the floodgates open and his memory rushes over me.
I find it intriguing every time it occurs: Every time that a certain sound, smell or sight triggers a memory from the past. When some event, that I believed was safely tucked away and forgotten, resurfaces. Today, as I ponder the celestial expanse before me, a veritable floodgate of memories and emotions emerge for it was on a day such as this that we buried my father.
That event occurred ten years ago, under a similar steely winter sky adorned with soft billowy clouds. Clouds of this nature are normally reserved for the royal blue skies of summer and are seldom witnessed in the dead of winter. The stark contrast of their vivid brightness against the cold, slate gray backdrop seemed hauntingly appropriate. It enhanced the surrealistic quality of the day, serving as a visual representation of the dichotomy of the man we were burying. Seated at his graveside, I longed for a manuscript to guide me with the appropriate reactions: An outline to instruct me in the appropriate feelings. Intellectually, I knew how I should be feeling; grief, sadness, bereavement, anguish - any one or all of these would prove suitable. Instead, I felt frozen, detached and numb.
My father was a man whom I had both loved and feared. He was a man of extremes. Most often he trudged through life, heavy trodden, as though it were a great burden to bear. I sensed a grievous unhappiness in him, a melancholy that had burrowed its way deep into his very core. His dark eyes carried a sadness that was ever-present, even in the wake of other emotions. I wondered at its source, secretly harboring the notion that I was a contributing factor to his burden and, therefore, to his unhappiness. I assumed the role and responsibility of cheering this man, perhaps in a vain attempt to alleviate the chosen guilt that I carried within me. From my earliest recollections, I had an overwhelming desire to know all about him. I longed to know who he truly was; to know his thoughts and feelings, for in this knowledge lay the key to his - and subsequently my - happiness.
I was constantly "on" for my father, playing the mascot. I became his personal cheerleader. Upon his arrival home, I would inquire about his day; probing ceaselessly, ever hoping that he would open up to me. I longed to discover a chink in the protective wall he had carefully erected over the years. I would not accept the one word answers he so favored. If I proved successful in engaging him in conversation for any extended period of time, I became elated, basking in the feeling of triumph. The exchanges rarely proved revelatory but that really did not matter much at the time. His act of speaking with me was enough .
There were times that I was given glimpses of my father's personality, either directly through his own words or through my observing his interactions with others. It was he who told me that "you can always tell a person's worth by their shoes." As he polished and buffed his work boots, he further explained that "a man may be dressed in an expensive suit but if his shoes were worn or dirty, that was the more accurate measure of who he truly is. " To this day, I do not know what life message, if any, he intended to convey in that statement but I find myself too often surveying a person's shoes and erroneously drawing conclusions about them.
Financial security was extremely important to him. He often heralded the importance of having a savings account and health insurance, likely drawing from the experience of his wife, my mother, who suffered a crippling case of postpartum depression after giving birth to my sister within their first year of marriage. This took a devastating emotional and financial toll on their relationship and yet they remained committed to their vows until death stole my father. He not only spoke of financial security often, his actions echoed this sentiment profoundly. He was an excellent provider. Our family of seven never found ourselves in want of shelter, food or clothing. Meals were plentiful, hugs and conversation were not.
To indicate that he was a quiet man is not at all accurate. His was of a brooding nature: A classic example of the calm before the storm. He was not tall in stature, but his presence invoked an atmosphere of omnipotence. He truly held absolute power in our household with his occasional ravings ensuring that position. The outbursts, as a rule, were directed at my younger brother, Mike, the self-appointed scape goat of the family. All of us, however, were gravely affected by these explosions of rage.
We would watch horribly transfixed by the transformation in this man before us: His dark eyes no longer really seeing; his face twisted and contorted in anger. The veins in his neck pulsing as the heated blood coursed through his body similar to lava flowing from an erupting volcano. His venomous words would spew forth, cutting through the room, piercing our hearts and souls. His hands were either raised to strike or coiled around my brother's neck. I, along with my three other siblings and my mother, would stand bound, frozen in fear, breathless, powerless, waiting out the storm. In those moments, I detested my father.
Still in other calmer, more tranquil moments, I absolutely adored him. I recall the times that I would place myself strategically in the wings, watching intently as my father's left hand reverently cradled the neck of his acoustic guitar and his right gently coaxed melodies from its strings. I would strain to listen as he would softly sing. Alone, he would sit, quietly strumming and crooning. Never do I recall a time when he hoisted that instrument with the intent of entertaining anyone other than himself. From my secluded vantage point I would watch, slightly awed by his serene soulfulness. I would wonder at his thoughts in these moments but did not interrupt, preferring him to continue in his solitary serenade.
While a student of a parochial elementary school, I found myself extremely concerned about the fate of my father's soul. Although he rarely attended church on Sunday mornings with the rest of the family, he did observe the Lenten abstinence, the Easter Vigil and Christmas Mass. On those occasions, we always sat toward the back of the church, my dad occupying the aisle seat due to professed claustrophobia, fidgeting with his nail clippers. When I would express my concerns about his salvation, he would assure me that he was content in the knowledge that he had observed all of the required First Fridays and was, therefore, guaranteed the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation before death. I was not so certain.
Before his death, I witnessed a spiritual rebirth of such a great magnitude in him that it remains a powerful example in my life to date. He began attending not only church but also Bible studies and prayer groups. He began receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist on a daily basis, with members of the church bringing Jesus to his bedside once he no longer had the strength to stand. I witnessed his spirit temper, his exterior soften and I sensed a peace that was seldom present in him before and I am truly grateful that God in His Infinite Mercy allowed him to receive the Last Rites before his last breath.
I remember fondly the two times that I was the recipient of his utterance of "I love you. " The first occurred on my wedding day just before I took his arm for the traditional walk down the aisle. The second was after the birth of my first child and his first grandchild. His dark eyes were soft, gentle, sincere, void of the melancholy.
I cherish these memories.
Curiously, during his illness, an eighteen month ordeal battling lung and brain cancer, I found that I withdrew, ever distancing myself from him. I was fearful that he might choose to open up to me in his final days and, now that I faced losing him, I preferred that our relationship remain as it had always been. The emotional intimacy that I had been seeking from him for the last twenty eight years now appeared foreboding.
Today, as I behold this reminiscent sky, the floodgates open and his memory rushes over me. I ponder all that he was to me and I feel. I find that my eyes are moist with tears of loss and sadness. These tears are appropriate for I realize that, although I did not know him entirely, I knew this man well enough to love him.
Today, I miss my father.
This was written as a character narrative for my writing class in May 1996.
More importantly than the A+ that my instructor awarded me for this, I was given the gift of a deep emotional healing when I took it to my father's grave and read it out loud to him.