The day after

by Wolf Pascoe on September 17, 2011

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Better to wander without a guide in uncharted lands than use a map made by tourists.

— African proverb

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I think a lot about when my father died. Even after a year of Just Add Father, I’m still not ready to write about it. I’m going to write about the day after that day. But first, I need to tell you the beginning of an African folk tale:

A man takes his young son hunting in the bush. Soon after they set out, the man kills a rat and gives it to his son to carry. The son, thinking they will surely run across bigger game later, throws the rat away, an act unobserved by his father.

They find no other animals that day. At sunset they turn home and the father asks his son to cook the rat.

“I can’t. I threw it away.” says the son.

The father flies into a rage and strikes the boy with his ax.

“Fool! You’ve thrown away our supper!”

Stunned, the son wanders off by himself. He’s too ashamed to return home. Soon he’s in unfamiliar country. A strange bird circles over him. Perhaps the bird has purple eyes, I don’t know.

The boy comes to a village he’s never seen before. In the center of the village is a hut. He goes inside. In the center of the hut sits a man, the chief of the village.

“How is it with you?” says the chief.

The boy pours out his troubles to the man, who listens in silence.

When he’s done telling his story, the boy says, “What can I do?”

“Don’t worry,” says the man. “You will be my son now.”

Stillness and silence.

“Can you keep a secret?” says the man.

“Yes,” says the boy.

“I am your real father.”

The story goes on. I’d have to look up the ending, but the part I’ve told you is carved on three stone tablets inside me: the disruption between the boy and his father; the boy’s wandering alone; his finding a new father, greater than the first.

If you believe that traditional stories contain a road map, and I am one who does, then you may find resonance in the boy’s situation. Not all men will re-enact the story in their lives. But I’ve known many who do.

OUT OF SCHOOL

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I stayed out of school for a day after my father died. I was in third grade. When you were absent in those days, you had to visit the school nurse when you got back, and give the reason.

I stood in a line of about ten kids in the nurse’s office, waiting for my turn. Several children handed her notes that their parents had written. She would glance at a note and send a child off. The line moved quickly.

I had no note. When it was my turn the nurse gave me a look which told me she knew I hadn’t been sick.

“Why were you absent?” she said.

She was a middle-aged woman, formal in manner, but not unkind. There were others behind me and I didn’t want to say what had happened out loud. I bent forward and whispered in her ear.

“Um, my father passed away,” I said.

For a moment she said nothing, then she started shaking her head and rocking, just a little, to and fro.

In a low voice she said, “Oh!” It came as a sort of moan.

She said Oh again, and again, as if each new Oh were trying to fix the previous one.

Then she said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so very, very sorry.”

I was conscious of the line in back of me, whose rhythm forward had been checked. I hoped that none of the other students were paying attention. I wanted to get out of there but couldn’t move. The nurse was looking directly in my eyes and my whole body seemed frozen.

One more time she said, “I’m so, so, sorry.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

Then the spell, if it was a spell, ended and I managed to break away. I walked out of that stifling room as fast as I could and crossed the school yard toward my class. The day was clear and cold. A flock of blackbirds swirled above the yard. Perhaps they had purple eyes.

She got so upset, I kept thinking. Why had she gotten so upset?

I was in the part of the story where the boy had begun wandering.

I wandered twenty-five years before I found that village.

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B&W Image credit: Flock of Birds, Thompson Square Park by Luke Redmond (Creative Commons, non-commercial use permit).

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

ChopperPapa September 17, 2011 at 10:23 am

Excellent writing Wolf! In Robert Bly’s book Iron John, he comments that every man must eventually make his own journey. That journey could be short or long. My father died when I was 26 a time when I could have used his counsel though I often question if I’d been insightful enough to ask for it. I didn’t begin my journey until years later but I did take one and reached that village a changed person.
ChopperPapa recently posted..Why kids need disappointment.

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Wolf Pascoe September 17, 2011 at 11:08 am

I shouldn’t be surprised, but it always stuns me a bit when I hear the parallels among men’s stories. Thanks, CP.

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carole September 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm

my reaction breaks all the rules. My father didn’t die when I was young. So I didn’t spend years wandering looking for him. I never found an improved version of the one I got and never knew I wanted one. Yet this post touched me deeply. I love the artful word crafting that took my eyes back to re-read phrases. The image of the little boy waiting in line numbly following protocol is haunting. The interaction with the nurse promises to stay with me for the rest of the day- at least.

