Rachel, Our Father, and Me

 

I don’t know. No one ever knows his own father himself.

οὐκ οἶδ’· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω. 

Homer, Odyssey 1.201

 

“To remember the past, you tell a story about it. And in recalling the memory, you tell the story again.  It is not always the same story, as the person telling it does not always want the same things….As children become better storytellers, they become better rememberers. But their memory system also becomes more susceptible to distortion.”

Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 98

 

When our father died, it was as shock both for its suddenness and for the cliché we all suffer when we lose someone who was part of our life: we (thankfully, in a way) don’t know how to cope with the erasure of a human being, the deletion of a presence that was part of our lives for their entirety.  But in writing about him over the past few years, I fear that I have done a disservice to him and to us.

In keeping to the age-old injunction of not speaking ill of the dead, we have erred too far and have created a fictionalized father, a man who in our telling is far closer to the father we wish we had known than he ever was. There is nothing wrong with such a hagiography on the surface, but in a world in which biology is ever more carrying the weight of destiny and where the stories we tell have always shaped the way we view and judge ourselves, such distortion through omission can have dangerous effects on what we believe to be true about our lives and our decisions. If I willfully change the way my father was and completely elide his faults and his fears, how can I be sure I won’t make the same mistakes when I tell my own stories?

Neuroscientists have shown (as some psychologists have suspected) that the act of recalling a memory exposes it to distortion. Memories recalled often become part of the stories we tell about ourselves and their details will change to suit both the needs of the tellers and the audience. I don’t want to write to slander my father, but I want to give him the fullness and complexity he deserves as a human being. We are all slightly less-than-stable compromises of divergent desires and often destructive beliefs. Learning to accept the contradictory strains in our loved ones is necessary to acknowledging fully the often hypocritical tensions in ourselves.

Elliott Smith, “Memory Lane”. “All anybody knows / is you’re not like them / they kick you in the head / and send you back to bed.”

When my father died, I expected some trouble. He was a man who it would not have been surprising to discover was leading other lives. He lived a rich fantasy life—always dreaming that he would accomplish something great, that he would end up someone different. It fell to me to try to make sense of some of the messes he left behind: years of unpaid taxes; a maze of debt and collection bureaus; accounts tied to strange addresses; unopened summonses and bills.

I had the strange voyeurism of entering into my father’s email account, at first to contact some business associates who owed him money, and later to sift through his last few weeks of correspondence to try to figure out whether or not he knew how sick he was. (He did. Forty-eight hours before his death he sent an email to his older sister, writing “This is the sickest I have ever been.” He still waited another 36 hours to go to the doctor.)

This type of textual analysis was probably my safest way of handling grief. As a student of literature, I practice the ancient art of Philology, described once as “the art of reading slowly.” No amount of slow reading, however, could brace me for all the discoveries I’d make. Infidelity, I could handle. Debt and delinquency? This had been the story of my/our lives. But during the process of arranging for my father’s funeral, writing a eulogy, and trying to make an initial reckoning of his accounts, I started corresponding with one of my father’s business associates, a man I will call Felix.

Chvrches, “Lies”. This will make sense in a minute.

Felix emotionally and generously confided in me that my father had become a close friend, in part because of his empathy regarding Felix’s daughter. His daughter had suffered from an “unknown progressive neuro-muscular disorder causing severe dystonia” and the pain she endured alongside the uncertainty of her diagnosis (which seemed to indicate a shortened life) wracked him and his family with the kind of suffering that only parents can imagine.

Felix made it clear that my father changed his life because he was always there just to listen and because he inspired him with his love of his family and his expressions of religious faith. He also inspired him, Phil revealed, because he shared with him his own story of loss, the loss of his daughter Rachel.

We never had a sibling named Rachel. But I didn’t say this to Felix because he had forwarded me an email from my father where he wrote

“Every day I wake up thinking of my daughter –Rachel – go to bed thinking of Rachel. We had 4 children – now 3 but the blessings and gifts they have brought blow my mind […] but always Rachel is the background- never goes away- but I have still have joy and overwhelmed with blessings.”

