Mar 24, 2014

The Day I Lost my Father, and the Day He Died

I trusted him too much.

The funeral took place four days ago; he didn’t live to the age of 65. My father never got to meet any grandchildren, or —

When I was little my father told me how traffic lights worked and I marveled that he knew everything and I felt very small. It was a dark night and it rained. The red light resembled a glowing red flower, petals flowing down the windshield. We were two blocks away from home.

I got my love of books from him. He was a WWII buff and collected several volumes on the subject. I heard tell of figures like Patton and Goering at the dinner table. He was the first person who named them to me. But his intellectual appetite didn’t stop there. Photography, archaeology, cabinetmaking, landscapes, the cosmos… he hungered for a connection with the universe, with the world of ideas.

He had a hard life. Youngest of eight siblings. Grew up in Portugal under a right-wing dictatorship that glorified God, Homeland and Family. Poverty was a virtue and you bowed your head to judges and doctors and priests — you bowed your head to everyone. To hear him tell of it, there were no equals, only rivalry and submission.

Sure, in the 1950s and 60s other people had it worse. At least my father ate three times a day. One of his childhood friends had to spit on his day-old bread at school so that no one would try to take it from him.

I begged him to write a memoir because the world he grew up in is alien to me. He never got around to it. I don’t know why. He always said he didn’t know where to start and I would tell him, “Start with your earliest memory.” I would also tell him not to worry about coherence or chronology. I would edit, would help, but that did not suffice. He never got around to it.

Now I mourn two losses. Most of his memories die with him. Could it be that hard to recall the adversities of childhood in writing? The time he fought in a war nobody thought was fair or winnable?

Because I trusted him too much, I couldn’t bring myself to believe he didn’t have all the answers, didn’t possess all the secrets of the universe. I rebelled against him merely at surface level: grew my hair two feet long, wore a nose ring, got myself tattooed. Played loud music at terrifying volumes. All of these attempts to say, “I’m not like you! Not like you at all!”

You know what, I should have spent more of my energy trying to figure him out and the lessons he really wanted to impart.

I dedicate this to all the men and women who, like me, never quite understood a parent, or figured out how to make themselves understood. Despite all my father’s failings — and they were many — he only wanted me to prosper.

Worth a shot.

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