When Death Robs the Living
We Will Begin with a True Story
I don’t talk about this very often. Yes, it is still painful, even though forty-five years have passed.
In matters such as this you can take your logic, combine it with four bucks, and get a decent mocha. In matters of the heart and psyche, logic often is worthless, and so it is with this story.
I loved my father.
He was a flawed man for sure, but who among us is not? He was a hard man and yet loving. He was a serious man, and yet fun to be with. He was my best friend, my confidant, and the greatest supporter a young boy could hope to have.
Who I am today is directly related to the fact that I was Dale L. Holland’s son. The lessons he taught me so many years ago are still the foundation of my philosophy about life today. Treat others with respect….help those who cannot help themselves….reach out your hand and always add a smile…..always move forward no matter what the obstacle…..loyalty to family and friends….hard work builds character….these are things that are ingrained in me, and I love that they are.
I want you to understand how much he meant to me. With that understanding, this story will then take on the importance it deserves.
JANUARY 6, 1969
A Friday night in Tacoma, Washington. It was a cold night, one of many that winter. Snow was on the ground, as it would be that entire month, and the temperature was in the twenties, unusual for western Washington. I see it clearly with my mind’s eye.
Christmas vacation was coming to an end. On Sunday I would return to Seattle University to finish up my junior year, and I was looking forward to seeing my college buddies and hearing about their vacation adventures. Life was good, filled with the innocence one attains through years of not being tested.
My Dad and I were watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a nightly ritual for us, father and son strengthening a bond that began at birth, but that bond had been weakened of late by our disagreement over the Vietnam War. My father, a World War 2 veteran and staunch supporter of American foreign policy, and his son, lacking experience but filled with visions of peace, had butted heads on more than one occasion, and the strain was obvious that night in January. In fact, we were barely talking to each other.
Dad had not been feeling well. Two months earlier he had a mild heart attack, if a heart attack can ever be described as mild. Against his doctor’s wishes, dad had returned to work a week later. He worked manual labor at a gravel pit, a hard job for sure, most certainly not the kind of work one should return to with a weakened heart….but dad believed in hard work, and he was determined to support his family and yes, times were tough for our family financially, so off to work he had gone.
That night he complained of an upset stomach….and pains in his left arm…and shortness of breath….all classic signs of an impending heart attack. He took some aspirin and nitro tablets and soldiered on, as Carson cracked one-liner after one-liner, and the audience howled in appreciation, and I watched my dad anxiously.
I remember Carson making some joke about Vietnam, and I remember my dad turning red as his anger built, and I so clearly remember me making some righteous comment about the wasted lives, and then….
The Loss of Innocence
The sound of my father falling in the bathroom, and the seemingly endless trip to the phone to dial 911, then sprint down the hallway and falling to my knees next to my father….DAD…DAD…HELP IS ON THE WAY…HANG IN THERE, DAD, DON’T YOU DARE QUIT….I LOVE YOU, DAD…I LOVE YOU….I LOVE YOU…..
I don’t know if he could hear me. I lifted his head and put it in my lap, and I squeezed his hand, a hand once so strong, but now lacking all strength….and he was gone.
And so was my innocence.
The rest of the month passed by as though a dream. The funeral, grieving relatives and friends, sleepwalk through my classes, hear the condolences as though far-off echoes, give my mother the support she desperately needed and deserved….I remember it all now, but at the time I could only concentrate on one overriding fact…..I made my father angry and he died because of the increased adrenalin caused by that anger. I made my father angry, and the last words he heard from his son were words of anger.
I caused my father’s death.
He never heard “I love you.”
And the Rest of the Cast Lived Happily Ever After
Well, no, they didn’t.
I was twenty and I had caused my father’s death.
I was thirty and I had caused my father’s death.
I was forty and I had caused my father’s death.
Guilt is a fascinating emotion. We go on living, doing the everyday activities of the living, laughing, working, hanging out with friends, and going through the motions. We breathe in and breathe out. We eat, we sleep, we play games and we feel other pains….but…all the while, our subconscious is kicking ass and taking names. A little voice caresses us, whispers in our ear, you are a piece of excrement, you are unworthy of happiness, you are…despicable.
We may not even be aware that it is happening. I certainly was not. I knew I was unhappy, but as the years marched on and memories faded, I could not tell you the source of my unhappiness.
Change Did Not Come in a Blinding Light of Awareness
It may happen that way for others, a magical epiphany where all is revealed and the truth sets them free, but not for me. For this traveler of life it took endless hours of discussion and self-analysis. It took the loving patience of mentors and guidance counselors.
Finally, though, awareness did arrive, and with it…freedom from the guilt.
What I came to realize was that my father would not want me to live in guilt. That was, in fact, the last thing he would ever want for the son he loved so much. Today I can almost hear him say, “Bill, get over it and move forward. Shit happens and we learn and move on. You didn’t mean for it to happen. I know you loved me. It’s about damned time, Bill, that you get on with the business of loving yourself.”
And so I did.
Slowly at first, small increments of gain, daily reminders that I am a good person and that I did, in fact, love my father.
And eventually I believed it.
I suspect I am not alone with these feelings. I suspect there are a great many people out there who are burdened, dare I say, brought to their knees, by guilt and shame.
I suspect there are a great many people who are crippled by sorrow over the loss of a loved one.
And for what purpose?
Our loved ones who have passed on would not want that for us, so why continue with this self-inflicted wound?
On Ash Wednesday each year, millions of Catholics have ashes placed on their foreheads. This is a symbolic act that reminds them of two things:
- From ashes to ashes
- Repent and believe in the Gospel.
I wish there was an Ash Wednesday for those burdened with guilt and self-loathing. They could put ashes on their foreheads and then say these words:
“I am sorry for the past but I will not allow it to define me as a human being. Life is for the living, and from this day forward I plan on living life to the fullest.”
I know that’s what my father would want me to do.
2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
Dedicated to my friend Lizzy.