A Remembrance

Arthur Charles Willwerth, my father

Today is Father’s Day in many countries, including of course the United States (although not in Australia, where Father’s Day is in early September – your bit of trivia for the day). My father died many years ago, suddenly, when I was eleven. It shattered my world, and the reverberations from that break I still feel to this day. Some of those singing breaking crystal sounds have helped me mess up my love life, some have made me, perhaps, just a bit more empathetic  than I otherwise might have been, but it’s hard to find an upside to the death of a beloved parent.  People have tried, in that backwards, not really complimentary way they have: Well, look at it this way, he would have been very angry about your choices as a teenager.  Gee, thanks for that, Mom. (I loved my mother in a more complicated way than I loved my father, which is the way of daughters, I guess, and you may notice that I have not written a Mother’s Day entry into this series of blogs and probably won’t.) And others have said it must be easier to grow up with a dead father than a divorced one leaving you alone, which absolutely infuriates me, as if because he couldn’t help it, his absence in my life becomes more okay than if it was a choice. I would far rather have a divorced dad somewhere in the world, even if only occasionally in my life.  It is never easier to have someone you love dead.

My daddy left us, his truly beloved family, via a heart attack nobody expected, while we were in Wisconsin where Daddy planned to get his Ph.D. in education at Madison. We didn’t have a home, our furniture was in storage, we were taking a long car trip across the country, which we did several summers in a row, we were staying with old friends who certainly got something quite different than they expected, including the absence of the linchpin of the family, ambulances and doctors in the night, a furious and grieving woman (my mother never forgave either God or daddy, let alone the United States government, for daddy’s death), a howling cocker spaniel whose world was left in pieces, and a bewildered, numb and increasingly sullen daughter nobody knew how to handle. That last person would be me, and the happy, eager, secure girl I had been before that night never quite came back. I’m not saying that to garner sympathy votes; it’s merely the banal truth.  And it happens to far too many people.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t feel the hollow place inside where a loved person used to be? In a poem written in remembrance of his father, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote of the place somewhere behind the breastbone that feels both weighted down and weightless. For those who’d like to read that poem and I can recommend doing that, here’s the URL: http://brightweavings.com/journal/2016/06/19/fathers-day/. That day in June in the midst of a Wisconsin heat wave, that day was the first time I felt that heavy hollow place. It has never quite left me. Sandra Bullock once said, in answer to a question about how she went on after the death of her beloved mother, that you open a new room in your heart. And you do. I did. And do. But the lonely, empty room, where the fire has gone out, and the windows have been closed, and it’s cold and bare and still somehow filled, stays in my heart. I go there only sometimes, when the world is too much with me, or not enough with me, and sometimes I dust off the memories. Sometimes I just stay for a while and feel the pain and the heaviness and the lightness again.  There is a nostalgia there, and a distance. It is a room that has echoes rather than life, a reverberation of what used to be. Nothing in that room in my heart is new, or present, or here, but me. There is a distance, rather like having a head cold, where sounds feel muffled. And a chill as if after a snowstorm. And how I long to kindle the fire on the hearth in that room, the warmth and living joy that was my father. But I can’t. I can only remember the fires of long ago. It was a long time ago that he died. And yet, if I go into that room in my heart, I am as bewildered, as numb, as un-understanding of what happened, as sullen, as deep down enraged, as ever I was. As if it was this morning I woke up to him being gone.

I learned to love again, but it is sometimes a limping, scrabbled thing, as if I’m learning to reach for things with my left hand because my right arm has been broken and can no longer be used. I think I am afraid of it, love, though I try to be brave because love is after all the best of what human beings are capable of and love is, I believe, what we humans have incarnated to practice, in all its glory and misery.  I am afraid of it because that hollow, numb, angry, weightless, weighty, sullen room awaits, like a Bluebeard’s Cave, as the possible, and I’m so afraid probable, end point of any love I may try to have.

