The Anniversary of My Father’s Death, My Mother’s Resilience and the Quest for Buoyancy

Greetings from misty Montpellier, Vermont. I’ve just left Maine after two glorious weeks of packed days and nights. After my fifth visit, I’ve come to refer to the Camden area as my ‘Bermuda Triangle of Happiness.’ When I’m there, great things happen and I feel more alive and buoyant – I am on a perpetual quest of feeling buoyant, which feels like an apt endeavor now more than ever.


Anyhow, I wasn’t planning on staying for such a long time. I arrived after a completing my sixth interview and my seventh, which was scheduled for Maine, had a family commitment and he had to cancel. I knew some of the men would cancel, but this was the first and it shook me a bit.

A few days before, I had back-to-back interviews that I found quite moving and I felt like I was in a great rhythm with the pace and flow of the interviews. I was also just starting to swiftly troubleshoot technical hurdles and had altered the flow of my questions that I start and end each interview with. It felt I was embarking on a golden era of the project.

Then it didn’t.

As I was pulling out of the gravel drive of the loveliest cottage I’ve stayed in, my clutch cable broke. Fitting timing on many levels: I had just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and had an opportunity to rub elbows with some serious mechanics and BMW Motorcycle enthusiasts at the annual Owl’s Head Transportation Museum’s Antique Motorcycle Show. While there I picked the mechanically inclined brains of some thoughtful men with inspiring facial hair and felt the bike was in a great shape. Sadly, it* had a surprise (*my bike, though loved, is still missing its name).

Despite this setback, timing couldn’t have been better. I got to stay for a dear friend’s epicurean birthday brunch and over wild blueberry pie I learned that his father had replaced his own clutch cable just two days ago on his 1981 BMW Airhead. Over coffee he gave me a quick tutorial and helped me get the necessary parts. To sweeten the affair, he invited me to join him to bake pies on an old schooner, the Isaac H Evans, for four days and nights of sailing around the islands of mid-coast Maine. While my replacement parts shipped, I shipped out to sea with a fantastic crew and 15 knitters for their annual knitting cruise. The quota of adorable was off the charts.

While at sea, I had long, bone-chilling swims in the north Atlantic, saw stars on stars and stared meditatively at the oceanic horizon. The extra time allowed me to reflect on my interviews thus far and each of the six participants’ faces and words weaved in and out of my mind. Now I can see how the clutch cable breakdown was a gift to the project and me.

Before I got to Maine I had experienced my most difficult interview. When I returned to meet my oldest friend and trusted confidant, she helped me by comparing my process with hers as an academic, researcher and writer by noting that I was in the ‘data gathering stage,’ not the time to analyze and draw conclusions. Her sage advice resonated then and especially took hold while I was on the schooner. Instead of trying to find ‘patterns’ or deduce the ‘common themes’ or other analytical endeavors which I’m prone to do, I just focused on how connecting with these other men, hearing their stories, learning from their experiences and seeing some of them cry, some of them laugh and some of the embrace their anger and frustration was helping me to feel and breathe into my own emotions around my father’s death.

From the get-go I knew this project would be a bit selfish and its structure would keep me tethered to my own process. Each interview would help me see a new angle on my own loss and probably see some new areas of strength that I hadn’t appreciated – from my mom, friends and even myself.

There are many reasons why I wanted to go cross-country to meet these courageous men who would join me for this emotional dance and discussion on fatherloss by suicde, but traversing the country via my motorcycle – which was built the same year I was conceived –would add an extra strong dose of embracing the moment. When my bike broke down, I had to get down to the problem and find solutions. When the rain came, I changed clothes or directions or found the nearest baked pie to wait it out. (Mostly the latter.) When a new participant got in touch, I would alter my route to ensure we could meet. 

One fixed destination that I was working my way towards with this trip was the anniversary of my father’s death, September 9, 1981; just a few days ago. I assumed that this year’s anniversary would have more weight than ever before. I also hoped that as I was in the midst of these interviews, I would have more insights and clarity on how I feel about his death. Though that may be true, I spent this anniversary with an exceptional new friend exploring coastal gardens in Maine, slow-cooking a delightful dinner and swimming in a quarry. A dreamy day for me. 

I thought of my father some, but my mind mostly returned to my mother and how the anniversary – to me - is more of a testament to her strength, resilience and abundance of love than his decision to take his life. I don’t recall how I felt at three when my father died; particularly how I felt the minutes and hours after I heard he had taken his life, but my mom does. Fortunately for me, each year she shares a bit more about that period of her life – our life – and each time she does my awe and appreciation of her reaches new heights.

It was on this year’s anniversary we got fantastic news: Her biopsy came back negative. I reckon it is the first time in her life that September 9th could have a positive ring to it for her or I. It is through this project that I’m becoming more clear about how the death of my father doesn’t define me, but it is a strong part of me and how I understand to live and make the most of the life I’ve been afforded.

So, on the anniversary of my father’s death, I toast my mom, her exceptional fortitude over the years and steps towards optimal health. Hopefully her cancer-free screen will continue to be an anniversary that we celebrate, even on one of the hardest dates of our lives.