The Waves on the Sea
by EMMA KEMPSELL
I found an old home video recently. It was of my father’s 40th birthday party, which was also his last birthday.
It was the biggest party my parents ever held and I understood later that its purpose was probably to give everyone the opportunity to see him feeling well for the last time. I prepared myself to hear my fathers voice for the first time in 10 years, poured a glass of wine and put the tape in. It begins with darkness and laughter: the only light comes from the candles on the cake. The camera zooms in and the flames glow and blur, just like the memories of my father do. Everybody sings Happy Birthday without trepidation, but there’s a tension hanging in the air. Amidst the clapping when the candles are blown out, all the kids, myself included, shout for the lights to be put back on. The old dial is turned and the lights flicker on as if they are unsure, as if the darkness was in some way better. Smoke lingers and the camera accidentally zooms in on my dad’s head: on the hair growing back over the new scar above his ear. Five months after the party, the real darkness came.
My father died after a five year battle with cancer on August 8th, 1999. As a nine year old, I had a knowledge about death but a profound lack of understanding about what it really was or could mean.
On the day he died, I walked down the narrow hospice hallway with my mother and older brother. My mother was in the middle with her arms around us both; a wall of crooked heights, we supported each other. When she asked if we wanted to see him, I said yes. Of course I wanted to see my dad. My brother answered no, and so we walked on, my mother seemingly ignoring my answer. I didn’t say anything, and remember thinking later that he got to decide because he was older.
It was only years later that I realised my mother's action, or rather, her inaction, was above all induced by the hope of protection. I didn’t have the capacity to understand that I wouldn't have really seen my father; not the father I knew. There would be no sign of the joke teller, the dancer, or the reader of bedtime stories. The worker in the white shirt kissing me goodbye each morning before school; the man who made me proud in front of my friends was no longer in that room, and hadn’t been for some time. If my mother had allowed me to go into the room, I would only have seen more of the glimpse I had stolen through the curtains: a grey, lifeless, bloated lump. His face would be vacant. Even more so than it had been for the last few months. It would hold no trace of the smile that was previously ubiquitous around us. The trauma that engulfed me throughout my adolescence would have doubled.
Alongside my naiveté, I operated within my childish sense of time, judging it only by the seasons: summer sprawled but was perennially cut short, school started in autumn, winter was too long, and school stopped in spring. I understood that death meant the end of things, but I didn’t understand I wouldn’t see my father again, or that at times in the future I would desperately want or need to.
For a short time after my father died, I thought that what happened to me was normal. I knew that everybody eventually died; my friends’ fathers would die, too. When it became apparent that my situation was different, it wasn’t long before I became bitter. I started wishing that it had been my best friend's dad instead of mine. Her life was so perfect, and mine had been, too, before. This produced another layer of feeling too dense for a child to understand. I knew this was a cruel thought, I knew it was wrong, and on some level I hated myself for it.
Of course I was right that everyone dies eventually, but I was also horribly wrong: what happened to me wasn’t normal. Only 4 percent of children in the Western world experience the death of a parent, according to Science Daily.
I grew up in the middle class suburbs of Glasgow. Within my extended family and circle of friends, there wasn't even a history of divorce. I didn't meet a classmate from a single parent family until high school, and even then, their dads had left, not died. I still couldn't relate; it's not the same. Throughout my teen years I isolated myself because I believed that no one I knew could understand. None of my friends could ever feel the pain or the emptiness I was capable of feeling. This produced an absurd combination of self hatred and arrogance. I was different and no one was capable of understanding me.
My mother told me that when my dad died I became less confident, more angry. I know that I feel owed a debt by the world. Something magnificently integral has been taken from me: what feels like essential organs, my insides, have been ripped out. This should be acknowledged and I should be repaid. So when other significant things went wrong, when my mum moved on too quickly for me, when I felt ignored by my family, or when I was bullied at school, anger filled me. I might have been able to deal with such things if I still had my father. Under attack, I became defensive. I know that the world isn’t attacking me, no more so than it attacks anyone else. I know others have it much worse than I do. The world is simply, utterly unfair. I know this, but I still feel owed.
When someone dies, a common phenomenon is the employment of magical thinking. For example, if I was running a race in the school sports day my inner monologue would read:
Run! Run faster! If you run fast you’ll see Dad!
When you get to the finish line Dad will be there!
Imagine you’re running to Dad! If you win you’ll see Dad!
I would do this with any kind of competition or test, and as a perfectionist, I used it a lot. Of course, these are merely fantastical thoughts. They do not work in either of the intended ways. I knew so as I thought them and I never won anything. I realise now in writing this that the pain of losing was then compounded as it was associated with losing my father and my inability to bring him back.
Another aspect of magical thinking is the ability to imagine seeing the deceased alive again. There can be moments when you see a lookalike across the street and for a second believe that a vast conspiracy is being played out around you, as in The Truman Show. The thought process reads:
Dad isn’t really dead!
