To whom our hands once clung

I dreamt of my father the other night. When they come in dreams my mother and my father seem very real and I reach out to them.

My father died in 1995 at the age of 89. He was a good man and a beloved father. I often think of him but I have seldom been able to write about him. Once, however, I spent a few days up the Essequibo and in the peace and beauty of that great river my father’s life and what he meant to me came into clear focus and I did write some private thoughts about him.

That night of extraordinary beauty I sat by the river’s edge with the forest trees entangled with stars at my back and watched a giant moon, shining through the smoke of wood-fires, rise fiery red across the great river. It was one of those occasions when the smallness and transience of an individual life becomes very real. For hours as the moon rose and slipped overhead towards the cliff of forest trees behind me I thought of my father whose life was long as lives go but brief as a dream as all lives really are.

so140112ian09What I have written about my father, though important to me, is of no interest in a newspaper column. Still, we all have parents and what happens as they grow old is a universal experience which is worth writing about in public form. In thinking about my father I thought about life’s last passage which brings such sadness but which we cannot avoid as we ourselves grow old.

When I was young life’s last days seemed infinitely distant. It was more than that. The parents I loved so much, on whom I so routinely depended, also seemed eternal. Within some magic circle they were as safe as I was for as long as I could contemplate and that seemed long indeed. That was just yesterday it seems. But my father grew old and died and soon my mother saddened to her own death and I knew then I had entered the time of life’s last passages.

Seeing the very old you love grow frail and uncertain towards an end you know will soon come brings home like nothing else the sadness of time that passes so quickly we never seem quite to grasp it. It seems not so long ago they were your strong, young parents and now they are old and weak and that brings home with terrible force the transience of life. It suddenly shakes the heart to realize with fearful certainty that what seems to be the permanence of our daily lives, our eternity of recurring routines, are a complete illusion. You suddenly know, if you never knew it well before, that on your own deathbed you will murmur to no one in particular, “It was all a dream.”

I remember a time came when I realized that my father on whom I had leaned so hard for advice and help and wise guidance and unconditional love now depended more and more on me. It brought on a powerful emotion, a mix of gladness that I could repay, sadness that the days had gone when he was the strength of my life and an overwhelming love. I hugged him as he would hug me when I was a child. How the years pass and love changes and is unchanging.

To see the very old you love slipping towards death brings vivid memories of their past strength, how much you depended on their strength and care, and how you took that certainty of their love and support for granted. When parents die then in a sense, however many others you love remain, you are alone in a way you have never been before. I know of a man, powerful head of a big company, who after his mother died would wake up at night long after wanting to call out to her. I know how he must have felt. Who does not still in the recesses of the mind’s memory recall how safe it seemed when your mother or father came at night when as a child you called out in fear. Nobody gives quite the same unconditional love as parents do.

In the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, there is a passage which is one of the most clear-sighted, and saddest, in all the books I have read: “A final separation awaits every relationship, no matter how tender. Someday we shall have to drop every object to which our hands now cling.” As we embrace a beloved wife or husband, as we take our children in our arms, as the best of our friends meet with us, the bitter truth of the Kaddish is a distant companion. But for most of us the truth first becomes absolutely real when our parents die and leave us as if they had never been.

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