Today is Memorial Day, and while my father did not die in the service of his country, he did serve his country: as both a submarine officer, and later as an engineer working for the DoD. And he did die, eight months ago. He didn’t fall to an enemy bullet, or go down with his ship. He died of ALS.
I am 46 years old. When my father died last September, on my mother’s birthday, it was the first time I had ever experienced the loss of an immediate family member. I feel lucky that I made it that far…46 years…before having such an experience. On this Memorial Day I feel a need to share what I’ve learned, if anything. Maybe I’ve learned nothing at all.
The pain is less than I thought. Maybe it’s because of how he died…helpless with ALS…but when I first heard the news, my initial reaction was relief. I thought, It’s over. It’s finally over. I didn’t cry, I didn’t break down; I moved on like the doctors in that Robert Frost poem: “And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” All the crying was done months earlier: when I saw him gradually lose the use of his legs; when I learned he really had ALS; when I heard he probably wouldn’t make it to Christmas. Death is not always an evil, and my dad was finally at peace.
There is guilt. I have guilt at how much relief I felt. What right do I have for relief? My sister and my nephew took care of my father for over a year before he passed. They are the ones who should feel relief. Relief, for me, doesn’t seem fitting. I don’t think I did enough. I don’t think I visited enough. I sometimes think I failed my family or my father somehow. On a rational level, I don’t think guilt is a particularly useful emotion, unless it spurs you to change your behavior in some way. But I don’t know if there’s anything I would have done differently. And so the guilt remains.
The pain is more than I thought. Sometimes, at odd moments, I will think of something that I want to share with my father: a good book, an incredible play in football or basketball, an amazing place I have visited. It takes a second to remember that my father is gone. And then that something that I wanted to share dies, too; falls away, like ashes, like dust. It’s bitter. It’s cold. Whatever it was that I was going to share, I don’t share with anyone.
I can handle grief. When you’re a kid, you may imagine one of your parents dying. In your mind, it’s devastating. If you’ve never grieved before, you will look to TV, books, movies…anything to give you some context, some framework, some way to imagine what such grief is like. The lesson is always: grief is an unbearable, unimaginable pain. It will devastate you. It’s an abyss. And yet…I’m 46. A parent dying when you’re 46 is natural. It seems like an expected thing. There is pain, but the world moves on. A week later, the adoption of my son became official. Circle of life.
There is no Hallmark moment. I never had a last talk with my dad. No secrets were revealed. I don’t recall the last thing I said to him, or the last thing he said to me. Life is just…life. And sometimes, it just…ends. I do remember the last thing I did with my father: we watched the movie Zoolander together. I challenge anyone to find meaningful allegory in that.
I sense that my father lives on. I don’t believe in any afterlife. But that doesn’t mean that my father is gone forever. On the contrary, there are memories and ideas and connections and neural pathways and patterns and dreams and software, inside my own mind, that I would definitely attribute to my father. He’s not inside my head, like Baron Harkonnen haunting Alia in Dune Messiah. But there is something in me attributable to him. That’s not a bad thing, or even necessarily a good thing. But it is continuity. And it is fitting.
James Anthony Rave, 73, of Beaufort, died peacefully Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, at home. No service will be held. Jim was from Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963. After six years as a submarine officer, he continued to serve our nation as a federal employee with the Department of the Navy, finally retiring after a full career from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. During his final years he kept active working as a contracting engineer and avidly reading science fiction and military history. He is survived by his wife of 51 years; four children; four brothers, two sisters; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.