When I was a kid I imagined my dad’s death a lot. It was always one of two scenarios: either I would watch him shrink in my vision as the lifeboat I sat in lowered slowly into the cold water, leaving my father to await certain death on the foundering Titanic, or I would watch from the safety of the underground tornado shelter as, gripping the flimsy door to keep it latched and me safe, he was sucked up into the maw of the roaring funnel. The influence of history and pop culture on those scenes is obvious, and certainly I was a morbid child by nature anyway, but as I lay here in the midnight dark I wonder if there is more to them than overactive imagination. I wonder if my younger self sensed on some instinctive level that her father would be taken from her without warning and sought to prevent this looming disaster by compulsively imagining worst case scenarios. Or maybe she was simply attempting to blunt the inevitable future pain of his loss by repetition. Either way it didn’t work, perhaps because in those scenarios he was always sacrificing himself to save me when in the end there was no danger, no moment of swift choice between his life or his daughter’s. I was only a child, after all; back then I understood the threat disasters posed, but not that human ineptitude could just as easily shatter my fragile world.
No exes in my graveyard, instead I’m dogged by the ghosts of friendships abandoned, bodies left to rot where they fell in the undergrowth because neither of us bothered to give them a proper burial (can’t honestly say I even checked for a pulse before I ran, fearful of either outcome) and while watching yet another love begin its slow anemic decline I feel your specter sit beside me and I rest my head on her shoulder like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
look into my eyes;
how can you not see I am
Alexandria’s charred skeleton
Delphi’s discard, Pompeii’s corpse-hollows
a husk of a revenant vomiting
endless bean sí grief-wail?
HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE I AM
A THING ALREADY DEAD?
It’s beyond salvage
Ashfall shrouding charred ruins
No one’s noticed yet
You can’t publicly mourn anymore. Not really. You can’t claw at your skin or tear out your hair. You can’t howl and beat your breast. Polite society demands we tame our grief into dry-eyed stoicism or silent, stately tears. Lacking an outlet, I settle for picking at scabs that never heal and pulling out my eyebrows until my fingers ache, but it’s never enough. They call it dermatillomania and trichotillomania because if you do this to yourself there must be something clinically wrong with your mind. I think a more accurate term, if one is so necessary, would be obsessive compulsive mourning. Can we be blamed, though, given the state of the world? We’re drowning in grief and our bodies long for the catharsis of mindless animal exertion. Some sorrow you can only release in screams so loud they leave you voiceless. Some rage you can only set free by clawing it out of your flesh with your own fingernails. Some mourning only heals when you are surrounded by others who wail and rend with you. There’s solace to be found in the ugly, violent mourning of our ancestors – but instead we cage the misery inside ourselves, where it rots us slowly from within.
I thought you would feel more… lacking. Emptier somehow, almost incorporeal. But no, you were as solid in death as you were in life. As I lifted you from the road I felt the weight of your body in my hands, fat and muscle and bone under soft fur. When I laid my hand on your side you might have been just asleep, save for the stillness of your chest. That’s where I lay my hand on my own cat as he sleeps at my side, feeling with every rise and fall the life pumping within him. Is there someone tonight whose own hand gropes in the dark for the comfort of your presence yet touches only your vacant space? I wonder, when they find you will you feel as heavy to them as you felt to me? Or will their hands register the absence of your soul as an unbearable lightness?
It has become such a trite phrase, an excuse for bad tattoos and wild partying. But what does it mean beyond those trivialities, beyond the shallowness of YOLO culture? What does it mean to truly live a regret-free life?
It means forgiving.
It means forgiving the past for taking you to this present. It means forgiving yourself for not understanding what was happening at the time, for not clinging to those final moments with tooth and nail. It means forgiving those who may have hastened that end through their carelessness or the flaws in a broken system. It means forgiving every person their lack of omniscience – yet especially yourself. It means forgiving yourself for the things you did and the things you did not do and how that closed all the doors on every possible future but one.
And it means accepting.
It means accepting that you can neither change the past nor predict how it will affect the future. It means accepting that we are only human and that we all make mistakes, every one of us every day, and nothing can change that either. It means accepting endings and embracing beginnings, always. It means accepting a new normal. It means accepting that new normals are not inherently bad, only different.
And it means being able to one day look upon a gravestone without flinching. It means knowing in your heart you did all you could and continue to do all you can. It is not an easy philosophy. It is not a philosophy of misspelled tattoos and drunken selfies. It is a philosophy of hope tempered with the weight of experience. It is a constant striving to do what you think is right in the moment and a constant forgiving of yourself and others once the moment has passed. It is closing the door on the past, yet never locking it.
This is how I think it went down. After Anubis finished weighing my father’s heart on Ma’at’s grand scales – lighter than any feather, magic or otherwise, of course – he was met by Wepwawet to guide him through the underworld. Along the way they got to talking, bonding over a mutual appreciation for travel in all its forms by land, by air, and by sea. It is rare to meet another as knowledgeable as yourself in the more obscure aspects of your passion and they became fast friends.They probably shared about the classic cars they had owned and old motorcycles that had carried them faithfully down hot roads beneath a desert sun. Maybe they discussed the aircraft and ships which had shaped the course of human warfare or reminisced about the modes of travel long outdated by technological evolution.
