I went to a memorial service yesterday. My uncle died in December after suffering from Alzheimer’s for years, but the six month gap between the event and the service allowed us to spend more time remembering his brilliant, charismatic, and wonderful life rather than lamenting the disease that took him from us far too soon.
During the service, the minister said something that stuck with me. “Let us be honest with death,” she said: “it is sorrow, but it is not annihilation.”
My father died on a cold Monday night in December of 1996, and I have never once considered being honest with death. I’ve thought plenty of other things: I’ve been resentful of death; I’ve cursed death; I’ve said impolite things about death’s mother. In my more generous moods I have been indifferent towards death, but mostly—despite the obvious impossibility of such an idea, considering the enormous impact my father’s death has had on my life—I have just tried to ignore death. That’s always difficult to do on Father’s Day, but it’s especially difficult this year.
It strikes me that honesty is a more mature, more grown-up, more politic way to go, so today I would like to try to be honest with death.
First, death is an asshole. My father missed out on so many things in his kids' lives—attending our high school and college graduations, tailgating with me before Bills’ games, walking my sister down the aisle when she gets married this fall—and he missed out on so many things in his own life—sailing, endlessly remodeling our house, retirement.
I’m also terrified of death. Nothing about death seems pleasant. I’m not scared of being dead; non-being doesn’t strike me as any more awful than pre-being. It’s the transition to non-being that’s intimidating. But it’s more than that: I’m so terrified of death that I’m not sure if I’ll have a family. What happens if I too die young? Could I take the risk of putting my family through that?
To say that death is sorrow is like saying that a hurricane is a rainstorm. It’s kind of an understatement.
And I’m never completely sure that death isn’t annihilation. I remember less and less of my father every year. I depend more and more on pictures and home movies. As Paul Auster says, remembered things have a tendency to subvert the things remembered.
But if I’m being honest, I have to say that death has made me appreciate the people in my life in a completely different way than I could have before.
Death also makes me appreciate the type of person my father was when he was still alive. He was funny, generous, loyal, handy, and supportive. He loved his family as much as any man ever has, and he asked for nothing in return. He had a dry sense of humor and an infectious belly laugh. He had an admirable amount of common sense. He was relatively unathletic and had little musical ability of his own, but he was an accomplished chauffeur to music lessons and sporting events, a master of videotaping band concerts, and a pithy motivational speaker. (Here’s an example of the last: when he learned that my sister sang songs in her head while she was swimming, he told her to sing a faster song.)
If I’m being completely honest with death, I have to say I’m glad death waited as long as he did. I learned a lot from my father in the thirteen years I knew him. I learned what it means to be a responsible human being, I learned to think before I speak, and I learned that shit happens.
There’s something, finally, that death can’t touch: my father still makes me want to be a better person. And I'll always love him for that.