When I was 34, a therapist told me, “Take care of yourself when you are 54. For men, when their fathers have died the way yours did, it can be especially hard to reach that age.” That age was when my father died. She expressed it with what I imagine was genuine concern, and maybe even a little data or training or experience to back her up. I didn’t realize until now, at 56, that what she said was, well, stupid, though I was smart enough at the time to stop seeing her shortly after she said this. It filled me with dread, off and on, for 20 years. It was only after I passed 54 that I realized what a weird and harmful thing she had said.
I realized it when I hit 54 and had one of the, if not happiest, one of the most content years of my life. This despite that it was a year that had its own, and profound, set of personal challenges. Yes, life is difficult. Yes, I have my own crosses to bear. Yes, I still carry this underlying dread that something will go very wrong at any moment. But I had my health. I had my family. I had work I enjoyed–and always enjoyed–very much. Though I wasn’t writing much, I was reading a great deal, and I was teaching. In fallow periods of writing, reading and teaching had always sustained me.
I had some pangs of guilt at times over how I was feeling (the Catholic in you truly never leaves completely). Was I simply happy because I had outlived my father? If so, there’s nothing admirable in that. My father deserved a longer and happier life, and I took no pleasure in what went wrong for him. Or perhaps it was something more–that I had lived so long and lived an imperfect but decent life when he–or his drinking–had wreaked so much damage. At times it felt like a small victory. He had died 33 years before. It takes a great deal of effort to live for 33 years determined to not be something that heredity might be dooming you to be.
I am 56 now, and on November 2nd, I stepped through that weird portal of the anniversary of his death, now 35 years in the past. And it was also another anniversary. I had been 21 when he died, but he had been almost completely out of my life since I was six. I am now 50 years without him, but a single day doesn’t pass without me thinking of my father.
I read a book some years ago, FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads. I didn’t like it, and it’s rare for me to not like a book. I think it’s partly because I choose what I read carefully, but it’s also because I inherently respect a writer’s effort. They have sat down to write something, thought carefully, and put pen to paper–or pixels to a screen. When I haven’t liked something, it’s usually because I wasn’t ready to read it, such as when I hated Rabbit, Run when I was 20 but it became central to me when I was 40. I have to think maybe there is another reason I didn’t like Fatherloss. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to read it, and perhaps I am now.
I do think the author is on to something, though, even if I reread the book and am disappointed again. The jacket copy for the book reads, in part, “FatherLoss is a nuanced look at one of the most common and least-studied events in men’s lives.” The “least-studied” part may well be true. A quick search of Google Scholar finds 101,000 results from the query “grief from losing a parent,” but 67,400 results from “grief for boys losing a father or parent.” Notably, many of the results from each query are about parents losing a child, often neonatals. I haven’t researched this much yet, but I have begun a literature search, and I really didn’t find much at all on target. The article, “My Father’s Ghost: A Story of Encounter and Transcendence” is the one that seems to address it head-on and it is personal and neither qualitative nor quantitative:
This autoethnography is about my personal search for my father, who was an early presence in my life, but who gradually became a palpable absence. In many ways, I have been searching for my father all my life, and somehow hoping to rekindle a relationship that I have experienced mostly as something I lost early. As my search progressed across a span of more than fifty years, I found my father in the one place I least expected. In this article, I begin to write my father in a new light, one that offers insights into his legacy for me, and for my sons. In the end, I hope to write our lives in a way that captures just a bit of the spirit of my spirited father.
So clearly, as the author notes, there is work to be done out there. And I have my own work. I haven’t written about my father much, and, as much as I can recall, never publicly. Thirty-five years is a long time. Fifty years is even longer. I think I am ready.