I'm a fan of the comic strip Lio — the one with the weird little kid with the pet squid and whose antics clearly make him a descendant of the Addams Family. The strip for Christmas eve was a little different, though.
It hit home for me because the day after Christmas is my day of melancholy. It was the day after Christmas, 1993, that I got a phone call from my mother to let me know that Dad had died, unexpectedly, suddenly, quietly. It's a memory that colors my holiday season every year, and it's a strange thing — the grief and sadness never go away. One of the lies we always tell ourselves is that the pain will go away with time, that we'll get over it, that time heals all wounds, and it's not true. Every loss is forever raw, and we can feel it all again with just a thought or a reminder, like a Christmas phone call to the family. The older you get, the more of these moments of grief you accumulate, and they never leave you.
My father was cremated, and there is no location I can batten upon as a focus, no place for flowers. And strangely enough, florist shops always remind me of my father, too; he took me to a little shop when I was a teenager, and helped me pick out flowers for my first date with the lovely young lady who would several years later be my wife…and it was this same florist shop I went to almost 20 years later to pick out flowers for his funeral. So I'm reduced to this, honoring a memory with an evanescent scattering of electrons on a medium my father never knew anything about. But hey, it's no more transient than petals on a grave, now is it?
So here's a moment of my time dedicated to my father, James Clayton Myers, slaughterer of many fish, mountain treader, wise-cracking gruff teddy bear, the man with the heart of an artist who surrendered his hands to grit and grease and callouses to provide for a family he loved, proud romantic, digger of clams, master of automobiles, worshipful husband, child of the western forests and the high icy streams and cold Pacific waves, and good human being. I miss you and am proud to have been your son.
As an official old guy, I've just broken the worrisome news that you will spend your lifetime gathering losses, holding forever in your mind these memories of loved ones who are lost, and that the pain of deprivation will never go away. So why do we go on? What possible virtue can there be in a long life of ever-growing sadness? Lio again has a hint at the answer in his Christmas day strip:
Grief can grow, but so can joy. We can find delight and contentment in moments that balance the grief, without detracting from the honor we give the dead, and those moments also accumulate and never diminish in the happiness they bring to us. I can remember the good times I had with my dad, and the good times I've had with my children, and can look forward to a future of fulfilling cheerfulness with friends and family — this is how we cope. We embrace both the sorrow and the joy, letting neither reduce the other, and fill up our lives with everything. Hail and farewell, goodbye and greetings.
Having lost my dad a couple of months ago I can relate.
I'm filling up now . . .
My dad had a stroke two weeks ago. He's been in the Phillipines a world away and it was terrifying. We don't have much of a relationship these days, but it still struck me in my tracks. He's improving at a good pace, but I understand the sentiment PZ. I'm glad to know a little bit about your father and the kind of man he was, and still is, in your memory. Have a great New Year.
Thank you so much for this, PZ. I lost my sister this past summer to cancer--she was only 53. It's walking the old tightrope time with the religious fanatics in my family this holiday season. My sister's daughter just had a little girl, and she wrote on Facebook the following horrible inanity:
"It's amazing to me, really. I prayed so hard for my mama to be able to see her second grandbaby. Now experiecing the emotional rollercoaster I'm on just from giving birth, I know God did right by me taking her before so that I could do one emotional thing at a time."
It made me feel physically ill to read this--that she would be so self-centered as to believe that her god elected that Ellen should die just to make her daughter's life a bit easier. But your beautiful sentiments about your father have buoyed me up. I may even share them with my niece.
My dad died unexpectedly 25 years ago. The pain does not go away, but it softens a bit.
PZ, you can still buy flowers for your dad and place them on your desk or kitchen table to remember him. You can smile or sigh at them for the days they last.
We go on. We make new memories, both joyful and tragic with our families and friends. We try to make a difference and whether we do or not, we can be satisfied with the effort. It is enough.
My condolences, PZ.
I can't quite comprehend your emotions at this time of year because both of my parents are vigorously alive, well, and driving me crazy (and I regularly complain about it). Actuarially, I'm supposed to outlive them and then I'm going to have to deal with a world that doesn't contain them. But not yet. So I offer you my condolences and feel a touch of apprehension.
This was almost certainly my last xmas with my father, who probably only has a few months left. As I watch a once strong and still young man waste away, I'm constantly faced with the tragedy that he is suffering and we will lose him, but also with the joy and luck that I managed--through no act of will of my own--to have an amazing man as my father. I'd say that it is more than worth it to have had such good fortune, except that worth has nothing to do with it. It merely is. I'm just glad to be along for the ride.
