Over the past year, I lost my birth and adoptive fathers.
My birth father and I had been out of touch for a while. My reappearance long ago had jarred everyone, him especially. When this became apparent, I let us drift apart. My brother, suddenly demoted to younger son, hadn’t liked it much either. Having been told I had died at birth of heart failure, my birth mother’s family nearly succumbed as well when I appeared on the scene, reports of my death having been greatly exaggerated. But the family had rallied, except for her.
When we were in touch, my birth father and I had gotten to know each other somewhat when he visited California. Where my basic temperament came from was clear from the moment we met. We didn’t look that much alike, but the quiet manner, dry humor, quirky half-smile, and penchant for storytelling were all familiar.
He helped fill in our family history. At one point, after asking me what kind of trouble I had gotten into when young, he chuckled as I related setting fire to a high school bully’s locker. He had performed a few of his own ignitions. Furthermore, our Celtic ancestors had burned Rome to the ground. Fire was a family motif, a theme linking generations of us to our distant empire-battling past.
Although they knew about me, no one in his family informed me of his death. I found out by looking him up on Facebook and reading the notice they had posted. I saw it on Father’s Day.
Several months later, I dreamed that he told me to swim across a channel of choppy water and find a magic spear. Turns out he knew something I did not about my personal myth (or “life myth” as Jung called it: the mythic tale you’re born into and creatively elaborate as you get older). We had never talked about personal myth. Although he hadn’t been around much in life, he gave me a useful nod after he had passed on. Maybe the dead do learn. I have doubted it at times.
After making mortuary arrangements for the father I had grown up with, sitting with him as he lay snoring in my boyhood room in a bed placed where mine had stood, I found the memories of his kindnesses more vivid than those of him as an unhappy man full of rage. Therapy has its benefits. I remembered everything; but freshest, and with no effort on my part, surfaced recollections him teaching me to ride a bike, to shoot a bb gun, to paint a fence, to fish, to drive a car; lying down in a sleeping bag next to me when a nasty stomach flu convulsed me throughout the night. Caring for my sister after excruciating surgeries on her eyes.
Mixed in with reverie and grief came those moments I always forget until times of loss return to remind me: the unexpectedly humorous. The mortician using “a la carte” as a term for services offered. A street sign in the mortuary parking lot: “Pass With Care.” A call to a local cemetery eliciting, “We’re sorry, but the number you have called has been disconnected and is no longer in service at this time.” Finding a superb mortician whose last name was Vigil. My car dying briefly, then restarting. Yes, I’m in the zone…
Some say that watching a family member die teaches them about mortality. I can’t attest to that, having always been in strange relationship to death. For one thing, I’ve almost done it, from having taken rash young-man risks long ago. For another, relatives who have died usually appear in my dreams.
When my birth mother, a tormented fugitive soul, died after a long bout of dementia, I dreamed of receiving a phone call from her. This surprised me because she had refused to speak to me.
“How are you?” I asked her.
“I am out in the South Seas,” she said, naming her favorite place, a paradise to her. She continued: “And I am free.” I woke knowing she had just sailed off the end of the world.
One day in June I woke from a dream in which my maternal grandmother (adoptive) had been trying angrily to remind me of something. I continued to feel her invisible assertiveness in the room several minutes after my eyes had opened. A day later I realized that I had forgotten my mom’s birthday. Always a stickler for remembering family birthdays, was Grandma Mac.
Now, a psychologist of the reductive sort, with a severely limited worldview to match, would doubtless suggest her to be an internalization, a part of me inflicting a late-night reminder on myself. But you’d have to have my background (birth) to know how normal such an event this is for us. We indulge in a lot of telephone telepathy and other non-ordinary means of staying in touch with each other: so much so that it’s easier to assume we’re always connected, one way or another.
For me, then, death has always been both familiar and oddly transparent somehow, less a precipice into nothingness than a doorway onto a change of scene.
What father loss solidified was being at the end of a male lineage. Not only as the eldest son (as well as the only child of my birth parents), but the last male Chalquist in my family and, soon, the last anywhere. If no child of mine receives my exceedingly rare last name, if I do not become a father myself one day, then I am the last of the line.
A month before my dad died I was asked by my mom to go through his tool sheds. All five of them. On the surface, he was an unreflective and unimaginative man, a true bottom-line guy. But as I took in the work benches, radios, and conduits he had installed, the wrenches he had categorized by shape and use, the screws and bolts he had meticulously sorted, the projects he had left unfinished, I could imagine hours spent here fantasizing about what ran where, what did what, how this might turn into that.
The stroke my dad had suffered brought an unexpected boon: a childlike delight in things. Used to his grumpy and solitary exterior, we were astonished to see him gape in wonder at passing cars, marvel at clouds drifting overhead, smile warmly and wave at strangers. It was as though, here at the end of his life, we were offered glimpses of who he had been very early on, the child still in him able to wonder.
A few days before my dad died, I dreamed that after trying on a few different animal forms, including a dog, he became a bird and flew off. This seemed a good choice, completely opposite in personality to his habitual curt, glowering character. I enjoy the fantasy that he could continue to evolve by embracing a neglected side of himself and taking eager flight. Death as starting over.
It was bad at the very end, for him, for all of us. I started him on the last medication he would ever need. I insisted on doing it myself.
On the last day I saw him alive, I entered his room to say goodbye before hitting the road. He was still grumpy from having just been changed by a new CNA, but his ties to this world were thinning fast. On the previous evening he had asked me out of the blue if I knew the population of Rising City, his home town, and declared his intention to call his dad and his brother, both long dead.
“You can get in touch with them later,” I said. He nodded. I imagined them waving to him from behind the curtain.
I put my hand on his shrunken chest over his heart, said, “I love you, Dad,” kissed his forehead, and stood up. He raised his left hand weakly and said, “Thank you.” I had trained him long ago in how to say “I love you” back, but his “thank you” seemed to fit.
Two days later, my sister called to tell him she loved him. He died two minutes later. He had been waiting for her.
And so two fathers, both troubled men who nonetheless passed out of earthly existence in the company of loving families.
Had I gotten enough fathering from them? Enough for what? I didn’t feel gappy, and I had been lucky to find a few stand-in fathers along life’s way.
Enough to sit in my dad’s recliner, now pulled up to my hearth, nod to the photo book containing a few images of my birth father, and consider myself fortunate for having gotten what fathering I had, considering all the closed-off fathers preceding the two more recently deceased. The rest was up to me to work into the story I came in bearing. Fatherless Merlin had come in with even less.
And isn’t the story, the myth, the play, the thing? We make so much ado about ourselves: my woundings, my misfortunes, my unmet needs, including the need for healing.
But when has a tale about being whole ever held our interest? Doesn’t the fascination, the lure, perhaps even the longevity of the tale glow within what’s achieved in spite of injury, fragmentation, and loss? Or even because of them? What if we shifted from rejecting them as blockages to imagining them as plotlines in a grander drama?
The fire danced in the hearth. From beyond the window chirped the merry call of a bird.