Thursday, March 15, 2018

Whose Death Is It, Anyway?

‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it is like!’     
-Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk 
Today is the 28th anniversary of my father's death. My father. Before I revised my memoir to make the naming of various characters consistent - always calling my mom's dad Bapa, always calling Dad by that name instead of "my dad" or "my father," a reader noted that whenever I referred to Dad, I used the first person possessive. "My father's death," I would write, as if the death happened to only me, or to only him and I was the only child.

Only, I am not. I am the youngest of three. And my siblings definitely suffered.

My memoir is about my loss, not about theirs. But I still found it an uncanny consistency that I didn't call him, "our father." It's how I tell my story - this is my loss, and not just because I am owning my story, but because in my story, I am alone.

In fact, this is the new, focused, working title of the memoir: Not Alone. The process of figuring out I am not alone in loss, in death, in trauma - that process/those processes have saved my sanity. That is really what my journey is about, where the survival is.

For a long time, my experience was exactly that of the Helen MacDonald quote above, and I am pretty sure it was that way for my brothers. I know it was like that for Mom. I know she and I fought all the time in my early teens, competing over who missed Dad more. Because we felt alone, we felt the other didn't understand, couldn't understand our loss.

It is somewhat the nature of loss in a society like the one I live in, North American predominately patriarchal, capitalistic, and white. Loss is something you suffer alone. It is stronger to do it alone. But it is also part of how I personally perceived I could get by - by isolating. And, in the end, I think it caused me more pain than good, as so many of our survival mechanisms do.

Not that I blame myself for that. I am very resourceful and did the best I could do, just as I am doing now.

Not all death anniversaries are hard. This one is medium so far. I feel tender and highly sensitive, wary of social interaction and as if I am a small child. But not so shut down that I don't remember my newer, more recent wisdom: to remember others have suffered similar losses, to bring them to mind and wish them love and relief from suffering, to see not that I have it "less hard" or "more hard" but simply that I am "not alone."

This is the key to all of our stories - finding where the universal and specific meet and diverge. And finding how to own our stories without excluding all those - familial, cultural, social - who also were a part, in direct or indirect ways.

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