31 May 2011

The Fullness of an Empty Spot

On May 14th, 2011, I did what very few on either side of my family have ever done. I walked across a stage and accepted a diploma for a Bachelor’s Degree. To be sure, I was twenty years older than the average college aged graduate, but I certainly was not the biggest procrastinator on the stage that day. In a couple of weeks I’ll sit down in a room full of my fellow graduates and begin my advanced degree; so it seems that what they say about a body in motion staying that way is true. For all of the things that are now present; the academic honors, the degree, the accolades of my peers, and the promising future engaged in a labor of love (as opposed to subsistence laboring), what looms is the missing.

Is it a bad thing to admit that I cannot remember the exact date my father died? I recall that it was January or possibly February, but the exact date escapes me. I can tell you what time of the day I got the news, what was said and how I felt, but not the date. I can tell you about the rage that boiled up inside of a sixteen year old boy as he watched a memorial service co-opted by distant relatives with no sense of decorum; strangers both before and after that brief moment. But I cannot tell you the date. I can tell you the exact date I graduated high school, reported to Marine Corps Boot Camp, was honorably discharged, and a host of other milestones in my life since that day. But I cannot tell you the date my father died.

My father was larger than life to me in the same way fathers hold that position to their children everywhere. But, after all these years, I still suspect that my father actually was larger than life. Our time together was truncated so I never got to grow beyond his shadow, to test myself against his accomplishments and commiserate with him over the results. Would I have lived the life I chose, or would the gravity of his presence have pulled me into its orbit and altered my life‘s trajectory beyond recognition. By my calculations, we have missed about 15,242,400 possible moments together, my father and I, since that illusive date when the knock on our door came before the dawn.

My father was a craftsman, an artist, and an adventurer. He attracted friends by the multitudes; was well known, respected, and quick to lend a hand to any who needed one. He climbed innumerable mountains and recorded the rising or setting of the sun on film and canvas; yet that time between his last sunset and the sunrise that never came for him, he spent alone with machines. At least his mortal shell did. His mind had taken wing and escaped to distant vistas, unwilling to remain confined in a body that had failed him, unwilling to bow before the dark that eventually comes for us all.

I sat awake in the dark, waiting for that knock; dreading that knock; too ashamed to admit that I wished the knock would just happen, so his suffering would end and mine would begin in earnest. The knock became a symbol for the changes that were set in motion in the weeks before; changes that began when my carefully crafted world exploded across the landscape of reality, ejecting me into the unknown.
The true effect of millions of missed moments was not clear to me then, nor is it now. In what way did that knock alter me? Is it the reason I never fathered children, never got married, always managed to stay on the fringes of a crowd; always holding friends at just the right length to allow me to slip back into solitude on the spur of the moment. I am not an apologist. My mistakes are plentiful and well documented. But I just cannot help but wonder at what might have been different if that knock had never come.

As I write this, I am older than my father was when the disease took him. That seems unlikely to a boy that was certain his father would stand over his grave; would live forever; would do all and be all. Memories fade and distort. But it says something that as I looked out at the crowd from that learned dais; as I located the faces of those whose support and love I am humbled to have; the face that loomed the largest was the one that was not there.