Thank you, PZ, for sharing this.
i lost my mother two months ago as well. i know the pain won't go away.
somehow, all the comforting stuff just isn't comforting to me.
For me it will always be Good Friday, even though it moves through the calendar, that will make me think of the passing of my Father. Thankyou for this reminder of how indeed we go on PZ. Many joys to you and yours.
The longer I live, the more deeply I feel the joy of love and the pain of loss. At any given moment I could lose myself in either joy or grief, they surge along just under the surface of awareness. I choose to access the positive as much as possible, but some things push me in the other direction: the Christmas Eve Lio strip a good example. I do believe love sustains us, and even with the deep sadness of my mother dead these ten years and my 92year-old father fading fast, I love them both very much and have been fortunate to have been the son of such kind, generous, supportive people who taught me to be the compassionate man I am today. Here's to an increase in the love in all our lives in the coming year, and as my Dad says: "Don't let the bastards get you down."
PZ, your Dad and Mom are handsome/beautiful! (Jeez, YOU must take after some distant cousins.)
This was touching and thoughtful. Thank you.
It's also an example of the feeling behind much of what unbelievers do. In the daily grind of defending ourselves against the goddy know-nothings, it's not that often we can make a statement that illustrates WHY we do it: Not because we're bad people, but because we're the GOOD ones. The ones who keep trying to see and understand.
The most powerful reason to become an atheist is because religion too often obscures all the good answers, the right answers, the answers that leave us open to these wonderful realizations such as the one you just stated.
If "goddidit" gets its way, nothing more complex ever enters the discussion, and the people trapped inside it stay children, in some ways, forever. If you habitually accept simplistic answers from a powerful parental figure, you literally are a child all your life, and you never learn to observe on your own, draw your own conclusions, never learn to think your own thoughts or develop your own sense of values.
Here in what you’ve written is the evidence that great understandings can grow out of the freedom to hear your own thoughts and feel your own feelings, away from the blaring foghorn of religion.
Not long back, talking to a friend who shares my experience of losing loved ones, I asked “Does love ever go away? Does it ALWAYS have to hurt that you lose people you care about?”
The answer was: Yeah, it always hurts. That’s one of the ways you know it was enduring love.
It's not something I can relate to, but you got my sympathy. It's already bad enough to love loved ones, but when it happens on marked days, it somehow seems to add up. My mom's mom died on my sister's birthday. It's a mess.
Agh! I meant "To lose loved ones!" It good enough to love them! Gosh, I need a drink.
I had to learn all death of someone very close at a fairly young age. My grandfather, who was essentially the father of my early years, died a slow lingering death.
I guess the only consolation was that the distance and wariness we'd felt for each other before his illness became a deep, quiet closeness after it. Oddly, it was my quiet and sort of creepy calmness (for a child) that had driven him crazy in the past but that turned out to be what he wanted most when things got bad. Yeah, I was a weird kid, probably mild Asberger's.
I spent a lot of being 10 and 11 in hospital rooms with him, at his request. I was consistently the person, sometimes the only one, who could sit quietly with him, rather than trying too hard to "help" or crying or yammering. He knew he was dying, but he didn't want hysterics or people making a fuss over him and he definitely didn't want to waste his breath on idle conversation (then again, he never liked that...) He just wanted some peace and quiet, but didn't want to be alone. Plus, I could get him a drink of water, cover him better, open the drapes, etc.
Funny... I just remembered that he always gave me the Jello from his dinner trays, if I happened to be there when he was eating. I hadn't thought about that in years...
Since we are being reminded at work that "digital is forever", I would say that your tribute to your father is rather less evanescent than many alternatives.
My father died many years ago two days before Christmas, just before I really had a chance to get to know him as an adult. An enduring sadness.
My condolences, PZ. You are a tribute to your parents, everything they ever taught and all the great things they imparted to you. Loss is indeed sharp at this time of year, but memories keep those we loved always close.
That was a moving and beautiful tribute, PZ.
In August of 2008, my mother's father died, and then in November, my father's father died. On 6 January 2009, my maternal grandmother's sister was murdered. I don't think the family feels the loss quite as keenly as at the holidays -- the sudden loss of three faces in the ubiquitous holiday dinner-table photographs (a strange and long-running tradition in our family that stretches unbroken back to the 1940s!) is still unsettling a year later.
My heart goes out to you, PZ. I lost my father when I was 12 on December 17th in a car accident. We were very close.
