The Lives We Never Know
As we go, so go others
There is an old photograph that hangs in the stairway of my house. The photo is taken from above, looking down at my dad and two medical school buddies crowded on to a lounge chair beside a pool. They are at a party. Their faces are bright with laughter; the California sun splashes over them. Youth, joy, friendship, promise—it is all there in black and white.
While the photo captures the joy of that moment, it also haunts me a bit. What haunts me is what’s not there: the narrative, the texture and depth of those lives. Looking at the boyish image of my dad from the perspective of the camera peering down, I think of accounts one reads about people who have “died” on the operating table but then have come back to life. In these after-life experiences people describe being above the action, separate from the world but eyeing it as it happens. I get the same feeling from this photo, except it is I who is above the action—not alive—at least yet. It’s a glimpse of a father’s life before he was my father.
When we think about our parents, it always has a restricted frame: from some point early in our lives until they pass. But what about their lives before us?
I often think about my life before kids—all the adventures, friends, relationships, work triumphs, disappointments, decision points, great fun and laughter—memories so dear to me but so much of it inaccessible to my children. Surely, my dad had a life that was as vibrant and rich—just different stories, people and places. I hope so, but I will never know for sure.
Sometime after college—I was probably 25, my dad 56 or so—the two of us were driving back from duck hunting near Los Banos, a small town in California. I was driving; he was in the passenger seat watching the grassy hills of the Pacheco Pass roll by. He made an offhand comment about dying: that when he died, so too would die his memories of his family (my dad was the youngest of 11). With his passing, the lives of his siblings would fade with him.
Later in the drive, he fell asleep, his hands folded in his lap. Though he was as healthy as could be at the time, glancing over at his hands, I had a brief vision—as if my psyche were daring itself to inch up to a cliff—of what it would be like when he died. His hands would be folded like this. And for the briefest of moments, I was completely unmoored from the world.
Six years later, in the final days of his life, I was visiting with him at his home. He was in bed, dying of cancer. There was a skylight above us, which he eyed as we talked. Our conversation was halting; both of us knew the trajectory of things.
“That’s where I’d like to be,” he said suddenly, staring above.
I looked up, through the skylight. There, high above the house, was an eagle sailing in a perfect blue sky. Never in all the years I had known him—32 at that point—had he revealed even a hint of want or need. He was a doctor, always deflecting attention to others and their needs. That’s when the full weight of hurt came tumbling down.
I’m not an even remotely superstitious person, but now eagles seem like visitations from another world. I doubt it, but just maybe he can see all that has happened since he left. At least, to quote the end of another good story: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Would our lives be as precious if they didn’t end? I wonder if it is simply their finiteness that crystalizes into memory the joy we find, allows us to hold it to the light, and, if we’re lucky, catch the sun for a moment or two.
It pains me to write this, but when I die all the memories of my dad and his siblings will perish, too. In a sense, we all die twice: once when we physically leave the world, and a second time when those a generation below us pass.
Writers, generally, spend their days trying to defy this reality. It is part of our work—some say affliction—to put our lives out into the ether, to document events, thoughts, emotions, memories. And there is a chance—not a big one, but a chance—some of it will be preserved, maybe passed along. If we are lucky, those memories might live on another generation or two. Will the true depth of feeling, the texture of that life reveal itself? Probably not how we hope. But somebody down the way just might be inspired by something someone did or said in a world they can barely imagine.
Sadly, most people, including my father, don’t record the nuances of their lives. And so, I am left with a photograph of him laughing with friends, in the prime of life, basking in a sunny future. What are they laughing about? Who are his friends, and what have they gone through together? What brought them to that sunny day beside a pool? What was to happen to my dad’s life in the moments and days and years after that photo was taken but before I appeared?
The questions just hang in the air.
We know our family as we know no one else. Still, there is a certain tapestry of their lives that we will never get to touch. I desperately long to know it, but, in the end, it is theirs. And, I suppose, it is theirs to take with them.