On the walk to my son’s school a few hours after my father died, the numbness started to wear off and the newness to seep in. I had been drifting. The hospital hallways, the car trips between our house and my parents’ apartment, the phone calls to relatives—they had all possessed the stasis of the unreal. But now the surface of the street suddenly burned with change; the leaves flickering in the bright sunshine shook with the fact that they would soon tumble; the cars trembled with approaching obsolescence. “Change is the only constant” is a wonderful premise for a bumper sticker. People are entering and leaving the world every moment. But the consciousness of this obscene fact is unbearable.
I needed my father to advise me on how to deal with his death. I needed my father to tell me how to tell my son that he wasn’t there anymore. I needed to hear, as I had heard so many times before, his slow intake of breath, a half-sigh, as he considered whatever question I had brought him. I needed to see his eyes closed in thought, his thick hands folded together in momentary meditation. I needed to see him thinking up solutions to the problems at hand, maybe more than I needed to hear the solutions themselves. He had experience and he had remained cheerful about it—a powerful combination, and no mean attainment.
His importance in my life had never been more vivid. We rarely agreed about politics or anything like that, but we were both smart enough to recognize that we weren’t supposed to. He grew up in poverty, managed to educate himself through the military, became very interested in poetry, was a venture capitalist and then a professor, walked to the 88 Buddhist shrines on the island of Shikoku in Japan. His own father died when he was 8, and yet he managed to turn himself into a man of the world. How would I do?
“The memory of the dead” is such an imprecise phrase. It offers an illusory impression of solidity, of fixity in space and time. It’s also strangely singular. Memories of the dead are polymorphous: a photograph of sharing a bath with Dad and my brother when we were kids, the orange at the bottom of the Christmas stocking, a bruised thumb from splitting wood, a long story he used to tell about the front gate at Royal Military College that ended with the punch line “Bird poop, sir,” the explanation of how rooks and bishops move on a chessboard. The memory of the dead is a residue of intimacy, a swirling dust that kicks up in your chest and scours it until the dust rushes out into the world like a whirlwind and belongs to nobody. Death is not the end of intimacy, that is for sure. In a way, memory is the most intimate of interactions. A working definition of intimacy is a memory forming in the present.
The switch that had flipped as I walked to my son’s school was binary. My father had always been there when I needed him, right up until that moment. The street that I was walking down was a street I could not walk down with him anymore. Just before I arrived at my son’s school, I ran into my wife’s cousin, a good guy of the sun-bleached, laid-back variety whose own father had recently died. He had the misfortune to ask, “How you doing?” to a guy whose father had just died unexpectedly. I told him. Instantly he stuck out his hand and shook mine. It was weird. We laughed at its weirdness at the time. He later told me he was embarrassed by the gesture, but I came to realize it made perfect sense. He was congratulating me. That day, on that walk, I had become a man.