PARENT + LOSS | FIRST PERSON
Lost Memory: Uncovering a Father’s Love
It’s the fiftieth anniversary of my father’s death. I am only just now getting to know him.
For decades, I avoided diving into his journals. With neither a memory of him, nor a particular interest in family history, I told myself I wasn’t that interested, it could wait. But in truth, I was avoiding getting to know the father I never knew for fear of experiencing the loss I never felt.
The gap between memory and fact is filled by wishes and fear.
Not yet five, I don’t remember my father’s death on Christmas Eve. I don’t remember his fierce battle and rapid decline when his melanoma returned in October that year. I don’t remember much at all.
I do remember the sense of needing to be quiet, to be away from his room, but it’s a vague sense that translated into the fear that being my loud boisterous self was not OK.
I do remember the day after. A grandmotherly family friend came over to take care of us as my mother started taking care of plans. Already a journalist with the love of a scoop, I raced over “Do you know what? My Daddy died.” And then I burst into tears, not from grief but from a fear of having said the wrong thing.
When I see my friends’ boisterous four- and five-year olds, it’s hard to fathom how I have almost no memory of that time in my life.
A nearly-five-year-old seems so, well, human. She has language, self-awareness, humor, energy, a cast of real and fictional friends. A girl of that age bursts with life. So how is it that my memories of that time would barely fill a one-minute montage in a Hallmark movie? There was love and loss writ large, but the pages were erased before they were locked in my long-term memory.
The fiction I wrote to fill the empty places are the textbook stuff of any therapy breakthrough. I wasn’t worth staying around for. He didn’t fight to stay with me.
Of course it’s illogical, of course it’s not true, but it hides deep and has driven me both to aim to be perfect and to constantly feel I am failing to meet an unwritten standard. And the shadow on my personality has a similar duality: I crave to be heard and fear I am too loud, I want to be loved and I keep myself separate.
I also created stories that made his death OK. If he had lived, I’d be the girl brought up in a small country town with a religious father. I wouldn’t be the constantly questioning, adventurous, restless world traveler that I am. In this mythology, I am, in a way, better off. “You don’t miss what you didn’t know,” was my standard line when anyone expressed sympathy about the loss I suffered at such a young age, as if my suffering didn’t exist because my memory didn’t.
Some of my fiction came crashing down in Washington, DC, when I sat with my father’s boss and discovered an alternate history: in his version, my father was the rising star of his generation of surveyors, slated to be sent to Ethiopia to design agricultural irrigation systems. In his telling of the history I missed, I was a worldly girl growing up in expat communities in exotic corners of the world. I wept for a loss suddenly more tangible, but my selfish tears were for the path untravelled, not for the father who remained theoretical.
The one clear story about my father that I carried predated my existence, predated my parents’ marriage. At 24, my father went to the Antarctic. It was only the fourth year that Mawson Station had been opened in the Australian Antarctic, and few people had ever voluntarily spent a winter in the windblown and unwelcoming frozen continent. He, with two others and two teams of sled dogs, completed a grueling 400-mile expedition across an area never visited by humans before, mapping the peaks. Each expedition got to put his name on a feature, and Knuckey Peaks (67°54′S 53°32′E ) were named for my father.
My initial interest in exploring my father’s expedition and visiting his peaks arose more out of a desire for adventure than a connection with the man behind the adventure. I took classes in polar expedition skills, mountaineering, and documentary filmmaking, hoping to retrace his steps. When I wasn’t awarded one of the coveted slots reserved for the arts program, I took it as a signal and shelved my dreams, and they gathered a decade or more of dust.
Recently, as my interest in climate science grew, my curiosity about his journey took on a different meaning. I know he measured the depth of the ice cap, that the Antarctic is the canary in the global warming coal mine. And I realized that the few people who knew him there were now in late 80s or 90s and it was time.
I dusted off his journals, opened crisp envelopes, and started reading.
Through his journals, letters, and long conversations with those who knew him, I’m beginning to know the man who lived. He’s becoming more than the fact of his death, more than the void he left.
I’m learning that he was a man of warmth and boundless cheer. I wonder if my own tendency to the dark side would have been as strong had he lived.
I’m learning that he was respected by the people he worked with, he took on any challenge, he was as happy solving a problem with his hands as his head.
I’m learning he threw himself into whatever was there at the moment: coaching the next generation of surveyors in math and astronomy, getting involved in small town community when we moved to the country, happily giving up thoughts of another trip South as soon as his heart had a reason to stay.
Reading his letters to my mother, I discover a sweet romantic, thrilled to be in love, excited be a Dad. He was unashamedly soft and mushy and I understand how his loss defined her.
The parenting you don’t have is academic, a paper list of what a parent does. Witnessing real fatherhood added a dimension I hadn’t considered. Parenting isn’t about what you do, it’s about how you feel. A fatherless daughter loses a noun, a father, but I hadn’t considered the verb, being fathered. I missed being protected by a father’s fierce love. I missed being celebrated by a father brimming with pride. I missed being the single biggest source of joy to a man who was, by all accounts, one of the most joyful men around.
I learned of this loss watching my husband’s unfiltered love for his daughter, how he regards guarding her happiness and safety as a sacred trust even as she lives her adult life on the other side of the country. In witnessing how he holds her in his heart, my loss gains dimension.
Fifty years is a long time. With a half century of distance, the pain should be small enough to hold in my palm, to hang in a stocking by the fireplace. But for the first time, this Christmas Eve I understand not what, but who, I lost.
And I welcome the tears.