Sitting on my desk is a copy of the classic adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo. There’s nothing especially noteworthy about the copy of the book itself; it’s just a mass-market paperback edition, with its spine showing multiple creases from multiple readings. The pages themselves are yellowing with bent corners and you can tell by various marks on those pages that the book has been, shall we say, “well loved”. Even though there’s nothing remarkable or special about this book itself, it has very special meaning for me.
If you’ve been looking through Shaneisms, you’ll see that the last full-length entry I wrote was the eulogy I gave at my dad’s funeral shortly after his passing on December 27. In the weeks since, my mom has had the unenviable task of deciding what to do with his belongings. She asked if I wanted anything specific, and I simply asked for dad’s copy of Monte Cristo. It was always one of our mutual favorite books. In fact, it is my favorite novel, ever. Since receiving it from her, I’ve leafed through it once or twice but as I do I find myself strangely emotional.
“It’s just a book” I tell myself, and yet the personal significance is far beyond that. I see those creases in the spine, showing that the book has been thoroughly enjoyed all the way through several times over. I see that some pages have become dog-eared, some others have small stains, probably from the spilling of drops of whatever drink dad enjoyed as he read through the book for the umpteenth time.
“It’s just a book”, true, yet it is also a touchstone for me. This was my dad’s copy of our favorite book. This was his, and he’ll never pick it up again. He’ll never again leaf through its pages to re-read his favorite lines. There’s something surreal about that, lending a certain finality to his life and my memories of him.
The past few weeks have been ones of full of changes. Some of them have been wanted while others, well, not so much. I’ve started a new job as project co-ordinator for a program that uses filmmaking to reach out to and engage at-risk youth. While I’m excited about it, it hasn’t started up smoothly. I’ve had meetings with the media arts centre running the program, meetings with the community partners, meetings about those meetings, and meetings because other meetings had to be rescheduled because they conflicted with someone else’s meetings.
Apart from all those meetings, I’m still coming to terms with the passing of my dad. In many ways, his death hasn’t fully sunk in yet. That surreal feeling is most obvious when I’m at church on Sundays. We’d go to McDonald’s for breakfast before the service and talk about how our beloved Toronto Blue Jays or Maple Leafs were doing, knowing full well the answer most times was “they’re not doing well”. We’d talk about movies that had been on TV that week, or any number of things that came to mind as we looked over the morning paper as we ate our breakfast. We’d fight over who would get the Sports section of the newspaper first and I find myself still setting aside that section of the paper for him. Old habits die hard, I guess.
The church service itself has also been very different for me. It’s been quiet… almost too quiet. My dad was known for always making people at church laugh, for lovingly teasing them about something, and for always having a kind word and a big smile. I find myself still looking around the church when everyone is mingling and talking and expecting him to be somewhere, talking, smiling, and eating an extra cookie or two, assuming my mom isn’t there to tell him to watch his diet. When I remember that he isn’t there, a part of me says “oh yeah…” and that sense of sadness comes back.
It can be strange the things that can make his passing more permanent to me. I’m no longer getting email updates about his doctors’ appointments (something that was almost a daily occurrence over the past several months) and I’m starting to get accustomed to not hearing him pick up the phone when I call my mom to see how she’s doing. If I go out with my mom I’m getting used to the front passenger seat of the car being empty.
As things slowly settle into their new routine I find myself resisting the acceptance that this is the new normal. Because he was such a big part of my life, as any loving father is of their child’s, there is still a wound that refuses to fully heal. For someone who majored in Philosophy, who was taught to kneel down and worship at the twin gods of Rationality and Logic, this soulful wound defies those two deeply engrained tools of self-examination.
My wife, who works as an art therapist, keeps telling me that my unwillingness to fully accept the “new normal” is a completely understandable part of the grieving process. I tell myself, partly out of a childish, angry spite, that she’s wrong because as someone who majored in philosophy, I know that the Greek philosopher Socrates taught all life is just preparation for death. I, being overly-educated and under-emotional, know that grief is irrational and that a rational acceptance of death is necessary to moving past it. I tell myself that dad lived a good, just life, has received his ultimate reward, that he has discovered “The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no Traveller returns“, yadda yadda yadda.
I remind myself of all the deep quotes about mortality and death from all the deep thinkers I’ve read over the years, from Winston Churchill to Mark Twain, from Elie Weisel to Groucho Marx. I’m sure I could find more deep quotes if I tried, from ones that would make a good blog article title to some that would look really good as text on a picture of a kitten. I guess whatever solace they can offer, whatever insight I could glean from them, will go unseen and unwanted. For now. I guess that’s the whole point of grief: to not be rational, but instead to just be. To live in the moment until you’re ready for that moment to pass, and to find that moment when you’ve wrestled with your soul and won, for the time being.
I guess grief is the process of time solidifying the knowledge that someone we love is gone, of understanding the true finality of the situation. My dad did live a good and just life, he showed love and compassion to everyone he met. As a Christian, I do believe that he has received his ultimate reward, and that finding that “undiscovered country” was worth all the years he diligently searched after it.
My overly-educated head knows all this and has rationally, logically accepted the finality of it. My heart, however… my stubborn, slow-on-the-uptake heart… is still having a hard time admitting that all the adventures we had together are at an end, that he won’t be there to join in whatever triumphs I have from here on out, nor will he be there to remind me to keep going when things don’t quite go as planned.
Losing a parent is something that the majority of us will experience at some point in our lives. It’s a mile marker on life’s journey, like your first day at school, or your first kiss, or the time you find your first gray hair. The hard part is that there’s no set time when these events happen and the best I can do as I pass this mile marker in my own life is remember the good times with dad, the lessons he worked so hard to teach me, and to do my best to follow the decent, gentlemanly example he set.
Today, March 3, 2015, would have been dad’s 82nd birthday. It’s the first time I can remember that I won’t wish him “happy birthday” and celebrate the day, in some way, with him. It’s, again, one of those surreal moments when the finality of his passing really comes into focus.
Looking through his copy of The Count of Monte Cristo sitting on my desk I almost feel like, in some strange way, he’s using it to say goodbye. Maybe it’s me being over-emotional and irrational and committing all other sorts of philosophical sins, but the way the book ends almost feels like he’s saying a final goodbye to me, one final way of reminding me that life does always go on:
Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget that until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words:
“Wait and hope”.