themselves that if they just made some grand gesture, he or she would fall for them? Nervous laughter would ensue. They were always afraid, I think, that I’d call on them to share. But I didn’t. Instead, I told a story about my own designs on a certain boy who lived 2 blocks away, whose house I used to ride by on my bike over and over again, just in case I might see him. I told them about how I deliberately crashed my bike to get his attention, only he just looked at me as if I was an idiot and then looked away while I limped, embarrassed, down the block.
Only the last part of that story—the crush—may not have been real. It’s one of those stories where the line between truth and fiction was forever blurred, long ago, by the fact that I may have WANTED to crash my bike but foresaw his negative reaction and never actually did it, but it felt like a funnier end to the story I wanted to tell to a shy group of students to whom I was trying to teach the finer points of Joyce’s character’s despair.
So because of how I read it, and how my students read it, the story has always gone down in my mind as a memorable tale of a youthful epiphany about romantic love that never comes to pass.
Now, as I read it this morning, I’m struck by something I hadn’t seen before. Now, I think it’s a story about coming to terms with futility in a much larger sense.
I’ve never felt I was in denial about my father’s death. A few years ago, when he had a series of five seizures in one day, I was 100% sure he was going to die that week. I bawled incessantly on my drive to PA to see him in the hospital afterwards. I told myself the entire time that I would never see him again.
But he pulled through. And after going into the nursing home for rehab, he even started to do better. He was up and down then for awhile, rough spots here and there, and a general decline in a lot of his health, but he had what his doctor described as a little bit syndrome…a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Our family would say, “Dad has a lot going on, but none of it is life-threatening.” I think we heaved a sigh of relief after he ended up in the nursing home permanently, because it meant he wasn’t going to fall and he’d have round the clock care if needed.
My family did a lot to ensure that he had visitors constantly and I think if mom wasn’t there every day, she made sure someone else was. My sister Kelly put a lot into making sure his room had a lot of things that were meaningful. He had a lot of the attention and comforts of home away from home. I thought this would last for years, quite honestly. But my sister Lori who has worked in that field her whole career said that was probably not the case.
And she was right. It didn’t take long for him to end up with not one but two illnesses on top of his little bit syndrome, and in a short time frame, he was gone.
I have always felt that this was for the best for him. When I saw him in person—this time, oddly enough, I was completely calm on the drive to PA—I knew that he wasn’t coming back from this. I knew that he needed and wanted to be released. So I’ve never felt that his dying wasn’t fair and I’ve never been angry about it, and I truly don’t think I ever could be. I think he had more life than we ever expected and it was a good one.
The family gave me his ipad to look through to see if there was anything that I needed to cancel or shut down. I left his facebook up for several months, mainly because I felt like we needed to give his friends online time to process his death. I didn’t keep it open so I could pretend he was still there, though. I knew he wasn’t, and eventually I deactivated the account.
After I found a new aquarium app for my phone that I really liked and knew he would’ve liked, I downloaded it to his ipad, on the grounds that he would’ve liked it too. But it was a symbolic gesture on my part. I don’t play his version in order to pretend he is still here.
I know there are all these grief stages, but acceptance seems to have settled in on me from day one, and it never really leaves. In the words of Joyce’s narrator, “I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.” My father’s death only solidifies for me that feeling I have felt for a long time, ever since I’ve been middle aged, that we are all going to lose things, lose battles, lose friends, lose loved ones, and it’s going to keep happening all of our lives, and those losses can sometimes pile up and feel like a silence.
We’re going to gain, too, of course, which is the way that things all balance, and sometimes I feel as if we’re “supposed” to always be reaching towards those silver linings, but I worry that in trying to grasp the perceived good, we label loss as bad, and can for a time be heart-wrenchingly awful to go through, but it’s also a type of experience that gives wisdom.
I also worry that focusing on the melancholy of loss makes me sound depressed or negative or cynical, and I’m not any of those things. Nor is Joyce’s story any of those things, in my mind, though I can recall so many times students, or even my former self, reading it that way. “Look at all those details about death and loss and decay and age in the story,” someone might say. True, those things are there. The words are prevalent in all the story’s rich imagery. But we have a way, don’t we, of attaching a lot of connotative meaning to words about aging and decay, when we don’t have to. We can choose, sometimes, when loss is inevitable, to just accept those terms as descriptive and nothing more. These things are not inherently bad. They just are.
I’ve always been struck by the last line in Joyce’s story, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” A few years back I think that perhaps part of what drove my tears as I drove up to see my father were those emotions. I couldn’t believe that anyone would take my father from me or make him suffer, and I felt such an outpouring of mostly anguish, but a little bit of anger, as I travelled to see him for what I thought would be the last time. When he died in August, I was much calmer because I’d lost some of that vanity in the past few years. Whether it was a lot of introspection or reading or changes in friends or something else entirely, I stopped fighting so much against things being taken from me and instead on trying to learn the art of acceptance more.
But that is something I will struggle with, too, my whole life, as many of us do, and this Christmas season, I think that struggle is back, just a smidgen.
Growing up, Christmas was always my favorite time of the year, and our family had so many happy Christmas Days. I have lot of great memories and on Thanksgiving Break, mom and I watched a dvd of all the collected home movies, most of which had captured the essence of all those Christmas seasons.