I still remember opening the last presents he got me a week after he died. The holidays have never been the same for me since.
Thank you. I've often said that one way to measure your life is by numbering the losses you've experienced. Thank you for reminding me to mark the joy too.
My daddy died the 28th of December three years ago. Christmas and New Years hurts, and I don't want to lose the pain because he was my daddy and my best friend. At the same time, there is the joy of my niece, born ten months after her Grandpa died, and my marriage to my husband, and the friends I've made along the way.
I think that maybe we have to hurt to see what gift happiness is.
Have a peaceful day, and thank you for sharing
My Dad passed away six years ago at the respectable old age of 83. Mom went three years later -- and the real grief was watching them both go downhill in their last few years, becoming shadows of their former selves, crippled in body and mind. They were also cremated -- and I still have the ashes, stored in our cold cellar because honestly, I have no idea what would be fitting to do with them (maybe take them back to England and scatter them over the Yorkshire Dales on a windy day?).
Because I don't really need a grave-site, to be tended with flowers and visited on anniversaries. I have all the thousands of photos and slides my father shot, documenting their six decades of life together (and all of my youth as well). Dad was also a great DIY-er, and I think of him every time I don his paint-spattered shop apron, and cut some wood on the table saw he bought before I was even born, and make something with the tools he left me, that his hands used to build so many things over the years.
And that seems like a most excellent tribute.
an evanescent scattering of electrons on a medium my father never knew anything about. But hey, it's no more transient than petals on a grave, now is it?
You might take some comfort from an old sysadmin aphorism -
"spinning bits never die"
so long as the systems on which these words are maintained and updated they will be around.
My condolences, all who continue to mourn,
Over days, over months, over years.
The people who now only live in our hearts
Still are those who can bring us to tears.
Our fathers, our mothers, our siblings and friends,
We recall, though they stay in our past
Bringing heartache and happiness, eloquent thoughts,
And the knowledge that such love will last.
(Happy birthday to my old friend Perry Allen Whitesel III, who would be 49 today had he not accidentally shot himself to death at age 14. Yes, these things linger.)
That's a rare combination, and a good one.
My condolences and thoughts to you, PZ. That was a very moving tribute.
My condolences PZ, et al.
I got the call about a colleague right after I started the class that we both taught together. He was rear-ended by a truck while waiting for a school bus (red lights a-flashing) to pick up some kids. He died at the scene but they kept him "alive" for another day before calling the game.
At his memorial I tried to help myself, as well as his family and especial the many students who attended, with the theme you mention in your piece: "Grief can grow, but so can joy."
While we can never replace our family or friends, there are still so many potential friends out there just waiting to be discovered - if we decide to turn our sights outward and look forward and not look backward and inward and obsess on our grief and loss.
Remember those who have passed but keep looking forward as well. You never know where you will find that next friend.
Thank you, PZ, and everyone else for sharing their tales.
One of the lies we always tell ourselves is that the pain will go away with time, that we'll get over it, that time heals all wounds, and it's not true.
Yes. Nearly every time I see something I'd like to share with my dad, and feel all over again the loss... It's been 19 years in January, and still raw.
Here at Illinois State University yesterday a construction worker was killed. A man with family, 30 years in the company. He'd been called in on Christmas day because of a collapsed column facade. I guess Christmas is just another day. But, it can't be.
Your digital memorial may still be around, searchable, long after we're all gone and others are mourning us. Maybe long after a stone monument would have eroded to unreadability.
So, in the tradition of double initials, you are the son of JC?
Happy Boxing Day to all.
My condolences to you, PZ and a touching tribute. It’s been nearly 2 decades since my grandfather passed but I still remember it all very well.
Yes. That strip was most touching. My father died a week before christmas (and the day before my brother's birthday), and my mother died on thanksgiving.
As a daily reader of death notices, I never fail to notice how many more notices appear on the page around the holidays, and I also know a girl whose grandmother died on christmas eve this year.
I have always wondered about this phenomenon.
My condolences to you, PZ, to myself and to all of our brothers and sisters worldwide whose holidays are touched by similar losses.
"Ah, you know: strikes and gutters, ups and downs." - The Dude
Oh - at times like this, when I remember those who've gone before me, I also remember THEM, and many happy moments spent with them.
There is sadness, but there is joy as well never to be lost.
