I got home from class this morning and I felt like calling my dad just to chat, something I did occasionally though, unfortunately, not often enough over the years. Anyway, very much felt like calling him, but you know, I can’t. He’s not there. There’s no phone I can use to call him now.
This is the thing I have to say about death at this point: it’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened in my life. You want to contact someone, to resume relations in the way that they were before, but it’s not just that you can’t, in that small-c way that describes the inability to resume things we have with people who, for all we know, are still walking around out there. No, this is a big-C Can’t which just affects your mind strangely.
After he first passed away, I found myself “talking to myself” though I was always self-conscious of the fact I was doing it: it was a coping mechanism. Sometimes the conversation was directed at him though I don’t believe he was actually “hearing me”. I was telling myself not to eat unhealthy food since, in a sense, fatty food’ s effects on the arteries increases risk of the kind of things that combined with the stresses of surgery to end his life. I can see my way to saying “he would probably be saying this to me if he were here right now”, but I can’t use the present tense with him. Even if, as the rest of my family says, he is out there watching, relating to us — even if this is the case — the contact is, as far as anything I’ve personally experienced, one way. He might be out there listening, reaching out to help, but I can’t hear his voice anymore, except in memories; I can’t feel his hand on my shoulder, except in my mind; or see his smile, except in photos and in what little visual memory I do have.
It reminds me of Pascal Boyer’s writing on the subject of death, of how it brings about massive contradictions at some basic level of the human mind. We’re all about social relationships, about linkage to other people. When a person dies, the social linkage still remains in our mind; the respect, fear, love, indebtedness, all of those things that we feel towards the living, we also feel those to people who have passed away. The instant of deat, as pragmatically as it might cut off those things in a material sense, does not cut the psychosocial knots that bind us together in social groups. These knots perhaps are never actually cut in life; for better or worse, they remain, linger, and they shape our memories of the people who go into death before us… and thereby, shape us, as well.
The day I visited my father’s body, already still for a few days, I understood suddenly, deeply, and immediately something of the practice which we Westerners crudely labeled “ancestor worship”. That English phrase bothers me deeply now, as if the priggishness of post-Classical Western religiosity simply had to denigrate anything that was not directed at the glory of its officially sponsored deity. When I saw my father’s body, I talked to him, and I kissed him on the forehead, but it felt stupid. It felt stupid because I knew those ears were not hearing me. I knew the nerves in his forehead were not relaying the kiss to his brain. And so I fell to my knees, and I bowed to him. I don’t think it was exactly a Korean kind of bowing, though it was something like what people do at Chuseok and Seolnal when they visit their ancestors’ graves. I probably did it too many times — there are rules that govern this kind of thing, but I don’t know them and frankly don’t think I would have cared about those rules. I cried, of course, but more importantly, I spoke to him and I told him that I understood why he told me not to come to Canada. For we had spoken just a week before his surgery, and he told me to not go visit in Canada, but rather to take Lime on a trip… and then mentioned he might be having a very minor surgery.
I touched my head to the floor many times, and I said that I understood, I understood, and that I hoped he also understood, and that I honored him and thanked him for the things he did for me, and that I respected him in his struggles and praised him in his accomplishments — not just successes, but the quiet accomplishments that most people have no idea about. I told him I loved him and missed him. And I know very well that I needed to say these things mostly for me, so that I could walk out of that room knowing that I could never say anything to him again during my life and expect to hear with my ears his voice responding. I walked out of the room feeling that I had honoured him, and in a way I think that honouring him gave me some kind of honour, too; strength to walk out of that room; dignity in my sorrow; a reason to not kick myself for the mistakes and failings I’d inflicted on our relationship.
I should have listened to my instincts, by the way. I wanted to go on that trip with Lime, and I wanted her to meet him, too. A part of me remembered having heard many times that a surgery is always a risk, but there he was, saying, “No, no, lad, just go on the trip. Don’t come here till summer, when you can see all of us and the new baby,” by which he meant, my sister Annie’s still-unborn child who is due later this year.
I didn’t follow my instincts, but instead followed his advice. And I had to — and on some level, still have to — forgive myself for it. Plenty of people have reassured me that it’s not my fault, and that, hell, I did as he asked me to do; but the rational part of a man and his emotional world are different things. I can know in my head that I rationally didn’t know this would happen; but the emotional world is a place where sorrow, regret, and guilt sometimes lose their boundaries. What I am saying is not that I carry a great heavy guilt within me about this, but that sometimes the boundaries between those feelings kind of blur, and that I guess for someone to accept the absence of fault on an emotional level takes a lot longer than it does to rationally understand that a choice is just a choice, and that reasonable choices, when met with bad outcomes, are not necessarily anything that reasonbly bring about fault. And for someone like me, more prone to feeling culpable for things that aren’t my fault, it just naturally takes longer to get over that emotional dimension of regret.
But having bowed to him, as strange as it must have seen to the very few people who saw me do it — my mother nervously joked with me about how I couldn’t bend enough to keep my butt down while touching my forehead to the floor — was very important to me, a very important part of my seeing my father off on his journey, or, more honestly, seeing myself off on the journey of the rest of my life which comes after his passing.
I felt like calling my father after class, this morning. But I can’t. That is what death is: it’s the thing that suddenly, one day, means you can’t hear someone else’s voice, because they’re gone. Death is of course what happens to the person who dies, but in the fact that death interposes between us and the people we love, death very much happens to the living with each loss. Death is the thing that makes it impossible to alleviate missing someone with a phone call, and straightforwardly converse, catch up on things, or just chat. It’s as if in death a door shuts, and whether or not you believe in communion of spirits, or an afterlife, or whatever, you must admit that the old, straightforward relationship is simply impossible. You can no longer imagine him going out into the world, having the effect he does on people you’ve never met. There may well be a glass window on the door, and the face of the deceased on the other side of it, waiting for you; but there are no phone calls, no emails, no chats over coffee or dinner outings, never again. The simple, straightforward, material relationship ceases, whatever else remains within or even without. That’s the deep, existential problem of death: that love is not extinguished when life is, that relationship is not snuffed out when life is, that one’s own half of a relationship is still here in this world when the other’s half has gone still and silent.
But, as they say, that’s life. I don’t know a cure for it, and I think such a cure would be unwelcome. There is, as Ovid said, no cure for love, and it is only that which could mitigate the pain of losing one beloved. So it is better that there is no cure. Better we should find a cure for death, I say, or the physic to fend it off indefinitely, at least. But never a cure for knowing loss when we are faced with it.