It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since my father died.
Today, while I was doing some graphic design work, I was also watching an old lecture online, given by Kurt Vonnegut in Cleveland in 2004. I love Kurt Vonnegut’s mind, mainly because I appreciate the way he thinks — I mean, seriously, the man was a Prisoner of War in World War II; he was forced to pull dead bodies from the ruins of Dresden, Germany. And when he returned, he decided to become a writer. But here’s the thing: Almost all of his books have the same underlying theme:
Life (all, or in-part) will inevitably suck. Therefore, our happiness is not contingent upon what happens to us; our happiness is contingent upon how we choose to encounter our lives.
Some of his books end happy, some end sad, some end bizarre, but they all ask (and answer) the same questions:
How will you encounter life?
How will you encounter mortality?
In his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut used a repeated phrase that has now become synonymous with his writing. In the book, whenever someone (or something) died, he simply wrote, “So it goes.” Every time. And this, in my opinion, is a perfect example of how Vonnegut approached both life and death; not with apathy, but with cynical optimism. “So it goes.” He doesn’t say, “So it stops,” but rather, “So it goes.” Even in death, Vonnegut relayed a sense of continuity in his statements. In modern parlance, one might say, “It is what it is,” or something similar. Furthermore, for Vonnegut, “So it goes” was not merely a statement of death, it was a statement of acceptance. This is how Vonnegut approached life; this is how my father approached life. This is how I want to approach life!
If Vonnegut’s writing has taught me one thing, it is this: We do not “live” our lives; our lives happen. How we react to those happenings is what matters! Granted, many (if not most) of the ways in which I have reacted to life have not been productive, wise, or moral, but here’s the caveat: Life moves forward, and so shall I.
It’s not about how we live life, it’s about how we encounter life. And no one I’ve ever known has been a better example of this than my father. He was a drastically imperfect man with virtues and vices just like us all, but I’ve never met a man who has chosen to encounter life — both the good and the bad — like my father.
Here’s an example:
A few months before my father died, he was rushed to the Emergency Room with an array of symptoms and significant pain. After we sat in the ER room for several hours — after waiting while endless tests and scans were done — an Oncologist walked in and told my father that he had Stage 4 Renal Cancer. (For those unfamiliar with the stages of cancer, Stage 4 is the most severe; Stage 5 is death.) So, after a few moments of contemplation, he looked around the room at me, my sister, my step-mother, my daughter, and my wife, and addressed the doctor directly.
“Well, do I have to be admitted to the hospital?” he asked.
“I think that should be the next step, yes,” the doctor replied.
“Can I ask for just one thing?” my father inquired.
“Of course,” the doctor said. “What would you like?”
“Can I go home?” Dad asked.
“Home?” the doctor said, somewhat confused.
“Yes,” Dad replied. “I just want to die at home.”
I will never forget how I felt when he said that.
It broke my heart.
On January 2, 2019, my father died. He was only 65. He was sleeping comfortably in a hospice bed in the living room of his house — his house — his home.
Prior to his death, he spent several weeks in Wesley Medical Center’s Critical Care Unit, but he was eventually released. And when he was sent home, he knew, at his core, he was being sent home to die. The doctors administered continuing chemotherapy, but everyone knew this was just a method of prolonging the inevitable. And yet, my dad never once cursed his situation.
My father encountered his death with more bravery and humility than anyone I’ve ever seen. The manner in which he encountered his life was, “This is happening, it cannot be changed, so smile.” And how did he get everyone to smile? He told the world’s dumbest jokes, over and over and over again. But these weren’t “Dad Jokes;” they were old man jokes. These were corny, off-the-wall, inside jokes.
This is one of the ways he reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut — or, more accurately, this is one of the ways Kurt Vonnegut reminds me of my father — by telling dumb (but funny) old man jokes.
My dad and Kurt Vonnegut shared the same attitude toward life: The Cynical Optimist. The attitude they shared was this: “Life’s gonna suck, but it doesn’t have to ruin your day.”
My father was a heavy smoker for most of his life — he smoked for 50 years. But it wasn’t his lungs that killed him, it was his kidneys. Go figure. But never once was there a woe-is-me soliloquy in his dialogue. He was the kind of guy who would have given a cynical grin to the irony of it all.
Actually, my father was quite proud of the way he prepared for his death. He made sure that, in the event of his demise, my step-mom would have absolutely no financial worries whatsoever. He even bragged about it to the attorney I brought in to draft his Will. In the face of death, my dad did not fear his own mortality; my father was proud of what he’d done to take care of his family beyond his final breath.
My dad always had a smile. Even on his worst days — the days when he was in excruciating pain — there was something about the way he encountered life which told the world that everything would always work out.
In his older years, my father also suffered from advanced Osteoporosis, so his mobility became more and more limited. But this never stopped him from calling me every week and asking me to go play golf. He loved golf. He loved to play golf, he loved to watch golf, he loved to talk golf. But during the last years of his life, the only person he played golf with was me; the only person I played golf with was him. Both of our best friends with whom we used to golf (another father/son duo, ironically) had dickishly turned their backs on both of us, so we only had each other. But that was fine with us; golfing became our time. My dad and I spent countless hours on the golf course. I used to play golf weekly (or more) with him — I’ve golfed three times since he died.
If you still have your father, give him a hug. For no reason, just give him a hug.
So, what does this have to do with Kurt Vonnegut?
Kurt Vonnegut has been my favorite writer ever since I was a teenager when I picked up a copy of Breakfast of Champions and read it cover-to-cover; it was the first novel I ever read. And I suppose I could never really pinpoint what it was about Kurt Vonnegut and his books that I loved so much. But for some reason, I bonded to his writing.
Well, today, as I was watching a Kurt Vonnegut lecturee from 2004, I finally understood why I love the writing of Kurt Vonnegut so much.
Kurt Vonnegut reminds me of my dad. And I love my dad. And I miss my dad.
So it goes.