When I was married, I felt that Christmas hadn’t really changed. My ex-husband had a reputation for finding me gifts I truly loved and for making my Christmas morning feel no different from the ones I had as a kid. There were also other traditions we’d established over the years, such as dinner out at the same upscale restaurant for our anniversary on December 21, driving around to see the luminaries in the neighborhood adjacent to our first apartment, and going to Ronnie’s Christmas World.
After I was divorced, I started to celebrate Christmas with my parents and siblings again, but it started to feel very different. I think that was when the anticipation died for me. I’ve never been able to get that feeling back that I had as a kid, the way you can’t sleep on Christmas Eve, either because you’re listening for reindeer hooves on the roof or your parents downstairs in the living room quietly whispering and moving things around. Or because you have a clock that has a little flower pattern that pulses with the seconds, and it’s perched on your shelf on the wall next to your top bunk bed, and you sit up watching it all night, actually counting the seconds till you can get up.
It’s not to say that every year I don’t wish for that again. That’s where I relate to the hope that Joyce’s narrator keeps manifesting, the way that she twirls her silver bracelet round her wrist in their brief conversation, the way that he notices the beauty of the gesture and probably even tells himself that it means something important. And yet, something tells me that even then, he has an inkling of feeling that the whole setup to gain her love is futile. Mangan’s sister is a fantasy writ large in his mind. She’s never going to walk off into the violet dusk with him. There were critics who suggested that he never even speaks to her, but only tells himself that he did, and it’s the lie that he told himself, that he did, like the one I may have told my class about my childish stunt, that comes back to haunt him at the end of the tale.
I think he did speak to her, though. I think he mustered the courage to have hope even in spite of the knowing, the acceptance, that life was probably not going to go the way he wanted. That’s why I see him as an old soul, someone who is a bit of a visionary about the other side of life, the experienced side, that comes after all our youthful innocence.
Every year in the Christmas season, part of me tries to muster up hope that I can “feel” the way that I did as a kid, to bring that aura of innocence back, or that my siblings can feel it too, the anticipation and excitement we all felt in those home movies. Those kids are not acting. That joy on their faces—our faces—was real.
But every year, it doesn’t happen, and it’s not because of some mental block on my part. It’s not because I didn’t try hard enough or because I tried too hard or anything of the kind. It is because some things just can’t live forever. I accept that.
But it is rather like a sense of waiting…waiting for something to happen that never does. Waiting to feel the joy I felt as a kid, but it’s just out of reach.
The same as what it feels like to have lost my father, and I wonder if others feel the same about losing a loved one. Like the young boy in “Araby”, you’re constantly waiting for something that never transpires: the girl to notice you, your uncle to come home and give you money for the train, the train to get out of the station, the bazaar sellers to stop their chatter and notice you, the lights in the building to stop turning off, one by one.
You’re waiting for things to be as you wish or hope, but you know that they can’t and they won’t.
That’s what losing dad feels like. An empty spot at the table. A voice you don’t hear anymore. An end to something, that you always knew was coming.
But some things remain. Small traces of a person’s time in this life can pop up in the strangest of places.
Yesterday I was at Poynters Christmas Shop, one of my new Christmas season traditions. It’s the only shop of its kind in my area, “packed to the hilt”, as dad would have said, with thousands and thousands of ornaments. I was there for the third and final time this season picking up some little Christmas mice for myself and my sister Kelly. I was waiting for the owner to get the boxes for the mice and an older man who worked there walked behind me and picked up a Hershey’s kiss from a platter and wordlessly handed it to me with a smile on his face. I giggled (I never giggle) and said, “Thank you,” unwrapped and ate the chocolate.
It didn’t occur to me until I left that in that moment, this man reminded me so much of my dad. Once I got to help make up the Easter baskets for everyone and late at night, I sat at the dining room table with dad, and as we filled the baskets, he opened a package of marshmellow peeps and without a word, handed me one.
I remember thinking “oh I wish he had opened chocolate. I’d have preferred chocolate. Not a big fan of peeps” (and later I felt badly for not embracing instantly the gift I was given but instead, wanting more). But I took it and thanked him and ate it. That was the way he always handed you candy or a cookie or a sweet: without a word, with a little smile, like he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to be because it might spoil your dinner.
So that man yesterday gave me a glimpse into that old memory, and with that, I think a sliver of hope arrived, not that Christmas is ever going to be like it was when I was a kid, ever again. Not that dad can ever come back. But that there will be some times, here and there, when you can feel some of your memories come to life, for just a brief moment.
If I imagine a future for Joyce’s narrator, I think that one day, he’ll remember that exchange with Mangan’s sister, and even he won’t know for sure if he spoke to her or if that was a figment of his tortured imagination. But he might see an exotic tea-set in a shop and think about the anticipation he felt, even when he had a sense of futility, and for a moment, he will not so much experience the waiting, but the moment before the waiting, when he was innocent.
When we are innocent, we can’t possibly know what it is like to be experienced. We can only imagine, and sometimes we even yearn for it, to be “grown up” , not knowing the pain that can come with maturity. We only see one side of that coin that the young boy grasps on his way to the bazaar.
But once we’ve become experienced, no matter how difficult that journey can be, we see both sides of the coin. The coin has meaning greater than it once had. And sometimes, a tiny thing like tea-cup, or a piece of chocolate, has the power to bestow upon you the gift of memory.
Sometimes, like the flicker of a candle flame before it burns out, you can go back.
Merry Christmas, Dad.