Felix assured me in the email that he had never mentioned this email to anyone. Even as I type this now I can smell the stale smoke in my father’s office where I read this for the first time. I remember calling my wife in to read it. Under the pall of our grief, we couldn’t process this, we couldn’t make sense of what it meant or whether it was possible. Soon, like my father, I was waking up and thinking about Rachel.

A

Typhoon, “Young Fathers”. Nothing has made me think more of what my father was like as young father than being a father myself.  Did he change my diapers? Did he hold me the way I hold my son and think about the terrible and beautiful brevity of life?

My mother had a miscarriage before me and after me and, as family mythology goes, was told she wasn’t able to have children. When I was younger and the whole family was more religious, they told me (the oldest) that they hadn’t had a child until they joined a new church and started to pray. I was baptized and confirmed in that church.  The minister was my godfather. I have a picture of him holding my daughter.

But when I asked my mother, in a probably less than sensitive way, if there were any other children or if they had planned on naming one of the miscarriages Rachel, she thought it was absurd. It didn’t seem to me likely that my father had spent years brooding in secret over a miscarriage when he had three healthy children. But he was a man who looked good in a disguise.

In the days before the funeral, I imagined myself as part of a future story. In my fantasy, I interviewed distant relatives and friends about his past, the type of people who might know about a lost child, about a baby born out of wedlock whose brief existence had been hidden from my mother. It was not inconceivable to me that such a thing might have happened. As the long hours past, it seemed more than likely that this was Rachel: a brief alternative life in the past whose loss had festered in my father as a metonym for all of the other lives he could have lived. Or, as that fourth child, that extra helping of happiness that might have tipped the scales in a middling life.

The Beatles, “Nowhere Man.” A ‘friend’ in high school once told me that this song should be my anthem. It was cruel, but it was true: I have long lived only half-engaged with those around me. My father was the same. Or more.

As the first step in this imagined memoir (the type of rangy self-discovery at home in The New Yorker), I emailed a friend of my father’s, a woman whose name would bring explosions of rage to our home, and asked her directly if she knew anything about it. She, who had known my father differently but quite well for years, said she would have been shocked if there were or had been another child, that my father loved his children so much that it would be inconceivable that he would have never mentioned Rachel. And, then, she added enigmatically, “He did say last summer that he would have named your [daughter] Rachel, if it was up to him.”

After my father’s funeral, things spiraled downhill for my family. We eventually got most of the finances under control (although we’re still working on it); two new grandchildren were born over the next year; and my mother suffered some of the most harrowing effects of grief. I left the issue of Rachel aside to protect her and us from the uncertainty. But I never stopped mulling it over.

Muddy Waters “Fathers and Sons”, Appropriate and inappropriate for this post. But my father would probably appreciate that.

I eventually concluded that there were three possibilities: (1) that my father had emotionally connected with a miscarriage, naming it Rachel and keeping the pain to himself; (2) that he had fathered another child who died (or was estranged); or (3) that he had made up the child drawing on his experiences to empathize with Felix. Given the absence of any evidence for the first two options, I decided that the last was most likely.

What does it mean to believe that your father was the kind of man who would fabricate a dead child in order to make a connection with someone? Is this even possible? What was the name Rachel to him and why did it recur in different contexts?

My father was a man cut off from many people by his deafness and his aloofness (probably interconnected). He was also capable of long-term deceit (for self-defense) and short-term confabulation (to try to keep others happy). If he did manufacture the memory of a child, I am almost certain he did it with a full range of emotions drawn from the rest of his life and that part of him wanted to believe it. We make up stories all the time. We all bend the truth and introduce new details into old stories. If he invented a Rachel to console Felix, he did it because he wanted to feel with him, to be his friend, and through grief to be more fully human.

Pearl Jam “Better Man”.  This song has always made me think about my father and myself.

But perhaps this conclusion is still just more evidence of me creating the father I wanted to have rather than acknowledging the man he really was.  To some, inventing a dead child might sound diabolical. But, given the other options, it speaks to me of someone who wanted to feel, of a man who into his last days was trying to be something real.

And this in turn is a lesson on the complexity of what makes each one of us who we are.

 

 

Ending is a New Beginning?

