It has been a year now since we buried my father under the quiet skies of a small town in North Carolina. His gravesite is not far from a pond -- and with good reason. An avid sailor, my father was more comfortable with water than land and, had he been able to contemplate cremation, surely would have had his ashes tossed into lake or sea.
The lessons of mortality are never more urgently pressed upon us than when a close family member or friend passes away. Lest I tempt myself into believing I was alone in this experience, the same reality reared its head and struck friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. And my father lived a long, full life. What of parents who bury children stricken down by accident or disease? How do they stand up to those icy winds?
Ben Jonson's lament to his young son is almost too much too read: "Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy; My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy." Mark Twain, upon the loss of his daughter Susy, asked how it was that a human being could receive such news without simply perishing on the spot. Teddy Roosevelt, when he lost his first wife, simply shut down and never spoke of her again.
Loss is one of a handful of truly profound experiences in life, and each of us confront it in our own way. A few months after my father died, I almost lost a family cat that my father had taken a shine to. In trying to save him, all the old wounds of losing my father opened up again. If I could not save my father, I sure as heck would save that cat.
In the midst of loss, life has a foggy, surreal texture. The first round of holidays are notable for absence, not togetherness. The urge to pick up the phone and call my father was at times so strong that I almost believed I could will him back to life. I sought out surrogates (wife, friends, siblings) who no doubt understood but perhaps sensed my desperation. My father showed up regularly in dreams, welcomed visitations that softened, somehow, the finality of it all.
The issues of our workday world seem meager indeed in comparison. More than once I have wondered why I did not settle down near my father, so that I might have enjoyed his company more. Youth is filled with dreams and ambition, but as I enter middle age, I wonder if their price can be too high. I have never known a parent, not many anyway, who valued their children's success more than they did their company. We spend so much of life getting worked up about our egos or careers, but in the end, it is the simple and selfless things that matter most.
More than a decade ago, my father took me to a train station in Vermont, where I was to catch the Amtrak heading south to D.C. He parked, carried my luggage inside, and sat with me. It was soon apparent the train was running late. "Dad," I remember saying, "you don't have to wait. I'm fine." I was even a tad annoyed, my independence threatened by what, at the time, seemed like an oppressive love. He waited anyway. You see, he had lost his parents and understood the value of every moment. Now, when I recall that day, one thought occurs to me: I would give up a life's treasure just to sit in that train station with my father again.
We learn to live with loss because, after all, there is no option. As we grow older, the losses come at us with increasing rapidity. What begins as a collection of individuals seeking his or her own path is soon a community of survivors, clinging to and supporting each other.
The Sermon on the Mount reminds us that it is not only okay to mourn but that those who do so are specially blessed. In reaffirming the value of each life, we are resisting those who, through their violence or cynicism, devalue all life. Sincere grief is the refusal of love to surrender to time.
By the way, the cat lived and is now the favorite of my baby girl, whom my father never got to meet.
George Shadroui is a Memphis writer.