My mother died in 1967 when she was 39. My father died in 1983 when he was 63. My mother's body was given "to science." My father was cremated and for years we kept his and my grandfather's ashes in boxes in the closet. Finally, a few years ago we took and buried the ashes in an old family plot. I've never been back there and never put a stone on the plot.
These deaths were close to Christmas. I always preserved Christmas traditions for the sake of my younger sibs, but since childhood I wished it would just go away. Christmas has never truly been a happy time. Nothing to do with religion, just the sadness of losing parents associated with that time of year.
I give to the local symphony in my father's memory. He loved music. I've never done anything in my mother's memory. I never even thought about it until this minute.
My sister's daughter died a few years ago. As the family tradition dictated, she was cremated. We got a stone and interred her in a cemetery walking distance from her mother's home. She walks there regularly.
I am sorry for your loss. All of you. Love brings heartbreak.
Perfect comic. (painful sigh) My mom died in June after a series of strokes and a long illness. Like your dad, PZed, she asked to be cremated after her death, so she doesn't have a gravesite. What's more, when the three of us siblings were standing around discussing the funeral arrangements as her body was being taken away, my brother said, "Aw, let's not have a funeral for her. You know Mom; even if we'd have had one, she wouldn't have come." At the time, it was a joke that cut through the pain with humour. I was relieved not to have to grieve publicly or to plan and execute the project, but six months later, I have second thoughts about it. Now, I wish there was a place where I could go and feel like a trace of her was still present, even just as minerals in the ground. When my time comes, I like the idea of a "natural burial" for my own remains. At least I can do something positive and fertilise the soil, eh?
Very touching, PZ. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughter House 5: Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello.
NewEnglandBob @ 5:
PZ, you can still buy flowers for your dad and place them on your desk or kitchen table to remember him. You can smile or sigh at them for the days they last.
I think I'll take up this brilliant suggestion for both my parents, thanks NEBob.
Thanks PZ and everyone for your sensitive, wise, and kind thoughts. Pharyngula has made my day so often, but today's is special.
She walks there regularly.
in a long, black veil
Thanks for this beautiful post PZ, you made me cry. My grandfather-in-law passed away two years ago on Christmas eve, and this year a member of my husband's family was killed in a car accident on Christmas eve. She was 22. It's a horrible tragedy. I didn't know her well, I only see her at birthdays and Thanksgiving, but she always had a smile on her face and she touched so many people as the comments on her facebook page attest to. Thinking about this tragedy, about her devastated parents (she was an only child and they absolutely worshiped her) and about her boyfriend and her cousin/best friend who were both in the car with her but survived gives me such a sinking feeling. I can't imagine what they're going through.
The only silver lining I can think of to put on this dark cloud is that she'll be remembered every Christmas, and Christmas will likely become a celebration of her life, as you have done with your dad, PZ.
Thanks PZ. That set off memories of my own parents, who both died in 2002. I try to think of the good times together, not their last months, which were marred by well-intentioned but I think mistakenly activist treatment by the NHS, contrary to all the "death panel" rubbish.
It occurs to me that even 100 years ago, few of the young would need PZ's warning that grief doesn't end and you accumulate griefs as you get older. For myself, no-one I really cared about died until I was 41 (I wasn't close to any grandparents), which would have been extraordinary in 1900. Something else technical advance has done for us.
Grief is an animal thing, but I guess it goes along well with empathy. It always enrages me how the jesus cultists talk about "another life" as if what we have is cheap and disposable. The saddest thing for me is knowing I will never see people again, or as Hadrian put it: nec, ut soles, dabis iocos (though he was talking about himself). I tell my friends I really wouldn't care what would be done to me when I'm gone because the dead simply don't care - I recommend toasting me, flushing me down the toilet and getting on with their lives - after all, it's not really me if it's not walking and talking and thinking. We're all destined for the grave, but H.W.Longfellow puts it well in his "Psalm of Life". Longfellow also writes of his second wife in "The Cross of Snow":
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
I know how you feel, PZ. having those close to use die sucks, big time.
Someone once asked me if it didn't bother me more when a loved one died because I couldn't (or to them wouldn't -- i.e. petulantly refused Jesus)
believe in an afterlife where they were happy and loved.
As a point of inquiry unrelated to the topic:
Is it true that more people die in the winter time than the summer ? I've always wondered if that bit of conventional wisdom was true or if it was just what people wanted to be true.
There's something quite romantic about an "evanescent scattering of electrons". I've always liked the Jewish notion of leaving stones on a grave, symbolic of the idea that we are forever mourning, forever building monuments to the ones we've lost and continue to love. But leaving rocks or dead flowers on a grave marker can't possibly be as satisfying as planting a tree in memory of your father.