“No other Odysseus will ever come home to you”

οὐ μὲν γάρ τοι ἔτ’ ἄλλος ἐλεύσεται ἐνθάδ’᾿Οδυσσεύς,

Homer, Odyssey 16.204

 

 “Music-cued autobiographical memory can also demonstrate the power of first associations. A song that might have been heard many hundreds of times can nevertheless send the listener back in time to its first listening…” Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light, 54

 

After too much thought and time, I have come to the conclusion that I am not going to write for this blog any longer. Because I cannot let good enough alone, I will explain this. And, because I would much rather go out with a bang than a whimper, I have written a few final posts (after this one) to rectify some of the mistakes I have made and to bring the whole project full-circle.

 

This blog has/had two starting points and many other ancillary goals that were all in some way related to our favorite subject, our father. I don’t want to rank any of these points, lest I give the mis-impression that one in some way outweighed another. But the first time I remember thinking about it was after a call and an email from my father. He told me he was worried about my brother, that he needed direction and some way out of his depression after the end of college and the end of a relationship.

 

Tegan and Sara, “Goodbye, Goodbye”. I still love this band. This song may be a bit harsh.

 

I had been trying for some time to be a better brother—but the majority of my attempts were merely talking to him frequently on the phone and trying to help him continually spruce up cover letters and his resume. Once my father made a specific request (something he rarely did), I started daydreaming and eventually came up with the idea for a blog. In part, as my reasoning went, my brother needed something else to do, but he also needed something else that helped him change his vision of himself, to introduce new ideas about his future.

 

In a way, and this is where another motivation for the blog comes in, I needed the same thing.  I was definitely not loving my career; I felt unmoored and exiled in Texas; and I was languishing emotionally and intellectually because of both. The blog seemed like a salve for both of us: we could be closer; we could work on something together; and we could explore different visions of ourselves and different options for the future.

 

Social Distortion, “Bye, Bye,Baby”.  I am still pissed that I never went to CBGBs. I suck

 

When my father died, the writing of the blog also had a therapeutic function.  As I re-read pieces, I can see us coping with our loss in different and mostly productive ways. In his absence, being there for my brother was even more necessary. I threw myself into writing for the blog and cajoling him into writing, editing, and then re-writing.  Before we posted anything online, I think we had nearly 75 1000-word pieces ready.

 

My reasons for leaving the blog now are in part related to its origins. The therapeutic effect has waned; my brother has grown up a lot, found music in new and exciting ways and has a full-time job in his own field; and I have learned an immeasurable amount about myself. I am a better writer now, a better thinker (I think) and I know a lot more about what goes on online.

But my frustrations with the blog have to do with my own contributions, what they cost me in time and energy, and what I derive from the process.  If we have any regular readers, you will know that I have posted sparingly during this year. While not writing for the blog, I have done more writing for my career than ever before. Obviously, the practice of writing daily has helped my discipline. It has also helped make my writing less stilted (seriously) and my interests more broad. And, yet, this has also helped me see the limitations of my writing on the blog—I don’t know as much as I should about music to keep this up. The dilettantism shows up too often. I can’t write well for the blog and write well for the many other projects I have going on.  I am an all or nothing person.

When it comes down to it, though, the simplest explanations for my departure are these: I have many other things to do (and for two years I was spending 6-10 hours a week working on the blog); and the writing of the blog has ceased to make me closer to my brother. If anything, it has had the opposite effect.

 

Guster, “So, Long.” I still love this band. This was recorded in Portland, Maine.  In another timeline, I might have been there.

 

At the same time, we never really achieved the success I imagined we would in creating a community or in attracting readers. Part of this is certainly due to my own writing style (which isn’t always friendly and which is also not well-suited to the medium). My frustration derives also from my ego—I think we’re doing more creative and interesting stuff than people who have a hundred (or a thousand) times the daily views. Because WordPress gives you graphs to show all of these things, I became somewhat obsessed with tracking our pageviews: looking between classes, in the middle of the night, even while running.

