Today, September 24th, is the 91st anniversary of my father's birth. He died six years ago and I still miss him like crazy. As I approach days that were important to him such as today, or my parents' wedding anniversary or the date on which he died, I think of him more regularly and find myself telling stories about him, using some of his sayings and of course those memorable times surface more readily. I experience these thoughts and memories so vividly that my consciousness once again feels a reality of Dad's presence although in an elusive or shall I say, ethereal way. I know full well that experiencing Dad in this state is a fabrication of the human brain, one for which I am immeasurably grateful. If I put myself into an hypnotic trance, I can remarkably enhance this experience and fancifully create new interactions and memories of my father, all inside my head. This year, along with all of these usual phenomena and the palpable longing to have even just one more real conversation with my dad, I am also contemplating the stark reality of his death, and death itself.
It is no secret that much of the world, especially those who participate in religion, spirituality or believe in the supernatural tend to hold that as human beings we contain a soul that lives on eternally, even though there is absolutely no evidence that this is so. Those believe that after corporeal death we may be relegated to Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, Nirvana, Valhalla, etc. But alas these are mythologies. Some believers extend this notion to animals as well, mostly mammals for which affection is felt and not so much for creatures for which people have little or no affinity. I see people take great comfort in a belief that dead loved ones watch over them in some way (I find this unhealthily creepy) or that when they join them in death, they will join them in another realm of existence. It is however most capricious; childish wishful thinking.
So where is my father? He is where he was before he was born: non existent. This is the same place I was before I was born and where you were before you were born. My unique combination of DNA had never been created before... It is the same place I will be when I die and where you will be when you die. There is a huge difference though on the "after you die" side and that is this: In between birth and death there is existence: There is LIFE! Something wonderful happens during the short span of time that is life. We interact with others and we leave evidence as a physical footprint and in the experiences shared with others that we did indeed exist... and if we are lucky a few people may have good things to say about us, and if we do it right, we may leave behind a legacy, good or bad that marks time and place for us to be remembered after we die, not just by those with whom we interacted but by groups, towns or more... with people we never even met. That doesn't mean we were famous necessarily, just that we did something that reached beyond who we could actually touch.
My Uncle Chet did that with his music. My cousin Jim is doing that with his art. The friends who write stories, songs or poetry, those who create photographs of special occasions for others, those who teach, preach, entertain or doctor, those who care for children, the elderly, the disadvantaged or infirm, etc., all leave their mark far beyond what they see or know. Perhaps the words I write today or those I have written in the past or will write in the future will be deemed meaningful to someone and passed along and I may never know. It is OK that I may never know. But these words and my photographs and hopefully some kindnesses and the love that I have expressed over the decades of my life will be the evidence of my existence after I die.
So where is my father? He no longer exists in any reality. The body of his former unique DNA and consciousness lies in a vault in the ground of a military cemetery in southern New Jersey. But all of us still living who knew him know he existed and we carry the memories of our time with him inside us. We who knew him and also love him hold the greatest portion of the evidence of his having lived. My brother, sister and I have his DNA and embody ongoing lives forever connected to the man that was my father. We carry too, living proof of our mother, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on We are their legacies and we will be each others' legacies. By telling stories of my father, Charles Michael Sullivan, to others we expand the scope of those he touched and through us continues to touch others. The memory of him resides in the love that we still hold for him and in the longing we have for him to be with us. This knowledge is what gives me comfort and strength. Knowing that I am responsible for keeping the evidence of my father alive for as long as I am living keeps me from feeling the same depth of sadness I did when he first died. In fact, the only sadness I carry now is that which comes from my own selfish yearning that I could have held on to him longer when he had no desire left to hold on for himself.
Some of my greatest faults come from my dad and so does most of my strength. (My mom gives me other qualities and I am so happy and grateful that I get to talk with her all the time and to see her a couple of times per year!) I guess what I want to say is that I will love my beautifully flawed father and continue to miss him until the day I cease to exist.
This is how one minuscule atheist comprehends, reconciles and experiences the death of the male who gave 23 of his own chromosomes to bring my unique self into existence. In the beginning and in the end, it is all about love. I hope I spread enough...