I know I’m not alone. There are legions of us pre-boomers born just before our fathers went off to war. Many didn’t come back. Many did, but in various states of brokenness, never to be whole again.
My father was a broken man before he went overseas.
He was broken by the grief of loss, by the sight of his beautiful, baby girl who had just died during child-birth, and the apparent lack of any understanding in those days about how to cope with such grief.
It could have been, should have been avoided. Mom had problems all through her pregnancy, and was advised to stay lying down as much as possible. It’s not like the doctor didn’t know.
My father and mother were deeply in love. He was a kind and gentle soul then, just 17 when they married. Mom was 19. “He couldn’t do enough,” she has often said, about how he took care of her every need. She has told the same story over and over, as she has always done, about troubled times past. It’s her way of trying to understand what happened.
He got her to the hospital somehow – she can’t quite remember how, maybe by cab – and stayed in a waiting room for as long as it took. Their baby’s name was Susan. Mom’s grandmother asked them to name their first child, if it was a girl, after her youngest child of that name who died when she was a teenager.
Afterwards, Mom didn’t see the baby. The medical staff must have thought it would be too upsetting for her; or maybe it just wasn’t done. A big mistake of course; nowadays they know better. But Dad saw her, and I think it’s fair to say it was indeed too upsetting for him, however it was handled, or mishandled.
There was a tree outside Mom’s hospital-room window. It was early spring, with the buds just starting to swell on the tree. The next morning Mom saw a robin land on a branch, sing its heart out for a while, and then fly off.
We must take better care of our songbirds. They fly with the spirits.
Later, Mom used to tell me, an angel appeared to tell her not to worry, that she would have another child, a boy. The death of this child had prepared the way, the angel said.
It took me a long time to realize the effect that story had on my life, including my troubled relationship with my father. Years ago I wrote a story – which I included in a self-published book of short stories – about a man weighed down all his life by a burden of guilt for having caused the death of his beloved, younger sister. In the story her death led to the break-up of his family. I recently published a four-part version of the story in this blog, as you may know.
When Mom read the earlier version, she understood why I had written it, and felt bad about what she had told me when I was a child about Susan’s death. She felt she had to tell me, “You didn’t kill your sister. She drowned in my blood.”
I said, “it’s okay Mom. It was a terrible thing that happened. You were never really given a chance to deal with the loss and the grief. You were trying to cope, as best you could.”
Not that long ago, I guess because I was still trying to understand some things myself, I asked her if she had told Dad at the time of Susan’s death about the bird in the tree and the angel.
She said yes, and of course wondered why I was asking. At first I lied and said I was “just curious.” But I could see she thought there was more to it than that, so I told her the truth.
I don’t think my father ever got over Susan’s death.
I think I may have mentioned in an earlier blog that he died in Los Angeles in 1970, at age 47, of ALS. I went to his funeral, with his second wife Daisy, and my younger brother and sister, David and Susan. Yes, Susan, who lives in Florida, has a lovely family, and may be coming up for a visit this summer, I hope. From what she and David have said, our father found some peace of mind near the end of his life.
I was back at work in Toronto after returning from Dad’s funeral. I worked picking orders for auto parts in a big warehouse. I was way at the back in among the red-primed replacement fenders when I saw Noel Sullivan. I knew him well enough, though I wouldn’t call him a friend – more of an acquaintance. He gave me an odd look, as if he was apprehensive about something to do with me.
He pushed his cart over to where I was and stood there for a moment, not saying anything. Then, he said something that will always remain foremost in my memory:
“I have a message from your father.”
I should explain Noel was, and maybe still is, wherever he may be, a practicing Catholic. But he was also interested in Druidism, the life-affirming, spiritual religion of the Celtic people, particularly of pre-Roman, ancient Britain. I didn’t know much more about Noel’s spirituality beyond those bare bones. But I’ve thought a lot about those few moments at the back of the warehouse, and I must say that, while I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the time, I have come to believe without a shadow of a doubt that he was in touch with my father’s spirit shortly after he died.
“I have a message from your father.”
For a second or two I didn’t know what to say in response. But then, “okay,” I said. What is the message?”
“He told me to tell you he can’t get away until you forgive him.”
Another pause, on my part, for breath.
I should mention here now, I had never told Noel anything about my relationship with my father.
“Tell him I forgive him,” I said after a moment.
“And, Noel, please tell him as well I love him and miss him very much. We could have been such good friends.”
Generally speaking I’m not real keen on growing old. I’m still young at heart, still a dreamer, still wanting to do it all; but the once-boundless energy is just not there anymore like it used to be, and that’s hard to accept. I’m sure what you’re supposed to do is live in the present moment as best you can and embrace whatever wonders it offers – like a bird singing outside the window. After all, that’s what Finding Hope Ness is about.
But if growing old is also about reflective moments like these, and coming to some further peace with troubled times past – well, that’s a good thing too.
If you – wherever and whoever you are – have a father, living or dead, who needs and asks in the full light of conscience for your forgiveness, for your sake and his, do it if you can. I’m sure the results will be wonderful for you and him.