And another nail in the coffin has been the superficial and narcissistic nature of the medium. The content, level of discourse, overall tone of conversation on the internet has only served to undermine my confidence in the medium as a force for discovery and debate. It may sound dramatic, but I am sure there are days where my involvement in the blog has been mentally unhealthy. I don’t think the world needs access to everyone’s opinions.  I am sure that little good has come from my words thrown into the mix.

I don’t think I will ever stop searching for new music, ruminating on why I love the music I do, or writing. I want to write more freely and more pensively and I also want to shed the veil of anonymity. One of the things I have worked on outside this blog is the danger of living separate lives and how emotional instability and narrative uncertainty can ensue when you maintain separate personae. A watershed moment came from me when a blogger wrote on his site that “this [the blog] is real life”.

“Farewell and Adieu To You Fair Spanish Ladies.” As a Mainer, I love Sea Shanties.

I disagree wholeheartedly. The internet is a mirror of a picture of real life. It is an echo chamber twice removed from real sound and real experience. It prizes noise and frequency over quality and beauty. Perhaps I came to this too old or perhaps I am just too natively intense to spend as much time as I have online without losing something of myself. But I have been spending random days unplugged, and the quiet is beautiful.

The last few posts I leave all in some way contend with other frustrations that I have had during the writing of the blog. Much of it will seem too confessional, but I strive to narrow that gap between the person I am and the one I want to be.  I will post a story about my father we should have put up earlier.  I will post an early piece we were too cowardly to post because it was too ‘real’ and then I will close with an adaptation of a letter that I wrote to my brother before all of the blogging started.

I am grateful to the readers we’ve had and the empathy and consideration they’ve shown. I am also forever in debt to my brother for his patience with me.  Everyone in my family thinks I am hard to please. And they are right. But as my brother put it in his most recent post, we cannot rebuild the past, we can only lay out better designs for the future.

NSync, “Bye, Bye, Bye”.  A little fun to end the game. True story: I hate this song. But I like it too. That’s about all you need to know.

Acoustic Music on Youtube: Imagine Dragons and Three Years Later

It has been a full year since the first time I heard “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons. And although part of me wants to reject the band because of their popularity (and, yes, that is the less mature part of me, I think) I can’t stop liking the song or enjoying different renditions of it.  A great deal of this has to do with the new memories I have gained in conjunction with this song. And most of this has to do with whom the memories surround

My three-year old daughter keeps asking for this song. Even a year after she first heard it, she loves it–especially this acoustic version. And a few weeks ago, while listening to the lyrics and watching her and my son sing along, I was completely undone. Because, you know, its the undoing time of year.

I don’t want to be the guy who spends the same night (or series of nights) every year tipping back drinks in honor of what has been lost.  I don’t want the end of January to be a black hole on the calender. I want to fill the year with new memories, to graft skin over the scar tissue in some pathetic search for normalcy. But, the scar tissue is never truly gone, is it?

This isn’t going to be another maudlin entry about what it has been like to pass another year without our father.  I have accomplished that far too many times. The people we live with and then without are the ghosts who accompany us to our own graves. We see them in our faces in the mirror, in furniture and objects around the room, in the simple action of turning over the soil from winter for the new spring. The act of living needs death for its meaning(s). But, as my brother said today, it is through living well that we honor the dead.

Yes, another year has past since the untimely death of our infuriating, irascible, inimitable, and beloved father. This year I did my best to be somewhere different (Washington, DC) doing different things. But as the day and the week goes by, he’ll be in my thoughts. He is almost every time I look into his grandchildren’s faces.

And this is the way of things.

(Back to) Birthday Songs

As this post goes live, I will be thousands of feet above the ground in an airplane headed for the pacific ocean. On this, my 35th birthday,

Yes, looks peaceful. But have you been on a three hour flight with toddlers?

Yes, looks peaceful. But have you been on a three hour flight with toddlers?

my wife decided that we should all take a break from the oppressive heat of our adoptive state and take our children to California, to see the ocean for the first time.

I wrote the post below in anticipation of my first birthday after my father passed away. That first year was both rough and revelatory–I lost a father, became a father again, and tried however I could to come to grips with the magnitude of the loss. No one really knows what it is like to lose someone until it happens. Fathers–as I learned too late–provide an unspoken almost undetectable sense of security.

