A million ancient bees
Began to sting our knees
While we were on our knees
Praying that disease
Would leave the ones we love
And never come again
– Regina Spektor, “On the Radio”
I lay my head on my father’s side, his threadbare, white t-shirt just as it was over forty years ago. He with that warm, rich, Dad smell. Suddenly, I let loose with a flood of tears, sobbing, previously dammed by the concrete of pride, a desire to protect him from the pain, already inflicted, of knowing the boy he had raised now had brain cancer, and the unspoken agony of physical distance. I had held back for too long.
At a time when we are most vulnerable, we seek the love and comfort of those closest to us. No one party has a monopoly on who this will be. Each relationship has its own particulars. A partner, a spouse, a friend, a relative a colleague. But because two of the primary triggers for heartache of the deepest, most primal kind is when I think of my daughters and when I think of my parents, it is rare that any of us can “go there.” Barb has more than a few times held my crumpled body as I let my guard down. I, a babbling, incoherent mess of fear, exhaustion, and gripping despair. Thankfully, the clouds fade away, the skies clear again, the sun appears and I carry on as I must. I am not one to wallow but I know having a good cry is simply a healthy thing to do, it’s a purifier of sorts, a tonic, a purgative, flushing the toxins of stress out of every pore. But it leaves me completely wiped out.
When I think about this illness, I think about my daughters: my beautiful, smart, sweet, strong Hannah and Elizabeth and my parents, those who brought me into this strange universe, to whose lives I owe mine and are a part of me. In me. Of me. The strong and the weak, the good and the bad. They are more than blood. They are connected souls though the genetic matter which bonds and binds us.
You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. ~C.S. Lewis
I often wonder, does Obama, with his brilliant, calm, grace under pressure manner, ever fall apart? Of course he does. More to the point, has he recently been so doubled over with fear, drowning in his own tears of paralytic agony that his knees crumble as he cries out for the touch of Michelle’s soft, warm hand caressing the top of his head? Can anyone really be so strong knowing that they hold so much power and that the decisions they make every day have an impact on so many?
We push it back, the fear and terror. The tears. We simply must…carry…on. My mother has apologetically shared that she is unable to go “there” and that she has not yet had the courage nor strength to go near my writing. When I speak with her or spend time with her, it’s all she can do to muster a mention of “it” as it is simply impossible for her. At first I did not understand. Why would Mom, a writer herself, not want to see my work? But it soon became clear. How could she? Why would she want to? She already knows and yet none of us can know how deep the depths of darkness are, lest we go there and find no way out. While we dance around the perimeter, we are careful not to fall into the emotional sinkhole only to have the dirt and debris falling in with us, burying us alive. We just can’t go there. There is too much to celebrate, too much good music to hear, foods to eat, places to see…and then there is life itself.
The tears, which broke with surprising swiftness and were completely unexpected, fell into his shirt as he held my head. My “keppelah” as he used to call it. Flashbacks of him standing in my doorway in the morning, beaming, shouting “Up and Atom, Atom Ant!” Of helping me ride my two-wheeled bike for the first time. The games of catch. The fishing. The Phillies, Sixers and Flyers games. The league softball games he would play at Haverford, mom dutifully packing a picnic lunch as my sister and I lay on the blanket. But most of all it was his warmth. His love of my sister and me. Like his own father, a clothing merchant and teacher, my father seems to derive much of his joy from a love of children.
What does it mean to be a good dad? No amount of riches, no level of poverty can trump love. Love must be unconditional. Period. One year when Dad drove the five hours from Philadelphia to Upstate New York to pick me up from Hamilton College, U-Haul in tow, a close male friend shared with me a story I have never forgotten. He was looking out the window of his dorm room when my father pulled up. He watched as he got out of the car and I ran to greet him with a warm embrace. He said tears filled his eyes because, while he knew his dad loved him, he had never experienced such a loving, physical display of love with his own father. When he went home, he told his dad they were going out for a beer that very night. At the bar, he did did something he had never done: he told his father he loved him. His father, stoic, of a generation and culture not prone to showing emotion of any kind, returned his expression of affection with an “I love you too.” The earth moved that day. A new chapter was born. The dam had burst. The ice had been shattered.
While there is no monopoly on suffering, there can be no loss more devastating than that of a child. Disease, war, violence, and accidents claim untold young lives every minute of every day. I was going to add natural causes but how can that be so? There is nothing natural about a child dying. And yet they do and always will. They say no one should outlive their children. But sometimes people do.
This is all very hard to write about. So I will end with a variation on “if you love somebody, set them free.” This is for all men: sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, fathers, grandfathers, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, who, by way of history, culture, religion, homophobia, fear, insecurity, politics or whatever virus it is that has infected your heart and has rendered you emotionally challenged, unable to express feelings of affection:
“If you love somebody…tell them!”
Thanks Poppa. For believing in me. For going the distance. And most of all, for telling me you love me. I love you.
Cat Stevens: “Father and Son”