I have to preface this post by acknowledging the fact that I was fortunate enough to grow up with two dads in my life. Paul was my biological father and the one I am writing about today. Mark is the step-dad that I lived with from the time I was four years old. He has been every bit a dad to me, and I know how very lucky I am to be able to say that. These two men have had completely different roles in my life, but it’s impossible for me to call one a father without giving due credit to the other. So on we go…
Twenty years ago today my dad passed away. It feels impossible, but he has now been gone from my life longer than he was in it. Knowing that this anniversary was approaching, I have been looking for a way to honor it and thinking about the parts of Paul that I continue to carry with me after all these years. I want to try to put into words the gifts he gave me, whether he meant to or not, as a way of marking this milestone in my life and his death.
A little back story for those of you who don’t know. My dad died of AIDS at 43 years old. In the mid 90’s AIDS was very much a death sentence, and there weren’t many treatment options. He had known that he was HIV positive for a number of years, but he didn’t share that with anyone until he started to get sick. We never knew how he contracted HIV, but he lived his life in a way that gave the disease ample opportunity to find him. In any case, it doesn’t really matter how he got it. He had it, and it killed him.
I’m afraid of this starting out sounding like some kind of sob story. It is not. These are the facts of my life and I hold them lovingly. When I look back now, my dad’s sickness and death were, in a literal and archetypal way, the beginning of my adulthood. There is symbolism aplenty in the whole scene, so obvious that it’s almost absurd. And yet, the symbols and the story itself are different for the other people who were affected by the loss of this man. My aunt, my mother, my sister and her mom, my cousin, they all have their own history with Paul and their own lessons.
My dad, my sister and I at Priest Lake. 1985.
My dad was 23, and a very young 23, when I was born. It was the 70’s and I think he was completely unprepared and unable to cope with the changes that a baby brings to your life and marriage. He was not ready to grow up, and my parent’s marriage ended soon after I was born. My relationship with my dad took place during sporadic weekend visits. As I know now, it’s a struggle to keep up with the changes that take place in your children under the best of circumstances, so it’s no wonder our relationship was not an easy one.
My birth in 1976.
Even before I came into his life, my dad was a damaged soul. He endured traumatic heartbreak at a young age and he was never able to recover from that. I’m no psychologist, but it’s pretty obvious that he spent an exorbitant amount of energy running from the feelings of loss, abandonment and inadequacy that plagued him. During the last few months that my dad was alive I tried hard, in my sloppy 19 year old way, to address the sadness and anger I felt about our relationship, but our talks went nowhere and my letters were unanswered. At the time it was very hurtful that he didn’t want to heal things between us while we had a chance, but I see it in a different light now. It was terrifying for him to look that closely at pain, both mine and his own. It would have opened up a whole chasm of anguish for him and he wouldn’t, couldn’t go that deep.
I’m painting a pretty bleak picture here so far, but those undercurrents of pain were so influential in his life that they affected every relationship he had and choice that he made. Paul was a brilliant artist, a wonderful cook, a hilarious friend, a curious intellectual. And yet he was so full of torment that he sabotaged himself every chance he got. The sadness of that, the talent and ability and love that were wasted while he tried to prove what a failure he was, is a grief I still feel acutely every time I think of him. Which leads me to lesson one.
Lesson One – We have a responsibility to look our pain straight in the face so that it doesn’t kill us. It is our duty in this life, I really believe it, to confront our fear, our hurts, the damage that has been done. That does not make it go away, but it’s like turning on the light in a spooky closet. If you can look at the scary stuff and put a name to it, it can’t torment you in the same way. It’s a lifelong process, but the process itself is what helps to heal. Go deep, explore the chasm.
Watching Star Trek, drinking beer, being naked. 1979.
In spite of all that haunted him, I would be hard pressed to name a man more generous than my dad. He lived on the edge financially, but he freely gave praise, compliments, humor and a sympathetic ear. He invited the homeless guys that camped outside his building to come in for cigarettes. He took in stray cats. He was genuinely interested in people from all walks of life.
Lesson Two – Generosity is about opening your heart, not just your wallet. Making someone feel at ease, at home, and understood is a huge gift to give. Give your true self. Give kindness.
1985. Note the the earring shaped like a sword. Bad ass.
Paul was a great connoisseur of food and drink, both fancy and simple. He loved to cook for people, including me, but as a kid I was less than impressed with the creamy mushroom sauces, unusual sausages and crepes soaked with liquor that he had a penchant for. These were not kid-friendly dishes, but I would so love to eat them now. Watching my dad eat was an education in pleasure, and in being present. I remember him eating a pumpkin ice cream cone, just weeks before he died, in a way that was almost like a meditation, so focused was he on the task. I inherited his love of planning themed dinner parties, though I occasionally follow through and actually host them; he never did. He had fantasies of medieval feasts with roasted whole pigs and mugs full of wine and ale. He talked at length about a party where everyone dressed in white and ate all white foods. Some Christmas I will cook a full English holiday masterpiece in his honor because it was something he never got to do to his satisfaction. There will be both roast goose and beef, Yorkshire pudding, desserts studded with candied chestnuts, things lit on fire. It will be fantastic.
Lesson Three – Eat well. Pay attention. Never let a perfectly ripe summer peach pass you by. Plan fun parties with good food and good friends. (Then actually have the party.) Even the simple things can be worthy of a feast.
That suit? That hair? Again, totally bad ass.
Paul was an in-the-flesh example of the dark and the light and all the shades of gray in between. His charm was at once self deprecating and grandiose. He drew people to him and let them down, and they loved him anyway. He was easy to be mad at but impossible not to like. It’s so much a part of human nature to want to categorize people, especially ones that have done you wrong, but not one of us is all bad, or all good. Just because someone is self centered, or irresponsible, or a child in a grown man’s body doesn’t mean they aren’t also full of tenderness and beauty and talent.
Lesson Four – It’s okay to love someone for the good in them, while still holding the bad against them; the two are not mutually exclusive.
I was so privileged to be with my dad when he crossed the boundary between this life and whatever lies beyond, and I was blessed to spend the days leading up to it in transition with him. I was struck by how much work it is to die, and by the fact that the people included are there as a distant support, but mostly to hold vigil and bear witness to the miracle. A few years after Paul’s death I attended my first birth as a doula, and was blown away by the similarity. The labor, the struggle, it’s the same. Moving through the veil is totally freaking intense. It’s messy, it smells bad, there are tears and sweat and crying out. And there is so much beauty and magic. We all get to experience both birth and death at least once but I am fortunate to have been included in the miracle when I, personally, was fully here on earth.
Lesson Five – Death is as magical as birth. We are entrusted with something very precious when allowed to be a “midwife” at someone’s death. It is one of the moments of great awe.
Paul Penketh 6/9/52 – 10/6/95
For my eleventh birthday my dad gave me a beautifully illustrated book called ‘Secret Spells and Curious Charms’ by Monika Beisner. Inside the front cover he wrote this:
Seeing his words on the page brings tears to my eyes every time. He loved me. I loved him. That will never end.