On August 30th, 24 years ago, my father passed away at the same age I am now, 44. I am frequently amazed at the size of the void his loss still maintains in my life.
Throughout the years, as milestones passed, the sting of his absence grew. A graduation here, a birth there – all these “happy” events carried a small cloud along with them that, although keeping its distance, never let its ability to overcast the brightest moment go unnoticed.
Like anyone experiencing the untimely loss of a parent, I made the typical efforts to place others in that role, sometimes with their knowledge and sometimes without. Each time I found myself disappointed at their inability to fill the shoes that I would never allow them to if they even tried.
It was really unfair to those I asked and even less fair to those I did not. But the reality was that, often without even realizing it, I was searching for something, or someone, to fill that space. I didn’t always understand what I was doing but subconsciously, I was on a serious quest for a father figure to look up to.
Pop died a father of three and a loving husband. Today, I am described similarly. I cannot imagine how I would feel faced with the reality that I would be gone from this earth a few short days from now. I shudder to think of the sadness that must have filled him as he pondered what our lives would be without him and what his death would be without us. The reality of his forthcoming death was so overwhelming that I never really stopped to consider what it must have been like for him, as I drowned in my personal fears and sorrows while counting down the days.
As my mother, brother, sister and I passed through the post-diagnosis stages of grief, beginning with denial and culminating in acceptance, it never occurred to me to wonder what might have been going on in Pop’s head. I think, in my mind, I believed that his troubles would be ending and ours would just be beginning. To some extent, that was an accurate assessment although incredibly selfish on my part.
Much of my adult life, I have found myself stricken by the fear that my father’s death created. Eight years after his passing, I had an epiphany, realizing how much I had crippled myself by blaming all of my failures on the “untimely death of my father.” I did not return to college my Junior year because of the “untimely death.” I did not get a promotion because of that “untimely death.” I was actually searching for ways to fail simply to use that excuse. I’m pleased to say that I successfully threw the untimely death excuse out the window and committed myself to not hold back, never grasping again at that excuse for not accomplishing my best.
But fear is a sneaky thing, and it disguised itself and returned in a different form. As my life moved forward and I began to finally achieve some successes, that sneaky wraith would whisper to me that I needed to get everything prepared for my 44th year. I became convinced that I needed to have everything in place for my own impending “untimely death.” Wayne Blazer, a true pillar of our community before his own untimely death, once told me that he was worth more dead than he was alive. While I found it humorous, I also found it to be prudent. So, I maintained a sizeable life insurance policy. I read up on financial planning for my kids who would be much younger than I and my siblings were when my father passed. I took the steps I needed to in order to convince myself that I was prepared.
Only as my self-condemned death day has approached have I become fully aware of having essentially been planning my death for 16 years now. Given that I have had so much time, one would think the funeral arrangements would be better organized. With this recognition, a couple of things stood out to me. One, I painfully realized that fear successfully played me for a fool once again; and two, I don’t have any real plans on dying anytime soon. My wife, children and bill collectors will be thrilled by that second realization.
I am amazed and disappointed that I can honestly remember telling myself to avoid several new experiences because I was too far along in life. I truly let myself believe those lies for a time. Today, though, I am seeking the truth and thumbing my nose at fear in all its various incarnations.
To prove that to myself, I have recently taken up learning to play the banjo.
I also signed up for karate at Sevier Martial Arts. I have had my kids in it for two years and have sat on the side lines believing that I was too old to chase a childhood dream in any way other than vicariously through them. Well, there will be no more of that for me. Beginning today, I will be the biggest, oldest, newest and, by the end of class, sorest white belt in the school.
And to my Pop, whom I have not written in decades, I love you and miss you but you will have to wait a while longer. I am not quite ready for the reunion.
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© Michael L. Collins
Published under the same name in the August 27,2014 edition of The Mountain Press