Let him be whomever you wish. Like a fluttering candle
into a stormlamp, I place myself there inside him.
A glow becomes peaceful. May death
more easily find its way. — Rainier Maria Rilke
What do we know of our fathers? They seem, through a child’s eyes, almost as gods, striding purposefully through the world, shouldering aside doubt and uncertainty, magical in their strength, bending down from their great heights to lift us up higher than we could reach, but less than we imagined. At times, later, we think we’ve outgrown them, that perhaps the large hand on the bicycle we pedaled for the first time alone, that dropped away without us noticing, is not needed anymore. And still later, when we become adults, we may see them as persons, men in their own right, with admirable qualities, homely flaws, and modest hopes.
My father and I were different expressions of the same English-Canadian stock. In fact, we were raised by the same people, his parents, my grandparents. For reasons which do not need explanation for this story, I was taken in by my grandparents three years after my birth and after moving between families and countries and loving intentions until at last I arrived on their doorstep, bewildered but grateful, embraced and welcomed as a second son. I remained—with times away in England—until I graduated from college and left their home in Northern California.
My father left home early, at 18 or maybe 19, as near as I have understood, hitchhiking out of a small college town in Alberta where both his parents were teachers and he was a campus kid. Perhaps the vice-like grip of loving concern in a church community grew unbearable—there were hints of a mistake on his part and harsh judgments rendered—but in any case he lit out for the world. It broke my grandmother’s heart and brought a sadness to my grandfather’s eyes.
He left, I stayed. He left the church, I am still in it. He became an engineer, thinking through his hands, whip-smart, a man of few words. I became a teacher, given to many words, uneasy around math and at home in the humanities. He was twenty when I was born; I was thirty-five when my son was born. He found his way through the world without a college diploma but helped to develop some of the most intricate technology of the computer age. I couldn’t get enough of studying and resolutely worked my way through several degrees. He worked for IBM for many years; my first real computer was a Mac and I have never departed from the Apple orchard.
Thus, when he passed away this week, after a long struggle with brain cancer, I was at a loss to know what to do. I cannot think of another way to put it except to say that my emotions were waiting at the door for permission from my rational nature to enter and be at home. It is typical to feel numb after such a loss and yet, on the contrary, I felt as if my senses were sharpened and enlivened. I saw myself, a man who had lost his father, and I wondered what made that man different from the one who had received the news hours before. The voice of a friend, tender with concern, moved me to tears; as I put down the cell phone it occurred to me that I had not wept until then. Was I moved to tears because another shared my grief? Or was it rather that his care for me called the leviathan Sorrow up from the depths? Was it self-pity I was feeling—see the poor fellow with the tears welling up in his eyes—or pity for my father who suffered in ways that all humans dread but must endure to the end?
Perhaps because I did not live with him as a child and had infrequent but vivid encounters with him as an adult, I lacked the emotional notation for that musical score—I would have to improvise. I was to begin teaching a course that evening at a nearby university, but I canceled. I was wary, not at all sure I wouldn’t be koshed from behind by a furtive emotion. This will be a process, so people assured me, and I will emerge from this experience a changed man. That’s a fairly safe assumption since most of what we experience in life changes us.
The best counsel came from my sister, a person wise beyond her years and the one who guided her mother through the dark wood of my father’s approaching night. She called this experience a ‘sacred moment,’ a ‘luminous experience,’ one to be opened by and lived through with all senses alert. I was reminded of Pascal’s comment, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of,” and realized that I had been granted a rare privilege: to view my father first, as a man whom I loved and admired, and secondly, as my father. Whatever our fathers are to us they are always and simply themselves, a glory as mystifying as it is obvious. Tonight, walking home with a wisp of summer breeze, I saw the evening star: brilliant, benevolent, constant—and I was glad.