I'm ashamed to admit (though I comfort myself by doing things like adding up the number of addresses we've had since then as an excuse) that in the seven years since my father died, the only photo we've had regularly visible of him is a fairly random snapshot stuck to the fridge. One that we stuck to the fridge when we got it, years before he died, and which comes off the fridge with every moving out and goes back on the fridge with every moving in, just like everything else.
He himself was more than averagely committed to family archives. We used to have evenings when the slide projector came out of its crumbling box in the closet (I remember the acrid smell of the cardboard and the hot smell of dust on the bulb) and the organized cases would be looked over, each of us having some say in which tiny acrylic box of the past should be opened next, to see if we could recognize the younger faces of our loved ones, ourselves, our never-met long-buried relatives (except now I realize they weren't so long-buried, really; less long than seven years, anyway, but when you're 5, anything that happened "before you were born" belongs to the realm of myth). To hear again a few tiny snippets of stories, fairly dull ones, mostly, except that they had happened to us or to the people that were our parents. (And there were some exciting stories, too, to be fair, like the one that went with the photo of a bowl full of crawling caterpillars and with its successor, the photo of a bowl full of charred caterpillars, ready to be served. My parents admitted they hadn't actually eaten those horrible-looking things, but that they had been in the presence of people cooking and eating caterpillars was quite exciting enough.)
For that and other reasons, I regret that we don't have my favorite photos of him out where we can see them. So yesterday, I finally opened up the digital folder of pictures we'd selected for the memorial service and started to think about which ones I might want to print. The kids came in and looked over my shoulder, asking, "Who is that?" Shocked to see photographic evidence that I was once a child, that their grandparents were once quite young, they soon accepted that time is strange and photographs make it stranger. That baby in the black and white picture - was that Mr. P? No? Shmoogie? No. Mommy?
Before you were born, I say, before I was born, even, echoing the warm voices that swell over the remembered sound of the projector fan, the shush-chunk of the advancing slides, and the irritated mumbling of my father as he cleared the inevitable jam so the show could go on.
Two photos from now, for the sake of the archives...
Today it is six years since my father passed away and it is strange that the years keep marching on. The only thing I can say is that this year I have finally been able to think about him more as the good but real person he was than as the saint he became in my mind as soon as he died. That may not be much, but it feels like progress and like something he would have felt more honored by.
Growing up, my dad's federal salary was our family's income. It's kind of funny, then, that all I remember about the 1996 shutdown is how much fun we had. It was Christmastime, so it was great to have Dad home some extra weeks.
The best thing, though, was how a blizzard came through right after the shutdown lifted and we were all at home again for another week. Sledding, hanging out, ice skating on the neighborhood tennis court (because a serious ice storm coated it quite thickly and smoothly before the snow came down on top). It was glorious.
Two bloody scooter accidents in one month and I kind of felt like we had to give up on the scooter for a while. Which was hard, because it's the way we were getting to school in the morning fast enough to not be too tempted to drive. Shmoogie rode in the stroller and Mr. P zoomed along on the scooter on the way there (uphill), and then the scooter went in the stroller and Shmoogie got on her glider bike, which had been precariously perched on the back of the stroller for the trip out, and we would trundle slowly down the hill home.
She's getting quite good at the glider bike now. Less trundling, more sailing.
And I am absolutely convinced of glider bikes as the method for learning to ride. I had training wheels myself and getting on an actual pedal bike was a painful experience. It really didn't feel like the training wheels had taught me anything except how to pedal, which I already knew from my tricycle and "big wheels", right?
With the glider, they get very sneaky very comfortable practice getting their balance. Four weeks ago, Shmoogie was so freaked out, she wouldn't even sit down. She just waddled very slowly, the bike awkwardly underneath her. Now, she'll get up some speed and put her feet on the little rest bars and glide for yards and yards.
It reminds me very much of when my dad was trying to teach me to drive a stick shift. I killed that poor engine soooo many times, no matter how much he exhorted, "Give it gas! Give it gas!" And then he decided maybe I should forget about the gas. He tested it out himself and found that, yes, it's possible to get the car in gear without any gas. Which means you're only focusing on one thing, that one tricky clutch pedal and trying to feel the point at which it engages with the transmission. What a relief!
I practiced starting in first gear on a very slight downhill with no gas. Then second gear, then first gear again, but on a slight UPhill... Finally, after proving I could get into second gear from a stop heading uphill with no gas, I was allowed to use the gas pedal.
Isolate the hardest thing and tackle that first.
Anyway, as of two days ago Shmoogie and Mr. P go so fast on the way home (now that he's riding his bike instead of the scooter) that I can't keep up with them even if I run and I was starting to get really worried. Also, angry.
Then, today, I realized it was probably time to try riding my own bike with them! Mind blown.
My dad always had cherry pie for his birthday. He died very close to his birthday, about two weeks before, and we had cherry turnovers in his honor, I think we even sang happy birthday.
