The great wheel of the year has turned once more, and I find myself back at the beginning again. Not at the start of a brand new year, but rather, at the anniversary of my father’s death.
I was eight years old when he died, on January 8, 1977, after six long months of decline from lung cancer. In the family’s last-minute midnight scramble to the King’s Daughters Hospital to offer a final farewell, I was adjudged too young and too asleep to wake up for the ride.
I found out that he had died when I crawled from bed at dawn the next morning, yawning and jonesing for cartoons, only to find a bathrobed neighbor stoking the fireplace, and my father disappeared into ether.
That singular fact has been the still point of my turning world in the decades since.
There have been years that I have woken in the early morning and glanced at the clock around one, the time that he died, as if to make up for having been asleep in bed as a child. The day has always hung shrouded, as though there were a tendril of kudzu hanging over it.
More recently, I have stood on the marble solea of my church in front of the icon of Jesus, clutching one or more of my squirming children, as the priest offered prayers in my father’s memory at my request.
Squirming children, I might add, that my father never knew, as he never knew any of the grandchildren his children would bear.
It goes without saying, he never actually knew me. He was sixty when he died, an age that seems impossibly young to me now, given that three of my five siblings have now reached that age, and I am forty-four.
My son will turn nine in March, and I realize now that the whole year he has been eight, I’ve been holding my breath, half-consciously wanting on his behalf to make sure that I don’t die, either.
My father is the long shadow that has fallen over my life. But while a shadow can be ominous, and full of portent, it can also be an unexpected shelter—think of a frightened child from a storybook, creeping along a gritty street, who is heartened to find that the slightly older hero-kid is the one who has snuck up behind, to protect him.
Whatever we know or do not know about the temporal fate of the dead, it is the tradition of Orthodox Christians to pray for them, to commemorate them at regular intervals, and into perpetuity.
I have even come to know my father in death, I would venture to say, and knowing him thus has given me a way and a role of knowing him that my siblings, who knew him in the flesh right up to adulthood, did not (and it’s true, did not need to) have.
For them, he is permanently the soft-spoken, perpetually-distracted middle-aged small-town dentist—walking slowly in his mail-ordered Knapp work shoes, crawling into bed after dinner to listen to football on the radio and read the Clarion-Ledger newspaper, the bedside lamp casting a giant outline of the pages on the pine-paneled wall.
I remember this father, too, and in the mere eight years I knew him, he provided enough of an example of fathering that I never lost the memory or the significance of the gift: The phone ringing in the dead of night, some barely understandable country voice complaining of a toothache, and my father dressed within minutes with his coattail hanging out, ready to head downtown and pull the tooth.
The black folks in my hometown, even after Integration, were reluctant to come to my father’s waiting room, and so he would make house calls: at nights, on weekends. When he died, we found a drawerful of unpaid bills from dozens of patients, of all backgrounds and races.
This Christmas we pledged to get my son a shelter dog—if he fulfills his behavioral contract. When we do, I will tell him of the time my father marched out into the street, to pick up the neighbors’ dog that had been struck by a car. My father bandaged the three broken legs, made three sets of splints from Popsicle sticks, and nursed the dog for a month in a cardboard box.
The shadow, I said, can also keep us warm.
And of course there are not-so-good things: father-temper, and the emotional unavailability characteristic of fathers of that era. All the more poignant, then, that my sister remembers when a 1960s documentary on poverty in the Mississippi Delta was released, and the privation just steps from our door made my father crumple and weep.
This same father would no doubt be bemused by the neo-traditionalist Christian I have become—he who fled the rural Baptist church and who was firmly on the side of Progress, which to him meant medicine, mechanized agriculture, and effective vaccines.
“The good old days were not always such,” he said once, turning to face me from the front seat of the car: one of my last memories of him.
He was born two months premature, weighing only one pound. As a toddler he had polio, and if not for the diligent massages by his own father, a country doctor, he might never have walked at all.
I hope that my siblings have told their children these stories. Perhaps knowing him more fully, they do not have my manic urge to recover every detail.
The Apostle Paul’s passion for the enfleshed Christ he had never seen was such that he spent the rest of his life inhabiting and reconstructing. I like to think my desire is akin to his; I collect details as though reassembling the tesserae of broken china.
If nothing else, I can be custodian of the fragments.