Every now and then a friend asks how I’m coping with my dad’s death, and I wonder if I’m heartless because I don’t seem to think about it much at all. But there’s a reason I don’t.
Loss is old and familiar to me. For one thing, it’s part of the TCK lifestyle: at a young age you follow your parents to a new land. You leave behind almost everything you knew (except your immediate family): home, friends, pets, possessions – whether you want to or not.
Your parents generally do have a choice in the matter, and no parent wants to think they make choices that hurt their children. So they dwell on the advantages of expatriate life, and often do not allow their kids to decently mourn what was left behind. The kids deal with their feelings as best they can, get settled, make new friends, grow accustomed to new routines, adopt new pets – and then it’s time to leave again.
In my life, the usual TCK experiences of loss have been compounded by many other losses: my parents’ multiple divorces. My mother’s absence from my life, both emotional and physical. (Some of this was not her choice – but some was.) A similar choice by a beloved stepmother to walk out of my life. The deaths of my father-in-law and my aunt Rosie. The dissolution of my own marriage: always a loss to be grieved, even though I was the “bad guy” who finally admitted it was over. The loss of the close and easy relationship with my daughter, though I’m hopeful we will find a new way to be close.
As for physical places and possessions – hah! Left, lost, given away, destroyed. Even the memory aids that we rely on in modern life: most of my baby pictures were lost at sea in one of my mother’s moves. I now try to store my photos “permanently” in the cloud, and my public memories here on my site, but that’s more for my own future use and reference than as a hedge against loss. Sometimes I’m startled and delighted at the depth of now-forgotten detail in pieces I wrote years ago.
What got me started thinking about all this was a recent column by Roger Ebert in which he mourned the loss of old friends and the memories they held: “We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear.” He’s two decades (and a nasty run-in with cancer) closer to death than I am, so perhaps it’s too soon for me to understand his feelings. But, for the moment, I can contemplate my own eventual death with tranquility. At least that is one loss that I won’t have to cope with. As Ebert himself said in a more sanguine moment: “there is nothing on the other side of death to fear”.
As for all my other losses, past, present and future, I suppose I do cope well with them, through long practice. There have been times when the choice was stark: “Get through this as best you can, or kill yourself. If you’re not going to kill yourself, you might as well try to be happy, because living depressed is a waste of your time and everyone else’s.”
How do I do it? I don’t aspire to be a self-help guru and don’t claim to have answers that will work for everyone, but my recipe is: delight in change. You might as well, because things are going to change whether you like it or not! Economies change, technologies change, natural wonders come and go (more often go, sadly). Cultures, languages and “rules” for living change. Verities we thought eternal (“Invest in real estate”) prove untrue.
Learn to enjoy what’s new in your life, while keeping a (light) grip on what’s important from the past. Be loyal to those who are loyal to you, let go gracefully of those who are not – including those who commit the ultimate disloyalty (<wry smile>) of dying on you.
In the end, what can we rely on? Love and friendship (if we are open to them), here and now. Yes, Roger, you’ll lose friends, and those losses will hurt. Make new friends, and make sure that you value them no less than the old ones. At some point, friends of my own generation will begin dying off in droves (hell, I might be one of the first to go). One way to alleviate that is to have a mix of ages among one’s friends. My age group have no monopoly on interestingness.
Love, be lovable, and do your best to be loved. Remember that it can all change without warning, but don’t dwell on that possibility. I’ve had good years and bad ones, but, even in the worst of my bad years, I never wanted to turn the clock back. Change is coming – and it might always be change for the better.
With so little to be sure of,
If there’s anything at all.
I’m sure of here and now and us together.
Thanks for everything we did,
Everything that’s past,
Everything’s that’s over too fast.
None of it was wasted,
All of it will last:
Everything that’s here and now and us together!
It was marvelous to know you
And it isn’t really through.
Crazy business this, this life we live in
Can’t complain about the time we’re given
With so little to be sure of in this world,
We had a moment!
A marvelous moment!
– Stephen Sondheim