I think I've managed to have cherry something every birthday since then, but I almost didn't this year, feeling a little silly about it and feeling a bit over-busy with everything else. But I've also been feeling a little helpless about how little my kids know about their grandfather (Shmoogie only sometimes seems to understand that such a person ever existed) and how little we talk about him.
The irony being that my own father's father died just before I was born and was not much talked about (the best and most detailed stories I heard were from my aunts and uncles as we sat in our living room in the days before my dad's cremation) — I wish I could ask my dad now if that was a conscious decision or something that just happened, whether he was sorry about it or didn't think about it or thought it was exactly right.
It's a difficult thing to do, I see, talking to your children about someone so real to you and so inconceivable to them (even though one of them may clearly have his eyes or his ear wax or his love of tomatoes and the other may listen happily for hours to the same books he read to me). I thought I was hesitating because it might upset them. But I was protecting myself, really, knowing they might be quite uninterested in hearing anything about him — and the only person who would be upset by that, of course, is me.
I also just finished listening to The Antidote, whose last chapter is devoted to the idea that remembering death (memento mori, in the philosophic tradition) on a regular basis is a solid way to increase your happiness and satisfaction with life (Jane McGonagal, the games evangelist, discusses this in Reality is Broken, also). As descriptions of traditional Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico bounced around in my head, I started thinking that celebrating my dad's birthday with a cherry pie every year is perhaps a perfectly reasonable stand-in for such a thing, seeing as we aren't culture-wide likely to all start visiting graveyards on the same day every year (and my dad's ashes aren't in a graveyard, anyway). Might as well celebrate at home on a day that makes sense, right?
Mr. P insisted on hanging the birthday flags, but complained bitterly about the cherry pie — Abuelo isn't here anymore! Can't we have cake for his birthday since he's not here? — until he tasted it. Then he briefly considered having cherry pie for his own birthday, too. And for breakfast this morning.
They can't remember him themselves, but at least they know that we who can, do... and maybe that will be a signpost someday when they have to deal with grief of their own.
So... it's been five years since my dad's sudden death and I was starting to compose a post in my head that I felt would have been up to the occasion, but then it got really late and I was really tired because of all the stuff I've been doing today and I was feeling bad about that, but then I realized, a whole lot of the stuff I was busy doing was entirely appropriate for remembering my dad.
I wrote a bunch of code. Finicky code, writing out numbers into html strings so they turn into orderly tables when chucked into an email. Dad thought computer programming was pretty interesting (he's the only reason I ever took a comp sci course) and while I don't know that he would have said he loved spreadsheets, it really looked to a lot of people like he loved spreadsheets. I remember him carefully taping together six or eight sheets of paper so he could properly survey the family budget at the end of the year and present it to the rest of us. So, code to print numbers in orderly tables — entirely appropriate for today.
At the playground, the kids were fine on their own and Mr. Right and I could talk but I couldn't stand still, antsy after all the coding. Jumping jacks, running in place, stepping exercises on the beams holding in the playground mulch — very much my dad. I remember him coming home from work and picking up a stretchy band or a compression bar and doing random exercises while chatting with us about the day.
I wore my giant overmitts. He always had cold hands and had a complex layering system of liner gloves, regular mittens, overmitts, Gortex shell mitts for the rain... I'm sad I got to be fast and reasonably skilled at knitting only after he died. I still sometimes think of knitting him some mittens. Dead loved ones are like amputated limbs; sometimes you get tricked into thinking they're still there.
And then, finally, I did some administrative tying up of loose ends. Re-upping my developer account, adding the Linux class (that's the one I wanted!) and dropping the Theory of Computation class (kind of sad, but I can't take both), checking a credit card expiration date... Boring but necessary and Dad was the sort to take care of that kind of thing on time and not complain about it.
He was also the sort to do a lot of reading, he always had a pile of books on the go at once and a few copies of the Atlantic magazine hanging around to be thoroughly gone through, perhaps underlined in a few places or a particularly great article clipped for sharing or saving (the one on Lincoln's depression is the one I remember most clearly). And then he'd initial the front cover and date it so he'd remember he'd read it.
I'm not sure he'd be too into audiobooks, what with the lack of something to scrawl an initial on or stack beside the couch, but I don't let that bother me. If he were still here, I'd be giving him a hard copy of The Antidote, which Mr. Right got for me and I'm almost done listening to. A sort of practical philosophical book on "the negative path to happiness". Stoicism and all that. Dad was a stoic in the better sense of the word, the sense The Antidote examines.
For the second time in as many weeks, I was in the car this afternoon blinking back tears. I could write it off as stress, end-of-semester and holiday, maybe one of those random hormonal fluctuations I love so much, maybe lack of exercise, maybe too many sweets, maybe lots of things. But what it feels like, mostly, is that five years ago was the last time my dad was alive at Christmas, which means that coming up in January is the fifth anniversary of his death, and it's not that I'm consciously thinking about five years and calendar dates, but the subconscious picks up the cues and goes where it will when it gets the chance.
