Thomas Wictor

Is it harder when there is no love?

Is it harder when there is no love?

In his piece “Saying Goodbye,” Walter Russel Mead describes the death of his beloved mother, who died September 16, 2013.

He writes the following:

My siblings and I are immigrants in a new and forbidding land. We have been swept from the balmy seas and friendly isles that nurtured us into a windswept, harder place. Several friends who have lived in this land much longer than I have, and have traced its contours and learned to survive here tell me that while this cold new island will support life, the world without your mother will never be the same.

Myself, I am too new to this world to grasp what I see. Deep grief seems like a monsoon; the rains sweep in and flood the streets and fields, let up for a few hours, and sweep back in again. There are moments when I break into helpless weeping; there are moments when I feel the presence of her love; there are moments when the flow of ordinary life takes over until I remember what has happened with a shock.

First, I’d like to say that Mr. Mead is a very, very lucky man. I don’t feel envy for others, because each of us is dealt a hand that we must use in the game of life, and that hand has nothing whatsoever to do with anyone else’s. Mr. Mead’s luck is simply his luck. It doesn’t upset me to read about people who had close, loving relationships with their parents. In fact, I enjoy it.

After my father died on February 23, 2013, I felt nothing but strangeness that he was gone. The nearest analogue would be waking up one morning to discover that the house across the street had vanished. I don’t know the people across the street. They have dogs that bark continuously but asynchronously (boo-BEP-boo-BEP-boo-BEP-boo-BEP), and one of their daughters always parks her car right next to my driveway every Wednesday night. Since Thursday is Garbage Day, I have to put my garbage cans in my driveway, blocking in my car.

The neighbors also mow their lawn with a weed whacker, and they do it every Thursday evening, after the garbage trucks have taken away the week’s trash. I hear several hours of wum-wum-wum-wuhhhhhhhhhhm-wum-wum-wum-wuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhm, and then I know that the grass will sit fermenting in the garbage can for a week. Maybe they’re making grass hooch. Lawn vodka.

My neighbors are inexplicable strangers, as was my father, even though I knew him for fifty years. Like my neighbors Dad had infuriating habits. He made unbelievable amounts of noise: slamming doors, throwing things, kicking things out of his way, clearing his throat every three seconds, humming, grunting, moaning, whimpering, whistling tunelessly, muttering, talking to himself, coughing, gagging, hawking, and sneezing so loudly that he could bring entire restaurants or museums to pin-drop silence.

When he sneezed, he shouted, “EAR-RUSSIA!” or “HO-LEK!” with all his strength. Even after his quintuple bypass, after they’d cracked open his rib cage and told him to be really careful sneezing, he’d deliver his signature scream and then groan in pain: “EAR-RUSSIA! Ow! HO-LECK! Owwwww!” I kept expecting his chest to explode and his heart to fly out and land in my lap.

“Tom? Can you hand me my heart, please? EAR-RUSSIA!

When he came over to my house or Tim’s house, he would simply stand in silence, staring, forcing us to say, “Yes? Can I help you?” It was a power play, like his refusal to muffle his sneezes. My father’s entire raison d’etre was exercising power over others.

Dad was deeply—fatally—flawed, and he made an almost unbroken string of horrible decisions in his eighty-four winters. He ignored his cancer for two years, and then he retreated into madness to shield himself from what he’d done. Dad forced Tim and me to choose which parent to try and save, since Mom and Dad were diagnosed with cancer on the same day. The surreality of my father’s death is what stays with me. It was surreal on every possible level, from how we learned that he was terminally ill, to how he behaved in the last month of his life, to what we discovered in his papers after he died.

Is it harder when there is no love?

I don’t know how many people out there are like me, people who had no relationship with a parent or had a terrible relationship and don’t know quite what or how to feel when the parent dies.

My answer is that whatever you feel is how you’re supposed to feel. And you’re not alone. Far from it.

I think back to a local radio talk-show host who made a huge deal about how happy he was when his father died, and then he made a huge deal about skipping his father’s funeral. After his father’s death, he put on at least a hundred pounds, maybe more. Now he’s this immobile heap of flesh shaped like a volcano, and his show was canceled. He might have a podcast; it’s not worth the effort to find out. I never liked him even before he imploded. Or blimploded, rather.

His vehemence that he felt nothing but joy at his father’s death was the giveaway. I knew he was headed for trouble. That’s not to say that some people don’t feel genuine, justified joy when a parent dies. The way they convey that information is important. Shouting something from the rooftops always makes me suspicious. Feeling joy that a parent has died is usually a sign that stormy waters lie ahead, because it’s simply not natural. Announcing it with pride is even less natural.

Again, happiness that a parent has died might be perfectly justified. It may even be healthy. But it isn’t natural. What’s natural is Walter Russel Mead’s experience. We should all have had loving parents whose passing makes us grieve. I know what it’s like to grieve. When we lost our cat Syd the Second on August 22, 2011, I was very sad. He was a brave, strong, intrepid little soul who overcame his abuse and neglect to become a nice cat. I wished he’d been rewarded with a longer life, and it broke my heart that he got only a year of happiness.

My father’s death didn’t break my heart, which is not natural. But it couldn’t have been any other way. To pretend to be sad would’ve been fraudulent. Death is too important to keep up pretenses. If you can’t be real at the time of someone’s death, when can you be real?

Walter Russel Mead writes:

As she lay on her bed in the hospital during that long sad Monday last week, we took turns sitting beside her, basking for the last time in her presence and saying those final goodbyes. The thing that struck me most was that for so many of us, the last words we wanted her to hear were the same: “Thank you, Mom. Thank you so much. I love you.”

My father died alone. Nobody was with him because we’d been assured that he had weeks if not months to go. His autopsy lists no cause of death. I think he just…stopped. I’d forgiven him earlier in the day, and he winced as though I’d stuck him with a pin, despite his being in a coma. It wasn’t my idea to forgive him; the chaplain told him, “Tom forgives you, Edward,” and for a second I felt total outrage.

“I didn’t say that!” I wanted to shout at her. “Don’t put words in my mouth!”

But after she said it, I realized it was true. I hadn’t forgiven him in the sense that everything was now okay; I was just no longer angry at him for the things he’d done. In the end those things are important only to me. By letting go of my anger, they became important to nobody left alive. So I said, “I forgive you, Dad,” and he winced. About eight hours later, he died.

Walter Russel Mead feels grief, but that’s normal. I feel only strangeness at the unreachable, destructive mystery that was my father. Though I certainly wouldn’t compare my cat to Mr. Mead’s mother, I can say that two years after Syd the Second died, I now think of him only with affection and joy. It no longer makes me sad that he isn’t here. Enough time has passed that the pain of his death has diminished, while the gratitude I have for the memories he left me has increased.

Tim and I are lucky that such a great cat adopted us and showed us how it’s possible to overcome. Mr. Mead is lucky that he had a close, loving relationship with his mother.

We should all count our blessings. They add up.

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