March 14, 2017
Today has been a slushy one here in New York as we braced for a blizzard that never was. But thankfully schools were closed which gave me ample time to reflect. During this solitary day, I returned to my thoughts about our relationship, part of which I shared with my students last night. Before I asked them to write a letter to a family member or someone close to them, I shared the story of the letters we had exchanged over the years and how each had made me feel. I confessed to them that I planned to write you a letter today on what would have been your birthday, that it was annual tradition that I have come to embrace. So here I am.
There is so much to say, so much I want to share, but I’ll start with a passage that my students and I discussed last night. In it, the author, a philosophy professor, describes the challenges he faced with teaching a seminar on death, and quite naturally, your image emerged during the discussion. I had planned the syllabus in advance, of course, but in doing so, I hadn’t noticed that the reading would coincide with my annual meditation. Like most things, however, I considered it fortuitous.
In one of the more moving passages, the professor expounded on the fear the seems to grip us when we face death. Then he countered this fear with something I hadn’t considered: “We have nothing to fear in death because we need to exit our lives gracefully to leave room for the generations that follow us.” This statement served to assuage some of my sorrows, for you were keenly aware of our gifts and actively sought to nurture our talents. You lived so selflessly that I wonder if you chose to bow out in your sleep if only to offer a final example of your grace and encourage us not to mourn too severely.
Even if this isn’t the case, if you had no hand in your passing, the professor inspired me to consider the worth of your life further. “We need death,” he explained, “to give life meaning, and yet the meaningfulness of our lives is precisely what makes death so frightening. Without death, our lives would be shapeless. Since we do in fact, die, our lives often take on shape, but once they have a shape, a meaning, who wants to die?” I’m not uncertain about what your life has meant to me, and it’s true that while you were here, I didn’t want you to go, but I’m not so naive anymore. Death is simply the final order of things.
Although I rarely find myself suddenly overwhelmed by that pronounced sense of loss that shrouded those first days and weeks and months after your death, I have been reminded this year that these feelings are never far from the heart. Just days before I was to meet him, Ama’s father passed away, and the travel plans that we had already confirmed became tragically ironic. I would meet him for he first time at his funeral, and the ordeal was tough to bear. In accordance with Ama’s culture, the family of the deceased opens their home to host friends and family members who call on them to pay their respects, and these visitations can go on for days, sometimes weeks. The gesture is a charitable one and present in most cultures, but what’s unique to hers is the expected outpouring of emotion that one should display upon entering the home of the hazen, as the mourning ritual is called. It seemed that in proper deference to the family, the shrieks had to be loud, the gesticulations wild, the tears effusive. And the sight of men and women, who often spoke in tongues foreign to me, prostrating themselves before everyone assembled was tough, a persistent tug and unsettling of the heart. This was not the way I had planned to meet her extended family. It was supposed to happen at our wedding. I was supposed to introduce myself to her father as her eventual husband, but this would not be, and I still struggle to interpret the untimely significance of his death, especially since her relationship with him was strained.
At his funeral, I sought a frame, an understanding that could appease my troubled heart. Selfishly, as I watched her rise to the lectern next to her father’s open casket, I began to think of my own father’s mortality. As tears streamed her face and she offered final reflections of their relationship, I listened as intently as I could, but too frequently, I was distracted, wondering what I would say at my father’s funeral. How would our strained relationship color my sentiments?
His death, I know, is closer than I care to admit, hopefully no sooner than I can bear. He takes dozens of pills a week to regulate his diabetes and high blood pressure, and yet he still smokes, and the herniated disks in his back still cause him pain. While his passing will certainly be a shock, like all deaths, I’m not exactly afraid. I’m more worried about his last days.
We have come across a rough patch in our communication of late, and I haven’t spoken to him in months. The last time was his birthday when I called in a generous, well-intended spirit, but he spoiled the mood by cursing me out. I wasn’t alarmed or injured as his words have left me in the past. Instead, I have learned not to take his assaults personally. I know that he’s not cursing me out. His diatribes are attempts to rebuke all those who have injured him, everyone who is not in his present state of pain, both physical and emotional. You may have already known this about him, but it took me a while to truly see him without the bias of sentimentality clouding my perception as it tends to do when we think of our parents. He simply, and rather tragically, has lived a life devoid of love.
A few years ago, on Thanksgiving or Christmas, I asked him why he never told me that he loved me, and immediately he became defensive. Had I ever not felt loved? Had he ever demonstrated anything other than love through his actions? No, he hadn’t abandoned me, nor failed to clothe and feed me and my brother, but that wasn’t enough. Words are important I proclaimed, and we went back and forth a few times until, after a brief lull in our exchange, he asked, softly, why hadn’t I told him before. And the words arose more as a plea for forgiveness, an unarticulated apology that made me realize that he simply wasn’t aware of the type of love that I yearned for.
