Saturday, September 9, 2023

To an Online Acquaintance On the Loss of a Difficult Parent

Dear ______,

Have you ever noticed that there are quotes that stick all over the internet like burs? No one seems to know where they come from or who put them up in the first place or why they go on and on like that song by Celine Dion (and that tells you my age if you didn't already know.) Some of these quotes are attributed, or not, or misattributed, but almost always posted without reference to the work from which they were supposedly taken. I don't mean the obvious stuff that Oscar Wilde said or might have said, or Dorothy Parker, the stuff so familiar or famous it doesn't really need a more specific source -- because who is going to check the page number in The Critic as Artist, etc.? I'm talking about all the stuff that might or might not be Sylvia Plath, or that maybe Anne Tyler wrote somewhere maybe, or that Cicero said in a letter or didn't. Some of these things look good, these feasible quotations. I see them and think, "I could use that." But then who wants to use something that might be a great quote from a great writer's great book -- or not? What if it's just copy from a greeting card that somebody thought would sound better coming from Mark Twain? How embarrassing if I then quote the fake Twain. (I would be discovered and then people would wonder if I'd actually ever read a book and then I would be exposed as the barely literate fraud my brain is happy to remind me I probably am. You don't really need to know how my brain works, but there it is.) 

Wherever these quotes start, in actual books or out, they all seem to end up online in the same soft, white, cursive font superimposed on a forest scene, or maybe the ocean or the sandy shore, anyway some tranquil shot of nature -- or stars because everybody loves stars! -- but calm; a notably calm cosmos, calm forest, calm seas, calm sand. That would seem to be the unifying theme, whatever the actual sentiment expressed in the quotation; the point would seem to be -- calm the fuck down -- you will be okay. Breath. Contemplate the infinite. Read just a smidge. Must say I rather resent the insistence that we would all be better off if we just sat down and took a deep breath. I like a good sit as much or more than the next person and since I finally quite smoking I can now occasionally draw a deep breath, but doesn't solve every problem now does it, sitting and breathing? If it did I'd be slim and rich and wouldn't need glasses on top of my glasses and I wouldn't worry about being rebuked and exposed and unloved and dying in a dumpster.

And here I am trying to think of comforting things to say. Apologies. Not as easy as it seems, which is why I want other people's better words. That is very much how I've survived to me present age, by calling on other people's good words. Books, yes? But also just sentences. Sometimes one just wants a sentence or two, no?

Have you seen these floating, seemingly indestructible internet quotes? They're the digital equivalent of sampler-pillows or those calligraphic barn-shingles white women with highlights hang in their kitchens. Big fan of the quotation myself. Better said by better writers seems a legitimate rule of thumb when writing or speaking aloud. Since I was a teenager I've kept commonplace books to record choice bits from my reading. And now there are actual cornucopia of quotation organized by theme and keyword and writer all over the web. I do wish that most of these sites were better vetted, but they exist and they very much didn't when I was young. I still own reference books, and books of quotation in particular, but how wonderful is it that someone has done all this glorious data entry? Still, I am just old-fashioned enough to want to know at least the book if not the page from which the quote was plucked. You're a real writer so I assume this sort of thing bothers you even more than it does me, if in fact you've paid it any mind. I should think writers would prefer that their work be remembered with them; the work as they wrote it, in the context they created, to whatever purpose it was written. Would have thought that was the goal. I suppose there are some writers who probably wouldn't much mind being immortalized as just so much disembodied internet wisdom, so long at least as their names were spelt correctly and they got paid. (What else could a Tony Robbins or now a Dr. Brene Brown hope for after one has bought that second house in France or one's fourth Ski-Doo or whatever one orders online between Hilton seminars? Is there a statue anywhere to the memory of Dale Carnegie? Must look that up. ((Sweet Jesus, there is.))) 

Most of the writers I've known tended to be quite proprietary about their work, and rightly so as it is not just their art but their job. (Though nowadays I know very few writers who live exclusively by the pen. Most teach. I assume you do too?)

