This morning I was enjoying my morning ritual of coffee in front of the fire when, after thinking of my dad for a moment, I briefly did some mental calculations and realized that by the time Dad was my age (55), he'd already been dead for five months.
Not that you continue aging after your death, but you get the point. I realized I had outlived the lifespan of one of my parents. (Mom's alive and kicking at 85, so I guess that's the next milestone to beat.)
My dad has been gone now for 32 years, which is more years than I was old when he died (I was 23). The significant thing about that is that as of the time of this writing, he's been out of my life for far longer than he was ever in it.
With that kind of time and distance comes a certain acceptance of how things went down, which in turn allows you to pick up the whole tragic situation like a long-carried talisman, turning it over and examining exactly how it was made and what exactly it's made of.
With some people in our lives, especially our parents, it's only with the passage of time that we can really understand what their life has meant to ours -- how it shaped, conformed or deformed it, and how that's played out over the decades. And you sure as hell can't learn or know that at 23.
That's because 23 is far too young to lose a parent, even though on paper it looks OK because legally you're an adult. It's too young to lose a parent even if that parent was not a particularly good one. But in our society, adulthood is probably more accurately measured in terms of life experiences rather than our actual years, so as the saying goes, at 23, you ain't seen nothin' yet, kiddo.
The other thing that makes it complicated is that my dad died in no small part due to his own actions. He was an intelligent, complex and depressed man, a diabetic who became an alcoholic (basicially an engraved invitation to Mr. Death to come on in). He was also a chain smoker, and it was that which got him in the end. A cough that had been with him so long it was how I used to locate him in a crowd or in the grocery store turned out to be a harbinger of lung cancer. It was diagnosed in the summer of 1983, and the doctors gave him six months to a year to live.
They offered him chemo; he tried it once and gave up, saying it made him feel too sick to want to live that way. And then he spent his last few months visiting the bars he so loved, laying on the sofa, and telling me he had nothing to live for and therefore had no regrets about dying.
At 23 I may not have had a lot of life experience, but by the time 24 rolled around, I was mentally 40.
But of course I was not, really. And in the years after my father's early departure, I made one impulsive, stupid life choice after another. Sometimes a death close to you kick starts your survival instinct, and sometimes the ways in which that instinct plays out looks like a years-long manic episode, filled with partying, traveling, screwing around and making/breaking vows to everything and everyone, including yourself.
Of course I wasn't completely dysfunctional; I'd finished my college degree and had a career, an apartment, and paid all my bills on time. But my personal life is where the chaos was, and that's what part looks certifiably insane when viewed from the rear-view mirror of the calm present.
Somewhere around age 30, or seven years after my father's death, I settled down and had my son. And straightening up and flying right became more than about fixing me; it was about being fixed for somebody else, someone who totally depended on me. Having a child was a good enough reason for me to want to live well and live long.
And now here I am at roughly the age my own father died, with a son roughly the age I was when I was left fatherless. Seeing him at that age has made me more forgiving of myself for The Crazy Years, because 23 is just too young to be on your own completely, no matter how you think you feel about your parents and what you think you know about life. I see that in my son in a way I was never able to see it in myself at the time.
I'm more forgiving of my father, too, but still sad that he didn't stick around long enough to see how it all turned out. Perhaps I'll never know all the reasons why he gave up. But likewise, he'll also never know all the reasons I won't, or experience all the wonderful things he could have lived to see, but chose not to.
At 55 years old, I feel like I've just started the third act of a four-act play. So much can still be started, be seen, and be felt. There's just so much more to life than what my father couldn't see when he was my age.
That is, more than anything else, the talisman I've kept with me, even in the crazy years, but especially now. The secret is this: sometimes you live on not only because of the value you see in yourself and in the world around you, but most importantly, in the value others see in you.
Your heart beats for more than just you.