(This is where the story gets hard for me to write. I keep deleting it. Ignoring it. Pretending I can’t see the scene so clearly. I can, though. And I want to tell it, I do, but it’s like my hands just… stop working. Revert back to heavy, lifeless clay. Not this time, though. Come on, just get it out!)
At the threshold to the Field of Reeds my father asked a favor from Wepwawet. He had left behind a teenage daughter, you see, and he worried for her safety. She wasn’t a very good driver, for one, and was often scatterbrained or easily distracted. Would Wepwawet look out for her as she moved through the world, just to make sure she got home each night in one piece? He gave my name and Wepwawet must have smiled, maybe even said something like, “She’s already known to us,” and assured my father He would keep an eye on me. And He has ever since, though He’s probably had to save my butt more times than I can count and I’m sure it’s a stressful promise to keep. But they’re kindred souls, I can feel it, and every time I feel Wepwawet’s presence I feel my father’s as well and know I am doubly blessed.
[ Hey, I added a “dad stuff” tag if anyone’s interested ]
In my dreams I fight wars alongside rebel brethren or cast salt circles with blood-sisters only to wake missing little pieces of my heart I unknowingly left behind in those other worlds, in those other people, and my arms do not understand why I cannot hold those loved ones again and my lips do not understand why I cannot remember their names and I am pushing back the sheets, feeding the cats, dressing for work, going through the motions of the mundane everyday while some part of me mourns that which my mind can barely grasp, details fading in the morning light, and though the effort is futile still I beg sisters, brothers, comrades, friends, come back, come back, come back!
there are some things i can only write about at very specific times, like when the moon is just a sliver in a sky the color of my freshmen year of college or the afternoon sun is slanting just like it did that day in eighth grade, when i’m driving the old back roads home from a theater that hasn’t changed at all in twenty-five years or listening to a song i wrung all the emotion from while i walked endless circles around campus late at night, but even then i must hurry to capture the fleeting, fickle moment before it passes and i am left too weary to write another word, too empty to perform another grand resurrection of my old ghosts and demons and long beloved spirits, and in the morning or the next day when i go back to reread those scribbles i’ll just be disappointed anyway by how impossible it is to capture such ephemeral experiences, so i’ll think why do i even try, why do i bother robbing graveyards, and then i’ll ctrl+alt+delete my way out of all memory but today’s
I know the things you call him when he is too far gone to argue. Angel, when you’re wiping blood from his mouth. Lovely, when you’re lifting his limp body off the bathroom floor. Darling, when you’re holding him until the trembling stops. Baby, when his eyes are bleak and far away and you aren’t sure if you’ll get him back this time. But always, at the end, just Daren. Daren, when you’re trying to wake him. Daren, when your hands are shaking too badly to find a pulse. Daren, when there’s nothing more you can do but weep.
It’s been ten years. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days. In that time, three years of college; three of Americorps; three with a ‘real’ job. Two degrees and one diploma. Four years with the woman I love, who you will never meet. Forty-two foster kittens. Some hundred thousand miles on my car. One car accident, zero broken bones. Two trips to Washington DC, one to Yosemite, one to Switzerland. One new Jurassic Park movie, which you’ll never watch with me, and too many Tremors sequels. Three tattoos, going on four. One wedding to plan and one to attend. Three times a bridesmaid and once a bride. Zero fathers to walk me down the aisle. Zero dads to dance with. Zero you but countless dreams and too many things I’ll never get to share with you.
I’m a member of the Dead Dads Club. It’s a shitty club and you don’t get to choose to become a member; one day it just happens, congratulations, you’re a member for life now. At first I didn’t dream about him at all, or if I did he was always in the periphery, silent, watchful. Then it was dreams where I didn’t know I was dreaming and he was back – he had never died, he had been resurrected, he just walked through the door one day and didn’t know years had passed. Then it was dreams where I didn’t know I was dreaming and we were just hanging out together – riding in his truck, baking chocolate chip cookies, me telling him about Assassin’s Creed. Then it was dreams where I knew it was a dream and he didn’t understand why I’d hold him hard and sob into his chest. Now it’s dreams where I know it’s a dream but I still tell him over and over and over again how much I want him to come to my wedding. I cry, hard and ugly, and the dream never lasts long enough. In the dream it feels unbearable, the thought that he’ll miss this, too, just like he missed so much else. When you’re in the Dead Dads Club, the list of things they miss just gets longer and longer, and yet you’re continually blindsided when something new comes up.
“You Would Have Been 70”
In 2007, I missed telling you about my history classes.
In 2008, I missed you helping me buy gear for my fieldwork on Mount Rainier.
In 2009, I missed showing you the rock samples I collected in New Mexico.
In 2010, I missed seeing you at my college graduation.
In 2011, I missed introducing you to my new favorite band.
In 2012, I missed hiking in Yosemite with you.
In 2013, I missed introducing you to my girlfriend.
In 2014, I missed you helping me move into my first official apartment.
In 2015, I missed discussing Ray Bradbury with you.
In 2016, I missed showing you my engagement ring.
In 2017, I will miss you walking me down the aisle.
amid a small town
a rusting iron fence;
amid fading gravestones
dried flowers and pine needles;
amid a broken wind chime
a porcelain unicorn;
amid the red carnations
a date range carved in marble;
amid the living’s thoughts
a little girl long lost
(rest in peace, little one, whoever you were)