Lessons From My Dying Father On the Wisdom of the Past
How America ignores history in favor of the future
Posted Dec 31, 2013
In its youthfulness and preference for the new and innovative, America has never quite known what to do with the past. A nation of immigrants, we are continually re-enacting the pattern of leaving behind the other shore to begin over again. Like those wagon train settlers who had to toss out their belongings to lighten their loads, America simply forgets, represses or sentimentalizes memories of what has gone before. From the Puritan settlers and early Western pioneers, to the astronauts and tech entrepreneurs of the 21st century, our archetypal underpinnings have been outward bound and future-oriented.
In his classic work, Gunfighter Nation, historian Richard Slotkin writes that the emerging frontier is America’s “oldest and most characteristic myth.” Likewise, in The Frontier in American History, historian Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities,” he writes, “furnish the forces dominating American character.”
Raised by a greatest generation father, I saw firsthand how the American myth of the frontier and its fascination for the future molded his fate – and his psychology. As a pilot for TWA, Joe Carroll literally flew in the wake of the sun along the curvature of the Earth. On his days off, he drank away childhood memories of trauma and grief. But death has a way of resurrecting the past. As my father lay dying, memories began to flood over him. Guided by two gifted Hospice counselors, they encouraged my reluctant father to return to his past, advising him that recollecting backward over the life he’d lived, both the good and the bad, was part of the work of dying.
Reflecting on the past and how it shapes the present is the animating spirit of psychology. And although Dad had never been to therapy, it was to his enormous credit that during his dying last days he became as fascinated with exploring the geography of his memories as he’d once been excited to visit a foreign country. During one unforgettable afternoon, he asked me to bring out an old shoebox of photos he’d kept stashed in his bills cabinet. “Bring out those photos, let’s see what’s in there,” he’d said, his emphysema causing him to puff with effort. “You show them to me.”
And so, one by one, I brought them out, the old, the dead, the long-forgotten. Holding up the photo of the strong-jawed woman in the ankle-length black dress with its white apron, my father’s eyes sparked in recognition. “That’s grosmutter, my German grandmother,” he mumbled. “Oh, she was tough. But she helped Mum out.” We examined old photos of a Pennsylvania Railroad seat gang; his childhood home in Altoona; his long lost brother Bob he’d lost touch with over the years; and photos of relatives whose names and faces he could no longer recollect. Soon, a crowd of invisibles began to move restlessly about my father’s living room, clamoring to be heard by us, their descendants. In the deepening pull of memory, my father began to shift restlessly in his chair. Finally I brought out the photo of my grandfather, standing lean and tired beside his jalopy.
“Ah, my old dad,” my own said to me. Leaning back in his recliner, his eyes closed as if the effort to remember was suddenly too much. His body still, Joe began to mumble in a low voice about his parents. I leaned in closely to catch his words. I wanted to hear this, wanted to know if he would say more. Yet his attention wasn’t directed to me, but somewhere back in time, far from the Texas living room we were sitting in. “My dad,” said Joe, his voice sweetened by the honey of nostalgia. “He worked so hard. I hardly ever saw him. So many kids to feed.”
After a reflective silence, Joe picked up the trail of his thoughts again. “But every day after school, I would run down the road to meet him on his way home from work. And every day, my father continued, opening his eyes directly into mine, “Dad would give me some little scrap from his lunch pail he’d saved just for me. Then we would walk back home together, just the two of us.” After he’d finished, sinking back into that deep sleep of the dying, I marveled at this bite of food from my grandfather, and how it lived on in my father’s memory, so small a gesture, so slight a scrap of memory, and yet made immortal by love.
In reflecting on America’s character, psychiatrist Howard Shapiro says that “once immigrants arrived here, they did a good job restoring a sense of community.” But, he continues, “Our characteristic approach has always been to smash that, to break the connection to the past. This American thing always gets us into trouble. It enables us to be creative and build new things. Yet our strength as a species comes from continuity. When you go too far in breaking human connections to the past, we become too weak – and we’ve gone too far.”
Perhaps America, ever young and restless, will one day begin to incorporate the lessons of the dying: those who, like my father, courageously face their past, souls and psyches, before departing this world. Maybe then, as we become adept in the art of being both backward looking and forward looking, our culture of striving and building can begin to mature into a culture of wisdom, and we can integrate our drive for newness and change with the need for continuity and for cultivating what we already have.
Portions of this article have been excerpted from my forthcoming memoir, American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country (Lantern Books, June, 2014).