Growing up, there was already a vast volume of things I did not know: Which were the really bad swear words, how could adults talk and manage the mechanical process of driving a car at the same time, what were multiplication tables, how much milk was too much milk; the list was indefinite but definitely long, and it ended with a footnote. The footnote followed an asterisk next to the “when is it appropriate to talk to adults?” question, and the footnote was: “When is it appropriate to talk about my father’s death?”
Death can make people very uncomfortable. I learned this every year that I started school and, because my mother was constantly in search of better-paying jobs to provide for four-fifths of a once nuclear family, I learned that lesson a lot. Between the ages of 5 and 16, I attended nine different schools in four different states. The intervening years, a time already rife with social stumbling, saw me constantly fumbling with the adolescent conventions of the latest county I had bumbled into. My father had died when I was 5, a month before my 6th birthday, which made it an integral part of my childhood. But it was not something people wanted to share.
I was friendly by nature and my father’s death did not affect that. If anything, it triggered a profound obsession with learning as much about new people as possible (heaven forbid I’d miss a chance to talk to them later). Unfortunately, being the “new kid” in every new grade had me at a disadvantage. Everyone had already made their friends, and the higher the grade the more fortified these clusters became. There was no time to join the local sports team because chances were I’d move before the season was over. What was cool in Wakefield, Massachusetts was unheard of in Oviedo, Florida (snowmen, mainly), so I was resigned to the uncool tables and the uncool hobby of reading books. When, through luck or the charm of having absolutely no social credibility to lose, I did strike up a conversation with a fellow classmate, talk would inevitably fall to our families. And that’s when the carpet would fly out from under me.
Anyone who has endured the aftermath of a death, the death of someone they loved, the death of their life’s foundation, will tell you the exact same thing: I did not want sympathy. I did not want pity. I did not want uncomfortable looks or jittery hands or the confusing reply of, “I’m sorry.” I grew more tired of this phrase the older I got and sometime in my teens, I began to reply, “You don’t have to be sorry. You didn’t kill him.” That really made people uncomfortable. So the older I got, the less I brought it up casually and eventually found ways of avoiding the topic altogether. By the time I was in high school, half of my friends’ parents were divorced, so if I just stuck to mentioning my mother most people assumed my father was out of the picture.
My father’s death caused a lot of loneliness in my life, not because I internalized it but because I was frightened and confused by the fear and confusion of other people. To say that my father died would often send an adult in search of the chink in my armor, the loose thread, the thing that would unravel me in a puddle of mourning. But there is no chink, no thread, no visible scar. My grief is ordinary and well worn.
I do not often read about the ordinariness of grief, its mundane and indifferent character. Growing up with grief, on the best of days it becomes a natural garment. You put it on, you take it off. It may hang in your closet for years before you pull it back out again. You can smell it and you can feel it and it’s real but it isn’t a handicap. Those who’ve grieved do not want pity, they want to be taken in as a member of the tribe, as an individual who has experienced something that is not uncommon and not strange, that is harrowing but is not inescapable. We all share that coat eventually.
There will always be a boundary between those who’ve experienced great loss and those who have not. Death is by definition a disconnect. And though I lament the years spent on the outside looking in, my grief enabled more reconstruction of character than my loss could ever destroy.
If it is too cloying to say that everything happens for a reason, it is the last, guilty concession this adult has made to his destiny that without one fundamental death, I would not be who I am today. Every relationship I have developed since is infused with the unshakeable knowledge that life is very short, chaotic, unfair and important. Had my life gone the way of a romantic perfection, I would not be writing this now, would not have attempted and failed to share so much of myself when I was young and growing and needed a friend. But my family’s loss, my mother’s loss, ensures that I do not mistake what I think I deserve with what truly is.
The truth is, that absence has defined me. It is a spiritual keloid that has toughened over time, a final gift of sorts from a departed parent. My father’s death is the spark that lit my life. Articulating that to my peers took a little while to figure out, but I made it in the end.
In The Sandman, writer Neil Gaiman eloquently sums up the rightness of grief and its maturation. Morpheus, the King of Dreams, is speaking to his son Orpheus. Orpheus will not accept that his wife Eurydice has died on their wedding day and pledges that he will go to Hell itself to get her back. His father chides him:
“You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live.”
We find fathers where we go looking for them. Grief is a form of love, and the reminder that we were loved.