I know many of my friends lately have had to deal with the passing of a parent. This past February it was my turn. I didn’t know, but my father had been living with Parkinson’s-like symptoms for a while, not having told anyone until the symptoms were unavoidably visible. I live a continent away and trips back east are not frequent, except that while I was visiting with my mother, whose husband died after Thanksgiving, I went to see my father who was hospitalized. The doctors were having a hard time diagnosing what was happening with him. Dad thought it all may have had to do with a cyst on his brain stem. It wasn’t. Turns out he had a very aggressive, Parkinson’s-like disease and died within two months of the diagnosis, two months after I saw him for the last time. The boy in the rowboat crossed the horizon.
Dad and I had a fraught history. My parents were young when they had me, an accident. Neither of them knew how to be parents. They weren’t yet fully adults themselves. It took me a long time to understand and accept that after measuring my childhood in losses and absences, words not said, hugs not given, voids filled with fear and anger. Later in life, Dad seemed to find his way, learned how to be a grandfather to my brother’s daughter and his companion’s kids.
At his memorial, I heard people say many warm things about my Dad. He was certainly a likable person. But I sat counting the things I couldn’t say, like how hard it was to find Father’s Day cards that didn’t ring false. Like how I didn’t hear my father say he loved me until I was in my 50s (though better late than never). How some men’s cologne will always be the scent of rage for me. However, because of his absences of heart and attention, I’ve learned how to be strong, self-sufficient, how to step out of the dark of depression to create my own life.
A recent movie presented a beautiful, heartbreaking meditation on time and memory, posing a question; would you live your life over again knowing what you’d have to go through? I don’t know. I know I miss my Dad. We never seemed to have much in common beyond shared biology and history, but in the last couple years, he began to respond to my photography in a way that I never expected, initiating conversations on various images. For Christmas this past year, I sent him a calendar I made from my photos. My brother said that when they had to move Dad into a nursing care facility, they posted my calendar on the wall where he could see it. His last post on Facebook in September of 2016 was of two images side-by-side, images that meant much to him: a photograph of his beloved Rottweiler, Greta, and an old black and white photo of me at around age 2, explaining that “both are beautiful.”
I know this final absence has opened up old wounds, but I look at my favorite image of Dad, the boy in the rowboat, and I understand how he is a part of me, regardless. He was once young and hopeful. He had things he wanted to do and to be. He lost things and gained others, including 5 marriages, while he navigated the complex scope of his life. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, particularly at the end.
What I do hope is that at my end, I can look upon the intersection of his life and mine and also declare, “both are beautiful.”