The importance of not being afraid
November 6, 2013 by Thomas Wictor
Both my parents were afraid to die, but Dad was crippled with terror. It was simply not possible to talk to him about his death. He told me in all seriousness that until he was seventy-five, he honestly thought he’d live forever. I’ve never known anyone who thought he was immortal.
The neighbors who used to live across the street were the most ramshackle, nightmarish clan in existence. Tim called them the Kallikaks, a family that eugenicist Henry H. Goddard studied in order to trace hereditary feeble-mindedness.
One day the neighbor-father took his family to the beach. He got so sunburned that his head swelled until it looked like a lightbulb. His cranium was one massive blister, so edematous that his features all slanted upward. He came over to ask Tim and me if he should go to the doctor. Imagine a balloon with the face of a Mongol drawn on it with a black Magic Marker. That’s what his head looked like. It took heroic self-discipline to keep from laughing and screaming at the same time.
We told him that yes, he should go to the emergency room right away. He somehow drove himself, even though his eyes were squished shut.
One day I saw his ten-year-old son doing something to the back of the family minivan in the driveway. He grunted and huffed as though trying to lift it. I went across the street and asked what he was doing.
“I gotta put the garbage cans out, so I’m trying to move the car out of the way,” he said.
For a few seconds, I tried to figure out what I’d just heard.
“You’re trying to lift the car out of the way?”
“But…but you can’t pick up a minivan and move it out of the way.”
“Yes I can!”
He grabbed the bumper and pulled upward as hard as he could.
“Stop that!” I said. “You’re going to hurt yourself!”
“No I’m not!”
So I went home. Eventually he gave up trying to lift the minivan. Impassive gravity defeated him. I was aghast beyond a level I’d previously thought possible. He actually thought he could raise a minivan over his head, as though it were made of paper.
I felt the same horror when I realized that my father really thought he would never die. Two years before his death, he began doing utterly crazy things. We understand now that around this time, he’d been told about the mass in his abdomen. Rather than have it checked, he busied himself with completely meaningless tasks that would distract him and exhaust him so that he could sleep.
About fifteen years ago, I spent weeks helping Dad cut ventilation holes in the siding under the eaves of his house.
I can’t count the number of times Dad dragooned me into some horrible home-improvement project that took months. He loved manual labor. While we worked he’d have the radio going full blast, tuned to some classical or German folk-music station. We cut those ventilation holes with a jigsaw.
It was an absolute bastard of a job. The saw was almost impossible to control, the heat was unrelenting, I had to stand on a teetering ladder and stuff myself like a cockroach as far into the junction of the roof and siding as I could, and the music made me want to decapitate myself. And the whole time, Dad was saying, “Mind if I make a suggestion? When do you think you’ll be done? Why are you doing it like that? Don’t you think you should do it like this? Where’s Tim? Shouldn’t we ask Tim to do this instead of you? Where’d your mother go? Who’s that parked across the street? Did the mail come?”
After we cut the fifty-odd holes, we had to screen them off. Each piece of wire screen had to be snipped to shape with shears, fit into place, and stapled down. When we finally finished, Dad went into his usual depression that a job was done, and now he’d be in danger of thinking or feeling. Work numbed him; he craved waking insensibility. His depressions were months of silence punctuated with astonishingly rude outbursts.
Sometime in 2011 I went over to his house and found him covering our ventilation holes with carefully measured and cut boards.
“What are you doing?” I pretty much yelled at him.
“Coverin’ the ventilation holes.”
“Yes! I know! What I mean is why are you doing that?”
“In case there’s a fire. Embers could float through the ventilation holes into the attic and burn down the house! I could lose everything! Fire can destroy a lifetime of work in an instant!”
I was as gobsmacked as when the kid tried to lift the minivan.
“There’s never been a fire here, in the entire history of the city,” I said. “The attic is full of insulation. Even if embers got in there, it wouldn’t burn down the house.”
“Yes it would. I could lose everything!”
“But…but if you cover up the ventilation holes, you’re going to make the house much hotter in the summer! Don’t you remember why we cut the ventilation holes in the first place? You complained about the heat for a decade!”
“Well, if it gets too hot, we’ll just cut new ventilation holes.”