This has all been some weird experiment, and it’s finally over.
Look! He’s right there!
And then the man turns around and you see that the man is a stranger, and you always knew he was a stranger. Slowly, these thoughts become more and more untenable, despite being utterly unrealistic in the first place.
The thought of seeing him diminishes, until it can only be found in dreams, photographs, songs, smells or forced imagination. By “forced imagination” I mean forcing yourself to see something that isn’t there. This is not the same as mistaking a man on the street for the deceased, but rather, projecting his image onto something you know not to be him. For example, I would sometimes stare at the back of my stepfather’s head in the car and pretend it was my dad. This only worked at night because my stepdad is bald, and my dad had a full, thick head of hair.
We didn’t talk about my dad much after he died because we couldn’t without crying, and we’d done enough crying. I was too young, and I have no real time memories, nothing that isn’t triggered by a photograph or a smell or a song. I can’t play out a scene in my head. I don’t hear my father’s voice until I hear my brother say, “Hello” on the phone, and even after that word, that’s it, it’s over. I rarely dream of him, and when I do living without him the next day is worse than the day before. The absence is intensified. But once that day is over I still long to repeat it. Over and over again, to be with him even for a second in a dream is worth being turned back to the cruel joke of reality. Because that’s where I’d be, anyway.
My life is split in two. Before and after. I have a utopian view of my childhood. Everything until that sunny August day, that rainy funeral and the blur of years that follows it, is perfection. Nothing can compete, and I constantly want to return to that place of home that only exists in my heart. My family will never be whole again, and neither will I.
I live in his absence, in the crater left in his wake. I watch other fathers, and it makes me smile before it begins to ache. At the Brooklyn Bridge Park on a Saturday afternoon I watched a young man play with a child no older than two. Or, maybe older than two, but no bigger than two. (I cannot guess children’s ages.) This is what I wrote:
She is tiny. He spins her around in the air, holding her wrist and an ankle. She squeals in delight and he lays her down softly on the jaggy green grass. She lays on her back and so does he, beside her. After a minute she gets restless and she climbs on his chest, her face in his neck and her legs only reaching where his belly button would be under his shirt. He wraps his arms around her; she is so small that his arms fit around her and himself, and his hands find his sides easily, his finger tips grazing the grass. They lie like that for a moment and I want to tell him,“Don’t let go. Don’t let her go.” But she squirms, and it’s too late, they’re up and she’s in the air, the colors of his red shirt and grey shorts whirring past her eyes.
When the tape of my father's party finished, I took my drink outside and lit a cigarette. It was a summer evening, the sky was pink and warm. I heard someone yell something that sounded like my name, and within five seconds, my mind tried to convince me that it was my father.
Once when I was a child my brother and I ran to meet someone we hadn’t seen for years. I want to dream that it was him. I run down the street that we grew up on. We used to walk it together, his hand enclosed around mine. I see his figure looming in the distance, it has been years, but it feels like forever. My hand drops from my mother’s and my feet slap hard, painfully on the ground, my hair flying violently behind me. Tears are running down my face as quickly as I am running towards him. But it feels like slow motion. Purple flowers in nearby gardens blur and the sun is shining, like it always did, as he gets closer and closer. My blue eyes are swimming. Everything is a hazy mess of gold light, green, and purple flowers. I see him clearly, wearing jeans and an old red sweater that I still keep in my closet. I can almost feel him hugging me. How small I’ll feel, enveloped in his arms, my eyelashes wet, and the smell of his neck. But we don’t live there anymore, and no matter how hard I try, I almost never dream of him.
I am left wondering what difference having a father makes. There are studies that say teenagers without fathers will be more promiscuous, more rebellious, they will do badly in school and they will have a reduced chance at every kind of success. Every case is too different to be comparable. When we are taught that grief ends, we are being lied to. Grief is like a river: it moves through us and through time. Sometimes it is bearable, and other times not; sometimes it feels like drowning. Grief turns us into water: it slips through our fingers but makes us stronger, strong enough to hold up a ship.
I know that the findings in any study are not my story; they are not me. My story is one that I am making for myself, and I can feel it firmly in my hands. I live with and in his absence, I try to live wholly with an emptiness that I try to fill only with success, and with more love. I live the lessons he taught me when he was alive, and those I have been forced to learn since his death: to be strong and to be yourself, and to be unyielding in that; to be sensitive to your own pain and to the pain of others, to live as best you can and to do things that scare you, because those are the best things you can do for yourself. That, and it will all be over too quickly.
"Solsbury Hill" - Peter Gabriel (mp3)
"Mercy Street" - Peter Gabriel (mp3)
"Losing My Religion" - R.E.M. (mp3)
"Try Not To Breathe" - R.E.M. (mp3)