Not waving but drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

 Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him, his heart gave way,
They said.

 Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

– Stevie Smith

My dad’s heavy heart weighed upon me. His sadness was ever present; even in childhood I carried bits of it in my heart, and as I grew, I began to increasingly share the burden my mom had been carrying alone for so many years. It was the burden of trying to pull a sinking man out of a pit, to revive him again and again, and in the last months of his life I felt it daily. His spirit lightened a bit towards the end, as he saw the light of Heaven approaching and becoming brighter, the end of his striving nearer. But all along he was moving away from us, slipping into that other, eternal world, and his relief and gladness slayed me.

A few weeks ago, I found an old notebook of his on a shelf, stuffed between family photo albums. Flipping through the albums, I saw pride and joy in his face, so clearly evident on the day I was born, on our family trip to Disneyland, playing with us in the yard.

But the notebook told his pain. It contained half-poems and short story drafts, each one dreary and despairing, painting desperate portraits of a man sinking and flailing in his own depression.

And on this day, I reached my limit. Always in the past, when confronted with his misery, I had felt for him, mourned with him, but this time I shut the notebook with a snap, not placating or understanding, but bored. Bored and irritated. Yes, I said to him in my head, defiantly. Yes, your life was just so hard, wasn’t it? Your life, with your loving wife and children, and dear friends and beautiful home. Rich memories, relationships filled with honesty and love. Yes, your life was just terrible, wasn’t it? 

After so much energy spent trying to help him, to fix his sadness, his burden had become mine—consuming me, weighing me down. And even my best efforts had not been enough to lift him out of the depression that choked his life. Reading his words on the page, I raged at the injustice that my love—our love, my family’s tenacious bond—had not been sufficient to save him.

And even as I spat anger at him in my thoughts, I realized that with his death, we are both free. His chains are gone, and I need not continue to carry him. And the anger I felt represented my freedom. Because I don’t always have to be merciful. Because I am allowed to feel my own emotions, and not simply carry the feelings of others around on my back.

And if there is any portal between this world and the next, if he somehow heard my words, I think he would understand. I think he would smile, because freedom was the goal all along.