Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Outliving Dad

I try not to be too neurotic, but sometimes it can be a little difficult. I just finished reading a novel by Carl Hiassen called Basket Case, in which the protagonist is a newspaper writer roughly my age who is obsessed with the ages at which famous persons have died because his own father died young but he does not know any of the details--how his father died, at what exact age, where, etc. So as he grows older, with each birthday he notes whom he has outlived among the famous, but is always worried about his own fate, and whether he will outlive his father.

This story struck a nerve with me, because even though I am not quite as neurotic as the protagonist of that story, I am a little neurotic about my own health because I know exactly when and where and why my father died, and it makes me nervous. In fact, as of today, 17 May 2006, I have officially outlived my dad, who died just two weeks after his 48th birthday in November of 1965. He died quite suddenly of a heart attack, even though he was, to all appearances, anyway, fit as a fiddle.

He had one of those high-pressure jobs that were somewhat notorious during the 1950s and 1960s for killing the folks who held them: he was the manager of the truck tire engineering division at Goodyear in Akron, Ohio, and he often worked weekends and was often flying off to meetings all over the globe. I don't recall ever feeling like he was away too much--he seems to me to have spent plenty of time with the family--but I'm certain that his job was very stressful. He also smoked a pack of Chesterfields every day and that probably didn't help much either. My job and lifestyle, by comparison, should get me well into my 80s.

My mother also died at a relatively young age, though she made it to 62. She died of esophageal cancer in 1984. Her sister May died in 1988; then her sister Jeanie died in 1998; then her sister Patricia died earlier this year; then her sister Grace died just this past Saturday. She was 91. My mother's generation of her family is now gone, and it puts me in mind of my own mortality, especially today.

"Be not afraid" was John Paul the Great's unofficial motto, and it's a good one. There isn't really anything that a Christian should be afraid of, other than turning away from God. But even an unbeliever ought to get a grip on things when it comes to the End Time, since there's literally nothing that can be done about it, and, hey, how bad could it be if there is no God? If there is no God, then we cease to exist at death, and things will be no different after we die than they were before we were born, and we aren't afraid of the time prior to our birth, so why fear the time after our death?

For Christians, the death of our physical body is just a prelude to something new and different. It is easy to be afraid of that which is new and different, but unless you have willingly turned away from God there is no reason to fear the new and different existence that will follow your physical death.

But we're like any other biological organism: natural selection has given us a rather powerful survival instinct, which manifests itself (sometimes) as fear of death, and our rational faculty insures that we are ever more aware of death's approach with age. When I was a kid, death didn't seem all that real somehow. Even though I was sad about my father's death, especially right after the fact, like most kids I was quite resilient and did not spend my childhood mourning his loss. As soon as the fall of 1968, when I was a new student in the 5th grade at the Kent State University School, and kids were teasing each other--as was rather more common, I think, in those days than it is now--about what other fathers did for a living, I was not all that distressed when kids began to make jokes about what my father did for a living. I merely said "My dad's dead," and that was usually that. In fact, the knowledge that my father was dead seemed to affect the other kids more than me. There was a kid in my class named Kevin Veon of whom I was rather afraid at first because I saw him as the class bully. He certainly knew how to take care of himself, anyway, and he was a tough talker. But after he found out that my dad was dead, he would intervene whenever any kid made jokes about my family. "His dad's dead, you moron" he would say with great vigor, sometimes bringing his point home with a punch to the upper arm. Recently I learned that Kevin's own dad had died, and I was very tempted to get in touch with him and try to say something comforting--but it's been nearly 40 years since I knew him, and what would be weirder than that? I chickened out. I wish I hadn't, but now it seems too late.

No, I did not mourn my father's death much as a child. That has come much more recently. Since the birth of my son, in fact. Ever since Michael was born I have thought and thought about what it means to be a dad, and what life would have been like if I had had one myself for a little while longer. It's also a little hard to know how to be a dad without having had a model to work from, but I guess it's not so bad to wing it. At least Michael's not a serial killer. Yet. As far as I know. Olivia on the other hand....

So here I am today, one day older than my own father ever got, and feeling pretty healthy to boot. I was seven and a half, roughly, when my dad died, and when Michael turned seven and a half I began to think about my time with him as rather special, time that he gets to have with me that I never got to have with my dad. Now I am living a life that my father never had a chance to live, and every day is special in every way because of that. All time is precious to me now, a special gift of life and being that is not to be thought of lightly or regarded as ordinary and mundane. Life is never really ordinary and mundane, of course, but there is a great temptation in this materialist, youth-oriented culture to think of such things as getting up in the morning as nothing if not ordinary and mundane. But I begin each day with this prayer: "Thank you, Lord God, for the gift of another day of life in your presence".

I never prayed that when I was a kid. But this is not like writing to Kevin Veon: it is never too late to be grateful.

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