I was put in mind of this business of internet-attribution when I saw a quote online supposedly from the poet Anne Sexton. I've tried to track it down and may have come close. It could be from her journals, or a letter, but that's as near as I've come. All told, over two or three days I'd have to say I wasted the better part of an hour on this -- not a huge measure of time, but still -- in part though because I was sure I had a physical copy of her journals but then that may not even be a thing and I might have been thinking of a book called A Self Portrait in Letters which I don't have anymore anyway if I ever did. And that is the way memory works or doesn't altogether, isn't it? Mine anyway. Yours may be better.

Just to have it, the sentence which may or may not be a quote is, "It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was." It's good, right? Possibly even applicable to your own circumstances. Might be a useful thought for you right now with the loss of your parent. It seems to me that this quote could be Anne Sexton, as it seems to suit the voice I remember, but that could be wishing making the thing so. Whatever the merit of the thought, the problem of attribution rather spoils whatever usefulness it might have in general because not knowing if it is "real."

By which I mean that it takes away the weight of the poet having said it -- if she didn't. Not an entirely happy source for familial wisdom at the best of times was our Anne, but for the power of memory and art to both preserve and distort our personal histories, who better really? I assume you're acquainted with the poet, possibly, probably better than I, so I won't explain other than to suggest that the very label of a "confessional poet" brings an expectation of both great burdens and self-assertion, doesn't it? How I remember them anyway, all those gloomier granddaughters and sons of Whitman.

Typically I came across the Sexton "quote" when I went hunting for something entirely other. My specific intent was to offer an appropriate quote by way of consolation on your announcement of your father's death. I can't now think for what it was I went looking when I was distracted by the possibly fictitious Sexton quote. I'm going to guess that I was probably hunting for some consolation offered by Dr. Johnson on the loss of a parent. Don't know. Doctor Johnson is rather my go-to. Mightn't have been applicable even if I'd found whatever it was. Turns out, there is considerably more in Johnson et al on the death of a child than a parent. Odd, that. Common as the death of a child sadly once was and may still be some places, most people outlive their parents, right? One would think there'd be all sorts of literary consolation online for that. I of course can't know all the particulars of your loss, and I wouldn't think to ask you for more detail than that provided in your original post. Suffice it to say that having described your relationship as difficult and the news of his death as something less than a shock, most of the usual things may not have been quite right. So I thought at the time. Still. Not my place to suggest how you were meant to feel and or mark the event, of course. Not as if you were soliciting comment come to that. I just wanted something to say better than anything I could think to say, you know? 

That's the thing about condolence, form very much follows function, tradition, convention. So let me say again here that I am sorry for your loss, complicated as that may be and predictable as that response obviously is. Still a loss, whatever the particulars. Maybe that's the point -- if I'm going to get to one. That would seem to me to be the one safe thing to assume given the circumstances. From what you wrote you know that the loss isn't all to do with the man's death, and yet the finality of that would seem to require acknowledgement. That's where the stock phrases of grief and remembrance serve us best, in reducing everything to basics. Mark, a man has died. I offer his son my hand.

There's more good in that than in most things we say without thinking. 

Why say more? Why indeed, other than the custom of talking to those in mourning as one would the ill? The thought with either presumably being that we might offer what? Company? A bit of distraction from the pain? Some comfort? "I should be sorry to think that what engrosses the attention of my friend, should have no part of mine," says Johnson. The impulse is good. I don't really know you for instance though we are friends on social media, and yet I want to offer some consolation for your loss. I lost my own father a few years ago. Still feels not so far from me. I don't equate the two, your loss and mine, anymore than I could or would want to compare our respective fathers. I think my father's death made me something other than I was before. Perhaps the death of a parent always does? That's more an assumption than an assertion. Feels true.

So other than the custom, the habit of it, why console the stranger? What solace for those with whom we are little more than acquainted? Perhaps this question can distract you for a bit. No harm in that now. 

