Guest Post – Ashes in California: A reflection on the end of my father

[mark safranski / zen ]

This year saw the passing of Charles Cameron, the longtime managing editor and co-blogger here at ZP. Charles is deeply missed by everyone who read or blogged here and to honor him on what would have been his birthday on Friday, we are publishing a memorial essay by his oldest son, Emlyn Cameron.

Ashes in California: A reflection on the end of my father

By Emlyn Cameron

In his mid-seventies, my father, always reluctant to do anything that might benefit his health, had a heart attack. A year later he had another one. This time he would undergo open-heart surgery. His physical condition meant the operation would put him at greater-than-average risk of dying.

The night before the surgery, I decided to walk to his hospital and talk to him. Telling your parent what you’d like them to know before they die is unhappy work. In my case, I got dizzy, and my face went numb and mostly immobile, and I felt as if I had a large bruise spreading deep in the tissue of my chest.

I had hoped it would bring him some fulfillment to know the effect he had upon his son. But, I doubted that when the issue of death ultimately asserted itself he would be in a position to care. My real aim was to make his death easier for me. This was part of a long attempt to steal incrementally from and lessen the store of grief I’d feel when he finally died.

I had started by trying to outright deny him the privilege of dying: When I was small, it occurred to me that Father wouldn’t be around forever. He was in his mid-fifties by the time I was 10, already unhealthy, and even other healthier, younger people died. I checked this with Mum, who confirmed my worry. So, I tried to go over his head – I asked God to step in and make a compact with me on the order of I’ll be good and pious if you’ll give my father a permanent reprieve. 

Santa Claus stuff. 

Some years later, in my early teens, I tried instead to maximize time with Father, despite my parents’ divorce: Every trip to a thrift store, or Saturday cruise between yard sales, in his battered sedan, and every heat-choked afternoon spent combing through his storage unit became essential. If I could spend enough time with him, maybe I could skip out on saying, “I could have, should have seen him more.” Whenever he drove away, I stood by the curb waving until his car evaporated at the horizon. Sometimes this would go on until my arms ached, or the blood refused to make the journey up to my fingertips and I had to use my arms in shifts. The way the street was quiet and empty and unchanged after he was gone made me uncomfortable. Eventually this ritual seemed silly and wasteful, so I gave up. 

I tried a more circuitous path. My father and I had always been similar in our temperaments but extremely different in our interests. Now, I played that up. I was more contemptuous than necessary, said “no” whenever possible, and highlighted our differences. If I renounced a certain amount of my ability to see him and show him my total affection, it seemed to me that made the occasions when I did so more meaningful and the weight of his eventual death less of a loss.

Living with him for a while near the end of high school, I stuck rigidly to my plans to be out of the apartment as often as possible, though he invited me to spend evenings watching movies with him; Pointed out the flaws and limited results of his flitting and optimistic approach to life – always working on some new, abortive book project, always living paycheck to paycheck and relying on good fortune to prevail. I unloaded my more militant, cynical, and ambitious ideas on him and heckled him for not cleaning his dishes. For his part, like Bazarov’s father in Fathers and Sons, he smiled and adored me for my cavalier and dismissive attitude – every correction was proof that his boy had grown up bright and bold, an improvement, however bizarre, on his old man.

Page 1 of 8 | Next page