It’s Been Two Months
A grief document
It’s been two months since Dad died. Some part of me wanted to withhold processing this directly with you. I wanted to ‘save it for the book.’ But I can see that’s not really working well, and I need to talk about it plainly.
I made a mix called “la vita continua” that I’ve been listening to a lot. Sometime, maybe yesterday, it occurred to me that I never finished my second mix for Dad. He really liked the first one, so let me back up and tell you about that one.
In and around 2007, Dad had recently lost both his parents, his job, and had moved to a new place. I wanted to support him somehow, and the thing that came to mind was to make him a mix. Now, I guess I could have made one that had all his favorite songs on it, but he already had a bunch of those. In fact, that’s how I got started making mixes, was listening to his as a kid. I don’t think he knew that, that I ever thought to tell him. But he was aware at one time, at least, because he helped me with my first one—not the song selection, but he wrote the titles and artists on the card insert. I still have it, I think, though it may have been lost in the last basement flood. And by the way—his handwriting, I’m finding, is one of the most valuable things to me right now. He wrote notes a good bit, and he put his name or initials on tools and other items that might get comingled or lost. There’s something very comforting to me about seeing his writing on things.
But as for the mix I made him, it was a collection of songs that I liked that I thought maybe he might like too. Some of them were a stretch, and I knew that. I guess I wanted to stretch him a little, as I had done with movies. (Watching movies was, by the by, one of the only ways we could ‘spend time’ with each other. But I’ll write something about that in greater detail some other time.) These songs ranged from old favorites of mine to some that were new to me at the time, but ones that I thought he might enjoy the tune to. He was a lifelong singer and performer, and he liked singable songs with clear vocals. So I made sure to put a couple of those on there. I also put a cover of one of his signature songs. And then I wrote liner notes for each track, explaining why I had selected it and what it meant to me.
When I gave it to him, he read it, and smiled. He thanked me. There were a few times he had it on in the background, and I think I recall seeing it on his nightstand for awhile.
Time went by.
He almost died the first time in 2016. That’s in the books, too, but don’t worry about that right now. It was E. coli from bagged lettuce. He went into septic shock, followed by multiple organ dysfunction syndrome. The doctor told me and Mom, “Let me be clear: He’s very sick. He might not live through the night.” So that’s one way we know he almost died. And we saw him there hooked up to all the machines, keeping him alive. That’s another.
The third was Dad’s report, once he did not die, and ‘came back’ to this life.
I am an atheist, meaning I do not believe in a creator deity, or frankly any deity. I do not particularly believe in other ‘supernatural’ entities or phenomena, either. Having said that, there is so much to this life and experiences of reality that we do not understand; this leaves a lot of gray areas and unanswered questions. We don’t really have time to figure all that out, so we can either just shrug (which I am not above doing), or we can look around for the best explanations available.
For me, those come from Buddhism, though even the Buddha was simply a person, albeit an uncontestably wise one, and so I’m sure there was a lot he was wrong about or simply couldn’t figure out.
Anyway, there is something more than ordinary consciousness. This is as obvious to me as consciousness itself, which is to say patently, though also mysterious in its nature and origin.
You may be confused now or perhaps are comparing and contrasting beliefs. All that is fine. Here’s all I mean: I think he ‘left’ his body, and so did he, meaning, he thought that, too.
Now, what he described as experience sounds like a morphine induced delirium, and so I’m fairly sure that’s what it was—or the parts he recalled, anyway. But I had my own experiences during that time, and I had my own again once he actually did die. And I am certain there is more happening than I can explain to you. And that’s okay. I like to feel secure in reason and explanations and all that, but there is a limit that beyond reason that can’t really be secured completely in this life. I’m sure of that, too.
So that’s the third way we know he almost died—or perhaps in some sense, did die in 2016. He certainly saw it as a near-death experience and referred to it as such. My mother didn’t like that, for whatever reason. But that’s how he saw it. And he and I both saw that he had more time, but for how long no one knew.
We know now. It was seven years, very nearly to the day.
Seven is an interesting number, but I’ll set that aside.
Another fact: he died on the same day of the same month as his mother, which I think he would have rather liked.
In that same time as his NDE and recovery, I had another kid. Dad would be my son’s first best friend. They were very close and had a lot of great times together. I’m extremely grateful for that. He had some nice times with my oldest, too, but they started to butt heads as things got worse for Dad cognitively. Still, I’m glad my kids got to know him long and well enough to have memories of him. The oldest got to with my wife’s dad, but the youngest didn’t, and he gets very sad about not being able to remember him.
Twenty-sixteen and its bastard sibling twenty-seventeen brought on some of the worst years I’ve had in my personal life and some of the more horrific we’ve seen in this country (in my lifetime, I mean). It was not a good time between me and Dad, either. He was the only Republican in our immediately family, a fact which had never been comfortable for anyone, but worsened considerably during those years, with him becoming a MAGA supporter and me becoming completely leftist (you know, in the US sense of left).
I was also transitioning during this time. He was never mean to me about it. In fact, there were many things he’d done over the years that were kind to that part of me. He had been cruel to me about it when I was young only on a couple of occasions: when I wanted to get my ears pierced in sixth grade; and, briefly around me growing my hair out then. But, fairly soon after, he said that he’d always wanted hair like mine, and that made me feel good. I’ve probably told the story somewhere, probably more than once, about him defending me to the old church guy. That guy was super nice to me thereafter, too, incidentally. But still … I didn’t want to come out to Dad, so I never did. And now I never can. Which is all right. It is a kind of grief, but it’s also a kind of relief. From talking with Mom, I think he knew I was trans. I think he knew but didn’t understand. She told me he “didn’t really get it,” so that’s one way we know.
Another way we know is this time we were riding together across Western Virginia. He asked me how Chaz Bono “could become a man.” He asked in a very innocent, almost childlike way. It’s important you get that. It wasn’t transphobic or mean at all. He was genuinely curious, but a little nervous, too, I think—perhaps that I might think he’s dumb, or maybe that he wouldn’t be able to understand it. So I kind of went into health educator mode (something all transfolks ultimately become very good at, but I already had some formal training in) and explained how hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries work. He’d said something like, “Oh,” and that was it. He didn’t seem off-put. Just still kind of confused.
But it’s just like I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with my grandparents’ incessant cigarette smoking around my kids. I’m sad they didn’t get to know each other, but it was a big relief not to have to navigate all that. Same kind of thing here. It would have been nice to let Dad into that part of my life, but I don’t think he would have understood, and so I’m relieved we didn’t have to figure that out.
Remember the mix I made him? Well sometime in those shit years, he came over and told me that he had been listening to it a lot and reading the notes I made, and it occurred to him that perhaps the mix was more than a simple gift—that it was a gesture. That I’d been reaching out to him. This made me smile because that was very obvious to me, and I would think probably anyone, but I was glad that he’d finally gotten there.
So he said then that he wanted to memorize all the songs and sing each one to me as his way of connecting with me.
I don’t know that we made it past the first couple songs, but the one I do recall him singing to me was “Angel Standing By.” That was one of those singable songs that I was pretty sure he would like.
I don’t have a recording of him singing it, of course, so here is the original by Jewel, which you can imagine being sung in a tenor voice by a guy in his late 60s from South Carolina:
And then there is this one, my favorite Peter Gabriel song, precisely because of this mix and my dad:
We’ll stop here today. Thank you for reading and for sharing in this life together.