So that was his plan! His for need busywork meant I’d have to spend the rest of my life cutting ventilation holes in the same house as layer after layer of wood was put on, until the house had fifty-plus oblong wooden funnels sticking out from under the eaves, these insane Salvador Dali smokestacks. From the air the house would look like a starfish.
There was no talking him out of it. In retrospect he did it in a state of panic over the bad health news he’d gotten. In the summer of 2012, when Tim and I moved all the possessions out of his house and put them in my garage in preparation for the demolition that has been indefinitely postponed, Dad got very upset.
“Don’t put anything in the aisles between the shelves, in case there’s a fire! We’ll need the aisles clear so we can save everything.”
Some of the crates Tim and I moved weighed six hundred pounds. Not bad for two guys in their fifties, huh? It’s all about leverage.
“If there’s a fire,” I told Dad, “everything’s going up in smoke. Who’s going to unload all this shit packed to the rafters? You, me, and Tim? We need every inch of space, and altogether it’s over eight tons of stuff. This garage will burn down in about ten minutes. We can’t move eight tons in under ten minutes. It took us a month to put it in.”
He was very angry at me. I finally put two and two together, did some online research, and discovered that the business center of Remsen, Iowa, burned down on July 4, 1939. After Dad died I recognized that he’d regressed back to childhood in his fear, and fire had become a metaphor for the disease whose name could not be spoken and the fate that could not be acknowledged.
It’s a terrible shame. I wanted badly to give him my copy of John Grant Fuller’s The Airmen Who Would Not Die, the most persuasive and well-documented case for life after death ever published. But among his hundreds of books, Dad had not a single one about death. We couldn’t discuss poems about death, art about death, or films about death, such as The Civilization of Maxwell Bright, a story of an angry pig-man who finally accepts that he’s dying, and he does so with grace, dignity, and contentment, helped by his Chinese Green Card wife.
It’s a beautiful, uplifting, reassuring film.
When Dad died he literally ran and screamed, and he renounced his religion and his children. He would’ve done anything to save himself. It was so unnecessary. Though uneasiness about all of this is perfectly rational, the paralyzing fear that turned Dad into a grotesque runner was entirely futile and pointless. He died anyway.
He died peacefully, so it appears that some of my calm seeped through and took the edge off at the last second. My forgiveness helped him. And I’ll say it again: I forgave him for HIS sake, not mine. I “betrayed” nobody. Unless you’ve gone through what I’ve gone through, your opinion on the relationship I had with my father is entirely without value. So cram it. Sideways.
Dad’s death was like one of his home-improvement projects. I dreaded being involved in it, he did it all wrong because he had harebrained approaches designed to complicate the whole process and stretch it out, he made it much harder for everyone, and he cared only about what he wanted.
Yet we made it through, and he learned that dying didn’t kill him. That lifetime of fear and robotic work-to-forget should never have happened. I wonder if he and his parents are talking about it now, or if everybody’s still as uptight about the topic as they were when they were alive?
If they still can’t talk about their deaths now that they’re dead, I have no idea where they’ll go from here.
For what it’s worth, my theory is that after you die, you sit and talk with someone about your life. You have to discuss what you learned and your failings. It’s entirely voluntary. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. But you can’t go forward if you don’t. It’s like a manufacturing process. For a sheet of tin to become a can, it has to go through steps. You can’t skip a step just because you don’t like it. The manufacturing process isn’t being cruel by using specific steps to turn the sheet of tin into a can. It’s physics.
However, those in charge of the review process have infinite patience and understanding. They’re benign. I believe you can get up and stop the review process as many times as you want, but the only place you can go is back. That means here. The odd…tantrums we’re been experiencing since February 23, 2013—the day Dad died—have stopped. I think his review is finally underway.
It’s not a process of punishment; it’s a process of making you into a better person. You must have courage to submit to it. Not being afraid is hard. Just remember that you’ve loved, and we’re all in this together. If you face your fears and admit to your bad choices, the only place you can go is up.
I believe Mom discovered that. In her entire collection of clothespin people, there wasn’t a single child, yet a clothespin child fell on Tim’s hand.
While Dad cut holes in wooden siding and then sealed them up again, Mom beautified the world with these. I know she’s okay, and in time he will be too.
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