His father surely never expressed his love in this way. He wasn’t the type to coddle his children, preferring tough love to tenderness, and who knows what my great-grandfather failed to express to him. Often, my father would repeat one of his father’s misguided maxims as if spoken from the gospels. “It’s not my job to praise you for the things you do right,” he proclaimed. “My job is to tell you when you’re wrong.” Upon reflection, I can admit that this approach is not entirely without merits, but I didn’t have the language as a teenager to assert the need for a balance, to counter his barrage of negativity, for its too obstinate, unaffirming nature hardens one’s attitude and spawns a certain pessimist. And this is who I became until I learned to embrace my sensitivity. I am of the lot of feelers who is attuned to the energy exchanged in conversation, the subtleties of facial expressions, the veiled messages conveyed in tone of voice, all the powers of observation that feed my writing. These things affect me in ways that, at times, I wish they wouldn’t, but I’m an artist. I need to feel. I’m sure he didn’t know, but my father’s brand of love nearly suffocated me. It blunted my sensations.
I’ve only come to this understanding as an adult, and as I reflect on the distance expanding between us, I see now that he has done nothing but be the best person he knew how to be. He needs love as much as I do, and my greatest fear is not his death but that a life lived so remote from love is beyond repair at its final stages.
I also know that when his words fall far below any semblance of love, I have to steel my heart and retreat. I can’t allow him to hurt me further. I have to flee and prepare myself for his departure. But the struggle with preparing for your father’s funeral, both his figurative death and the actual event, is controlling your emotions. I don’t want to be callous or mean-spirited in ending our relationship. At my core, I don’t want to walk away, but neither do I want to be too idealistic, too expectant of a miracle. I want to tell him that I love him in a forgiving embrace that absolves our sins, but this is not up to me alone. I simply have to accept this as truth and not abide too frequently in the past. I must look forward and prepare to be a better father for my unborn children.
These thoughts tend to interrupt my days, and often, I find myself thinking about him even when I care not to. He, of course, is my namesake, and every time I punctuate my name with Jr., I do so, first, to delineate my individuality and, finally, to acknowledge him. As much as I may want to distance myself from him, I know that we will never be separated. Even his family, our family, calls me Lil Irvin, and I have long since given up asking them to do stop doing so. I’m not sure how many days I’ll be granted, but I’m sure that for rest of them, I’ll remain Lil Irvin and I’m fine with that. It only means that there was a Big Irvin before me.
As I continue to grow and learn and seek wisdom, I’ve also come to know that this distancing between father and son is not always a bad thing, and in some ways, it’s necessary for the survival of us both. Exit West, a book that I’m reading now about migrating from one’s homeland as a result of war and unrest, articulates this succinctly: “If a flood arrives,” a father tell his fleeing son, “one knows that one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger because holding on can no longer offer the child protection. It can only pull the child down and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent and the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required. And the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s. In reality, one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve.” The junior sits atop the senior, and my life must continue in spite of his.
And yet sadness and despair does not always accompany death. Ama’s maternal grandfather, who lived to see his children flee war-torn Eritrea, save for the one who was killed in the conflict, died months after her father passed. Initially, I questioned why these men’s lives had expired during such an important time for us. We were planning our wedding, declaring before our friends and family our commitment to God and each other. But then I remembered Job. Who am I to question God’s plan? And I came to see her grandfather’s death not so much as a somber event, but as a blessing. The man had lived to experience ninety-five revolutions around the sun. When he passed, he was surrounded by his children and was laid to rest in his native country. His life was abundantly full. If nothing else, he had known love, the invaluable consolation of all the strife that complicates living.
So I’ll end here with a reflection of all the blessings that have visited me this year. So many of my close friends and family members have welcomed children into the world, and Anthony, just this month, gave you another grandchild. The life that I envisioned for myself so long ago, way back when I was sleeping in your living room on the pull-out couch, has emerged in vivid relief. It still amazes me how far I’ve come with the help of your guidance. And in two months, I anticipate that I’ll experience the happiest day of my life. I’m so fortunate that you had the opportunity to meet my wife-to-be before your death. We’ll certainly say a prayer for you at the ceremony.
Finally, if it’s not too much to ask, I have one request. As you commune with the angels, please ask them to touch my father to open his heart to those places where he and I have shared deep, hearty laughs, where we have conversed for hours about life and sports and nothing, where we have respected each other as men. I pray that however wide the gap between us may be on my wedding day that we find a way to bridge the divide and express our love for one another. I certainly miss the warm region of his personality fortified behind his pain. I know he only seeks to protect his heart, but please tell them to pass along my message of love. I never want to hurt him.
Thank you for everything, and yes, even your death, for it, like everything else you have shared, has taught me so much.