Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dads, Part IV: On the Sad Height

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

-Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” lines 16-7.


The first time paramedics came to pull Dad from insulin shock, their voices seamed with my dreams: Mister Chadwick, they’d said. Mister Chadwick. Are you all right? We’re here to help. It was as if angels had descended in a flash of red and white to save us from his loss. For the real tragedy would not have been in the death of this man who did his best to serve God and others, but that we—my mom, two older sisters, and one younger brother—would have been deprived of his spiritual, emotional, and financial influence. Being in late childhood at the time, I didn’t consider what financial ramifications his passing would have carried. I didn’t think that Mom, who’d always stood at the crossroads, meeting us at the door as we walked in from school and such, would have to leave home so she could work to support four young children.

I do remember, however, being shadowed by an introspective grief when I thought of life without Dad. My memory of this fear turns most vividly to the night after his brush with death when I sang an unrefined yet passionate psalm in the shower. Through my pleading repetitions of “Daddy, don’t die” and the tears that washed with my physical cleansing down the drain, I channeled all my faith—as I’m sure my mom and siblings did in their separate ways—into a future that included Dad.

Sixteen or so years later, I watched Dad, now headed for his sixties, quietly preside at a family dinner. Before him sat his wife, his four children and their spouses (or spouses-to-be), and (almost) two grandchildren—one two-and-a-half, the other ready to burst from her mother’s pregnant mound. The years traced his face into the pinnacle of fatherhood and I thought of Adam, who , three years before his death, gathered his posterity around him in the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman to give them “his last blessing” (D&C 107:53); and Jacob, renamed Israel, who similarly gathered his sons and their seed together before he died to tell them, in his words, “that which shall befall you in the last days” (Gen. 49:1).

Although I’m certain Dad still has many years and grandchildren to go, that moment took on special significance because it was the first time our complete family—children plus spouses (or almost spouses)—had crammed together around our parents’ incredible shrinking table (which, no matter how we configure it, just keeps getting smaller). And even though he didn’t say it, I could see how pleased he was with each of us, how content he was to be with us, and how much he has sought to live his life as a blessing for posterity.

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Last Fathers’ Day, after Jess and I returned from visiting Dad in the hospital and even while we were driving there and waiting and waiting with Mom to see how he was after his surprise heart attack, I kept thinking of the following lines from a Dylan Thomas poem that was written after his father—who had been a robust, militant man in his younger years—became blind and weak. (A link to the whole poem is included at the end of this post.) It begins: “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And it concludes: “And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray. / Do not go gentle into that good night; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Here I see Thomas begging his father to gather strength in the face of failing health and the imminence of death.

The final lines in which the poet addresses his father directly capture, for me, the paradoxes of Dad’s life, as I explored in yesterday’s post: for most of his kids’ lives he’s been heavily involved in Church service and his career, seeking to serve the Lord and to provide for his family the best he could while, in the midst of a demanding schedule, trying to direct us in paths of righteousness and to protect us from the destructive elements of the world. I now know his hope has been that diligent service to the Lord would prolong his life to the point that he would be around to accomplish these things, to see us grow into our own family units, and to enjoy spending time with us (and our children) as adults.

Of course, this dedication often kept him from playing a more active role in our lives than we all (including him) may have desired: he missed soccer games, track meets, choir concerts, and first dates. For this reason, I’m sure standing on the pinnacle of fatherhood has not been an easy experience for him; I’m also sure it’s been quite lonely and sad at times, bringing unspoken buckets of tears as he’s tried to bless his family and surely felt at times that his service has only been a curse. I’ve only begun to experience this paradox as I confront my own fatherhood and try to give Sidney (almost 5), Alex (2 ½), and Hadley (4 months) the things they need from me.

Some days I’m sure he felt like a total failure. But he isn’t. Even though he missed much, he could have done much worse. Besides, he was there when it mattered, even if we didn’t notice him standing in the background of our busy lives. And when it comes down to it, that constant presence has proved to be a defining influence and blessing in my life.

I only hope I can be as constant an influence for my girls.

On the other hand, as an at-home dad, maybe I’m too constant. Oh well. I’m sure the day will eventually come when they’ll forgive me of that, too...

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"Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" (link to the poem and a recording of Thomas reading it on Poets.org)