A dream I had in mid-July: I was walking among houses that had paths between them. I walked a narrow path between the backs of some houses and got to a part where backyards opened up on both sides of the path. Next came a large clearing to my left where a house used to be. I stopped to look. It was just past a chain-linked fence. To my right, there was an old house. My dad came out of the shadows of the back porch to direct my attention to that clearing across from him. As I looked closer to where he pointed, I saw the remains of a foundation, just the lines where walls would have been, flat crumbling lines in the dead grass. He said: look at the foundation! Isn’t it beautiful? … And that was all.
My dad was an architect.
In the beginning of April, I worked in conjunction with friend and art colleague Laura Isaac of Kansas City on our second You are not here. project, with the posts listed in order from last to first. This time she focused on the psychogeography of St. Louis, MO as I focused on my studio town in Oakland, CA. The project includes our interactions on Twitter, photos and videos posted, and lastly, our written blog posts about each day’s experiences. As Laura and I coordinated our project, it became clear to both of us that we’d be very hampered by many time constraints as we tried to arrange our schedules to work at the same time in our respective cities. Instead of carrying out a more choreographed art exploration, we’d have to see where each day took us, as well as just use the spare resources we had to make whatever we could. I already knew that I’d be traveling internationally just a few days after our intensive project, so our daily work was a commitment to make the most out of our 10 days together.
Then: just before our project began on April 9, 2014, my elderly grandfather–my mom’s dad–died. He was 97. He lived a very long life. His illness and hospitalization came just as Laura and I were finalizing our project plans to explore our specific cities. Now I’d be leaving town in the middle of our project so I could be with my family for the funeral. I’d root myself in Oakland, then remove myself, then return. Despite the overwhelming pressure of everything that was going on, instead of abandoning my work, I decided to seek out how this project could support my life. My biography seems to weave its way into most of my work, and I had hoped this project would really take me out of my head and into Place. Now it seemed to do the opposite: each physical place became part of my mental state. So, moving deliberately forward, Laura and I continued with our plan to give each other topics to guide our explorations of our cities.
On Day One, Laura asked me to look for “the extremes of the familiar and the unfamiliar”. I started at my studio environs in Oakland, went south to where the freeway collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, then I headed east across the city. I documented with cell phone pictures along the way. Almost directly east just happened to be Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. It was established in 1863 and designed by Frank Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s Central Park. So I finished my afternoon by myself in a cemetery, knowing I’d be burying my grandfather in just a few days. Forced to contemplate where I was, I realized one main thing.
With that day’s project assignment in mind, I thought: What could be more simultaneously extremely familiar and unfamiliar than death? I see smaller deaths all the time: insects, plants, and even small-town woodsy animals that get hit by cars on neighborhood roads. But the deaths of people we know and love, even of the pets that become family members: these rock us, and we’re never prepared for them. Looking at the headstones and tombs all around me, I saw that we remember the dead, we mourn them, miss them, still try to keep them nearby… they’re not here anymore, but they are still a part of our life. And life goes on.
So the week went on, I saw my very large family at my grandfather’s funeral, and for reasons that would make a long story (some else’s to tell), it was harder than I expected. But he had a long life, and I have a big loving family, both good things.
I flew back home, continued the work on my project.
Then on Day Seven, April 15th, I got the news that my dad’s cancer had returned. I knew he’d had some tests done, but I don’t know what I expected to hear. I just hoped… for something else. We knew it might be serious, and because of that, my dad and I had talked the morning before. We hadn’t talked in at least 10 months. That was his choice, not mine, and yet I always knew (despite everything) that he loved me very much. As he spoke that morning, he seemed to feel it was time to call everyone and get things cleared up. Honestly it wasn’t the first time he reached out for that reason, but it was the first time he apologized without any qualifiers. It was gratifying to hear. And when someone unequivocally apologizes, it felt natural to say No, no! It’s OK. Just good to hear from you. And it really was good. And the next day, the cancer was confirmed. Serious. Stage 4. I just sat by the water at Lake Merritt in Oakland. Laura sent me a directive for the day: “find stability and supports, whatever that might look like.”
So I looked for them, and I quietly stayed in one place. Laura knew what I needed to look for, and in this case, staying still was how I found it.
Some link for a relevant article must’ve come across my Twitter feed as I documented the area where I rested. Because I read this startling quote by John Updike: “Each day we wake up slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one would say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
So went the rest of the project for me- going from place to place in Oakland, finding its matching relevance to what was happening in my life. It helped. It worked.
And on April 21st, my family and I flew out to South Korea. It was a trip that had been planned for a few months, and while we knew my dad was now diagnosed with cancer, my plan was to visit him in Arizona when I returned 10 days later.
