Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal.As you're probably well aware if you've been reading this blog for a while, my father died in a car accident about a month after I turned 12. That may seem like a young age to lose a parent, and it was -- but I was the oldest of six siblings, the youngest of whom had just turned three at the time. Of all my siblings, I spent the longest time with my father and have the most and clearest memories of him, some happier than others.
--C.S. "Jack" Lewis, from the film Shadowlands
I have memories of listening to Dad make up silly stories and parody songs on the fly; memories of being picked up, run down the hall and tossed onto the queen-sized bed with a huge bounce; memories of Dad hanging onto the back of my bike, running along behind me as I tried to get the hang of balancing on two wheels; memories of flying kites and foraging for crops gone wild in the field that had once been a farm across from our house; memories of Dad making a puppet show theater or drawing a Christmas scene with soap on our front window, then painting it with tempera paints; memories of Dad, after days and days of sleepless worry, having a loud and scary nervous breakdown in the middle of the night; memories of Dad quietly swimming up to Aunt Linda, basking on her raft in the middle of Lake Alpine, and evilly upending her into the icy water; memories of Dad having no faith in himself, blaming himself for his perceived imperfections almost every day; memories of Dad sleepwalking into Julie's and my bedroom at 1 a.m. and telling us to brush our teeth (an episode he didn't remember in the morning); memories of Dad asking me with tender concern if xxxxxxx had done something to hurt me, and when I said yes, the way his haunted, defeated expression hurt even more than the abuse had, so I just stopped admitting when those incidents happened; memories of Dad and my uncle taking their sons on early morning paper routes and forming a little club called the "Paper Daddies of America"; memories of Dad pushing me high on the swings until I almost kicked the moon; memories of Dad helping me water the cucumber plants growing outside his workroom; memories of Dad losing his cool over the boys listening to the Beatles' Rubber Soul album over and over, finally taking it off the record player and flinging it out the front door into the field; memories of Dad at the drawing board, working on a layout for a client; memories of Dad driving the orange VW bus across the country while Mom handed out sandwiches and soda from the Coleman cooler; memories of Dad sticking drawing pencils into his ears and nose and having Mom take a Polaroid of him; memories of Dad jumping into my grandparents' pool fully clothed, then dragging Mom in after him -- the list goes on and on.
These memories -- strong, vivid, sometimes goofy, always emotionally charged -- are why I miss my dad. He was a creative, sensitive, funny, impatient, imperfect, vibrant, real person. There were things I loved about him as well as things I really didn't like. In short, I have enough memories about him to hunger for more.
It's different for my other siblings. My brothers remember Dad quite a bit; my sisters remember very little. And my youngest sister, Michele, has no memories of Dad at all. It's bothered her for a long time. She was a "Daddy's girl" growing up, always gravitating more to Dad than to Mom, and after he died, she -- barely three, you remember -- couldn't understand what had happened to him. "Where's Daddy?" she asked, over and over again, and when we told her yet again that he had died, her plaintive response was always the same: "But I want him."
When I was younger I thought, naïvely, that my siblings were lucky not to remember Dad. Memories of the dead are keen sharp things, and the closer you hold them to your heart, the more you cut yourself. Wouldn't it be better not to have them, not to carry a source of pain around with you? I don't remember my great-grandfather or my Aunt Bonnie, both of whom died before I was born; my interest in them as people is mere curiosity, with no accompanying ache of loss. I didn't really understand why my little sister could feel such a hole in her center from a man she couldn't even remember.
You know what it took to help me finally figure it out? The death of a man I never met.
I've wanted to meet Robin Williams from the time I was eight years old. Yes, really. I watched him on Mork & Mindy and found him not just funny as an actor, but fascinating as a person. I tried (and failed) to get permission to participate in the Bay Area March of Dimes walk that year, because I knew he would be participating and just maybe I'd get a chance to walk next to him and talk to him for a minute or two. (Oh, shut up -- you expect realistic dreams from an eight-year-old kid?) For some reason as I got older, I still harbored the quiet but unshakable belief that at some point I'd get a chance to meet him in person. I didn't want to be overbearing or annoying or gushy about it -- he struck me as the kind of person who'd be deeply uncomfortable with that kind of attention. I just wanted a chance to walk up to him, shake his hand and say something goofy like, "Thank you, sir, ya done good."
Let's just say that didn't happen.
And now, I think I understand a little more what it must be like for my sister. Yes, there's a particular kind of knifelike pain that comes from having clear memories of the dead. But there's another kind of pain -- a dull crunch, like a heavy weight that comes out of the dark in slow motion to crack hard against your ribcage -- that comes from having no memories when you desperately want them. It's a different kind of pain. But that doesn't make it any less painful.
I'm so sorry, Shelly. I wish I could share what I have with you. I wish you could know your dad the way you want to. Because of what I remember, I know he'd bug you and worry about you and frequently annoy you, but he'd also be proud of you in so many ways. You're his daughter, and you carry inside you many things that are made from him. That's one way of being close to him, of getting to know him better -- to find the things in you that were also part of your dad. I think he'd appreciate that.