My father died in March. Due to the COVID restrictions at the time, his Celebration of Life gathering was held today, when folks are feeling freer to remove their masks, and the sun was shining bright over Two Lights.
My father was a deaf man, and his family and friends are largely part of the deaf or HOH community. Without anyone to speak ASL with me to keep it fresh in my mind, I lost my ability to talk to my father. We had a fairly estranged relationship, with my parents’ divorce at age 5 leaving me in full custody of my mother. I rarely saw him after that, and when I did, it was usually a surprise visit, resulting in an outing to a restaurant, being given money or gifts, and awkward communication. My mother would sometimes reveal her true feelings around how much I wanted to see him, in a slippery way that kept her clean. Theirs wasn’t a true love, it was two young people trying to perform roles they weren’t ready for. She made it clear that there was no love involved, on her part, ever.
I grew up being prevented from processing my feelings, so none of them ever went away. I was the “crybaby”. I sucked my thumb. I missed my father. He cried when he hugged me, for years. I remember loving him, I remember him teasing me, and I remember the day we left.
I was told to call my stepfather “Dad” in order to avoid confusing my new brother, when I was 10. My father became “Big Roland”, stripped of a father title entirely. My brother, Roland, who is the third, barely knew our father at all, and only knows the stories my mother has chosen to share. When my father did visit, my mother sat at the kitchen table and spoke with him, using ASL, and I never knew what they said. We were often shooed into the living room or to play outside, as if he had come to visit her, and not his children.
I believe my mother thought she was protecting us, but she was really still trying to protect herself. Trauma is a powerful experience that can change you forever, and whether or not is for the better is up to you. The important thing is to try not to traumatize others in your process. I lost the opportunity to have a real relationship with my father, who could have been a very good one. He was, to his other children. Hearing their stories, and seeing them with their own children, prove to me that he and their mother were loving parents. Only after he was gone was I able to really look back and reflect on what I knew of him, and the experiences I had with him, through my own eyes. He wanted to be with us. For this lifetime, I will focus on the best of the best memories, because I am only living my story. Maybe he was a bad guy in someone else’s. Maybe he was a hero to others. In mine, I really loved my daddy. That’s it.
At his Celebration of Life today, there was a hearty gathering of family and friends, some who didn’t even know I existed. Many remembered me from my childhood, and I was genuinely happy to see those I knew well. Though the awkward mask-wearing stage of COVID presented a different kind of anxiety, everyone was kind and shared love for my father, and for me just because of him. My own little family did a great job of coping with their personal social anxiety, with the kids all finding ways to play, and my Allison by my side, meeting the characters I have described so many times.
Nearly every encounter comprised of someone asking me how my mother was, or if she still lived in Bridgton, or if she still worked at the diner, or where is Roland III? I received stories about my father and how he knew each person, my uncle Ervin made sure I saw everyone, and knew who they were, and I got to meet my niece and one of my nephews for the first time. My oldest child carried around my brother’s youngest child like they had known each other always. I’m not sure anyone knows where I live, what I do in life, or anything about me, really, but it was still such a worthy time. I’m thankful for Vicki, my stepmother and the rest for organizing such a humble yet rich memorial for my father.
After we made it back home, I sat in the screen house in our back yard, overlooking the pond full of tympanic bullfrogs, and hung out with my wife and the small urn of my father’s ashes. The breeze brought sweet, cool air across the apple tree beside us, and the giant robin – a key player in our backyard activities – hopped around, grabbing all of the bugs and worms the freshly mown grass revealed. Reflecting on the day, with some rare idle chat, we took space together. My life is exactly as it was always meant to be, and don’t I know it. I am truly thankful.