You can say goodbye to how we had it planned
Fear like a habit, run like a rabbit, out and away
Through the screen door to the unknown….
Sing like a sparrow anyway
Even if there is no land or love in sight
We bloom like roses, lead like Moses, out and away
Through the bitter crowd to the daylight
On Father’s Day my husband’s ashes billowed like a bubbling cloud the instant they touched open water at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
I was certain he would want to be among the elements, star stuff in swirling salt water, out and away to the horizon, a kinetic memorial for a man who never liked to be still, and had so many places left to see while the earth was below his feet. Few parts of the world did not call to him.
On Father’s Day, five years later and just a few years ago, my father died.
For my father’s theoretical memorial our plan had considerably more comical complications. The objective was, we thought, simple: to disperse his ashes exactly where he would have wanted to be, at the landlocked academic building where he spent the bulk of his teenage years and his entire adult life.
We gathered outside there one afternoon and worked around the sauntering strides of an unambitious campus security officer. He had eyes only for his cell phone, and obliviously passed us from both directions even as bemused graduate students began gathering and buzzing at the sight of us discovering a new form of condensed matter: ashes awkwardly clumping among the lachrymose recently-watered flora surrounding the building’s entry stairwell.
That, too, was perfect in its way.
My father and my husband had many things in common, including improbably clear analytical minds, and absolute loyalty to their friends and families.
Neither had even a soupcon of guile. It was not simply that they did not possess the ability or inclination to deceive , or to willfully hurt someone else; for them it was impossible to compute the concept of acting at someone else’s expense, much less execute the most quotidian trespass against a fellow traveler.
Neither of them ever criticized or insulted anyone. I did not reflect on how remarkable that is until both of them were gone.
They diverged in temperament: my father had a temper that perhaps I–the only daughter, and possessor of some heaping attitude even before adolescence made it de rigueur–knew how to spark.
There was a little girl who had a little curl/right in the middle of her forehead/And when she was good, she was very, very good/And when she was bad, she was horrid
Jim had no temper. Zero. He never raised his voice. He never responded to anger with anger. In more than 25 years of marriage I saw him mildly irritated twice–in the kinds of situations which not uncommonly transform others into criminal defendants (whose requests for jury instructions on mitigation I routinely oppose).
To an extent, although not as great as it may have appeared, they differed in their tolerance for error.
Jim had infinite tolerance for other’s errors. I’m not sure he even conceived of them as mistakes: they were just learning experiences. I have continued to screw up in epic fashion, from the more innocuous Lucy Ricardo variety to such egregious financial missteps that I’d probably be doing time were someone else’s money involved. I know he would be fine with that; he always was. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, Steph.” Not even the big small stuff.
My father, on the other hand, at least was perceived as being so exacting in his standards, so unwilling to brook even a grammatical nuance in translation that could be viewed as lessening a scientific truth, that he was intolerant of error. (One of his graduate students told me how my father had helpfully informed him that a few words of text in a dissertation that was essentially pure mathematical equations sounded more like a translation of Parisian French than that of its author’s Provincial provenance.)
As hard as it was to understand as a child why he seemed so disappointed in less than an “A+”; I actually don’t think he was intolerant of error–at least, error unaccompanied by lack of effort. It wasn’t that he couldn’t tolerate it; it was that he was genuinely perplexed that not all brains worked like his. Like dishonor, I don’t think he could conceive of a person not being capable of mastering all disciplines. I sure couldn’t. He was no harder on others in this regard than he was on himself. Clearing out his office I saw that a textbook he’d written decades ago was covered with his own penciled-in corrections, in waves, as he’d probably begun refining it as soon as it rolled off the presses and continued until Parkinsonian tremors began to destabilize the surface precision of his tiny left-slanting script. No one else would ever see his revisions; he did it simply to make his work better, to bring it closer to real, ascertainable truth.
In dedication to truth, they were the same.
They were very different when it came to fear. Jim had no fears for himself, including the death he knew was coming and despite his medical knowledge about how it would come. He spared me the latter, which would have made it that much worse for us.
My father had fears, notably a phobia of hospitals that derived from his being dropped off alone as a young child at a New York City Hospital for significant surgery. His fear of hospitals was so profound that he could not cross the threshold of Mt. Auburn Hospital when my siblings and I were born.
But when his only son-in-law was dying he came to his suffocating hospital room and tenderly touched his sock-clad foot, one of the few places he could reach as other family members encircled his bed before we finally brought him home.
And my father was, like most people, afraid of death. I know this because I talked to him about it, in great detail, making sure I would know what he wanted because Jim was not there to have those conversations with him and take charge.
Jim had no fear.
And so he raised fearless, thoughtful, kind children who have seen and followed his and their grandfather’s examples, using their incredible minds and hearts to do what they were born to do.
And I hope they will always hold their father’s essence of living and loving with no fear, whether they are pulled back to the comforts of a known and settled home or carried forward, out and away and wherever the currents take them.
Sing like a sparrow anyway...
Happy Father’s Day.