Then, I can’t remember the date, since South Korea is about one day ahead, but about a week later, I got the text from my sister. She asked if I had spoken to her mom. I called my sister immediately. Found out my dad was at the hospital, with pneumonia, and he wasn’t likely to make it. I was at least two days travel away, and I wasn’t even in Seoul (where I’d need to fly out from) but a couple hours away from the second biggest city of Busan, on the southern-most tip of the country. There was nothing I could do.
Just after midnight May 1st in Korea and on the morning of April 30th in the US, my dad died. And that was it. All I’d been able to do was say goodbye to him by recording a video in Korea and my siblings played it for him in Arizona. We never saw each other again.
The last time I saw him was 2011, and the last time he communicated with me (other than just before I left to Korea) was on Father’s Day 2013. That day, I’d called to wish him Happy Father’s Day from Atlanta, GA where we had just landed. He replied that he didn’t want to talk to me anymore ever again and preferred that I didn’t contact him. Ever. That was my dad, surprising me with rejection in a moment of outreach, it wasn’t new. But that time, I let it go. I didn’t reach out to him again. That was his preference, he said. That was my preference, I silently agreed.
A long time ago, my dad was diagnosed with things he never really agreed he had. Bipolar depression, manic depression, or just depression– even schizophrenia but I never really saw evidence of that one. He was an alcoholic for years, then quit. He became a religious man, but it didn’t really deal with the unpredictability. It gave him some peace and sadly made other fears much worse. I know it wasn’t easy for him; neither was it easy on anyone who loved him. I do wish the stigma of mental illness wasn’t something that kept him from accepting treatment. He was a dynamic and talented man. Most people who met him agreed that he lit up the room with his charisma (at least when he was in that mood, and when he liked the people present.) For a few years, he got treatment. We had the sanest conversations at that time: never perfect, not frequent, but he didn’t do great amounts of damage either. Is there a reason that he stopped? I don’t know. But I know he never felt free of the stigma of mental illness, and he never stopped fearing that accepting he had a problem would mean he’d lose the value he barely felt he had anyway. He just didn’t understand how important he really was.
As I’ve had my sons and seen them grow, and with knowledge of my family’s mental health history (my dad isn’t the only one who suffered from something), I’ve grown to have more compassion on what it’s like to struggle with those internal emotional disabilities. I knew about my dad’s family environment as he was raised, and I knew that he didn’t have the teaching, support, or resources to know how to manage the category 5 storms that swept over him. The more I learned what it takes to raise a kid with that internal make-up, the more I knew he probably didn’t have much of a chance. Then again, adults can fight to make better decisions for themselves; if only my dad had done so. When I was a teenager, from time to time he’d tell me that he wanted to die, that he wanted to end it all. I begged him not to. I don’t know how serious he was at those times, or if he just wanted to hear me beg him not to leave me (entirely possible.) But since I moved out of the house at age 15 for a year and my parents separated when I was 16, it wasn’t long before we left each other anyway. The older I got and the more I learned, I was able to have compassion on him even when he repeatedly quit on me, but it never stopped hurting more than almost anything in my life. I rarely interacted with him successfully.
I say all this with the hopes of communicating that:
- defying the stigma of mental illness matters: many of us have a touch of something, some of us have a heaping dose of it, many people live with it and around it
- there’s help out there: there are so many reasons not to fear it, and once one gets proper help, it can possibly really work, and it’s so worth it
- getting treatment for kids with emotional storms matters: the earlier kids learn a language to express themselves and learn how to cope, the better
- getting treatment as an adult matters: it can free the afflicted to know they’re loved, it can free up the loved ones to know they are loved
- not everything can be solved by mental health assistance: life is hard & it’s not all biological, but for some people, refusing help just makes everything harder
My dad would have been 75 today. I wish I had a lot more good memories to celebrate of him today, but writing this helps me. I wish he’d been able to enjoy the huge family he has. His three siblings died before him (suicide, car accident, then cancer), and he lost one grandson, but he had four kids, nieces and nephews (and they have kids), grandsons and a great-grandson. The happiest I remember him is when his family relationships were working and we were surrounded with simple laughter and really good food. Today I can celebrate many things: he bravely headed west from Las Cruces, NM at a young age; he was a talented designer/builder who did the work of an architect; Frank Lloyd Wright even asked him to apprentice at Taliesin (too late though, FLW died soon after); he always thought creatively about crazy things; because of him I have two brothers (both older) and the little sister I always wanted (much younger!); he could make a joke out of anything; and oh how he made me laugh when I was a kid. I really wish he had lived as a Dad to me… God knows he really wanted to do that, but he never got it right. Something I learned from what one of my siblings shared at his memorial in Prescott, Arizona: God didn’t give me the dad I wanted, but he gave me the Dad I needed. Because I realize that I have strength internally because I learned from this adversity, I’m now able to agree.
Dad, you were the Dad I needed. And I love you.