Thank you for sharing your memories of your father. And indeed, as we get older our losses grow in number, but hopefully our gains do too. Whenever I think about two dear friends I lost quite young, I am reminded of a time when the two people I love most in the world now hadn't even been born yet. Ogden Nash put it well in "The Middle":
When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.
My folks are still with me, but as I hit middle middle-age I have reached a point where many of my best friends are dying on me. I have lost two in the past four years. Both atheists.
Andy was the first to go. His funeral was lovely. A completely secular affair. I had my sketchbook with me and drew the cross that had been dismantled and left leaning against a wall in a corner of the chapel. Andy would have grinned at that detail.
There was a big crowd there. Many people loved Andy for his humanity, his warmth, his fierce intellect, his music, his artistry. I admired him for his ability to wear a 'Christianity: Get Over It' T-shirt in public and never get into a fight, so disarming was he. It speaks volumes about him that the eulogies were given by several former girlfriends, all of whom hugged each other. We all missed him so.
I stood next to my pal Steve at Andy's funeral. He was another godless man. He was also my art mentor and a world-class comics colourist, most famous for his work on 'V For Vendetta'.
Last year we buried Steve. He'd returned to his home town to look after his frail, war-veteran dad, but a TIA did for him and so his father had to bury him instead. However, we did it with laughs and a good music track, because Steve was all about chuckles and a good groove.
This year we went to a public park and planted a tree there, pouring Steve's ashes at its roots. And then we all went to the pub, because that's what you do in England when you remember a best friend: you seek company and a good drink.
I find it a comfort not believing in an afterlife. I have no fears about heaven or hell. I have no need of piety. My grief focusses me on the here and now, on maximizing my life because I know there are no second chances, no pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die. Death grounds me and makes me take stock and resolve to do more and do better in the here-and-now.
The Godly can keep their paradise. Mine is here on Earth and it's greatest treasures are my loved ones, both living and preserved in memory.
I was playing some music yesterday, iPod on shuffle, when I heard Andy's voice again, singing a beautiful song, 'Love is the Law'. It was touching to hear. There *are* ghosts, but only in these small tangible reminders of the lost. In memories, in the echoes of a song, in the ink on a comics page. Even these things will pass: memories will fade, and so will the ink. But that's okay.
Immortality is for losers. Making the most of a brief span is all that counts.
- Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (aka Percyprune)
P.S. Andy's music and his cartoons can be found at: http://www.linusland.co.uk/
Happy Boxing Day to all.
Bah. The FSM having a quirky sense of humor, this is the day of St Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, the only martyr's day that is a holiday over here. A day when Catholic priests wear a robe that is bright red. And Greek stephanos means "crowned".
his ability to wear a 'Christianity: Get Over It' T-shirt in public and never get into a fight, so disarming was he. It speaks volumes about him that the eulogies were given by several former girlfriends, all of whom hugged each other.
I lost my dad nearly 30 years ago, on Valentine's Day. I still miss him keenly. But some things do get easier.
I feel the need to mitigate all of this: my sister had her third baby on Christmas Eve. My sis is an atheist who loves the commercial kiddy holiday. So joy, like you say, only gets greater as well.
It was a moving post.
I wish i could say i can relate, but i can't.
The closest person i lost was my grandmother. Both my parents are still alive.
When i think of my grandmother i smile. I'm not sad, she had a good life and i'm happy that i could be a part of it, and she could be a part of my life.
Maybe i'm strange, but i think life is too short to stay sad after the first shock of losing someone.
Everybody dies, the only real certainty in this life ;)
whups. should be "having those close to us. . ."
You are an exemplary human being, PZ.
Thank you for this post.
Beautiful and touching post PZ. I've lost a few people close to me, and the pain doesn't go away, but it gets easier to deal with every year. I still honor my fallen comrades, albeit in a new way now that I am sober =)
Thanks for sharing about your Dad, and about that strip. Though I wish it had an RSS feed.
People are never truly dead until they're forgotten. What a magnificent tribute to your dad PZ, a little of him and the obviously touching bond between you has taken root in all the thousands of people who have read this.
Just the other day, I found myself reflecting on my brother's passing -- from 16 years ago. Just when you think the pain has faded into the distance, it can just be something small that brings it right back to the surface like it was yesterday.
I miss him. A lot.
