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Working My Waking Life Shadow- Reflecting On My Father's Death- North Star

Dream work, Shadow Work, Suicide, Reflection of death, Kintsugi

I still remember the first time I smelled death on my father. I was five years old, balancing tip-toed on the edge of a step stool, peering into the kitchen sink. I watched as my father’s filet knife pierced the gut of the first fish I had ever caught. Earlier that day, he had watched with pride from behind as I wrestled with a catfish half my own weight.

I continued to watch my father clean the fish. The blade ran up the middle splaying it wide open. A lump formed at the base of my throat as I watched my father turn the fish inside out, its life pouring out, strung out into a discarded heap.

The rhythm of my father’s hand skipped a beat. The blade came down wrong, slicing through the palm of his hand. I can still smell the scent of his blood, of fishy flesh running under cold water- The scent of death. It was at that moment I began to understand the fragility of life and how quickly fun and games can turn dark.

As a child, my father’s darkness had no name. The fishing trips here and there were small fragments of light cast out like a fishing net, onto murky, stormy seas. You never knew what you were going to pull back. My father’s mood swings would come and go like the cycles of the Moon. I learned early on the importance of knowing how to read the signs, the subtle changes in tone, the way his eyes shifted or did not shift. My brother and I learned to disregard his mutterings and conversations with the unseen. And when the darkness really took over, when threats of chopping us up into bits and shoving us down a well hid behind shiftless eyes, we took cover beneath blankets of prayers and silent screams for help.

No one talked about my father’s mental illness. You did not dare call it by its name. We loved him deeply, and as terrified as we were at times, we all recognized that he was a prisoner of sorts and empathized with his pain.

Eventually, I was old enough to start my own life. Work relocated my family two states away. I learned to read my father’s state-of-mind by the frequency of phone calls, the various cracks in his voice, the brief sighs, the absence of sighs, the conversations behind the conversations. I planned my visits as best I could, tracking his volatile emotions like coordinates on a map.

Some part of me, something deep within me always knew the day would come, knew the call would come. For years, every time the caller ID popped up a phone number from back home, I would find myself frozen with terror. Is this THE call? I would not, could not answer. I would wait and listen to the voicemail, searching for clues as to my father’s well being, before returning the call with some made up excuse for not being able to answer, relieved to learn we had made it through another day, another cycle.

On September 13th 2010, the call came. I had spent 38 years preparing yet it still felt like my father’s filet knife pierced through my gut, ripped through my soul, and turned my whole world inside-out, a fish out of water, sucking for air that was not there.

We had last spoken a month prior. I was recounting the details of my ugly divorce, adding that I was physically and emotionally drained. I jokingly said there were days when I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up again.

In an attempt to console me, he stated that he understood how I felt and that there had been many nights when he had been able to get the shotgun in his mouth; however, he could not pull the trigger. I begged him to please go and see his doctor right away. Begged him to get his medications checked and possibly changed. I made him promise to call me when he felt the darkness. We would talk it out like we always had before. He told me that I had always been his moon during these times. He said if something ever happened to him, he would be my north star. He did promise to call.

It was later, during the funeral, I learned he had contacted everyone in my family over the weeks leading up to his death. Everyone was contacted except me. The night I got the call advising of his death, I stood for hours on a pier overlooking a pond near my home. The smell of cold water, of fish, of his blood on my hands smacked against my face. In a fit of rage, I cursed the moon, its light spotlighting as I screamed obscenities, spewing vile hate towards anyone and anything that tried to approach. My mind worked to connect the dots, began to see all the signs I had missed, signs I had disregarded as a heap of insignificance.

The next day, I made the long trip back home. As I walked up the steps of the screened porch, the memory of a sacred moment shared with him flashed across my mind. I could see myself sitting across from him, watching him scrape the inside of an apple, feed it to my daughter as she sat rocking in his lap. It had been a great day. And just as quickly, the memory fell away, like the fresh peel of the apple shaved cleaned from its flesh.

I walked into the kitchen, noted the bacon grease congealed to the bottom of an iron skillet. A pan of buttermilk biscuits rested on the counter, the two in the center were missing. His favorite. Our favorite. In the sink, water dripped into an already filled single coffee cup. Beside it, a single saucer, a single fork. Resting in the windowsill above the sink was his filet knife.

I moved into the living room. The silence was palpable. I noted the clock had been stopped at exactly 12:00. This was the same clock my parents had purchased with their first income tax return. I turned and walked towards the utility room. The smell found me before I got to the leading hallway- a fishy, bloody, watery kind of smell. I entered the small room covered in yellow caution tape and various bottles of industrial cleaners. A section of the wood flooring had been completely cut out. The stains were still everywhere. Stains you could never wash away. My father seeping through the grain of hard wood flooring, seeping into the plastered walls of this space.

I collapsed to the ground a heap of guilt, a heap of regrets, all the “what if I had done this?” or “What if I had done that?” And then I saw it… trapped between the corner of the deep freeze and the base board. It was a fragment of my father’s skull, his dark hair still attached. My soul completely unraveled. This was a darkness that was all consuming. Nothing I could do could mend this. I couldn’t take anything back. I couldn’t fix this. I sat there staring at the fragment of my father resting in the palm of my hand. Oh how fragile life really, really is.

I removed one of my mother’s fine bone china tea cups from the cupboard, gently placing the remnant of my father inside. I had my uncle take it to the funeral home to ensure it was cremated with the rest of the body. Later I would feel the weightlessness of his ashes sift through my fingertips, like crushed bits of sea shell, as we returned him back to mother earth.

Today marks the sixth anniversary of my father’s death. It has been a long and arduous recovery process. I can honestly say there are still bits and pieces of myself that fell between the cracks of the flooring that day, along with my father. Bits of me that will never be recovered. However, in its place, there is much hope.

I recently came across a Japanese art form called Kintsugi. They take broken pottery and china and mend it with gold. The philosophy behind this practice is to embrace the imperfections and flaws, to see the beauty behind the brokenness.

Back in January, I made a promise to myself to practice more courage, compassion and connection. I have stopped searching for what was lost. I have stopped trying to make sense of it all. Instead, I am celebrating the fragments I still have, mending these bits with love and light and gratitude, creating a new and beautiful life.

And when I miss him, I do find myself looking up at the Moon and the North Star, gently reminding myself that we only get one life- One glorious fragile life. We can predict the phases of the Moon, the time the Sun will rise, the time it will set. However, the time we have remaining with our loved ones is fleeting, like ashes blown with the wind.

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