walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

To Each Thing, a Season

...and for once, I'm not talking about 'cyclocross season, road season, off season,' though those are important, too.

I turned eighteen only a couple of months before my father died.

It was, to some extent, the last act in the train wreck that was my high-school years, though it was not as bad as it could have been.

Dad was a brilliant man: polyglot, historian, old-house buff (who in New England isn't?), bibliophile, jazz maven, social critic, amateur gastronome extraordinaire.  He was also an alcoholic, a Viet Nam vet whose personal host of unquiet spirits often overshadowed his dreams.  He was quintessentially Scots-Irish: blustery, emotional, emphatic, fierce, mercurial, passionate.

Though they would remain friends until his death, he and Mom lived together like oil and water ... or, really, more like baking soda and vinegar.  They divorced when I was five, a less traumatic experience than one might assume: even at five, I understood that it meant the blood-curdling screaming matches that left me racked with terror would stop.  I never imagined it was somehow 'my fault,' or tried to get my parents back together: the reason was pretty clear (they lived at each-others' throats) and the separation was unequivocally beneficial to the lot of us.

Mom and Dad shared custody; my sister and I spent Wednesday and Friday evenings and Saturdays with Dad.  He and my sister got along brilliantly, but his relationship with me was strained, even brittle.  We didn't understand each-other, so when Dad exploded, I was usually the one who caught the flak.

When I was sixteen, and he'd already been sober for five years, I began playing jazz piano and we started to bond over music and architecture.  For two years, we had a fantastic relationship: they were two of the best years of my life.  They're the years that I'm talking about when I say, "It could have been worse."  I thought of Dad as a friend, an equal.  I think he felt the same way about me.  We enjoyed each-other's company.  We drove around southern New England together, sometimes with my sister (when she was home), sometimes by ourselves.  We traded books and political rants.  He came to my poetry readings.  When I overinflated my bike tire at a gas station and it exploded just as I rolled onto the street, he stopped (he happened to be passing by at that very moment) and gave my bike and me a ride home without giving me crap about it.

Then, one morning, he didn't answer his door when I dropped by.  I trudged off to school with a sinking feeling in my stomach; when I returned around noon, he still didn't answer.

I knew before I found someone to let me in: knew I should have known three days before, on Friday, when I'd called to see if he wanted to get together, at a time when he was almost always home, and he neither answered nor returned my call.

I knew with absolute certainty when, as I entered his townhouse apartment at last, his cat -- a calico who normally exhibited a strong dose of the 'smart-ass' gene -- trotted halfway down the stairs with eyes like saucers, stopped, and waited for me.

I was the last person to see my father alive; the first to see him dead.  My initial reaction was a kind of functional numbness: a kind of grace-under-fire drilled into me nearly from birth.  With help from my Mom, I managed the funeral arrangements, all the minutiae that accompany death in the western world.  My father had died intestate, so we had to make all the decisions: cremation or burial?  (Burial.)  Wood casket or metal?  (Wood -- my father was an amateur woodworker with a passion for fine joinery.  We buried him in a beautiful cherry box with brushed-brass fittings.)  Wethersfield or Torrington?  (Was it even Torrington?  At this point, I don't really remember.  Anyway, the answer was Wethersfield.)

I remember less of the funeral than I would like to -- or, rather, less of the words.  The images I will never forget; especially not the burial service (it was a brilliant spring day with gusty winds; the flowers atop the casket kept trying to blow away).

What I do remember is this: my father was a tremendous Beatles fan.  We chose for one reading the lyrical Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which begins, "To each thing, a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven."  It wasn't just the Beatles that made it seem, to me, like the best choice, though -- it reflected a conviction that I discovered, in that time: that though we, the living, may feel it is so, there are no untimely deaths; that death comes in its own time, and that we mortals don't get much say in it.  It was, I suppose, the beginning of my awakening as a religious person -- perhaps something else for which I should thank my Dad (himself the quintessential East-Meets-West agnostic). 

It was also, I suppose, a bit fatalistic: perhaps it was my way of making sense of the loss of a life that was so vibrant, so noisy, so bright.

Thereafter, until I left home on the day of my graduation ceremony, I often lay awake late into the night listening to the White Album -- usually with 'Julia' on infinite loop (the rest of the time, I tortured myself with Faure's 'Cantique de Jean Racine,' which remains one of the loveliest pieces of sacred choral music I have heard in my rather-extensive perusal of the genre).