My daughter died on my birthday 11 years ago this month. I've always struggled with the fact that she died on my birthday... would it be any easier if it were any other day? I'm sure I'd have an answer if it weren't my own situation. I vividly remember what the nurse said to me after my little 6 week old baby died: "god only gives you what you can handle". I'm truly surprised I didn't take that woman out right then and there. I find it mind boggling the lengths people will go to (with the best intentions) to keep you from feeling the sadness and pain of loss. My nephew's mother just died 3 days ago at the age of 41 and no one mentioned it at the xmas festivities (except me, that is). Losing our loves sucks! It hurts and it sucks more than any other suck.
PZ, thanks for sharing your memories with me. So sorry for the pain you feel, but glad to know the wonderful contrast in your life!
I think Father is still alive. Maybe someone will tell me if he dies. But then, no one bothered to tell me when Mother died.
Lost mine in February. Much as I miss him, it was for the best. Stroke, dementia -- none of that feeding tube crap!
Beautiful and perfect. Thank you for this post.
PZ, you can always make me misty-eyed with this sort of stuff. Excellent writing, sir. Our lives are meaningful when we embrace who we are and what happens to us, and if we let others embrace who they are.
You have my empathy PZ. My Dad dies a few months back. I still get a little misty when I think about him, which is pretty often. While he and I never saw eye-to-eye on religion, politics, etc. I still think he was a great man. I miss him. I always will. I already know that.
Still, how lucky I am to have had a father that I can look back on with pride. How lucky you are too. Peace to you PZ. We both know our Dad's aren't feeling any pain or anything else any more. Thanks for sharing.
Lots of memories here. It's a real habit to think, "Oh, so-and-so would be interested in that" before I realize they are no longer around to hear it.
My father died three years ago, my mother in 2000; both in the depths of winter, not near holidays. But my father was so self-centred that it didn't occur to him to call us when our mother was dying. She had had a stroke and couldn't talk. He said, "She kept looking at me like she wanted something." Yeah--she wanted him to call her children. We barely spoke to him for about three years, until we had to take care of him in his forgetful years. By then, he had given away his life savings in "loans" to scam artists who batten on the susceptible.
Before that, over several years, my aunts and uncles died, quickly or slowly, of horrible things related to smoking. You know what makes me sad? Seeing my son smoke. Currently, he has quit again for about the third time.
I try to remember the good and forget the bad, and to remember my parents and the older generation as the vital, intelligent, capable people they were.
Thanks Cuttlefish, wonderful as always.
Thank you, PZ.
This year has been very hard on my family. I'm a melancholy person by nature and it's very difficult to not dwell on my grief.
I find our family plot in a small rural cemetery a comfort when I visit it. A century of my family is buried in the place they chose to try to make a life. Knowing that they persevered through poverty, crop blight, boll weevils, heartbreak, and death reminds me of how far we've come, and how much I owe to those who came before. The markers for my great-great grandfather, great-grandmother, great-grandfather, great-great uncle, great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins are starting points for the stories my mother tells me about our people, and touchstones for my own memories. It is those stories and memories that survive and will survive. No one alive today ever knew my great-great grandfather, but he lives in the family lore like a giant because we still remember him.
After a bout of cancer and surgeries, my wife has finally recovered, and this year she passed the age where both my mother and her mother died. Even though my mother has been dead for decades and neither my wife nor my son ever met her, I still think of her often and those thoughts affect me and by extension my wife and son, our friends, their friends and family, and so on.
Nobody is ever completely gone, but they continue through how those of us still alive have been affected. I try to honor my mother by how I live my life, not because she cares, but because she raised me to care.
Thanks P.Z. That was good.
PZ, I am deeply touched my this reminiscence of your father -- and I'm glad to get to know him a little through your words. He sounds like a fine and upstanding mensch. It's a little like "Let Us Now Praise Not-Famous but Very Worthwhile People".
The hole in your life will not ever go away, but its boundaries will become more and more marked by an infill of flowering memories and lovely story shrubs so that you're less apt to fall into it and have to climb laboriously out again. It becomes a place you can safely visit to enjoy and share the beauty; though I do find that sometimes I still wind up sitting on the edge of the hole, with my feet dangling in, crying, even after all these years.
Pygmy Loris, like you I spend time in our family cemeteries. I take flowers and the kids. It's a good time to tell the stories and make those we've lost real to the younger ones who've never met them in the flesh.
