To be clear, this is not a eulogy for my dead father.
The thought did cross my mind a few weeks after my dad passed away on October 17, 2016.
Maybe I need to write a eulogy.
But my world and my existence in it still felt too strange and surreal for me to dig up words for what had happened. I put the thought away and moved on after three days bereavement leave from work and one long, tearful night alone with a bottle of wine (or two) and some old emails.
Time did what time does.
Maybe I need to write a eulogy.
“Eulogies are strange things,” my therapist gently cautioned me as the holidays approached and the thought returned following a few terrible panic attacks I suffered like nightmares of my heredity’s revenge on me, the surviving son.
Perhaps I could exorcise my demons with my most powerful tool, my words.
As my focus began to train on my recent rash of panic episodes, anxiety and depression, I compartmentalized and studied my mental illness. Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing sparked in me a need to employ my words in the advancement of discourse on mental illness and the destigmatization of not being okay.
So, I wrote about that. And it helped. It helped a lot, actually! I stared down one of my monsters, named it, and made it real. And that made it easier to engage with it, laugh at it on occasion, and coach it into something less threatening when I could.
I turned that writing into my first solo show — investing my body, voice, action, and art even more in this supposed exorcism. I rehearsed for nearly two months under the direction of a best friend. As we lifted the words from the page and worked for me to embody them, I became wracked and fell ill. Performance approached. I continued to rehearse my words, but the more I activated them, the more my performance empowered my trauma.
I was bed-ridden most of the three days before I performed my show about my mental illness. Mortality was haunting me. My mental illness was splitting reason in my head — while I had concrete evidence I was physically well and not dancing with death, the power of suggestion taunted me: my father passed, and I am so much of him, therefore I could, too. Phantom symptoms haunted me.
But the show went on with the support of my partner, my friends, and my mother. Before I went onstage, I crouched in a corner to steal a moment alone, catch my breath, and feel my heart beat. It was racing.
I empowered the ritual I designed, the ritual I chose to perform in hopes of continuing to exorcise the demons which haunted my life since my dad passed.
“This is for you, too, Dad,” I whispered.
When I finished and left the stage, I let out a sigh of relief my tears chased on its way out. I hid in the bathroom for another moment alone, recollected my resources, and beamed for my accomplishment.
For one, I survived, and that was reason enough for shining with full-bodied joy. But furthermore, I engaged with my adversity and found my way to the other side. And I did it, in part, for my father. Was this catharsis? Did the ritual work? Had all my demons, whether they be ghosts or anxiety or panic, finally been vanquished? In that moment, it felt a bit like they had.
Of course, they hadn’t.
I celebrated, and once again, time did what it does.
Maybe I need to write a eulogy.
The thought returned recently — just one month after my theatrical exorcism. It came to me at lunch with a dear friend. She was helping me sift through all the pieces of me I discovered were still broken apart. She was helping me make sense.
“Maybe I need to write a eulogy,” I half-laughed, desperate.
She advised me against the depressive, performative, alien nature of a eulogy, especially when the subject elicits such complicated feelings in the surviving, eulogizing party, as my dad did in me.
She sounded right.
Later that night, at a bar in Manhattan’s West Village, I celebrated my birthday with my partner and four of my closest, oldest, dearest friends. We closed the bar, put on our own music, drank, and discussed the twists and turns of my twenty-third year on this planet.
“I’m just so proud and impressed that you’re still working through everything,” one said.
It didn’t feel like I was, but he held his hand in mine and my body suggested I could well with something like pride, even if my mind did not quite buy it. I smiled. I felt older, but not for the change in number of candles on my cake.
Time did what it does.
Maybe I need to write a eulogy.
Maybe I need to write a eulogy. It is, after all, the one year anniversary of my father’s passing. There is something comforting about the suggestions milestones make to us as they come. They illuminate pathways forwards we may not have seen prior.
Yes, I need to write, as always. I need to work, as always, as my best friend applauded me for doing despite my disbelief.
But it is not a eulogy I have to write for this anniversary. At least, I don’t think it is.
I’m not writing to share my most pleasant memories and weave the most colorful, warm, and valuable tapestry of the man I knew my father to be. I’m not doing this for an assembled mass of those who knew him, though I warmly welcome them if they may come. I am writing, as I always ultimately do, to make some sense and help myself along. And, as always, to work towards a bit of success as it is defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”
I have built a life in narratives; as an artist, my trade is stories. When my father passed unexpectedly last October, I was suddenly faced with a series of surreal experiences and one particularly difficult and thorny decision.
My father and I had, at that time, been estranged in some part for a dozen years. The last time I saw my father, I was eleven years old. Nine years into the estrangement, following my second year of college, I decided to write my father and catch him up on all he had missed since we ceased communication, in hopes of eventually rekindling our relationship for a future we could share — however best possible — together.
“I’m writing you this letter because I want to begin to approach what could be a really great adult relationship between you and me. I’m scared, of course — as much as I love you, you’re my father, and you’ve always cut an intimidating figure,” I explained, “and in order to move forward, there are a couple things that I think need explanation from me and understanding from you.”
