My father died on October 1, 2012, at the age of 79.
My dad, like me, was an atheist. And when you’re an atheist and a non-believer, and the people you love die, you don’t get to tell yourself that they aren’t really dead. You don’t get to tell yourself that you’re going to see them again someday, in some hypothetical post-death existence that somehow both is and is not life. You have to accept that death is really permanent, and really final.
This may be surprising to many believers… but atheist ways of dealing with death and grief are not actually dire, or hopeless, or without consolation. I’ve been surprised, in fact, at how comforting my humanism and my naturalism have been during my grief. And one of the many consolations in a humanist view of death is the idea that people who have died live on: not literally in a supernatural afterlife, but metaphorically, in the ways they’ve changed the world. The people are gone, but like the water in a pond when a rock is tossed in, the ripples continue to radiate out, even after the stone has sunk to the bottom. My dad is dead, he is gone finally and forever… but the world is different, and I am different, because he was alive.
I want to talk about that today. I want to talk about some of the ways that my father lives on in me, and in the world.
My father had this loud, booming laugh: so loud it made people turn and stare, so loud it embarrassed the rest of the family at movies and plays and other public places. I now have an absurdly loud laugh that makes people in crowds turn and stare. It’s different from my father’s — my dad’s laugh was a deep, booming, Santa-Claus-on-laughing-gas “ho ho ho,” while mine is a high-pitched harpy shriek that I’ve learned to cover with my hand so people won’t think I’m being murdered. But I have my father’s noisy laughter. And I have my father’s priorities: his valuing of laughter and joy over not embarrassing yourself. The degree to which I don’t give a shit about making an ass of myself in public is the degree to which I am my father’s daughter.
My father used to read to us — me and my brother — from fun, brainy books for kids: The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland. His copy of Alice, the Annotated Alice with annotations by Martin Gardner, is the version I fell in love with, the version I still think of as the classic. I learned the poem “Jabberwocky” by heart when I was in third grade. I got the Jabberwock tattooed on my arm when Ingrid gave me a tattoo for my wedding present. And I didn’t just get my dad’s love of Alice. I got his love of ideas. Not a refined, high-falutin’ version of the “life of the mind,” but a delighted, silly, deeply joyful life of the mind: a sense of the playfulness in ideas, a sense of ideas as toys or puzzles or games, a sense of the deep pleasure and straight-up goofy fun that could be found in just tossing ideas around and seeing where they landed.
My father was a math teacher. He never taught me, not in school anyway — he was always careful to never have me in one of his classes — but I knew other kids who had him as a teacher. And the word I got was that he was one of the fun teachers. He was one of the teachers that kids were glad they got. His love of math, his love of the puzzle-and-game aspect of it… it was infectious. There are people in the world now who enjoy math, and aren’t scared of it, because they had my dad as a teacher. And my dad had a love, not just of math, but of the act of teaching itself. He understood that unique pleasure of conveying ideas to other people, the unique pleasure of sharing not only the ideas but the love and the fun of them, the unique pleasure of watching other people not only catch your ideas but run with them in their own direction. I’m not a teacher… but that pleasure is a big part of what motivates me as a writer. And it comes from my dad.
My father was a union organizer at his school: one of the two chief organizers, in fact. I remember once when I was a kid, I found a piece of paper with a list of teachers on it, and I asked my dad, “Why are only some teachers on this list? Why is Mr. Abernathy on the list, but not Mr. Mason?” My dad got very, very serious — not like him at all — and said gravely, almost in a panic, “You can never tell anyone that you saw that list. If you do, I could lose my job.” I’d had a vague understanding before then of this union business… but at that moment, it fell into sharp focus. And I got that my dad was willing to take a risk — a real risk, a risk not only to himself but to his livelihood and his family — to do what he thought was right, and to take a chance on making life better, not only for us, but for the other teachers and their families as well. I got that the administration relied on that “I can’t endanger my family” instinct as a way of intimidating teachers who might otherwise have supported the union. I got how much this scared my father… and I got that he was willing to fight for the union anyway. I got, at that moment, that sometimes you have to go out on a limb. I got that people in power rely on fear to keep their power in place — and that you sometimes have to do things that scare you, things that put you at real risk, in order to make change in the world. I got that courage doesn’t mean not being afraid: it means being afraid, and taking action anyway. I treasure all of that, and do my best to live up to it.
(And yes, the union won. As far as I know, there is still a teacher’s union at the University of Chicago Laboratory School today… and it’s there, in large part, because of my dad.)
My father was always proud to have a smart daughter. I remember the summer he taught me BASIC. I remember the time he mentioned, quite casually, that he knew I was smarter than he was. I remember his delight whenever I picked up a tricky idea, or stumped him in an argument. My ease and confidence with my intelligence, my sense that of course women can be smart, that it’s entirely natural and desirable for women to be smart, that there is no contradiction between being a woman and being smart and anyone who says so is a dolt… I owe that, in large part, to both my mom and my dad.
My father and I got into many arguments, heated ones even: not about personal family stuff so much, but about politics and history and science. And as heated as those arguments sometimes got, he never once tried to discourage me from arguing with him. He never once pulled the “I’m your father, don’t argue with me, treat me with respect” card. No matter how deeply he disagreed with me, he always respected my right to argue, and engaged with my arguments seriously, and valued my ability to make my case. If I am stubborn and fearless about making an argument, and unconcerned with offending people in authority and power when I do… that’s my dad.
My father used to make up silly songs ad hoc. I remember the summer that he grew pole beans on the balcony of our apartment, marking every day’s growth on the string with a pencil, and making up endless ridiculous twelve-bar blues songs about feeding pole beans to turkeys and rabbits. He had a love of absurdity for absurdity’s own sweet, stupid sake… a love that I carry with me.
My father cursed like a longshoreman. He didn’t try to curb his cursing around his kids… or maybe he did, maybe that was the dialed-back version we were exposed to all those years. When I see a shitty dumbfuck douchebag and call them a shitty dumbfuck douchebag, when I celebrate Blasphemy Day by saying “Fuck God in all sixty of his non-existent assholes,” I am my father’s daughter.
And did I mention that my father was an atheist? My father was an atheist long before I was. My father was an atheist, and an out atheist, in the 1950s. My father talked his younger brother into being an atheist… when he was in high school. My father figured out that there was no God, pretty much on his own: without atheist billboards, without the atheist blogosphere, without a local atheist support group, without a dozen atheist books on the best-seller list, without anything but Bertrand Russell and his own fearless, “fuck authority,” razor-sharp mind. And he did it when he was a teenager. I hope I don’t have to explain how that particular ripple has rippled out into my life. And now, into yours.
There was bad stuff, too. A lot of it. Not all the ripples have been good ones. My father shaped me in wonderful ways that I treasure, but he also shaped me in fucked-up ways that I struggle with, ways I’ve spent years trying to dig out and throw away, ways that make my life harder every day. And I’m not going to pretend that that isn’t true. Ours is a family that speaks its mind and values the truth: we don’t cover bullshit with sprinkles and pretend it’s a cupcake, and I’m not going to disrespect my dad by doing that now. My father was often a difficult person, and a difficult person to love. And that became more true, not less, as the years went on. I’ll probably be talking about that more in the coming days and weeks and months.
But not today.
My dad is dead. He is gone, finally and forever. But the world is different, and I am different, because he was alive. And for much of that — not all of it, but much of it — I am grateful.