So many of my early posts were suffused enough with regret and sorrow that I now feel almost embarrassed by their maudlin and self-indulgent character. And yet, as a record of my grief and transfo Continue reading

Another Year (without Our Father)

This picture will make sense.

This picture will make sense.

Last year, during this week, we launched a series of posts to honor the passing of our father. My sister, brother and I each talked about our memories of him and related them (sometimes weakly) to music. While the creation of this blog was planned before our father’s sudden death, that loss was a catalyst for us in different ways.

It made me want even more to decrease the distance between the man I am and the one I want to be; it made my brother get serious about playing music and writing; and, whether or not we want to admit it, it accelerated other plans too: my son was born 10 months after his grandfather’s passing; my niece joined the world 6 months later.

We’re not going to bring out another series of memories this year—last year’s posts wait to be read and re-experienced, if and when the need arises. Yet, we do not want to let another year’s rotation go by unnoticed. Our father’s life and death helped to make us who we are today.

Continue reading

Birthday Songs

It’s not my birthday
It’s not today
It’s not my birthday, so why do you lunge out at me?
When the word comes down, “Never more will be around”
Though I’ll wish you were there, I was less than we could bear
And I’m not the only dust my mother raised
I am not the only dust my mother raised “It’s Not My Birthday,” They Might Be Giants

Note: The following was written on or around my most recent birthday.  Since many of our posts are asynchronous, there is no way it is being posted on my actual birthday. In fact, this post represents thoughts and feelings that are several months gone by. Note as well, the clever epigraph. Today I post this in honor of my father’s birthday.

Birthdays are strange things. Some cultures make a big deal of them—a birthday can be like Christmas and Mardi Gras combined. In others, you have to pay to feed and entertain your friends. Some even—gasp—treat them like normal days. Should the day you separated from your mother be such a big deal when you would have certainly perished without round-the-clock care? Why not celebrate conception days (apart from the unknown dates and the yuck factor)?

In our culture, generally speaking, we set up birthdays to get steadily worse as we age. When we’re children, birthdays are prime acquisition and requisition opportunities. We count down the days to dessert, theme parties, and presents from doting elders. As we enter adolescence, birthdays become a series of transformative milestones: at 13 you’re a teenager, at 16 you can drive, at 18 you can vote (or, more importantly, buy pornography and cigarettes). This trend continues into your twenties: 20 is a nice round number and at 21 you can drink (legally). Even if the rest of the twenties are somewhat anticlimactic by comparison, for most of us they are still filled with lubricated celebrations and a suspension of normal behavior and responsibilities.

Even 30 is (a bit) exciting. And then? If you don’t grow up and get a job, have a family and all that jazz, birthdays just become another excuse to overindulge except that the cast of companions dwindles (as everyone else grows up and gets a life).  The party becomes a routine; the routine gets old; and the clock moves faster and faster.

So at some point, I figure, we all start to think: what the hell are birthdays for? Do we want to mark that we’re another year older? I guess it is important to mark the cycle of a year, to stop and recognize how we’ve changed and what we’ve gained. But, on the other hand, marking the turn in the year and tallying up debits and credits also brings into focus what we’ve lost.

And this is the truth of human life—the longer we live the more opportunity we have to develop attachments to things (people) that we will definitely lose (unless we predecease all of our attachments). The horror of this truth is strong enough that it persuaded ancient Stoic philosophers to develop ways of living that downplay attachments altogether.

(See, for instance, the work of Seneca the Younger, who quips in On the Brevity of Life that while most people complain that life is too short they are dead wrong. Life is plenty long; most of us just waste it.)

The obvious outcome is that while we define ourselves on a day-to-day basis by what we have (a spouse, children, family, job, things, etc.) as we age, perversely, we become defined by what we’ve lost (hair! Health. Loved ones.) So while birthdays and holidays are the appropriate time to be thankful for what we have, they are ultimately and inevitably the time we take measure of what is gone. As we age, we become defined not by what we are but by what we are not; note: we cannot keep track of the years we have left, so we keep track of the years that are gone. To be human, fundamentally, is to be defined by loss.

