Sunday, June 18, 2006

A View Of A Father's Day Meditation

(To my family: This post may be a bit intense for you to read because it discusses a very dark point in our history. You may want to pass on reading this because of the memories it may bring up for you. It's not meant to hurt, but it may unintentionally.)

This post is inspired by a song.

I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind. There was something so pleasant about that place. Even your emotions have an echo in so much space.
-Gnarls Barkley

The last time I saw my dad was in late October 1982. We had dinner. We danced - trying to teach him how to do the Rock until he came out of his socks. We played video games on the Atari 2600 he helped hook up to our TV. We laughed and joked. When it was time for him to leave we begged him to stay, but he didn't. He said he had to go.

At least that's what I'm told. I have no memory of that day whatsoever. I do, however, have a clear memory of two days after that.

The first was a day about two weeks after he went missing shortly after our last day together. We'd been trying to call him to wish him a happy birthday. Friends had been trying to get in touch with him because nobody had seen him in about a week. His mother had been trying to reach him because he hadn't been by to see her. We were sitting at the dining room table - my mom, sister and I - and all of us were trying to think of all the places he could've been. Then, I looked up and said the words that I still hear just as clear as though I were speaking them now in a never ending loop:

"Has anyone checked the morgue? I don't think he's there, but it can't hurt to cover all the bases."

The second day I remember clearly is the day after Thanksgiving that year. My dad had been missing for about three weeks at this point, and we were all at our wits end waiting on him to show up again. My dad would occasionally go off by himself for a few days, but he'd never been gone this long. My family lives in a duplex - at the time my mom, sister and I lived upstairs, and my grandmother (my mother's mother) lived downstairs. My mom was at work. My sister and I were watching TV. At about 3:00, my grandmother called upstairs and told us to come downstairs. When I asked why, she said in a tense, furious voice:

"Because I said so! Don't you question me! Come down here before I come up there and get you!"

Pouting and sullen, we went downstairs. When we walked in, the first thing we were told was not to answer the phone. Again, I asked why.

"What did I tell you," she snapped.

I plopped down on the den sofa, and my sister went to play with her dolls. And we waited - for what, I didn't know. A few hours later, my mom came home and told my sister and I to come upstairs. I remember thinking that we were about to be punished for something, but I didn't know what we did. That thought left my mind when we walked into the house and I saw the look on my mother's face. She looked drained, tired, and haunted. I'd never seen her look that way before.

Even your emotions have an echo in so much space.

I don't remember how she told us Dad was dead, but I do remember sitting there at that dining room table with head in my hands, sobbing. She continued talking, and I think she was crying at the same time. My sister was crying. I remember not being able to move. And I remember hearing those words I'd spoke earlier ringing in my head - as though I'd willed these events to happen:

"Have you checked the morgue?"

He'd drowned in the Detroit River - I don't remember being told how he ended up there - and had been in the water for about three weeks, the same amount of time he'd been missing. He was found by a police dive team - by accident. The identification he had on him was old, so it took the police a couple of weeks to locate us. They ended up reaching the super at an apartment building we lived in years earlier. The super reached an old friend, who reached another old friend, who phoned my grandmother - my dad's number. This was how she learned her only child was gone. She phoned my mom's mom, who told my mother. My mom asked my grandmother to bring us downstairs and to keep us off the phone until she got home. She didn't want us to find out about what had happened from an outsider.

Mom told us he drowned in an accident and that, because he had old ID on him, the police couldn't find us right away. She also told us she'd answer any questions we had whenever we were ready to ask them. We were too overcome with grief to ask anything then. That would come in time.

There's a third day I remember, though not as clearly as the first two I've described. A memorial service was held for him about a week after he was found. Because he'd been in the water so long, a traditional funeral was impossible. He had to be cremated, and his cremains weren't ready in time for the service. The service was held at our church. There were huge, bright red poinsettias throughout the sanctuary and on the altar for Advent, (to this day, I hate poinsettias.) but no picture of him or any personal effects. The church was full, but I don't recall any of the faces. All I clearly recall is entering the sanctuary and turning to go to the seats we normally occupied when we attended service.

"No, baby," my aunt told me in a whisper I barely heard. "We're the family, so we sit up front for this," she said as she gently guided me to the front pews.

The rest is a dark blur.

I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind.

A fourth day, the clearest day of all, still haunts me. It was a summer day in 1986. I was on a bus coming home from an appointment downtown - not too far from spot on the river where my father was found, but I didn't think about that until later on. I took a seat on the bus, and turned on my Walkman. I'd just bought Stop Making Sense, by the Talking Heads. The music made me smile. I sang along, danced in my seat, and enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my face. Everything was fine until one song in particular came on.

The song was, Take Me To The River.