I told him how I feared his influence over me, his alcoholism, and his addiction to smoking cigarettes. I discussed the last time I saw him, and how that broke and ultimately re-made my life for the better. I came out to him.
Finally, I confessed, perhaps the most vulnerable thing of all, “I want to hang out with my Dad. I want to share my beautiful life with you because I love you and you deserve to take part in it. I value that very, very much. If I were to say I wanted one thing from you at this point, it would be permission to be my own person. I’m really excited and very hopeful about the future of our adult relationship as father and son.”
I attached some of my writing and a few recent photos of me onstage.
He responded to the email address I included immediately upon receiving the letter.
He wrote that he had been mowing the lawn out front of the house in which I had lived, the house on which my mother had helped make a home. He told me how he sat on his front porch to read the letter with the two sons he had with his second wife. He said he was so happy to hear from me and so proud of the man I had become. He said he cried. Reading his generous words and receiving his excitement, I cried, too.
In the months that followed, we attempted to reconnect more substantially. We emailed and messaged on Facebook. We texted. Each and every time we neared either a conversation of consequence or a concrete, committed plan, he would pull away.
This pattern held through the last time I heard from him, a year before he passed.
And then he was gone. The details were fuzzy by the time I received them. He was on a flight to Mexico City for business and experienced some kind of cardiac episode before landing. He was discovered in his condition upon deplaning and was beyond potential revival.
I was out in Boston at a Sia concert with my partner and my best friend. After the show, we sat at a nearby bar for a drink and a snack, when I noticed my phone had been buzzing with all sorts of strange messages from unknown names and missed calls from foreign numbers. I dismissed them. My mother reached out and asked if I had been receiving any odd messages. I told her yes. She had been, too. She advised me to ignore them until she could be sure what they were. She didn’t want me getting involved in anything she deemed even remotely suspicious.
The next day I went to work. Midway through my day, my mother messaged me to call. I had a feeling it was something serious, so I went out to the lobby and did.
“Mike, honey,” she began, her voice heavy and strong before a generous pause to collect the words that followed, “your father has passed away.” Her voice broke.
I can neither recall, nor describe with any of the beautiful words I keep by my side, how I felt hearing that.
I promptly left and took three days of bereavement leave from work.
Maybe I need to write a eulogy.
Everything felt so strange. What had I lost? I lost a parent, of course. That is a seismically strange thing. More viscerally, I felt a loss of potential and a loss of the happily-ever-after future on which I had planned as I grew up and came of age. But ultimately, I lost something like a ghost when this haunting and troubling relationship had suddenly and untimely come to a very sad end.
A few days later, I sat with my therapist and discussed whether or not I would attend the services I had the unfortunate burden of arranging as the only one of my father’s children who were of legal age and right to do so. It was grueling, deeply bizarre business I mustered every ounce of grace I had to handle with care, maturity, and efficiency.
I unpacked how hurt I felt and how uninterested I was in sharing my grief in the surreal setting of a wake and funeral service.
My relationship with my father had come to be mine and mine alone, and I felt as though I would not be able to honor that in the customary shared rituals I had helped schedule. Perhaps this was a selfish choice — I do not know, even today — and I admit this is a choice that may stay with me for a long, long time.
When making phone calls to funeral homes as my father’s son, the party responsible for ensuring his final rest, I fought through the unreal magnitude of awkwardness that transpired when asked questions about my father or our relationship as these were questions to which I had to admit to complete strangers I had no answers. I managed this by reminding myself who these rituals were for: my half brothers, with whom I barely had a relationship, but who sent their father away on a routine business trip only for him to never return. If they wanted it, and if it would help, they certainly deserved a space and a moment in time to process this undeserved tragedy.
However, I did not need that. I did not want that. That was not for me and my relationship with my dad.
I wanted to mark my loss in my own way. I wanted to find a ritual that would somehow adequately honor all that our relationship was, was not, could have been, and never would be. I did not know what that would be, but I was certain it was not coming to terms with my grief with people I barely knew.
I am still not sure I have performed that ritual. It has been a year since my dad passed.
What am I looking for? If my seance/stage show exorcism of anxiety and depression wasn’t the supernatural moment of communion with my dead, what could be? Have I missed it? Have I missed my chance?
It has been a year since my dad passed, and I have survived it.
I have survived a year beyond the wild, shocking cutting of that deep gash, that unfathomable chasm into my personal history, that which first severed the timeline of my life into disparate halves and broke the lens through which I see and experience all.
In a year’s time, the gash has somewhat healed, the chasm has seen some light. I have grown this new half of my life, and I have — and continue to — create and clarify a new lens, a new way of seeing and experiencing. I have held my friends, my loved ones, and my mother. I have laughed, cried, and drank more and more wine.
Perhaps all that I have sought and fought, all that I have learned and earned, all that I have managed in the year since my dad passed is ritual — eulogy, even — enough.
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