Some of you seem to be under the impression that Christians don't grieve as you do. In my experience, that's not quite true. Yes, we do hold out hope of a reunion when we ourselves die; but that doesn't make our sense of loss in the here-and-now any less. Nor does the notion of "god's plan" help a bit, as far as I can tell, since none of us have a clue what that might be. And unfortunately that trope leads some of us to say incredibly stupid and uncomforting things to each other -- which are just as offensive and useless in dealing amongst ourselves as they are unforgiveable when said to you. I've even heard devout Christians reply to that old "Well, it was God's will" by saying tartly, "That may be so, but the first thing out of His mouth when I see Him had better be an explanation of what the hell He meant by it . . . and He'd better make it good!"
I lost my beloved mother 32 years ago, when she was 42 and I 20. My father's been gone since 1990. I've lost all my grand- and great-grand-parents, many of my aunts and uncles, and three cousins. It won't be long before I have as many or more waiting for me on the other side of the river as I do here in this life. But I still have a job here to do: not just finishing raising my youngest two children, but also telling the stories so that all our young ones know the collection of brave eccentrics who brought out family up out of the river bottoms of East Texas and set our feet on the road to prosperity.
I tell them about both the wise moves and the stupid screwups, on the theory that forewarned is forearmed. I especially enjoy telling about the sheer craziness, like the time my three aunts drove to my sister's bank in the Cadillac, wearing their housecoats, to draw out $30,000 for gifts at the family Christmas party. Obviously they couldn't come in, as they were quick to point out to the drive-through teller when she couldn't send such a wad through the pneumatic tube; and so my sister got to hear over the P.A., "Donna, please come to the teller's window to take cash out to your aunts in the parking lot; they can't come in in their housecoats." But this is the South, and so her embarrassment was tempered with pride in the quality of our family's eccentricity.
To all of you who've told of your losses tonight, I thank you for the honor of sharing your grief and crying for the holes left in your lives. I very much hope that for all of us tonight, grief shared has been grief diminished, however slightly.
PZ, here is another poem that I recite to honor my father; it seems to me that it applies even better to you and your father. Perhaps it can be a companion piece for Cuttlefish's "Memoriam":
FATHER TALKED TO ME
By Hilda Bigelow
I had a father who talked with me –
Allowed me the right to disagree.
To question – and always answered me,
As well as he could – and truthfully.
He talked of adventures; horrors of war;
Of life, its meaning; what love was for;
How each would always need to strive
To improve the world, to keep it alive.
Stressed the duty we owe one another,
To be aware that each man is a brother.
Words for laughter he also spoke,
A silly song or a happy joke.
Time runs along, some say I’m wise;
That I look at life with seeing eyes.
My heart is happy, my mind is free,
I had a father who talked with me.
Lots to be proud of there, PZ.
The odd thing about getting older is seeing Dad looking back at me as I'm combing my hair.
As Blue Rodeo said, "When I look in the mirror, sometimes I see traces of some other guy." It's a lot more comforting than I thought it would be.
A trite saying from an old SF novel, but I have found that sharing pain or grief lessens it and that sharing love increases it. Pretty damn hard life lesson to learn, but better late than never. Keep memories as long as you can. Eventually you get to the point where they cease scorching you and just warm you. I will let you know when I make it that far. (smile)
Too true . . as I age the grief accumulates. My second child was stillborn on Christmas Eve and even after 18 years I find I can tear up thinking about my youngest child whose father kidnapped her when she was two and I have not seen since. This year my mum died as well and although we had not been in touch from years (incredibly abusive woman) I still grieve and am angry and sad about so much.
::sigh:: At least it's over again for a year.
I have found it different. I find that if I process the feeling and not fight it, it diminishes with time. It may never go away, but it is less painful each time I let it breathe. My Dad died November 1st of this year.
I do need to add that we grieve each in our own way.
Late last winter I discovered Pharyngula after having lost my pregnant cousin, her son and daughter, husband and two other families along with the pilot in the Bozeman, MT plane crash you wrote about March 25th. I found it in an effort to locate someone who had something sane to say in response to “vengeful God” tripe that swirled around in the aftermath (including ugly picket signs at one of the memorials.) Part of my rage and confusion was dissipated in sharing it with hundreds of your blog’s outraged commentors. It helped me cope in a time that seemed devoid of hope. All these months later, at a time which would normally be so joyful but is so excruciatingly painful for the holes left, I find comfort again, in your blog and your blog’s commentors. How blessed I am to have access to PZ’s evanescent scattering of electrons.
It does hit home. My mother died when I was five years old (some 44 years ago); and I have at times grieved for her as if it happened yesterday. As someone who tends to brood a little too much on his own circumstances, I've always found it salutary to be reminded that grief of this kind is nothing unique.
