It’s amazing what you learn about someone after they die.
It’s been said all of your secrets go with you to the grave. Certainly some do, but I’ve learned that there is a remarkable trail that’s left behind after death.
My dad was an English major, perhaps an unlikely degree for someone who went on to do marketing for cereal. One of my strongest memories is of him sitting in his chair in the family room after dinner. We lived in Minnesota and he would have a fire going in winter, with classical music playing softly in the background. There he would put his English major to work – going through papers from work, reading, writing, responding. One memory that particularly stands out is how he used to dictate letters. He had one of those hand-held micro tape recorders – of course this was back in the days before there was speech-to-text technology – and he would record a letter a few thoughts at a time. Stopping, thinking, recording more. I was amazed that he could write a letter this way.
This was obviously in my younger days. As a child I looked up to my dad. I respected him. I admired him. I had a sense of wonder about how how he could dictate a letter, and more broadly at the mysterious work that he did on a daily basis.
You may have heard about the happiness curve – it’s a U-shaped curve and it describes the general trajectory of your happiness relative to your age. At a young age most people are pretty happy on average. Middle age, roughly 40, is where happiness hits the low point in life. Then towards the end of life it comes back up.
That U-shaped curve also described the quality and nature of my relationship with my dad.
In the early days, I had that sense of wonder and admiration. By the time I hit 40 I was frustrated. I was blaming, even resentful. I remember a specific weekend where I hit the low point. I was visiting my brother in Minnesota and when my dad came through for a brief visit I refused to see him. It wasn’t until after a few years, and plenty of opportunity for introspection, that I came to see that perhaps it was not so much that I was mad at him, but I was upset for not living up to the level of success that he had created in his life. Perhaps I was blaming him for my own shortcomings.
In the following months and years I started coming up the back-end of that U shaped curve, and things were getting better. Then he died.
If you’re one to believe that the opportunity to know someone and deepen your relationship ends when they die, I am here to tell you that has not been my experience.
Over the last few months since my father passed away, I have come to know and appreciate him in a deeper way. There is more nuance to how I see him, not just the admiration or frustration at the extremes of the U-shaped curve. I see someone who was remarkably successful in his career and who was home for dinner every night. I see someone who sat in his chair doing paperwork because he was persistent – he had a sense of dedication and focus on his work.
My dad also left behind a trail. As I started to look at the items in that trail, I’ve learned even more about him. As he retired from his career and then later as he got sick, he received correspondence from people in his life. The letters were remarkably touching. One letter said that he was the least political and most honest person this person knew in his career. Another said that he had great integrity and always called it how he saw it. Another person said they owed a large measure of their success to my father. These letters gave me some insight into my dad in a new way that I hadn’t seen.
As an English major my dad appreciated receiving well-written letters, and he made an effort to write a good letter. All that time with the little dictation machine. Even in the last days of his life I got to assist him in writing letters to correspond with his friends. With that in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to end with a letter to my dad.
Dear dad, Although you'll never read this letter, I know you'll receive it. As much as I've been on a journey these last two months, I can only imagine where you've traveled. I've been waiting anxiously to tell you that we found your watch! I know you thought it was stolen years ago, but I was emptying your underwear drawer and there it was. I know you would have been so happy to find it... and a little frustrated to know it was there all along. You did leave behind a lot for us to go through. At times I shook my head wondering why you kept 10 years of phone bills. But you also kept papers, souvenirs, and memories of your life. Maybe you kept them for me - to give me a deeper perspective on you, your life, what you did. What mattered to you. You gave me so many gifts in your last few weeks, and this is one I appreciate more every day. Thank you for the trail of memories, souvenirs, and relics of a life fully lived. With love and blessings for you wherever you are, Rusty