I am writing my biography of Samuel Johnson at the same time as I ponder between sittings how I should write it. I keep thinking of how to arrange the information, how to incorporate the personal aspects I have planned for the book, and how I write it all for the general reader. I do have the basic structure of the book figured out, I’ve done research, and I’ve done writing, so I do feel that there is a momentum heading forward. I’m often thinking about the book though, which I don’t mean in a bad way — I don’t mean that I’m haunted by it or stressed or blocked.
April 10 was my father’s birthday, but he is dead. I had been estranged from him for over 25 years, but on that day, as I thought about his messy life, and Samuel Johnson’s messy life, and my own work in progress, I wrote the following essay in about a half-hour. The urge to write it was strange and a surprise to me. His birthday usually passes and I may or may not even remember it. This time I did though:
On My Father
As I write this, today would have been my father’s 84th birthday. He spent his work life mostly as a trucker and woodsman and in construction. His marriage to my mother produced three children, my two brothers and me, but it didn’t last long. A couple of years in he chose to leave my mother at Christmas so that he could travel elsewhere in Newfoundland to spend time with his pregnant girlfriend. I was too young to remember the details of how that holiday season transpired for a now single mom with (then) two babies in the early 1960s, but we apparently managed. My mother dashed across the highway that we lived on to get a Christmas tree for us, but was ever vigilant also that we were staying at the living room window watching her and not getting into mischief in the house.
I said that this would have been my father’s birthday because three years ago he committed suicide. By hanging. These are not details that get reported when a person dies like this, or they are alluded to only, with euphemisms such as “died suddenly.” The latter is often code language for suicide, especially when no cause of death is given or speculated on, and you are left scouring the obituary to try to find the cause. If the person is just a slight acquaintance, a name you know – “Oh, my, look, Cliff Jones just died” – you’ll note the age of death given as 81 and be satisfied that it was natural causes, or as they say in Newfoundland, “old age.”
There are still obits and other details about my father online and his life story is sanitized. I particularly bristled at him being “always there to lend a helping hand, whether it was financially or just to give a word of advice. He was someone you could always depend on.” My mother felt differently as she tried to raise children on her own in an era when there were not even the limited social supports that we have in our society now. She had to work but she depended on the $250 a month that he was mandated to give for child support, and when a month or two went by and there was no cheque forthcoming, the 99 cents an hour she made as a waitress at Woolworth’s just didn’t cut it. She had to anxiously contact my father’s brothers and sisters in an effort to prod him to send money which she desperately needed. The so-called helping hand was not always voluntary or dependable.
My father evidently went through some lean times in his own life as well. In the 1980s I was employed full-time as a librarian and I lent him $700. That was a lot of money for me at the time, but he never paid it back either. The last time I talked to him was in the early 1990s and I don’t remember what the reason was for the call, but he or someone else on the line hung up on me.
I took the news of his suicide passively as if I were being told that a distant cousin had died. I had a twinge of sadness later, temporary only, about the sad circumstance of anyone committing suicide. They were suffering from something and either kept it to themselves or nobody noticed.
This isolation and solitude I now experience due to the COVID-19 restrictions have made me more clear-eyed about what is important in life, but also have made me less tolerant of euphemism and the dirty facts that are missing. That’s all. I value possessions and kempt hair less, but I speak up more about the full truth.