The song, a cover of the R&B classic by Al Green - the original can be found on the album, Al Green Explores Your Mind), is about a man seeking relief from a bad relationship. I paid little attention to it at first, but when I heard the chorus, the lyrics slowly began to sink in:

Take me to the river, drop me in the water. Take me to the river, dip me in the water. Washing me down. Washing me down.

By the time the song ended, I knew what had happened to my father. That day was the last time I listened to that song. I can't hear it to this day without becoming upset or crying. I don't know how I kept my composure on that bus for the rest of the ride or on the walk home from the bus stop, but I did. It was time to ask questions, and when I got home, I asked.

I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind. There was something so pleasant about that place.

That night, my mom told me about what had happened that November day four years earlier. Long story short, my dad - for reasons we'll never truly know - had committed suicide. He'd been depressed and had a tendency to internalize things that troubled him. He also had a history of alcoholism - drinking was his way of coping with the disappointments life had visited upon him. She didn't tell my sister and I what happened because she didn't think we were ready to handle it when he died. She knew the day would come when she had to tell us, but none of us were ready that day in 1982. It was a bit of relief to know what had actually happened, but I wasn't prepared for the impact that knowledge would have on me over the years.

And when you're out there, without care, yeah I was out of touch. But, it wasn't because I didn't know enough. I just knew too much. Does that make me crazy?

A lot has happened since the day my father died and the day I discovered how he died. Shortly after I found out the truth about my father's death, I went through my own depression. A couple of times, when my grief, depression and anger seemed to be insurmountable, I entertained the thought of suicide. Those thoughts were always fleeting - my father's actions showed me that committing suicide was never a feasible solution. A suicide not only kills the person, it kills a part of that person's loved ones. For a while, I pretended that he was not dead. This was easy to do because there was no body at his memorial. I created a scenario where he decided to run away from his life by faking his death, and - just like in the movies - it was only a matter of time before we found him again. There was a time when I dreaded the approach of Father's Day or Thanksgiving because it reminded me too much of his loss. For a brief period, I was angry at my mother and grandmothers for not telling my sister and I what actually happened. It wasn't long before I realized I was being selfish with my grief - his death and the sudden, shocking nature of how it happened had impacted us all. None of us were ready to handle it. I held on to a very deep seated anger at him for taking his own life, seeing it as him rejecting his family. That anger almost destroyed me as it was a major cause of my depression, but it was an anger that was almost impossible to let go. My memories of him are so sketchy, so scarce, that the anger was at times the most palpable part of him I had left.

After therapy, the passage of time, I now realize I have more of him than I originally thought. I remember him teaching me to stand up for myself. I remember his words of wisdom - some quite powerful and some unintentionally funny - and use them to this day. I remember him making dinner for my sister and I one day and how hard he tried to make everything perfect even though he wasn't much of a cook - teaching by example to go all out and do your best no matter what the situation. I remember his dry, understated humor - cutting, intelligent and highly observant. I remember how he would tell me all the time how I was special because I was his number one girl - then teaching me that because of that, I had a responsibility to be strong and a leader for my sister. I remember him having pride in me and my sister's accomplishments and emphasizing our intelligence - he once said in jest, "your mind will take you everywhere, but your pocket will take you nowhere," but there was a lot of wisdom in that observation.

For everything I do remember and cherish about him, there's a lot about him that is irretrievable. Like the way sound of his laugh. The weight of his hand on my shoulder. The way he held his cigarette or tilted his head when he talked. For every memory I have, I can't help but wonder about what memories I could've had if he hadn't taken his life. Like the look on his face at all of the milestones that happened since he's been gone - graduations, marriages, new jobs, other family transitions. The ability to be able to talk with him as an adult about any and everything. How he would've aged and reacted to my sister and I growing older. It would be fascinating to see what would be different now, and what would've stayed the same.

Wondering what could've been is what occupies my mind this Father's Day, not what has been lost. My father wasn't a perfect man, but he was good man. He was troubled, but he had more strength than he realized. He may not have been as successful as he would've liked to be, but he was a wonderful, caring father to my sister and I. I now realize that not remembering the last day we saw him is, in a way, a gift because it would be a constant reminder of his loss. It still hurts from time to time, but it would hurt more to have that memory and nothing else than to have the full image of my dad - warts and all - I have today. The memory I have of my father is painful, hopeful, inspiring, real and not idealized.

As the song says, there's something so special about that place.

Happy father's day, dad. I love and miss you.

More to come later, warts and all.


Anonymous Mom said...

Tracey, thanks for bringing back memories, some so painful and some so beautiful and the others made me laugh thru my tears. John was a wonderful man who was loved much more than he thought he was.
"what you got good for the head"

12:17 PM  
Blogger TEM said...

I hope he's at peace and knows how much he was and is loved, wherever he is. And remember, "your mind can take you everywhere, but your pocket will take you nowhere."

1:58 PM  

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