I have very mixed feelings about Father’s Day, for the very simple reason that it is logistically tricky to celebrate a father who has been dead for more than half your life. Especially if one is bound into the Hallmark holiday sort of model.
Not impossible, of course, and as I am a Pagan whose path includes a certain degree of ancestral honoring, certainly something I do include. Just not on random Sundays in June.
It does make me think, though. My father died when I was just over 15. We knew it was coming – the good thing about a terminal cancer diagnosis is that at least you have time to prepare. Long before the last moments of high school, or of college, I had long experience with a series of ‘last moments’ with my father.
Our last family trip together (to Quebec City and Montreal, the previous Christmas and New Year’s.) The last horse show. My last birthday (also a horse show, and a day I still consider the single most perfect day of my life.) The last time he had me help him proof the bibliography of one of his books (I got a very early introduction to academic citation). The last time he corrected my homework (a French project: Mom still has it in a scrapbook.) The last dog walk.
One thing I cherish is having been able to have those, to be deliberate about them, to know they might be the last, and to be careful to hold them deep in memory, just in case. It’s something that, I think, has shaped every relationship since: if I never see someone again in this world, I want to know we didn’t end angry, we didn’t end broken and jagged.
But I’m also aware – always, consciously, deliberately – that I never got to know my father when I was an adult. I grew up in the year he was ill – incredibly, deliberately – but 15 and very mature is not the same as 18. Or 21. Or 32. I wonder how much of my memories are accurate – and how many are an idealised image, a perfect shape brought on not by what really happened – but by the mists of half-remembered glory.
I know he loved me. I know he doted on me (I was *oh* so much his pet.) I know that his students, his colleagues, teachers and professors, actors and designers, adored him. But I don’t know – not well enough – the parts that made him human, not something on a pedestal of memory, with the rough edges rubbed smooth by time.
My siblings were lucky, in this way: they were in their early 30s when he died, old enough to have adult lives, adult relationships. My sister got married, shortly after his death, but my father never knew my nephew. And my brother’s wife and my nieces were not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, I think. But my brother was already working on part of his own passion, and my sister was working on part of hers, and many of the individual pieces were there.
I never got to talk about Ancient Greek (his field, or rather, ancient Greek theatre was) with him: I took courses in it only after his death. I never got to discuss mythology with him, with an adult’s mind, not that of a six year old, walking to school, hanging on every story told in his rich, deep, Oxford-accented voice. I wonder what would have happened if I’d gotten good enough at French to speak it with him, rather than listening to him translate Asterix from the original books, pausing to look up idioms.
Would I even have dared to take Greek if he’d still been alive? For a long time, I couldn’t walk into a Classics department somewhere without someone recognising the name (and thinking I was as brilliant at the languages as he was.) I know my own worth: I could manage competent, but rarely brilliant when it came to translation.
There are times I remember that his death changed my life. I was not a very rebellious teenager, but I suspect my later teen years would have been rather different if he had been around. He was fiercely protective, too much so, sometimes, even when I was 13 and 14. There were things I did not tell him, because I knew he’d worry.
I would not, I think, have gone to boarding school for my last two years of high school. I might instead have graduated high school early, and gone somewhere to college – not Wellesley, probably, either, the place where so many of the patterns of my cherished adult friendships were formed. It was at Wellesley I learned to have truly deep friendships, and to talk about my emotions, and to share in ways I might never have done at other schools.
There’s only one person in my life now, outside my immediate family, that I talk to at all regularly who knew him (and she knew him as her friend’s father, someone who gave rides, and who was loved, but who was generally ignored as backdrop, because that is how you view parents when you’re that age.)
There are also the mysteries. On the grave stone that is my father’s, and that will be my mother’s, some day, there are four lines of poetry. They’re the very end of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. They’re beautiful. I know they were chosen deliberately. But I do not know – and have never managed to ask – exactly why. There are things I do not want to pry about, with my parents.
On the anniversary of his death, just after Samhain (and, in fact, on November 3rd, just after the Catholic All Saints day, and then All Souls, so that he might have a day all to himself), I do take time for him. I read something that reminds me of him. Some years it’s Eliot. Some years it is old and fading Asterix or Tintin books. Some years it’s Shakespeare, or Euripides, or 1066 and all that. I do a Tarot reading, just to ask if he has any wisdom for me, anything I should pay attention to. I don’t pry – he died as a devout Catholic, had been considering a production of Everyman, if he’d lived. But I welcome his presence, even if where I am now, where my religious life is now, is something he might never have forseen.
But I also keep in mind a very dear experience. You see, before my father died, the summer before, I went to a church camp. They asked our parents to write us a self-esteem letter, to be given to us at camp. My father took the opportunity to say things that he – as he said – were hard for him to say in person. I still have it, and treasure it, and reread it at least yearly. It’s filled with his humor, his turns of phrase – and his handwriting, which was gorgeous and personal and unique – I’ve never seen its like elsewhere.
In my first Samhain ritual with the group I was to spend more than 5 years of my life with, I found myself there, hearing the last paragraph quoted back to me, not quite word for word, but concept for concept. The priestess involved had no idea of this – I think she knew my father had died, but certainly none of the details. I’d think she was picking it up from me – but I was not particularly thinking of it, or remembering specific text, or anything like that.
It was that that simultaneously convinced me of polytheism, and that convinced me that my new path was where I needed to be. And that, as I’d been a constant surprise to my parents throughout my life to his death, perhaps this was just another step along that road: not such a change as it first appeared. And that was something he treasured about me, and encouraged, even when the surprise was a bit startling.
That’s the bit I want to take away with me. I do my best to live by that letter – not because I feel I need to, or because I think he will look badly on me if I don’t. But because he saw in me, in the very tentative first steps of adulthood, so many things that I do, indeed, value. Integrity. Commitment. Willingness to take risks on specific things I value. High *high* standards for what I do. They have their challenges, but I would not give up on these things for anything in the world.
Now, I think, I am going to take myself off with my copy of the Ancient Greek translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and see how utterly tangled I get in the language. (Probably quite a lot: I’m rather rusty.) It seems fitting.