This is my first birthday without my father. On his birthdays, he always demanded only one thing: to be left alone. I am, for the first time, starting to understand that request. Who wants to be reminded of one year passing faster than the year before? Who wants to be reminded of the rapidly approaching end? I don’t know what my father really believed—I think he had some faith in an afterlife. My hope is that when I go, I will be proved suddenly wrong. (If I am right, I will never know it.)

My father also spent nearly every birthday recounting his age in relation to his father’s. My grandfather died at 49; my father was convinced he would expire by the same time. He made it a dozen years longer. Am I going to spend the rest of my life thinking about that number (61)? Am I already more than half-way there? Or can I assume an even dozen to spare?

I have written before about what my father meant to me. The Younger J has also written about how disappointed he would be to find me spending the remaining (good years) of my life fretting about him. I have a good job; I have a great family; and I think I have good health. But the truth is, I am not really worrying about him, about whether or not he knew he was alone when he died or about whether or not he regretted all the things he didn’t do. I am really upset about me. Nothing teaches you about your own mortality like becoming and losing a father in the same year.

When my wife asks me what I want for my birthday, I pause and tell her the truth: my father back, my parents solvent, my siblings well. I daydream about being able to choose between something gigantic like world peace and my father’s life along with the thoughts that would run through my head as I hesitated. None of this is fair, of course—but some portion of grief is always an expression of self-indulgence.

So this year I can measure what I have lost at about my height, my weight plus 28 years (less a considerable amount of hair). I miss him, truly; but I really miss the sense of security of knowing he was there. Now, I must be him—a ‘father’ to my own siblings, a caretaker (from afar) for my mother, and a father to his grandchildren. Let me be clear: I don’t feel cheated or burdened. I just wish I could have asked him more about it first.

What a great way to spend a birthday. Shall I lighten it up, cheaply?

There is nothing more annoying than the “Happy Birthday Song” (except for updates of it performed in theme restaurants). So, for my birthday, I have come up with some other birthday songs. Unbirthday songs. Celebrate with me: it’s not your birthday, not today.

  1. “Unhappy Birthday”, The Smiths

What A better way to desacralize the birthday than to cheat someone else of his joy. Note the nice connection to mortality in the lyrics:

I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday

Because you’re evil

And you lie

And if you should die

I may feel slightly sad

(but I won’t cry)

  1. “Gemini (Birthday Song)” Why?

Why? is one of my favorite bands with one of the most recognizable and distinct sounds out there. This is the first song by the band I ever fell in love with. I am not precisely sure why this is a birthday song, but again, there’s a nice sense of the meaning of mortality in marking the passing of another year:

Then I wept

with my face in your night shirt,

trying hard as hell to say

“until death separates us,”

loosening the skin on your breastbone,

I painted your nails

and you sleep

while I write all this down.

  1. “It’s Your Birthday,” 50 Cent

Does this song have to be explained? This one goes out to everyone who’s sharing my birthday (even though it isn’t his or hers) and still wants to party like its 1999:

We gonna party like it’s your birthday
We gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday
And you know we don’t give a fuck, it’s not your birthday

  1. “Birthday,” Sugarcubes

Birthday blues? There’s only one way to deny it—engage in activities that transcend your mortal bounds! Sow those oats! Bjork’s quirky band the Sugarcubes gave the world this song with strange but somewhat understandable lyrics. That is, if the bird is what I think it is. If it isn’t phallic, then I am clueless:

Today is a birthday 
They’re smoking cigars 
He’s got A chain of flowers 
and sows a bird in her knickers 

  1. “Birthday Sex,” Jeremih

Staying with the theme more subtly established by the Sugarcubes, who doesn’t want birthday action? (as much as most of us don’t want to hear about it…). What is interesting about this song is that the male singer is characterizing his couch lovemaking session as a gift for the woman, which, of course, is the way it always works out. Right?

It’s your birthday so I know you want to ride out

even if we only go out to my house

sip more weezy as we sit upon my couch,

feels good, but I know you want to cry out.

 

  1. “Birthday Song” Ben Lee

And to end: a warning about the motivations and consequences of birthday parties.

Staying up ’til dawn won’t take its toll

‘Til we get old

And drinking is just the way

We keep away the cold