I used to keep a photo of my father displayed in my campus office. I liked being able to look up from my work, which was sometimes the work of teaching and sometimes my own writing work, and see his face and think of him, as his life and death have been such an engine for my writing. I suppose the photo was kind of a devotional object, the shelf or desk it sat upon, an altar. The years went by like this, and often people would ask me about the handsome man with rimless glasses and a warm smile. I liked getting the opportunity to talk about him sometimes. I liked having him nearby.
The first year I worked at Chatham, this opportunity to talk about him arose when a colleague came into my office to ask me about something and perhaps noticed I seemed off. “You okay?” she said, and I nodded, noting that I was a little sad as it would have been my father’s birthday. I must have gestured toward the photo then, and expected the usual reaction.
But it didn’t come. She did not stop suddenly and exclaim, “That’s your father? But he’s so young!”, prompting me to acknowledge that yes, he was very young when he died, 46, which would then further prompt the conversation to continue: “Oh, wow. You must have been so young when he died. How tragic. What a terrible loss.”
Instead, she looked at the photo, waited a beat, took me at my word that I was indeed okay, and continued with our work-related business. I remember being stunned by this for a moment, before I realized that I was not the 21-year-old I was when he died, but instead 43–an age at which it is not at all uncommon to lose a parent. It’s part of the natural progression of things. Sometimes a person can get stuck inside a labyrinth of loss. Chronology, sequence, linearity, time–whatever you want to call it–does not function inside of it.
I felt silly, then. I started to feel self-conscious about my writing, which is so often still about him and the way his death shaped me, continues to shape me. Shouldn’t I be getting over it already? Aren’t there other things to write about? A professor once told me to write my obsessions, and I certainly had taken up that charge in poetry and especially in nonfiction essays and a whole memoir I wrote about our relationship and our connection through food that I worked on for years and years and which, ultimately, did not find a publisher.
Once the entirety of my consciousness, a cellular fire, now my grief is most often soft-bellied and tired, complex and nuanced as so much seems to be as I get older. It began as only a void, an absence, a searing loss and now it’s sometimes that, but is also a warm room I can go to when I want to think or just feel. It’s a sail that moves me through relationship storms and it’s a small pebble in my sandal that reminds me to pay attention to others’ pain. It says, “Don’t stay too comfortable, here,” and “Pull your head up and look around you.” This grief used to be only mine and I guarded it jealously, decadently, but then I had children who had also lost my father, albeit many years before they were born, and I had to learn to both share and comfort.
After that day in my office, I moved the photo to a small corner of a bookshelf in my bedroom at home. It’s near some other items that belonged to him, like his wallet and his military dog tags, and also his time-yellowed Mass card, a stack of my poetry books and an embarrassing amount of dust. A more private, more appropriate altar. I also shelved the unpublished memoir but he didn’t go far. He ended up in new essays, new poems.
Dad’s been gone for 28 years today. Which means I’ve been writing about him for 28 years and I honestly don’t expect to stop. I don’t wish to, and I no longer feel silly for maintaining this “obsession.” But I wouldn’t call it an obsession anymore. I’d call it a wellspring or an aquifer. A fascination, a curiosity or even an enchantment. I’d say it’s part of me–he is, still, part of me–though with every year that passes, he shares space on the page and in life with other people, other concerns, other experiences, memories and passions that make up me–his daughter who loved and outlived him.
For 28 years, August 6th has usually been a bright, hot, blue-sky summer day, but this morning felt distinctly like fall. I woke and went to my garden for some weeding and watering and could hear cicadas in the near trees. Things are looking a little older, ragged and there was a slight chill to the breeze. Forgive me, I know this all sounds too on the nose (death, autumn, aging, etc) but I really didn’t mind it. I felt refreshed and relieved and thought of him and felt a tug of sadness and also gratitude that I am still writing, I am still here.