Johnson describes himself after the death of his wife as, "broken off from mankind." Seems an obvious thing to say and the usual thing to be in the circumstance, at least once he's said it for me (power of quotation, mister.) But death doesn't just separate us from the person who has died, does it? That may already have happened one way and another well before that person died. I have lost friends after I lost touch, alas. Happens. Relatives I knew and never felt I knew really or well also die. Where I'm from one sends flowers if one isn't to attend the services. Far enough from my immediate family and I will still send a card. One that happens more and more as I age is the death of the parents of my friends. This seems, at least when it reaches me to most often be addressed online. This has the advantage of being more immediate and more diffuse, particularly as geography is eliminated as a barrier to condolence. Don't always know quite what to do in this wider and yet strangely more intimate world, but this seems right, doesn't it? Feels strange though just adding an emoji on a post when the post is about death, doesn't it? May depend on how one was raised I suppose. For instance, we sit with the body. Not everyone does, as I was at some point shocked to learn. Your family, your traditions may be different. Makes it harder to judge the right thing at this new distance/familiarity. One may obviously still be "broken off from mankind" by a death, but are we not all connected in ways now that Johnson never foresaw? Tap a few keys and "post" and the world floods in with all the consolation -- and banality -- that is implied in public mourning in a virtual space. I know that I took it all in gratefully. Doesn't mean you should or need to, just my experience.

When my father died, I must tell you I found the banalities just as welcome as the more thoughtful responses. How expressed doesn't necessarily indicate how things were felt, or received. (I'm a redneck. Even being gay and literate can only do but so much to overcome generations of emotional embarrassment. Rage. We are allowed rage. Otherwise taciturnity is still one of our very few self-assessed virtues. That and misdirected class resentments, Jell-O salads, and country music would seem to be our only real contributions to the cultural resources of the Republic. Sorry about that.) I was glad to hear from those old friends who may have known my father, but I was likewise glad of all the people who never met the man, or me come to that, at least in person, who also expressed their sympathy for my loss. Odd, isn't it? Couldn't hear it enough somehow. Not something I knew until then, about myself I mean.

I spoke at my father's funeral. Got through that. People were unwaveringly kind. Posting about his death online was different though. To some extent I might have done so without thinking. Never would have predicted this, but I do spend a surprisingly large part of my life online. To do with work and selling books, much of it, but by no means all. It's meant for instance staying in touch with my high school boyfriend. Kept up with former coworkers. I've even gotten to know, at least a little better, writers I admire like yourself. That last has been particularly unexpected. I do meet authors at the bookstore where I work. I've even had opportunities to interact with particular literary heroes of mine. I should never have thought to call most of them "friends" but then that became a legitimate designation on social media and who am I to not be flattered by the idea of that? Was I a friend to Howard Cruse? I am now friends with Hilma Wolitzer?! Indeed, I like to think I genuinely am. Would not have made sense, in a way, to not say something to my friends when my Dad died. Likewise wouldn't seem right for people not to have taken note. As I said, more did than I'd ever have thought and it meant something to me at the time -- and more since.

That's the surprise. Whatever I remember of my father is my business, as Anne Sexton may or may not have suggested already. Good and bad, the man I knew is who I couldn't forget even if I wanted to. Weirdly, I find I can now put things out of mind in a way I haven't since I was a child. At sixty, I am now nearly as easy to distract as I was at six. One of the great virtues of having the habit and presence of books. Not the same thing as just reading. Nearly everyone nowadays reads, even if it's just text messages on a phone. Books as physical objects on the other hand have the same solidity as food, flesh, persons, pets. My hand can find a book nearly everywhere I am likely to be (some might call this hoarding.) I find that books can be put in the way of so much: the past, time, hurt, hopes, longing. Books give me somewhere to stand against what Churchill dubbed, "the black dog." Gives me a place to stand still. As a child books took me up and out into the world; down the Mississippi, out to the moon, back in time to the court of Louis XIII. Now I find I can rest on them, sometimes hide in them. Books take me not out of myself but rather to places of greater safety, clearer thought, rest. The act of reading -- not the consequence -- is however isolating. I am usually content so. But in grief? Smack dab in it? I don't remember if I ever finished the book I was reading when my father died, Stendhal's The Red and the Black-- which was fine as I'd read it before. The point though was that rather than books at that moment I needed some sense of other people -- living, breathing, actual people 'round me, if only virtually. Ironic that.

