Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Late Father

Seventeen autumns ago, we buried my father too soon in the frost-hardened ground. The night before his funeral, my sister and I went for a walk. The late afternoon sun blazed hot and bright in the cool air; the promiscuous trees flaunted every hue of crimson and gold against the brilliant blue sky. Beneath our feet, the sharp crisp crunch of leaves marked the passage of miles like a metronome.

After some time, we found ourselves at the cemetery where our father would be interred the next day, in a single plot beneath the shadow of mountains, overlooking the Great Salt Lake. The cemetery was a well-manicured oasis of green lawns and cool grey stones, a museum of the dead where stories were distilled into a set of dates: b. and d. My father’s story—b. Feb. 22, 1944. d. Oct. 23, 1994.

Seventeen years later, autumn has come late but brilliant to my town. At church, on the anniversary of his death, the gospel reading seems chosen for my fatherthe first commandment, and the second: "Love your neighbor as yourself"Jesus's elegant, simple solution to the enduring problem of Self and Other.

This second commandment was one my father intuitively understood, and every man, woman, and child he met was his neighbor. The practical result of all this love for others was that Dad was late to everything. It's not enough to give a homeless man your change. You have to squat down in your suit and tie, look him in the eye, and listen to his story.

Dad was even late for his own funeral. Given a terminal sentence of leukemia in the early autumn of his life, he “raged against the dying of the light" for three years, the time it took for mindless cancer cells to choke his formidable will to live and love.

I have felt his absence keenly through the years, on big occasionsat my wedding, when my children were born, when I divorced, when my books were publishedand at small ones.

Pathetic fallacy: the day we buried the sack of skin that was once my Dad, a cold winter wind stripped the trees of all their glory, brought leaden skies to weep over his casket as we said goodbye.  I could not help but feel that in this loss, God had forsaken me.

On this day, the day of his death, with my small son, I light a candle for my father, imagine him in a community of saints where he belongs. As we walk hand-in-hand from the church, I tell my son the story of a man who knew what it meant to love his neighbor as himself. This is my father's legacy to me, the true meaning of his life’s story. In his too-brief life, my always-late father learned (and taught his six children) to love other as self.  What greater story is there than this one?

Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante,
Que tout l'enfer fuie au son de ta voix ;
Dissipe le sommeil d'une âme languissante,
Qui la conduit à l'oubli de tes lois !—Cantique de Jean Racine, Gabriel Faure