Thursday, July 25, 2013

Frederick Douglass, Lucretius, and the import of death.

What you can't tell very well from this photo is the majesty of the mountains in the background. You only see the foreground. But the real view outside my door is complex and fabulous. --Nick Nichols 

My Dad died a year ago last Saturday.  The day has kind of lingered in my mind in the day's preceding and I hesitated to look back to see which day it was exactly.

It was only this morning after reading a wonderful new Paris Dispatch from Ta-Nehisi Coates that I dared to troll through my gmail archives to recover the specific day he died.

It was Friday July 20th at 11:45 that my step-mom had emailed from the Philippines that Dad was gone.  She had emailed me when he went into cardiac arrest, then emailed to ask what she should do--in terms of keeping him on life support or not.  To which I told her to let his body be at peace. The day before when we was coming in and out of consciousness on the ventilator I'm told he kept writing, "let me go", "let me go"; my stepmom was interpreting that as in go home from the hospital.  I've always taken his word to mean from the realm of the living.  That this too shall pass.

Technically that final email she sent that night read simply: Dad id gone.

I really have no clue why Ta-Nehisi's post got me thinking of Dad and gave me the nerve to reach back to figure out exactly when he died.  Maybe it was just the fact that Ta-Nehisi's post reminded me of how my Dad was one of those people "who burned to know" as Coates calls it.  Dad passed much of that along to me and Ta-Nehisi's post was one of those gems I would send via tweet or email to Dad--which was what most of our dialogue the last few years of his life was built off of--an engagement with ideas, and appreciation at others who grasped the wonderment of it all.

A wonderment which Coates describes to a T here as he describes his own struggles to learn French in Paris:
I can't call it. But I think about Frederick Douglass a lot these days. And I think that as much as he understood the import of justice, he must have also understood the import of death. Once you get the great effort it takes to go from "knowing" to "understanding" you get how little you will ever truly apprehend. Whole lives surround you. Whole ways are distant from you. Entire streets, ancient cultures , beautiful people are all shooting by. And there is sadness in this because truly we know that there is life in outer space, that there is life in the Parisian streets, that there is life in those West Baltimore streets, that there is life in these worlds around me, life in these blue worlds so close, though light years away.

In many ways this paragraph captured the essence of my Dad.  Dad was a technocrat by trade, an Electrical Engineer, yet he still had at his core the passion and wonderment for the life of knowledge--a life spent in great effort to go from "knowing" to "understanding".  Dad grasped how little we truly do apprehend, and I was always getting tweets and emails (and before social networking... actual letters) with "Dad's little gems" as he once coined them.  Dad embedded that passion in me; both in my genetic code I'm sure, but also environmentally in the cultural surroundings he sought to nurture and surround me in--the books, art, poetry, and life experiences.

Whole lives do surround us.  Beautiful people are shooting by you all the time.  And Ta-Nehisi is right, there truly is a sadness that encroaches on you when you take the time to appreciate the experience of recognizing this.  Dad recognized this imperfect state--of dare I call it gratitude?--which surrounds a person when they struggle to go from "knowing" to "understanding".

A few weeks before Dad died, sitting in his hospital bed unable to walk but working away on his computer on some of his projects for work my stepmom snapped a photo of him and his Facebook post read:
My new Quezon City office. 279 E. Rodriguez Sr. Boulevard.   This also home of the GMA-style back brace. If I could run, I would. But I can't seem to walk at the moment.

To which I commented: "Life is one long struggle in the dark." --Lucretius
And Dad responded:  That Lucretius. Such a comedian.

Dad's last message to me a week or so later was short and simple. It was a Happy Birthday wish on July 12th (the 13th Philippine time).  Within a day or so after that the Fungal infection in his lung, which appeared after his spinal surgery, had taken him from working away to on a breathing machine.

And like a flash, Dad was gone.

I'm 33 now, if Dad's lifespan is a metric for distance I'm over halfway--which scares me and saddens me a bit.  The void where my Dad once was is still present, as I hope it always will be.  It inspires me onwards, to run, because I can.

Not just figuratively, I mean that quite literally.  I run more often now a days; in fact I finally signed up for my first marathon.  For me, to run gives me space to think, but also to embrace a physical body that my Dad reminded me will at some point let me down, crumble, and finally stop.

I run because I can, I run because it strangely brings me closer to my Dad. It gives me space and time to think through and struggle with many of my own challenges of seeking to move from knowing to understanding.  It also gives me space to simply be.  If you made it this far in the post, I thank you.  I'm not quite sure how or what inspired me to write it, or how or what inspired you to read to the end.  But thank you.  And with that I'm headed out the door to go run...

That Lucretius, such a comedian indeed.
“Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude.” 
― Frederick Douglass

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