Last week, my father joined the pantheon of ancestors after a decade long battle with cancer in the comfort of his home with family early in the morning. He left behind my mother, the love of his life for 44 years, and four children. As a genealogist, I’m surrounded by the facts of life and death on a daily basis. I’m constantly asking questions about when someone died or where are they buried to help people learn more about their family history. I’m able to keep an emotional distance from it because I deal with the lives and deaths of other people or of ones who died long ago.
Even though my job as a genealogist requires me to confront mortality and the fragility of human life, dealing with the death of loved ones in your own family is full of turbulence, pain and suffering and change. Your parents feel like a permanent part of your life. Their presence is timeless like watching the sun rise in the morning and the stars emerge out of the darkness at night. But, just like Chicken little exclaimed, the sky falls and the people you love(along with yourself) leave this world. There is a crack in your previous reality that opens a doorway into another universe where your parent are no longer there. Hence, I’ve entered this transitory world without my dad just like he had to with the death of his mother and my grandmother entered when her parents passed on. The life and death cycle is an endless loop experienced by all of our ancestors.
We are left with remnants of their lives in historical records and photographs. Aged tombstones weathered by time reduce a human life in a simple life and death date etched on stone. But, just like I’m reeling from the death of my father, I’m reminded of him telling me what I’m going through is exactly what he went through mourning the death of my grandmother.
When I and my family went to the funeral home to make arrangements for my father’s service, I understood the stress my ancestors must have felt when they had to give all the basic facts of my dad’s life to record for prosperity on his death certificate. Who were his parents? Where was he born? What did he do for a living? Who did he marry? When did he die?
None of those vital facts reveal how much he was loved or what kind of life he lead and who was he has a person. Very rarely do the records of our lives we leave behind reveal a fleshed out human being. Memories and the stories we tell about our loved ones do.
I will end my story with a line from James Joyce’s “Dubliners” where the main character contemplates our transitory and impermanent existence as humans on Earth.
“…Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.”
Rest well, Dad.