Ashes to Ashes

My father taught me how to cry. He excelled at it. So much that “weepy” was a quality I associated with him, much to my occasional disappointment and dismay.

To my knowledge, my discomfort with his tears didn’t come from toxic masculinity. It didn’t come from some idea I’d learned about men should or shouldn’t behave. In my mind all men, at least dads, cried routinely. It wasn’t the practice that I questioned, it was the extent to which his emotions were ever-present and boundary-less. It was that the reach and breadth of his emotions, which seemed to leave so little room for mine.

Before my father’s stroke, I struggled to show much emotion around him. Empathy for his depression and self-hatred was hard for me to come by. In his presence, I dampened my expressions, positive or negative, settling somewhere in the middle range, otherwise known as  apathy. My goal, I think, was to never give him too much to go on, not wanting to show my hand – all, of course, for reasons I’m still trying to figure out in therapy.

It wasn’t until my father’s stroke last year that our dynamic really shifted. The man I knew to express too much suddenly had nothing to say, nothing to feel. Sure, he would get ornery at times – in these moments, in my eyes, most like himself. But mostly he was quietly content, at least on the outside, to observe his former life and livelihood quietly waste away.

The last year of my father’s life, to those of us who were blessed and burdened with sharing in his experience of it, was his absolute worst. He went from living independently to relying on others to wash, eat, and move his body. He went from being chronically depressed, but regularly experiencing the joy of his art (painting and drawing) to barely able to hold a pencil. Following his stroke, he never returned to his home, to his friendships, to his teaching. He and his life became unrecognizable from what they were. And yet, other than a few conversations that would indicate so, he seemed to live day to day in a sort of content oblivion.

Yesterday, as my brothers and I, in the company of a few other loved ones, spread his ashes at his most sacred painting spot, which he affectionately called “my river.” More than one person noted that he is now in a better place. The fact is indisputable and still, my mind went to the last conversation that he and I had about his interest in continuing to live. He was less than a week into his stroke-recovery and in need of a high risk surgery to remove an additional clot in a major artery. It was one of those “he could die in surgery or die from a subsequent stroke” decisions and I wanted so much to know what his wishes were. In essence, to what extent he wanted to live.

I assumed, at the time, that he would rather be dead than to live in his current state, or worse yet, experience additional physical and cognitive decline. It turned out though, that on the verge of death, a state he had talked about for years as his inevitable relief from the burden of his living, he was terrified. At least a part of him wanted to fight. At least a part of him wanted, badly, to survive.

Yesterday, as I scooped my hand into my father’s remains and tossed the dusty particles of his being out into the flowing fresh water of his river, I felt the terrible weight of knowing that I have lost someone, and something, that is never to return. I have lost my father–one half of me, however salty or sweet. In the same moment, as I watched what remained of his body settle onto the rocks and drift away from me, I thought to myself, “thank god he is finally free.”