There are few things in life that are true constants. For all that we talk about best friends or soulmates, we’ve always known a time when they did not exist, a space in our lives that they did not fill.
But family is something else.
Our parents, our siblings, our aunts, our grandparents, whoever it is that might have functioned as the custodians of our earliest memories, they occupy a unique place. Like the orbit of the sun or the color of the sky, they are intrinsic to our understanding of the world. We expect them to always be there, no matter what the intellectual mind says. We need them to be there.
So it is especially hard when we are proven wrong.
When my father died a few months ago, I spent hours trawling through the Internet, searching through personal testimonies, hunting for an undefinable something. I’m still not sure what. Precedence, perhaps. Or camaraderie. Something that would tell me that this gets better, that I’d get over it, that the ache that pulses under my ribs every single goddamned hour of the day, singing like a second heartbeat, will one day ease into silence.
Although now that I think about it, I suspect I was mostly looking for an anchor, a way to moor myself in the present.
Because that is where the loss of family often leaves the bereaved: adrift, disentangled from a perception of normalcy. In a morbid way, the first death of a parent is almost a kind of coming-of-age, a graduation. When it happens, a certainty roots itself in your soul: you can still go home, but it will never be what you remember again.
I’ve written about death a lot, both in a personal and professional capacity. Earlier this year, Ars Technica UK published a quasi-review of mine, pivoting around the biographical That Dragon, Cancer, and how the digital age considers the idea of death.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the title, it chronicled the Green family’s struggle with the cancer that had afflicted their son.)
I wrote it out of a strange desperation, aching for the friends I’d made in the development team, and for friends who’d suffered even more recent losses. I wanted to give them something: words, a show of support, a means to bring attention to the legacy that they’d created. But I suspect I wrote some of that for myself too.
I don’t talk about this often, but my relationship with my father was a fractured thing. In the last seven years, I’d only spoken to him twice: once to tell him that I’d be leaving to see the world, and once to tell him I was sorry at his father’s funeral. And in some ways, it felt like a preparation for his death, a seven-year practice run where I spent all my time trying not to think about the fact I was walking out on floe. His absence scraped at me every single day, and every single day, I found ways to divert myself from how much it hurt.
But that caused problems, inevitably. In the closing paragraphs of the aforementioned article, I wrote about an afternoon with developer Ryan Green. He told me how he was afraid that he’d lose the details of his son’s life, and I told him how I’d already lost the music of my father’s laugh.
I remember being terrified. I’m still terrified. Hollywood and Hallmark would have us believe that the memory of our loved ones is inviolate, that they always will be there, a ghost we can call up when we need them most, pitch-perfect. But the truth is something different.
Details fade. Their demeanor in a queue, the way they slurp their ramen, the cadence of their chuckle. In their place, we have instead the memory of this knowledge, an understanding that something used to be there. And that might comfort some people, but it destroyed me: the realization that I was losing my father, one little piece at a time, and one day, he’d be a collection of stories and mere impressions.
I imagine it might have been better if I had pictures of him. Videos. But when my parents divorced, he left with every single childhood photograph of us.
I suspect this was why it was so devastating when my mother told me that I wouldn’t be able to make it back before his family scattered his ashes into the sea. One last goodbye. One last memory to make. One final chance to share a physical touch, for all the one-sidedness of the gesture.
And someone else took it away from me.
(I have dreams of putting a little bit of the ocean into a small glass vial, and carrying the little token on my neck wherever I go. I have fantasies of keeping a store of salt water, and maybe putting a little bit of it into every ocean I visit – just so the spectre of my father can visit all the seas he hasn’t, er, seen. But I don’t know when I’ll do that, if I’ll ever find the nerve to go home.)
Which brings us to the present.
Disoriented and despairing, I looked for ways to reconnect to a father I hadn’t seen in seven years. I poured my initial grief into a story that will be published next month in literary horror zine The Dark, and immediately gave up on trying to do a follow-up. It hurt too much.
For a little while, I tried stumbling into art. My father was a phenomenal artist, capable of transforming a few quick sketches into life-like visions. He never went anywhere with his ability, but it was a skill that I’d always admired. Unfortunately, that didn’t offer the sense of connection that I had craved.
So I kept drifting along.
And then Tor.com Senior Editor Lee Harris asked me to join a panel that would have three other writers and I frantically penning flash fiction in five minute bursts. It was rad. It was crazy. It was the most fun I’d had in a long while.
It also felt like home.
I was on a plane flying from Germany to London when I realized exactly why. My father was a storyteller. For good or for bad, he had a gift for spinning tales, for making you believe in worlds richer than the one we occupy.
When I was a child, he told me that room service was provided by dinosaurs; they delivered waiters through the windows. He said there were unicorns living in the jungles, magical creatures that could be lured into the open with a single Mars bars. He told me about camping stories, about getting lost in the undergrowth. He told me about fights in school, about racing dolphins in the ocean, about being adrift in sea.
He made my universe larger.
He was my universe.
I’ve had people ask me why I write, what motivates my desire to craft fiction, what makes me want to tell stories. I never really knew. The answers changed with every conversation, every interview. But I think I know now.
Because my father was a storyteller and because every time I wrap my audience in a thread of fresh-spun myth, I remember what it is like being a little girl again, curled against his heart, listening as he rumbled through a fresh tale. Because he taught me how to tell stories and because every time I tell a story, I feel his ghost under my words, feel the magic of that moment when the galaxy pivoted on the breath of a syllable.
Because when the words come together, he’s alive again.
I love you, Papa. I will always had and I always will.