In November, it will be 39 years since my father died by suicide. He is still with me as much as he ever was and, paradoxically, he is also more absent than ever. My emotional relationship with him has changed and evolved more during the time since he died than it did when he was alive, and I daresay that I understand him better than I understand any other human being I have ever known. And at long last — actually, beginning about 18 years ago — my understanding has given me peace. It almost makes me weep to talk about that, for during the first decade after he died, I had no peace at all over his death, and during the second decade, although I gained ground consistently, I had no idea where I was headed.
Those two decades, more than anything that came before or after, landed me where I am today — truly made me who I am, both for better and for worse. I am not a fatalist — for any number of things, the smallest happenstance, might have turned me this way or that, even toward my own demise or exaltation — but everything unfolded in a way that makes sense, at least now it does, looking back at the thousand subtleties in the push and pull of navigating my life. My father’s presence in my life (even if the most tangible force behind it was his absence) contributed something vital every step of the way, and he still is conjured up at times in a way that makes it difficult for me to separate the symbolic from the thing itself.
Three years ago, my now 18-year-old grandson came to Boston for a visit, and one night, I taught him how to play cribbage — and even without a mention, my father was there. His presence at such moments, it seems to me, is neither complicated nor magical, for it is easily explained by the power of memory. My dad taught me to play cribbage a year or two before I was old enough even to understand the game very well, and I’ve sat across the dining room table from him hundreds of times, watching him shuffle the deck in a kitchen soaked in the smell of Paladin Black Cherry pipe tobacco. The last time I saw him alive, I played a game of cribbage with him, sitting in the hallway of a psychiatric hospital, with the whisking of paper slippers passing next to us and more fear and uncertainty hanging in the air between us than I could bear.
Yet, even though merely saying the word”cribbage” connects me with him — and even as a dozen other sights and sounds and smells and tastes bring him into view — my memories of him are becoming fixed, and those that are lost are lost forever. I can remember clearly only a few things he once said, and I can no longer hear the sound of his voice. Sometimes when my mother tells a story about him — even though I am a character in the scene — I have no recollection of it whatsoever. I remember the oddest incidents — seeing them almost dreamlike in my mind’s eye — but I do not recall him at my high school graduation nor during the birth of my first son (and he was surely there for both events). If I were to write down more than a few lines in an attempt to describe any sustained interaction I ever had with him, I would wonder which parts of my tale actually happened and which I was embellishing to fill in the gaps.
This is the nature of memory, and it operates the same for my memories both of the living and the dead. Similarly, the nature of intimate relationships — both with the living and the dead — is that they continue always changing and evolving. Even as the reality of my father as a living person slips further and further into the past, his influence in my life — which is now almost exclusively a very positive influence — continues to grow. For me, the strength of my relationship with him — the concreteness of his “presence” in my life — comes partly from the fact that my work for the past 18 years in suicide prevention and suicide grief support has been devoted to him. But even that has evolved remarkably: My work used to be motivated by my need for redemption, and now it is being driven by my desire to change the status quo, to focus on my intention to create something meaningful in every moment, in every task, in every connection.
In the end, all that has occurred which keeps me connected to him (who is gone) has come full circle and caused me to be more meaningfully connected to everything unfolding in front of me (which is right here, right now).