Nice memorial, PZ.
I lost my younger sister some years ago. It hit my parents hard. (Your children are not supposed to precede you in death.) It was and is very painful; though time does heal much.
I've been saying goodbye to my Dad for several years now as deterioration of his brain has taken away the man* I grew up with, looked up to, learned from, loved. It's odd to sit in a room with a man who looks like my Dad but he isn't there anymore. I am grateful for the long time we had together, that he got to know my son before his brain failed him, and for his long retirement which he enjoyed to the full. He has a good and long run, many more that the proverbial 3-score and ten.
* Giving the lie to the Xian nonsense about souls and such.
I'm reminded of one of my favorite Buddhist stories. A woman whose infant has just died, near-maddened with grief, comes to the Buddha and asks for some way to alleviate her pain. He tells her: find a house that hasn't suffered loss. She goes frantically from house to house, and of course she finds no such place. Her realization that grief is universal gives her at last some control over her pain.
I'm not a Buddhist; I don't agree with the notion of trying to extinguish such suffering in oneself; but I do appreciate the Buddha's compassion in trying to find an escape for wretched humankind.
This was really touching. Thank you for sharing it.
My father had a sudden massive heart attack at age 55, 2 weeks before Christmas in 2003. The fact that his anniversary shares the same month as the winter holidays doesn't make for much cheer, but the love and support from family and friends is always heartwarming.
A very moving tribute to your father, PZ. My sympathies go to you and all the others grieving, and commemorating, here. An awful lot of tears must have been shed by the readers of this piece.
One Easter, nearly forty years ago, my first child died within days of birth. The very first thing the ward matron said to my girlfriend was "It was God's judgement because you two aren't married".
It was the only time in my entire life that I have actually wanted to kill someone who wasn't a politician, but, following the teaching of Jeebus to "hate the sin, not the sinner", I managed to restrain myself and ever since, while I now merely despise and pity that woman, I HATE Religion.
This was my first Christmas after losing my wife of 16 years in May. She died in her sleep, which is about as good as it gets, but quite unexpected (she was 48). It helps so much to be able to just tell the stories of our life together to other people, especially those who knew her, but the house still gets mighty quiet at night.
I know pain lessens--I'm no longer crippled by it, or numb (most of the time), and the "grief storms" come far less frequently. But you never know what will set one off, and one cause can be remembering the loss of my mother only 6 years ago. Spending Christmas with my remaining family helps there, and for the same reason--we share stories about Mom, and remember the marvelous warmth she brought to our entire family. But one loss sometimes feeds on another, and there are days when the combined loss of Mom, both grandmothers, and my wife just brings me to my knees.
Remembering the joys isn't always enough--it took me two days to recover from my Thanksgiving hangover, and now I have other equally bad "coping" methods to, well, cope with. But there is no substitute for having people you love, who love you, to lean on. Cherish those people, folks. They can be all that keeps you going.
I lost my father in the month of December, as well. I'll shake your hand for writing this if we ever meet in person.
I've also passed this on to a high school classmate and his brother, who lost their dad to a drunk driver several years ago. They both agreed it was very moving.
I'm a crazy atheist, and I have been reading your blog since 2007. Not only is Lio my favorite comic strip, but I grieve similarly for my grandfather. My Christmas present to my whole family this year was a narrative memoir I wrote about him. I really liked your tribute to your dad, so I was wondering if you would like to read mine. I know you are busy, but let me know if you are interested. You and I both have Google accounts, so I could upload it as a Google doc and share it with you.
Happy New Year, PZ!
My ex-Christian partner, Joel, and my dear old friend Andrew Sullivan both encouraged me to read you a couple of years ago, and this happy, stalwart, cranky atheist is glad they did. Such a moving and--like so much of what you write--clear-headed, true account of the bittersweet process of aging, and it was perfectly timed: I'm back in California after seeing my family in NY for a too-short visit, chucking over some new memories and yet heartsick that I won't see them again for months.
This essay is incredibly true. I have a twin sister who is mentally retarded, and we lost our mother days before Christmas. This year has been painful for her, and for Christmas I asked my husband to take my sister and I on a trip to Yosemite(where we are as I write this). I don't want to diminish the feelings my sister has for the loss of our mother; I just want her to add feelings of happiness to coincide with the holidays as well.
We're all in this together to share our joys and times of grief.
May the memory of James Clayton Myers be for a blessing.