You may not have found this to be so, but I wanted the sight and sound of sympathy around me, but perhaps not always actual people, if that makes sense. I wanted community, but also control of my environment and to not wear shoes, and not to talk, as I remember. Having people say kind things online felt right to me and just enough. The more folks the better, which is not something I ever say otherwise. I went up and down those comments. I checked in. I liked everything. Because I needn't look unless and until I wanted to and as I didn't really want to do anything else, I think I looked more than I might have done. No one thought me rude for walking away, everyone seemed glad to hear from me. 

I haven't looked at any of that in years. I shouldn't think I ever will again. Knowing however that it is there, that I was given that sympathy when I asked has made me feel better ever since, about people generally and or about the world, frankly. I can't say that I will ever reconcile with everything my father was, or with my hometown, my past. (Do people do that? Is that an option?) I've heard so many people, overt Christians mostly, who make a point if not a show of forgiveness, often in circumstances far worse than any I experienced: people forgiving the murderers of their loved ones, forgiving bombers, and war criminals, belligerents, the obviously unforgiveable. I don't pretend to understand that process or the point of it. I see no evidence that carrying resentments or hurt or hate harms the people it ought. Maybe it only negatively effects people for whom it is largely alien anyway, who have had so little experience of antagonism, violence, and the arbitrary as to have built up no immunity, or so much as to to have learned long since to lay down what can't be carried. I am not such a one. Meanwhile we have seen too many hateful bastards go contentedly down to die in the sincere conviction of heaven that we would, I think, have to be fools to imagine a universe anything but indifferent to the fate of humans. But don't let let me presume too much. You may feel differently. Perhaps my somewhat jaundiced view of universal justice is why a uniform expression of sympathy on the loss of my father meant all the more to me. As you probably experienced yourself online, people were genuinely kind, I found. I wish you something like and the comfort of that hereafter, whoever the man who occasioned it. 

One other thought before I stop shuffling along here, uninvited if only remotely or metaphorically beside you. The usual complaint is that death has cut off the last possibility of dialogue, but that's nonsense, isn't it? Since his death I have engaged more sincerely with my idea of my father than I might ever have managed were he still alive. I know that. My father was a friendly fellow but typically shy of certain conversations. The opportunity truthfully has been made less complicated by the now finite nature of the information available to me. The man was who he was and what I know of him now I know. Actually I was pretty lucky in my father -- not always perhaps, but in the end. Your experience being different, I have tried to avoid making too much of that here. Can't really avoid mentioning it now if just to say it is unimportant to my point. In my life, as I would hope in yours, I am lucky to know love and to have known it even when its absence was all I could feel at the time. I have a better standard by which to judge now, having found someone good with whom to share my life, as my father did, come to that. Even if I had never found my husband, I like to think having found my friends and my community and my family of choice I am in a better place -- to use a phrase usually I find insufferable in talking of the dead. (Nowhere is not a place by definition, no?) Life has shown me love in greater variety than I ever anticipated as a child, as a son. Nothing I did, I don't think, but ask. 

Also?  Perhaps only old men can forgive their old men, if we want or need to. Doesn't mean you need to of course. I only say I did whether I intended to, or needed to, myself. Perhaps pardon is a better word here, less bedraggled by religion and popular psychology. Like forgiveness it is something asked for and given, but with I think less expectation of admiration for the exercise of it. Think of what we pardon most days -- wind. What could be less invested with moral pretention?! So here's another of those floating quotes I mentioned at the start. I've seen it attributed online to both Shakespeare and St. Francis and I've no idea if it's either or neither: 

"It is in pardoning that we are pardoned."

Pretty, i'n't it? Again it may be perfect nonsense, and not at all to the point in your case. It appeals to me really because it suggests so little effort, yes? Forgiveness seems to me a very weighty business full of theology and all sorts of oily blessings. Beg pardon sounds more me -- common as dirt but fundamentally decent. That's at the flat and steady how I hope I am. That's the process I've undertaken with my father's memory and much of it funny when not embarrassing or rude and even when it is. Pardon. All there is to be hoped I suspect other than or as a consequence of love. The thing to be asked if we haven't understood. Pardon? 

What I ask of you now if I've gone on too long and said too little. May he rest in peace, your father. If I offend, I ask also pardon of his shade, and I remain at whatever distance

Your friend, 


No comments:

Post a Comment