Last week, it was a stupid schmaltzy Christmas song on the radio that I don't even care about and who knows why my subconscious does… but that's not the interesting part of the story.
Today is the interesting part of the story, because I was listening to On Being and Krista Tippett was interviewing Brene Brown, who did a TED talk on shame that I might have linked to a while back. I was listening to it because I was intrigued by the TED talk but felt like it was a little superficial and I thought maybe the full hour and the interview format of On Being would toss up more satisfying cud to chew on, for lack of a better metaphor.
It's a great interview and you should listen to the whole thing, really, and I don't say that lightly knowing how busy everyone is right now (but maybe you have some crafty things to get done and need a little piped-in company, not that that's what I use podcasts for or anything… there's a transcript, too, but I think you're missing a lot that way). Anyway, it covers a bunch of broad topics around the idea of shame and vulnerability and the research that Brown has done in that area, but what caught me up short was when she talked about why she started considering men in her research when she had been dealing for years with only women.
A man came up to her at a book signing and asked why didn't she talk about men and she said because she didn't study men and he said, "We have shame, we have deep shame, but when we reach out and tell our stories, we get the emotional [bleep] beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those brothers and those bully friends, my wife and three daughters, the ones who you just signed the books for, they had rather see me die on top of my white horse than have to watch me fall off."
And a little bit later in the interview Brown says, "…for men, the perception of weakness is often very shaming and... one of the things that's interesting is, I talk to men and, you know, what I heard over and over was some variation of, look, my wife, my girlfriend, whomever, they say be afraid, they tell me, you know, share your vulnerability with me, open up, but the truth is, they can't stomach it."
Immediately, as I'm listening to this, the years are dialing back at lightning speed and I'm standing in the kitchen of my parents' house, a few years into official adulthood, and my dad is standing there, too, but looking small and huddled into the corner, and I've just been informed that he is seriously struggling with extreme anxiety. I could feel his fear and I could feel the shame that came with it and I didn't know what to say or do. I know I opened up about my own struggles with depression and anxiety, which it turned out I had hidden from my parents better than I realized, and I know that I wish now I had given him a really big hug but I don't know if I did or not. But whatever it is that I said and did or didn't do, I hope to God that, as imperfect as I know it was, I did not make him feel that I couldn't stomach it, that I would rather he die on top of his white horse than have to watch him fall off.
And I hope that he wouldn't mind me sharing this story. Actually, I can clearly imagine him chuckling and saying, "I'm dead! What do I care?" but you never quite know after a while if the loved one in your head matches the loved one who really was in every perfect detail. Still, I think even in life he would have been uncomfortable as hell about it, but might almost have said it was ok to post this anyway (especially if he knew he'd be dead!), because he was brave and he cared. And, probably because of that, his falls from the white horse in my eyes were never permanent, more like well-deserved dismounts for a little rest and recuperation. I hope he knew that, too.
I got a bike for Christmas. I haven't had a bike in years and years and this one is a beautiful powder blue with gear shifts so smooth it's like it's got an automatic transmission.
I was riding it a few weeks ago, a quick circuit to get my blood moving and dispel some of the over-focused stupor I've been having a lot lately as I try to get version 2.0 of Cross It Off! ready to ship.
I was having a lovely ride and I was thinking about my dad and how happy he always was on the rare occasions that I went on rides with him (he was a dedicated biker; I was not). Then, just as I started downhill through some lovely sun-speckled woods, I had one of those wonderful fleeting moments where I felt something, like he'd heard me invite him to come along and there he was.
Of course, just like a good dream as soon as you realize you're dreaming, the feeling began to pull itself apart the instant I recognized it. But it set my brain turning and a mile later I stopped to type out a thought on my phone before I lost it, because one of the many little things that sometimes worry me lately is that I'll be too busy to come up with anything meaningful to post today, which is the fourth anniversary of my dad's death.
What I thought, and I now it seems quite obvious even though it seemed like a revelation at the time, is that the appeal of heaven is not, really, the idea that we'd get to see our loved ones again or that we would live forever unafraid of death, but that our relationship with the dead would have life left in it. That we would find they do know, after all, all that has happened and all that we have learned and all that we have become since they died, including the things we have learned and become as a result of losing them. And that they would have things to share, too.
Four years doesn't sound like a long time. It's not a long time. But it is astounding to think back and realize how much I have changed and how much has changed around me in the past four years. Mostly, I find my brain assuming that Dad knew the now me, not just the then-and-previous me. When I consciously examine the glaring flaws in that assumption, it can be a little depressing. But even a fleeting sense of riding with him down a fast hill lifts my spirits for a while and the heron who watches me pass seems as surprised by it all as I am.
Now, I'm off to class, which is something Dad would support, and I might even have a beta to my testers this evening. Or maybe tomorrow... :)