I was hell bent on getting that dog to stay in that box. I had spent all morning on trying to create a home for him so he could sleep in my room. He was having none of it hence why I’m holding him in the picture. As soon as my mother snapped the photo, he jumped out and ran away. What you don’t see in the picture is not only my mother with her Instamatic camera taking the picture, but my dad standing beside her as she did. After words, I would get dressed and play with something else. My dad would make his way outside to mow the lawn. A few hours later, my father and I both took naps – he in the living room on the couch and I in my bed. He never woke up.
It was July 19, 1980.
That picture can almost be seen as a metaphor for what happened later that day. Frozen for a moment was control, intentioned order that presented a picture of success. A moment later, the façade crumbles leaving an empty box and a confused child.
I’ve struggled with this day for forty years. What memories I have are few and sketchy. I was three. The two brief pictures I still see with my mind’s eye are the ambulance in our drive way from our neighbor’s sliding glass door, and the figure of my mother at the top of their stairs to their basement hours later when she came to take me home.
“Daddy is at the hospital.”
“When’s he coming home?”
“He’s not coming home.”
No child under five can really comprehend what that means, and it would take a strength that I can’t even fathom for my mom to attempt to explain to me, a three year old, what that really meant when she sat me down later that evening on our porch. My response was that of a child that young, “we’ll have to get another daddy.” It wasn’t that I was callous or was able to just get rid of my father, it’s just simple math for a kid. Something is missing so replace it. That simple.
Time, however, explains everything more clearly. In the last forty years each day has brought clarification to what happened. The sudden and complete destruction of my mom’s and my own world. We’ve been rebuilding ever since; that work will never be complete.
Human beings don’t truly understand the complete devastation death can provide until it hits quickly and suddenly. Empathy comes from experience most of the time, but the crush of sudden loss is a firsthand experience, and the doubt of the future comes full force to the present in ways that even poetry cannot fully explain. Four decades have taught me that.
Years after he passed, I found in his old writings a letter he had written called, “My Shadow.” In it, my father wrote to me attempting to pass wisdom, love, and experience through scribbles of pencil lead. Every so often I dig it out and read it. It’s the only conversation I still have with him where he is addressing me directly and I count myself lucky that I have it.
“Your small figure racing across the yard stirs every fond emotion I can feel. I feel a certain desperation in my desire to blanket you with protection against a world that is filled with uncertainty…It is, perhaps, a sad admission, but my personal hope for the future lies not in my own past contributions to the world but in you and my contributions to your heart and mind. Your abilities to handle a life, predestined to be more complicated and demanding than mine, depends, to a large extent, on how you have been prepared for it…Your tomorrow has arrived. The many yesterdays that have preceded today can only become meaningful if you exercise your abilities as you envision them to be…[B]e proud of not only of where you are going but also of where you have been.”
I have tried so often, failed a few times, succeeded a few others, to follow his creed to me. At this point in my life, I don’t really care if he would or would not be proud of who I have grown to be. My concern is if I can do what he had wanted to do for me. As a father myself, I judge not against him but myself using his simple template he left me in the letter. That is how he continues to live on.
Forty years ago, my dad took a nap. The consequences of that nap have been crushing, enlightening, expiring, and confusing. But it also made me who I am. That nap was the seminal moment of my life, and to ignore or forget it would be folly. To learn from it, from the moments afterwards, from the years of fear, sadness, and longing, is the key to survival and becoming the father he tried to be for me.
Forty years ago, my dad took a nap. He never woke up.
But I did.