My regular job has kept me busy of late and so I had been only intellectually aware of the impending first anniversary of my father’s death, yesterday. I wasn’t planning to write about this. It finally caught up with me thanks to the pause afforded and inflicted by a cold that opened the way for a bit of flu.
Be grateful for the times of sickness and weakness that buy you the time to ponder what needs pondering and to feel what needs feeling. When we’re strong, we need to use that strength in activity for the benefit of others and ourselves.
You can’t take a “sad day” and then be spotted looking healthy in a park or museum because it heals you. However, you can always call off sick, if you can call off sick and let your duties go for a day or two.
On the morning of Thanksgiving 2013, 11/28, I was at my parents’ house due to an intricate combination of variables.
I heard my father crash to the floor at 9:00 AM. My mother and I did CPR until EMS arrived, about 8 minutes later, and they worked on him until the emergency room doctor pronounced him dead by phone around 9:30 AM.
At least, that’s how I recall it. I watched all of it. I trusted the medics – that wasn’t the issue. I felt like I had to protect my father in those last minutes in some unknowable place between life and death. I had to guard his honor.
By watching, I also kept my mother from watching. No reason for her to see her husband of 45 years die.
In the days that followed, I listened to my father’s colleagues, previous and current, and his friends and his siblings. I learned about him, things that I never would have guessed.
I’m sure of my image of Matthew Michael Hickey but I saw a Venn diagram of the images that he made in the course of his life. I’m sure that they are all correct, even in the places where they diverge or contradict each other.
We all act differently in the different roles and realms that we occupy. If I claim to know you, it’s probably more accurate to say that I know you in a certain circumstance.
I’m not sure if there is a way around that. I’m not sure that it’s even a good idea to seek one.
We modify our behavior according to circumstances. A psychologist, like me, would say that this variability is essential to an effective and healthy personality.
A year later, though, I find myself wishing that I could have seen some of what others saw firsthand. I’m not complaining about what I knew but about how small and limited a sketch of his life that I saw
Like many men, I wish that I had known my father better. The relationship between a man and his father is a complicated one.
I’ve heard a lot about living as though you must die soon, and concluded that it’s total crap. If I were sure to die in a week then I would draw up a will, sell off or donate some esoteric stuff that would be hard to manage, brew a batch of beer for my wake, visit some old friends, make my arrangements, and pick my spot.
I can’t live that way for the next week, though. It would be hard to do while keeping my day job and a problem when I remained alive a week later. Again, there’s probably some truth in this cliché but, as commonly repeated, it seems impractical at best and a life driven by fear at worst.
Fear is slow death. I learned that well over a year ago.
Besides, “this day could be your last” is not really about seizing the day. Carpe diem could mean working hard on study or a job that will mean a better life for yourself and those around you in 5 or 10 year, one diem at a time.
So I believe in continuing to learn and grow, semper discendo.
A year ago, a few hours after my father died, I drove to my apartment to gather what I would need so that I could stay at my mother’s house for a few days. There’s a route that I usually take, that I have driven thousands of times. I took a different route on that day. It wasn’t a big deal but until this week, I didn’t realize that I had changed routes so that I wouldn’t have to think about what happened every time that I drove to West Chester.
We have our reasons and they serve us. It’s good to know what they are, though we owe no one else an explanation.
The relationship between a man and his father is a complicated one. There’s also a core principle in education and in human services, that every support also constrains. Give a man a fish, and you’ve decided what he’s having for dinner. Teach a man how to fish, and the deer will have a party in the yard.
My father did a lot for me, and I accepted his gifts and care and support, and I remain grateful. When he died, I felt sad, sure, but also scared. Some of it was “What if I fail?” but more of it was “What if I succeed?”
I’m skeptical of the ex post facto prophecy, when we claim to see God’s providence in a difficult event because it is later connected to some good or redeeming event. That’s not faith, which smiles amid the tears and says, “God is here now and will be here.” Faith stares into the darkness and expects light.
A year ago, I didn’t understand why my father died, and I still don’t, apart from the universal biological inevitability, but I was grateful that he died at 9:30 AM and not at 1:30 PM, when he would have been driving at highway speed toward Cape May. Both of my parents and anyone nearby would have died in the wreck that followed.
My questions now are different from the ones that I had a year ago. I’m grateful for being spared worse, grateful for a year of learning, grateful for another year of my own life, grateful for my father’s life.