The Day He Died

Tomorrow marks the 36th anniversary of my father’s death. Most years it’ll occur to me at some random moment and I’ll calculate based on how old I was then (12) to how old I am on the given year.

It hit me a moment ago. A random glance at today’s date. And then a rush of emotion rising from my core and escaping my body through tears. I wondered why tears this year? Not that tears aren’t totally reasonable. It’s sad. He was 42. It was an agonizing, slow death. A disintegration. But I don’t usually cry.

This cry is selfish but also not. It hurts that he died such a painful death, but from my current vantage point, I can also see his longings, his insecurities, his talents, his heartbreaks so starkly. No longer through the lens of a child preoccupied with pleasing him and with my own self-protection (he was very tough).

A friend once told me, quoting Wayne Dyer, “don’t die with your music still in you.” I’m crying now, because I know that my father died with his music still in him. I’m crying because I’m terrified that I will do the same. And when I say terrified, I mean it causes genuine panic and sleepless nights. The worst part about this fear is the self-fulfilling prophecy of it. Stifling. It’s inexplicably enticing to hold on to this music. Is this a way bond with him? To relate? To not one up? To honor him? To say, in essence, it’s ok man, being your whole self is too hard. I get it. I get it!

Sometimes I’ve fantasized about dying young enough to validate never fully showing up. I mean, everyone could say, if only she’d had more time. My father was searching, struggling, hitting and missing. He was extremely smart, and by others’ accounts sensitive and funny and full of ideas.

I feel connected to my father in melancholy. He had a darkness about him that I inherently understand. He wasn’t glib. He was deep.

My father lost his children. He lost us in divorce. He lost us with his inability to allow us to be innocent and vulnerable. He lost us with his cruelty and expectations that we meet his brazenness with equal force. Meaning, he wasn’t one of those “shut up and be quiet” dads, he wanted children he could match wits with. He wanted nothing hidden. No inner or outer privacy. Try as I did, I could never feel safe enough to be myself with him, to be vulnerable, to be a child. I was just throwing darts at a moving target.

Which is sort of where I landed as an adult, in many ways. Trying to hit a mark, instead of showing up completely. Trying to fill in the notes to someone else’s songs vs making my own music.

In the most crucial ways, I am not like my father. I didn’t lose my children. I didn’t do to them what was done to me. And that has been more important to me than anything. And I know they have the confidence to show up and to make their own “music” and to make the most of their lives.

That’s an important distinction. Maybe the most important. Maybe one that enables me to unravel this perverse enmeshment with my father’s pain and terminal frustration with being human.

Watching my father struggle in life, then disintegrate and die, was humbling. And the way death came for him – like a compassionate savior – framed living as a much more brutal path. And I’m only really reckoning now with how much fear and restraint that engendered. How much I’ve sought to just muscle through. How every big step out has been followed by an even bigger leap back into retreat. The safety of being unseen, of keeping the music in me until I die.

But, I have time that my father didn’t have. Maybe I honor my father most by breaking the cycle and transcending generational despair.

I’m not going to define here what “music” means in terms of my own personal output. I can’t totally define it. I just know it hasn’t happened yet and we’ll all know when it does.

Tomorrow marks the day my father died. In his honor, I pray that none of us die with our music still in us.

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