For a while, I somewhat lost my mind: I was angry, furiously angry, at anyone and everyone who claimed they understood what I was feeling.  I stayed away from school for the better part of a month.  When I returned, my walks home from school on Fridays -- which often took me down the street where Dad had lived (the aptly-named Belcher Road) -- were fraught with cognitive dissonance.

So it is fair to say that I grieved -- that is, that I experienced grief.  But in some other ways I failed to mourn: I didn't cry; I refused to.  At the time, I hadn't yet realized that the greatest strength reveals itself in times of weakness: that, paradoxically, in order to be willing to be vulnerable, one must be phenomenally strong.  I don't suppose that's a memo most of us have gotten at age 18.  I had become a rather skilled bottler of emotions, by that time.

For my final project at the arts magnet where I attended high school, I wrote an elegaic essay about my father's life -- rather, as much about the unresolved mysteries, those things I didn't know, those things Dad never talked about.  It earned high marks.  Still, some reserve of pain remained untapped.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to a different point: I have not always been good at dealing with grief, or with pain, or with any uncomfortable unpleasant emotion.  Indeed, historically, I've even tended to distrust excessive displays of pleasant emotion.

My life so far has been peppered both with both stunning peaks and staggering valleys.  I think I deal with the peaks pretty well at this point -- but I think I still need to learn how to wade through the valleys.  Or, rather, I need to learn how to stop on the other side, assess the damage, and address it.

So this is, in my life, a season for addressing old wounds.  Perhaps because I have so much less on my plate than I'm used to, I've found that the fortress that I've built -- the walls that are supposed to shield me from the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' -- has begun to fail.  I recognized a long time ago that I am a prisoner within it; only now, as it begins to crumble around me, do I begin to understand how afraid I still am of grief.

One more bit of allegory, and then I'll go back to happily babbling about bicycles (which do, genuinely, bring a great deal of light and air and happiness into my life).

During my brief stint in the racing industry, I worked with a horse -- a two year old thoroughbred colt, a beautiful 'blood bay' who had no real chance of becoming any kind of race horse, but who would've been a phenomenal eventer -- who terrified everyone. 

Of course, everyone had good reason to be terrified of him: he appeared, at first reading, murderously angry at the human race.  If you entered his space, he would try his best to kill you.  At the end of a lead shank, he was a fire-breathing monster.  In his stall, he was a lethal weapon.

For a couple of months, the colt in question became my primary responsibility.  From day one, I spent my mornings performing with him the dance one performs with dangerous horses: lace one hand into the mane as you groom, and stick to the shoulder like a burr.  A horse's shoulder is the one place he has little chance of striking or biting you to any real effect; except his teeth (which are subject to the anatomy of his neck and head), most of his weapons are most effective at range.  The closer you keep, the better.

So I stuck to this colt like a burr, making very sure he knew that I wasn't going anywhere and that I wasn't going to take any crap from him -- but also making sure that I never justified his assumption that I was going to hurt him.

Essentially, what it boiled down to was this: the colt in question was absolutely terrified of people.  He had been badly mishandled.  At some point, someone had developed a habit of hitting him in the head (one of the best ways to absolutely terrify a horse).  He behaved as if he was angry at the human race -- it's possible, though I'm projecting here, that he even thought he was.  But deep in the dark recesses of his equine heart, he was simply and absolutely afraid.

I didn't get to work with the colt in question long enough to entirely iron him out, but by the time his owner sold him, he would stand to be groomed and behaved reasonably well, sometimes even beautifully, on the lead.  He still had his difficult moments, but two months isn't long enough to iron out two years of mishandling.  He would sometimes play with me, though not as much as my second-favorite horse, a filly who liked to steal my hat whenever I walked by her stall, and he had learned to like having his poll and withers scratched.  I wish I knew what happened to him after he was sold, but I never heard.  I jumped ship for a 'civilian' barn about the same time my blood bay colt moved out.

I think my emotions are a lot like that colt.  They scare the hell out of me.  They're big and blustery and maybe a little bit dangerous, and I don't always know why they act the way they do.

I guess, though, if I can make peace with a colt at war with humanity by firm, gentle, persistent handling, there's no reason I shouldn't be able to do the same with myself.

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