Thursday, October 20, 2011

#141 - Loss


10/20/11 (#141)

I lost my dad this summer, a fantastic man who gave me 44 years of guidance, wisdom, humor, and love. I can't do him justice in an essay, as none of us really could with our parents — his influence on me and my siblings is so broad, so subtle, so all encompassing that any attempt to define it leads to endless addendums and clarifications, each tangent getting no closer to a complete truth than the insufficient phrase it expands upon. There would be no me without him, literally and figuratively. For every good thing I am and I've done, he and my mom deserve the credit. I will miss him forever.

When he passed, I was blessed to have many people who expressed condolences, and I was reminded of a very peculiar aspect of human communication: despite thousands of years of evolution and enlightenment, humans are still struggling to build a language to respond to or assuage a deep loss. Perhaps it's a complex emotion that we are fortunate to not have enough practice at expressing; perhaps it's an instinctual sense that the language we use to corral and quantify our ideas is simply incapable of addressing the pain and sadness of losing someone we love.

Whatever the reason, it is always hard to know what to say. I love words, but they are simply not suitable for all occasions. The platitudes of sympathy cards, however well-intentioned, seem formulaic; the tried-and-true stock phrases we rely on have become the accepted cliches because we have collectively and silently resigned ourselves to being unable to express what our hearts are experiencing. There's certainly no wrong thing to say, because we know that whatever we say is simply a placeholder for something larger, something more inexplicable. I appreciated everyone who tried, right down to a friend who said simply, "I don't know what to say" and wrapped me in a bear hug.

Yet one recurring theme that gave me genuine solace was stories. My friend Scott recalled the era when our band practiced at my parent's business, a cavernous woodshop that could fully accommodate our four-piece band and the racket we created. When we practiced, dad would come over to check in on us now and then. I know he didn't like the volume, and he wouldn't stay for the actual practice, but he was great company as we set up, relating well with all of my band mates, sharing laughs, telling a joke, whatever. I suspect he would have preferred that I wasn't in a band, worried that we would emulate the career path of Motley Crue despite us behaving more like The Wonders from "That Thing You Do", but he kept that to himself — I was obviously passionate about songwriting, I was playing with three great friends (and great people), and he was there to support me.

If I had listed 1,000 memories of my dad, I wouldn't have listed the story Scott told. But when he brought it up, it felt like yesterday. The same was true for all of the stories that friends and family recounted — their stories were the ideal expressions of sympathy because they didn't mourn his death, they reminded me of his life. They told me that, while I have an intensely personal image of my dad, it wasn't an image I had simply conjured — so much of what I saw in him was visible to everyone, and that was never more clear than when I heard these simple little stories of moments that had no particular significance yet lasted through decades of life. The moments may have been insignificant, but the characters were essential.

I reflect back on a life with my dad and realize that memory is like an iceberg - we might think we can recall a lot, but there are so many more memories resting comfortably in the recesses of our minds. I wonder how many more there are in there, but I don't wrack my brain trying to find them, because they rush out suddenly with the simplest provocation: when I think about where to get coffee and hear my dad advising, "keep your money local"; when someone notes with incredulity the amount of sugar I put in my coffee and I hear him chiding, "you don't drink coffee, you drink dessert"; when a photograph captures me channeling him through a particular expression or gesture. There is so much of him in me and my family, and while I would have groaned to hear that when I was 18, I celebrate it at 45.

I have a lifetime of memories filed away, yet I cherish the stories I hear from others. In the scrapbook in my brain, my mental snapshots are all taken from the same angle; these other stories give my father more dimensions and allow me to see things I might have missed from my vantage point. That's something Hallmark can't offer, and it reminds me that when I have to try to express the inexpressible when someone else suffers a loss, I'm not going to try to wordsmith the right thing to say — I'm just going to say, "I remember one time..."

©2011 wpreagan