love school with sumi: honesty isn't epic
"at her wake and funeral, i'd wanted to say something epic and honest. but epics are rarely honest, and honesty should never be epic." - sherman alexie, you don't have to say you love me: a memoir
it's been hard for me to write since my dad passed this april. instead, i sat and waited with my own hunger for another person's words to come and find me in the aftermath. to be the wisdom i felt desperate for. like a sense-maker or a death coach.
i am a writer - someone who writes to understand her world and make meaning of it - so leaving this purposeful work up to an undetermined stranger has left me to exist like an agitated coyote, scavenging for "grief writing" - or whatever name we can give to art that meets you at this living-with-loss frequency.
luckily, i found it in sherman alexie's memoir, you don't have to say you love me. he wrote it after his mom passed. alexie, an older man yet seemingly far less lethargic than i am when it comes to his writing practice, wrote a multitude of essays and poems to move through his post-death frequency and his mother's haunting.
and finally, i had found it in him, a similarly agitated ally who had put in the work of feeling and making art from his wound. a friend recommended listening to the audiobook version which he reads himself. only a few chapters in, i felt it. 'this is the shit i've been waiting for to find me.' it wasn't so much that his words made sense of my loss, but that they felt like a companion. a friend trying to figure out the same muck as me and legitimizing the contradictions i felt within about my own parent. i immediately googled him to find out his western and chinese astrology signs. 'a libra. and year of the horse, like me.'
but there, right below sherman alexie's wikipedia page (aka birthday data), i found an npr article on 10 women who had come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment by him. i felt my deep ugh. i had, like many others perhaps, listened to his revealing stories with awe and gratitude, alongside a question of: 'has this hurt man been fucked up and harmful to women?' (the same line of questioning which haunts the work of radical men in the limelight and in our communities). the irony of me grieving my dad's death with the writing of a brown man who has harmed brown women - which is also coincidentally the story of my dad and me and my mom and perhaps other women in his life whom i've never known - feels like it magnifies some truth that is refusing denial.
so as i write this, i'm wondering what i'm to do with this information. what truth is living inside me, inside this mixture of disappointment and misogyny?
when i spoke at my dad's funeral, i shared that he was the reason i am a feminist. not because he was, but because he taught me the cost of not being one. why share this at his funeral? i suppose i wanted to reveal that you could love someone and not lie about your relationship. and even if i didn't love him - or if the texture of that love felt complex and emotional - that we were both changed by each other. that i was the daughter of a human who had failed and failed and risked and was bold and was scared and provided and created a human who is fighting for a world where what felt impossible between us, is possible. where the violence between us is less. i'm not above or below, better than or worse than my father. feeling above him isn't honest and separation based on worth isn't healing. that was hard to feel and know while he was living. honestly, that's a hard principle to live, as a human under capitalism, ableism, patriarchy, imperialism, and white supremacy. that even fighting for a better world, doesn't make you better than.
i had put off writing because of some personal expectation that the truth of grief - of losing a parent - ought to be epic. epic as in legendary in a way that seems exceptional. i also define epic for myself as, 'smashing people with your brilliance' - a funny yet accurate phrase i read in adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy.
alternatively, after my dad's funeral ceremony i felt like many an auntie and uncle were trying to smash me with their sympathies. one auntie came up to me and while holding my face in her palms said, "whenever you want to think of him, just look in the mirror and you'll see him in you." my eyes must have bulged out of my face like a cartoon rooster. me, being someone with an appreciation for the occasional drama, was kinda amused by what seemed like a test to make me cry. i appreciate what i think was her being sentimental, but it felt too epic to be honest.
yet four months since my dad passed, i've been waiting for what my own epic conclusion will be. what i can share with you about death that will be much ah-ha, much enlightening, much brilliant.
but honesty doesn't have to be epic. and honestly, i don't want to smash you with brilliance. i want to give myself permission to be uncertain and with the unknown. before and after my dad died, i noticed how being with dying and death was unfamiliar territory for many of us. how it maybe felt more safe to be epic with our sympathies or grief-speech, than to feel ourselves be changed by this part of our lives. i find some belonging in the fact that i was and continue to experience one of the most core things about being human - loss. and that there will never be a right way to feel it.