This was to be a paean to the wonderful man that my father was, not the empty room he left behind in more hearts than mine, but especially in mine. This was going to list the stories he used to tell, each time in the telling growing and changing and getting funnier, and, because he was wise, more thoughtful and important. It was going to be a jolly remembrance of a man who, like Will Rogers, never met a stranger, a man far ahead of his time in the ways he thought about how people did live and the possibilities they had to live in better, more inclusive ways. It was going to remember Christmases and birthdays, and everyday days when he’d turn off the main highway and get us lost somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. It was going to be about finishing dinner and deciding he couldn’t get through the night without a root beer float and piling us all in the car, including the dog, and going to A&W. It was about the man who loved movies, and parties, and playing cards, and being home and having company and talking with his daughter about life and art and human thought.

He was a man who could never leave a good story alone, always tinkering with words and meanings and giving what began as an anecdote an eventual point that made even the slightest moment meaningful as a lesson in living. He lived as some who have come very close to dying live, hugely and with happy greed, drinking it all in, the sights, sounds and joys of life. What he loved, he loved greatly: good food, coffee, cigarettes, dogs, parties, teaching, directing plays, arguing politics and religion, traveling, exploring his world and the ideas of people in it, reading, writing, and the great love of his life, my mother, his wife, and his daughter, his princess, the girl child he had never expected, the small human being he delighted to watch grow. He was immensely proud of me, and his hopes for me were as large as his life. It was for my mother to be the realist, to set all those limits of being a lady, a good girl, to live in the small world she inhabited.  Daddy believed, no, he KNEW, my life was as limitless as his, more so because I was loved and cherished (and I was) and his life had been empty of love until he met my mother. His death didn’t kill those realities for me, but it made some of them dreams unlikely to be fulfilled.

And it makes me rage, still, because he was far from done. He was going to back to school, to get his Ph.D., because he was, fully and deeply, a teacher and he wanted to know, with that hunger for knowledge he imparted to me, as much about how to teach as he possibly could. His love of life, his ability to create out of the poor clay he was handed such a beautiful sculpture, his achievements as a scholar, teacher, human being, husband, lover, father, friend came from him and his open-hearted joy in life, and as a conscious repudiation of a very hard, even bad, childhood. Besides which, he wanted to grab even more life than he already had. He wanted to see every place there was to see, taste every food, drink every drink (except those with alcohol, he simply didn’t like the taste of it), experience everything.

And now I come to think of it, he missed something he deeply wanted to see and take part in: my blossoming as a human being, even through the exasperation my teen years would have been to him. He may have wanted to dance at my wedding, but I believe he was more interested in watching me learn, in feeling the pride that would come when I graduated from college, when I chose a life’s work, when I succeeded at that life’s work, when I made an independent life. He never got that chance, and because of his death, parts of me were clipped, I think, hobbled in some way I can’t quite understand. I know that my heart hurts when I hear about swan’s wings being clipped so they can’t fly, or parrots being kept in cages. Keeping any creature from doing what that creature is made to do, which gives that creature joy, feels more cruel than killing. I’m thinking, right now, oddly, of a video I saw on Facebook last night, of Secretariat, in his happy retirement from racing, galloping around his large pasture, a picture of glossy health and utter joy in the running he was born to do, that was bred into him. Running, galloping, as fast as he could, because it was sheer joy.

My father couldn’t have trotted without gasping for breath, but in his grabbing for all of life with both hands, for his eagerness to meet and talk to people, find out what made them tick, his joy in his family and his accomplishments, and in simply living life, Daddy was Secretariat. That he didn’t get to keep joyfully galloping as long as he wanted is tragic for him and infuriating and miserable for me, for all who knew him or who might have met him.

So here I am, wanting so much to remember the joy. Maybe another time I can write about that without going back into that cold empty room in my heart. Maybe another time I’ll write only about the man as he was, not about my losing him. He wouldn’t have much patience with this wallowing, I know that. He’d tell me to read another book, learn something new, fix a good dinner and laugh with my friends. He’d tell me that my wings aren’t clipped at all, let alone because he’s gone, that everything I’ve done has been reaching past my limitations even if I haven’t yet grabbed on to my dreams exactly as I wish. He’d point out to me the simple truth that I’m still alive and that I can make my dreams reality. And he’d tell me with a hug and a laugh that he liked being compared to Secretariat, but that the real champion is me.