This is probably my last post of 2015. It seems appropriate. I always meant to get around to writing about my dad dying. 2015 was not a great year. Terry Pratchett died. Christopher Lee died. Satoru Iwata died. My rabbit died. Two of my high school friends died. And my dad died. With the sort of vague, ambient irony the universe is sometimes fond of, it’s also the year I got married. But that’s another post. My dad died two months ago — I’m not here to tell you how I “got over it.” I’m just telling you an idea I encountered in the course of my living with it.
Ever read any contemporary Buddhism? I’m fond of Thich Nhat Hanh, and so when this happened I actually went pretty much straight to a bookstore and bought his book No Death, No Fear. There’s a lot of theoretical stuff in the book, moreso, actually, than other of his books I’ve read so far. One of the core ideas in the book is that both birth and death are illusions — a classic Buddhist concept. But that’s very abstract. He illustrates it by saying a person is like a radio signal: one’s life is like when a radio is on. The signal is present both before the radio is switched on and after it is switched off again. But the signal is only detectable for a certain amount of time. It’s called manifesting, and after a person’s death they can manifest in a number of other ways. Of course, the problem is that we want that person to keep manifesting in the same way. The way we’re used to.
Now, that’s a thing. I read it, it was an idea, and it helped. A little. I was already trying to put together in my head how my dad’s legacy would continue on past his own death, into the rest of my life. So while I found the image very poignant, it didn’t strike me as new.
Then I read a bunch of Terry Pratchett novels. A friend told me that Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books dealt with grieving very well. It’s possible you will understand me very well once I tell you that in the face of my father’s death I didn’t seek out books or shows or something that distance themselves from death and loss; I went looking for things that would basically make me feel worse. But it can be, and was, cathartic. So good for me I guess.
But in my office on campus, after two weeks off, I finished the Tiffany Aching books with The Shepherd’s Crown. The book is remarkable for several reasons. And one constitutes a spoiler, just so you know.
It’s the last Tiffany Aching book because it’s the last Pratchett novel. Pratchett died after finishing this draft. It’s a complete novel, but apparently Pratchett’s writing habits would have had him editing it and adding to it for a while longer, so in a sense it’s not “finished.”
It’s the book that’s about the death of Granny Weatherwax, one of Pratchett’s several characters who have been in so many books she feels like a friend — or if not a friend, a constant, a touchstone in our lives.
And so in the scene where Nanny Ogg and Tiffany bury Granny, Tiffany tries to talk about how she feels. Nanny tells her that Granny said, if Tiffany wants to know where I’ve gone, I’m everywhere. I’m all around.
Similar to the Buddhist idea, isn’t it? Not surprising, of course: Pratchett was widely read and fascinated by religions and beliefs. But getting it behind my eyes twice did something to me. And that’s what I want to tell you about.
Here’s the idea: as terrible as it is, death isn’t 100 percent bad. It’s inevitable, and so, the death of a loved one is the final gift they give us.
I’m doing all the things you expect. I hear a song or see a wild animal and think about what I’ll tell my dad. I tiptoe around the house back home late at night because I don’t want to wake him up (he slept in the living room), and then I end up going into the living room late at night and crying when my mom’s asleep. So trust me, I’m not glad my dad’s death. I will never be glad about that.
But I realized something really odd, something I hadn’t really seen anyone else say — at least not in this way. So bear with me a little longer.
Loved ones get into our heads. Even friends. I’m terrible at impressions but can still make my partner laugh by imagining and imitating what our friends would say in certain situations. It’s as though my loved ones are part of me, which is of course true. We absorb our loved ones into us. We know what they think of things. We can imagine what they’d say. Lots of people say that about their lost loved ones, that they can still hear what they’d say to something that happened at work or last night at that party.
When a loved one dies they become a ghost. They permeate the space around us. Whereas we tend to wait until we can call or speak to loved ones when they’re alive — once they’re dead, we can always hear what they might say or do. Sure, we might start to edit, which is an unfortunate truth about the human brain, but the presence is there. Absorbing someone into ourselves so completely guarantees that they persist. They haunt us, for good or for ill.
My dad doesn’t just persist in his knife collection or his stories or his life lessons; he persists in me as a second me, another I, a filter of perception I slip into sometimes because that’s what we do with our loved ones. I’m not saying any of us are ever accurate, or perfectly accurate, but they’re in there. It hurts, and it’s sad, but they are in there. If you have lost someone, take a moment to remember them next to you. Like the radio signal, they’re there, even though we must perceive them differently to detect them.