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Wolf Pascoe September 17, 2011 at 12:40 pm

That nurse is probably gone now, but if I meet her again in the hereafter, I’d like to sit with her a while.

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BigLittleWolf September 17, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I find myself thinking of all the holes left by abandonment – through death, desertion of various sorts, betrayal of our institutions which, I realize, carries a different flavor.

Still, you speak of a man’s journey to find himself. We have many tales of this, as a crucial part of becoming “a man.” I wonder where the corresponding woman’s lore might be. Surely we experience our own wandering, our own need to carve a path though certainly a different one.

As for those early losses, while they are, in some measure, irreparable, for some of us they form a vital part of our strength.
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Wolf Pascoe September 17, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Wasn’t there a book some years ago with the title, Woman Who Run with Wolves?

And I’ve seen many tales for women in Grimms, such as “The Silver Hands” …

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Privilege of Parenting September 17, 2011 at 4:01 pm

There is a French animation of an African tale that you might like to watch with your son, it’s called “Kirikou” (http://www.kirikou.net/) and it’s truly wonderful and also rather resonant with your themes of wandering, the search for the Great Father and a lovely gloss on individuation. And the music is wonderful.

As for your own experience, I find myself rocking alongside the nurse and yet also enshrouded by the surreal veil that falls upon the eight-year-old. As for the birds, purple sounds right for the eyes, bringers of a particular sort of light.

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Wolf Pascoe September 17, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Thanks for the video rec, we’ll check it out.

It was a surreal veil, too. It’s a life’s work, these veils.

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David September 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm

It is always hard for me to hear about a child losing a parent, even if it happened long ago. It takes courage to face what you face in these posts. I’m encouraged by and grateful you write it down. And share it.

I’m reminded of this from Wendell Berry’s poem, “Elegy”:

“Our way is endless,” my teacher said.
“The Creator divided in Creation
for the joys of recognition. We knew
that Spirit in each other once;
it brings us here. By its divisions
and returns, the world lives.
Both mind and earth are made
of what its light gives and uses up.
So joy contains, survives its cost.
The dead abide, as grief knows.
We are what we have lost.”

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Wolf Pascoe September 17, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Thank you, David. That’s a lovely poem. I hadn’t heard it.

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Alameda September 17, 2011 at 7:23 pm

When I was 10 years old, our neighbors who had gone on a family vacation died in a car accident leaving behind 4 children. Growing up I hoped I would never lose my father. Later on in life when I had kids of m own, I hoped I would not leave them fatherless.

My experience has been you can never get over the loss of your father at any age! As for the journey, when one is looking to fill in a void, a lot of things look appealing.

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Wolf Pascoe September 17, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I’ve heard of couples who, when they fly somewhere and leave the children home, take separate planes.

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Clark Kent's Lunchbox September 18, 2011 at 8:59 am

I felt as if I were standing somewhere in that line behind you except I had only been out with a fever. Every time I hear of or meet men who lost their father, my mind immediately turns to you and how you’ve used your loss for your son’s gain. It’s a very beautiful thing.

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Wolf Pascoe September 18, 2011 at 9:40 am

Thank you for one of the loveliest things anyone has ever said to me.

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Charlie September 19, 2011 at 12:48 am

Wolf, another beautiful post. I still have the condolence letter that my 4th grade class sent me on the death of my father. It felt like I was in that awkward nurse’s line for decades after, wondering why people said what they said, and why I had no clue what any of it meant.

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Wolf Pascoe September 19, 2011 at 11:11 pm

A letter! Wow.

Yes, that nurse’s line was the beginning of many years wondering why people said the things they did.

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Barbara S. September 19, 2011 at 9:31 pm

How painful that had to be for you. As an adult, I can sympathize with the nurse and understand the pain she felt for you, but oh my gosh, I can stand in your shoes and hope for a quick, unnoticed escape. You are such a wonderful storyteller!
Barbara S. recently posted..A Week’s Worth of Sweets

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Wolf Pascoe September 19, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Escape is the word. We all learn to escape from our feelings, one way or another, and spend years getting back to them.

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Paul September 20, 2011 at 2:29 am

I can’t imagine how hard it was for you. It is sad to experience such lost at an early age and an opportunity to comfort you was failure. 25 years is a long time wondering yet I am glad that you had found your village.
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Wolf Pascoe September 20, 2011 at 9:07 am

It’s funny. Even now I experience that nurse as trying comfort herself more than me. But yes, she was trying to comfort me, and I see now (not then) as an act of caring.

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