Like any of you, I know a lot of people who have lost one or both parents, or who have lost a long-time spouse or partner. Over the years, it has oft times been my task as a friend to hold a hand, listen, and maybe try to find something worth saying to a grieving friend. That last part is the tough one. It’s usually pointless to say anything at all, but it is occasionally necessary to vocalize something, anything, to remind us that we are still engaged in the process of living, along with the partner processes of mourning, missing, loving, and caring. It doesn’t need to be anything profound. Maybe all you can muster at a given moment is “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m here for you.” It’s okay. In the moment, those words can mean more than you might imagine.
But just as all deaths are not the same, all mourning is not the same. Mourning the loss of your father is your own personal sculpture. You may fashion it as literal or as figurative. You may mourn quickly or slowly, outwardly or inwardly, with great sadness… or with little sadness at all.
In my own case, sadness isn’t quite the right word. I would describe it more as a silent earthquake followed by a long series of aftershocks. Those aftershocks continue to this day. Example: If you scroll down several posts in this journal, you can read about my recent trip to the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Illinois. There are moments when I want nothing more than to call my dad and drive him over there. He’d enjoy the heck out of it, and with his considerable knowledge of technological history, he’d have his own unique set of insights with which to illuminate our tour.
But approximately a tenth of a second later, I remember that he’s gone, that any chance I might have ever had to take him there – or anywhere else – is irretrievably gone, caught on the wrong rotation in the cycle of birth, aging, and death.
Then we come to verb conjugation. Now, as never before, I must often say that “My dad was…” That can be a hard one to remember. Still, it brings up another curious property of how I think about my dad’s life.
When he was alive and I would think of him, I always pictured him as he looked at that time. That is, when I was a teenager and dad was in his 40s, I pictured him as he looked in his 40s. In recent years, as time and health caused his face to sag, along with other physical changes, that was how I pictured him.
But since his death, something unexpected has occurred. Now that we are here in July of 2012, outside the term of his life span, it’s as if all of his 80 years have collapsed into a single identity. Now, when I picture him, I am as likely to picture him as a man in his 20s, 40s, or 70s. Maybe it’s because there is no more present for him as a physical entity, so any moment of his life is as real as any other moment of his life. As a friend once said to me, life is a collection of moments. Ralph Greenia’s set of moments is complete.
I’m not aware that my dad ever said this in so many words, but I think he very much wanted to leave his stamp on the world, to feel as if his life had mattered to the world. His way of expressing that need was to make things that would long outlive him. All sorts of things – tables, lamps, church fixtures, chairs, toys, and babies. And anything else that came along. Speaking as someone who started out as one of those babies, I think he did fine work. His gifts to this world will clearly outlive me as well.
As a non-religious person, I’m pretty dubious about assertions that eternal judgment will be made upon our souls. But who knows? I don’t possess the hubris to claim certain knowledge of such things. Still, if my dad is subjected to any such eternally binding judgment, I can’t see much cause for concern. He actually did leave this world better than he found it. His generosity and wisdom benefitted more lives than any one person can ever know. When my own time on earth is done, I’ll gladly file a deposition on his behalf if called upon.
It’s probable that I will continue to file periodic essays on my father. His impact on my life cannot be overstated. When I see some of the lousy (or nonexistent) fathering in the world, I feel like one distinctly lucky S.O.B. to have had the father I did.