I've Seen My Dad Cry Three Times
I've Seen My Dad Cry Three Times
In the world, a dad’s-eye-view is equitable, it’s wide in its breadth and, whether purposefully or not, it’s selective. It chooses how to frame the world for the eyes living beneath it, it helps create the categories they use to see. Existing on a plane some four feet below the view of my dad, my childhood world was always quite tidy. Even the things that didn’t fit–the weird family acquaintance who ordered anchovies on his pizza, the angry cab driver with a very large mole, the blanketed homeless man covering a bench I accidentally sat on–even the things that didn’t fit somehow played into the tidiness. Nothing could be confusing–because if it was, it was simply something we looked out at together–everything foreign adding to the feeling of autonomy in belonging to an in-group. As we moved through the world together, everything that happened to my dad happened to me, shaping and reshaping the lens I used to view life.
I’ve seen my dad cry three times. Those instances stand with an electric posture in my memory. Each is an echo of my first awakening, my first breaths in the land where things change. From time to time those memories have tumbled back upon themselves, freshened in my mind with the always potent reminder that rests in the intersection of solidity and fragility.
Near the feet in my body of memory is the end of my parents’ marriage. It came before my ability to organize reality had settled–before I had the solid piles in my mind to set things aside in–good, bad, neutral; exciting, terrifying, uncertain.
I only remember one scene from that time. We were leaving our house on Ninth Street, the one with the old Blue Spruce my dad would climb every winter, battling snow covered needly branches with a string of Christmas lights held in his teeth. I didn’t know what was happening, but I got in his car with our dog–the ruthlessly cheerful black lab that, looking back, must have been my first best friend. I learned about that too from my dad, for she was really his best friend.
We drove away and, after some miles, pulled into a parking lot. My dad turned off the engine and looked at me. He had a quiver in his lip. “We have to say goodbye to Jazzy.” The words hardly made it out of his mouth. He started crying. Crying in the way that doesn’t allow enough oxygen into the body so that explaining is not only pointless, but impossible. We were in the parking lot to give away my dad’s best friend, she was to be a casualty of the divorce. He was moving to the East Coast for a new job and, at the beginning of our new life, my mom couldn’t be a single working parent to two children and a dog.
Perhaps those tears were the first, or maybe even the only ones he shed for the divorce. I don’t know. I think it was maybe the moment where it became real to him, not as a solution to a problem but as the death of a reality. In the creation of that death inside my dad, one was congruently born in me. The death of control, the realization that ultimately, there is nothing solid to stand on, the ground is always shifting.
Near the gut in my body of memory is the day my dad eulogized his dad, the man that inspired many of the priorities and disdains that, having taken residence in his children, were similarly passed down to me. The charismas and flaws that sculpted my dad’s vision of parenting, the jokes and annoyances that played an equal part in defining his sense of well-being–all made obvious how important a man my grandfather was to my dad.
He died rather suddenly within a year of loosing his wife, my grandmother, to pancreatic cancer. He was a surgeon and lived a life dedicated to healing people. He oversaw the care of his love for the entire course of her illness, steadfast and tireless in his presence and energy until she passed in their bed, in his arms. After that loss, a part of my grandfather forgot what it meant to be alive, something inside of him racing to a finish line where she waited. The race ended, and we were left behind to asses its residue.
My dad, always skillful with words and wit, gave a wonderful speech to a standing-room-only church about the victories of the life my grandparents crafted together. He talked about a time when he broke his arm skiing, the three of them steeled into an empty patrol hut and used the meager supplies there to splint him well enough to make it down the mountain. He described how, in the moment, he just wanted a real doctor and a real hospital to take care of him. Only much later in adulthood did he realize what an amazing team they were, how they held each other up, how lucky he was to have had the most skillful and nourishing partners at his beck and call on that day.
His eulogy ended not with the tears that strangle oxygen, but with the ones that somehow perfectly accompany a good story. Seeing him up there, simultaneously naked in his grief and buoyant in his gratitude, propelled me into the grief and gratitude within myself I didn’t know I had until that moment. It was a heroic feeling, it was a shocking feeling; the permeability that rewrote both my idea of love and my expectation of death. There was so much beauty in the nakedness, so much rawness in the digestion of mortality.
In the heart of my body of memory is the day years later when, sitting in another row of pews, this time right next to my dad, we mourned the loss of his brother. My uncle was a champion of his community. Beneath the boisterous, groomed and celebrated public persona that, at the time of his death garnered a write-up in most newspapers within a hundred miles of Chicago, there was a troubled man. My dad’s brother was gay in a community where such things are still largely beyond tolerance much less celebration. He lived in a reality built on a scaffolding that could never hold his character. It drove him into an addiction that was, for him, a way to treat the inability to conform to the structure of the world.
He was an honest and caring man. He influenced everyone around him and his sense of drive, his sense of integrity and his sense of humor won him the professional life of his dreams. But beneath the surface of his personality were the coping mechanisms that, like they do for so many of us, end up being the very things that create the need to cope. It’s almost like he was mourned before he died, most the family knew the dangers of his situation, the doctors foretold a fate of certain demise should his patterns of abuse continue. And they did.
In the middle of a memorial service that proved both the value of his life and tragedy of its loss, next to me my dad began crying the tears that propagate outwards in all directions, filling the entire body. At the time, to me his sorrow felt like a regret in his inability to help his brother. It felt like only after his death was my dad able to fully relate to his life, to his gifts, to his difficulties. Where before he was a wayward family member, cast aside in only the non-obvious ways, now he was, in a freshened sense, his brother, the person who both roughed him up and taught him how to care for himself.
I wept as hard as my dad did that day, and I don’t think it was for my uncle. It was for whatever was happening inside my dad. It was like I saw a new category being re-birthed inside of him in that moment, the one of courageous empathy and understanding, of openheartedness and selflessness, the category that sometimes can only be created through the deepest of miseries and regrets. And as it was born in him, of course I felt it in myself, in the center of my chest.
Into adolescence and adulthood, my relationship with my dad has never been one of vulnerability. We’ve hardly talked about difficulty and I’m not sure if it’s because our miseries are too real for the world of tidiness we made together, or because our triumphs are simply easier to hold between the eye-contact that now lives at the same level from the ground. Whichever it is, it’s perfectly fine. I can still very much live in the things I gained when he had no choice but to bow to death. I do sometimes wish that we could inhabit those spaces more, the two of us together in our in-group of not knowing, holding each other in the destruction of neatness.
Suzuki Roshi once talked about life and death as being like a waterfall. We begin and end in a perfect river where countless drops of water flow together without any differentiation. Then for a brief time, we separate from the oneness, falling into individuation, looking around at each other as we learn how to feel on our own. He says, “Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life.” I’ve seen my dad cry three times–the tears that came from his eyes were the water that, for me, tied life and death together.