~ Czeslaw Milosz
It has been almost six months since my father’s passing. I still can’t grasp what happened, even though I know exactly what happened. All I can think of is the emptiness I feel.
I write to answer this question: How can one be whole again after such a loss?
Here is a working version of an excerpt about my father from the fictionalized memoir, Europe Without a Name, I am plowing through right now.
My father the Saint
My father’s name was Jerzy, which is George in English, and he was the one who has slain the Dragon. Today people think dragons don’t exist, but back then, when my father was born, in 1937, many people still believed in dragons.
My father was named after Saint George the Dragon Slayer for courage and strength. For many years I had imagined my father the saint on a horse—the horse’s front legs up in the air, its nostrils wide open, its mane wild in the wind—and my father’s right arm raised, his hand grasping the long spear pointed directly at the dragon’s head. The dragon looks like a lizard, a snake, and a dinosaur at the same time, and with all the attributes assigned to those animals, it is the deadliest of all living creatures. This fact makes my father the true and only hero in my life, until the day when I am told—I am in second grade when it happens—that the Catholic Church revoked Saint George’s sainthood.
“Why?” I ask dumbstruck.
“Why?! Because dragons don’t exist, stupid!” The person whose face escapes my memory is more convincing than I can bear. I go to the bathroom, lock the door—the only door in the entire house with a lock—and cry.
I can’t believe the cruelty of the Catholic Church. I think of my father and I hope he doesn’t find out. For a while I entertain the thought of concealing the information from him but soon realize that I am unable to come up with a feasible plan. I think of the consequences if he finds out and I imagine him sitting on the edge of the bathtub and crying like on the day when he came home too merry, with an enormous bouquet of blue lilacs for my mom. He is apologizing to her, offering her the flowers, and after she leaves the kitchen—where all of it happened—dropping the flowers on the floor, covering his face, not wanting me to see, and going to the bathroom. He forgot to lock the door, even though it must have been his intention, to be alone, and I quietly sneak in. He is sitting on the edge of the bathtub; sobbing, his face still in his palms, and I embrace him.
“I love you, dad, don’t cry.”
Now when his sainthood was taken away from him, I sit in the bathroom and cry for him. I feel great emptiness in my heart, confusion in my head, and crying is not helping at all.
Who is he now? What about the courage and strength? How can he possibly go on with his life if everything that made him was suddenly taken away? Who will he be now? And most of all—can he still be the father to me he was before? And what about mom? Would she still love him without the courage and strength? And would he be able to love her the same way? Will he still be able to laugh and cry?
Many days went by while my father was getting used to being a common person, and even though he still performed the same tasks as before, when he was the saint in the house—preparing royal scrambled eggs for us on Sunday morning, taking us to the river for noble walks resulting in spectacular discoveries, and bringing splendid flowers for my mom—I couldn’t see him the same way as before. Something was lost and nothing was able to resurrect the angelic feelings I had before the Catholic Church decided on the change.
Although, I have to admit, I witnessed incidents that made me question the effectiveness and legitimacy of the downgrading St. George’s status. Perhaps it wasn’t as powerful as the Catholic Church wanted us to believe, I speculated with feelings swinging like a pendulum suspended between hope and guilt.
One of those incidents happened on a beautiful summer day. The water in the river was crystal clear, with tadpoles and shimmering rocks on the bottom. My parents, my baby sister, and I were having late lunch on the meadow next to our house. My sister and my dad were ankle deep in the water fishing for flat rocks; my mom was reading her Kobieta i Zycie, Woman and Life, magazine, and I was coloring in my favorite book. The book was very special, it was the first book that had all the colors already on the pages and they would become visible when touched with water. I had a small paining brush and a tiny container with water. There were no instructions on the colors, which meant that every surface, guarded by lines, was a surprise. The bunnies were white, brown, or gray, but you couldn’t guess it before the water touched the paper. The flowers were easier to guess, but not always. The daffodils, the lily of the valley, and forget-me-nots were easy, but the tulips were not, since they came in four colors—red, white, yellow, and purple. There was another difficulty – the more water you used the more dissolved became the color on the page. The secret lay in using as little water as possible, just to activate the pigment, but I could never manage that. For some reason I always used more water than needed, to the point of making the pages warp and turn into waves. Then I had to iron them to make them flat again.
Going back to the incident that made me question the decision of the Catholic Church. As I was discovering the colorful world of my book, something happened in the river. I was jolted up with my sister scream. She was crying the biggest cry, the one that makes the entire face disappear and all that is left is just the wide open mouth that reveals the uvula pointing forward, flattened with the force of the air pushed with unstoppable force coming from the lungs.
“Oh, my God!” My mom throws her magazine on the blanket the moment we hear the scream and runs towards the river.
I see her summer dress fluttering around her thighs, I see my father holding my sister, I see my sister’s mouth. Next I hear many fast words exchange between my parents but I can’t understand anything – it seems as if the entire world disappeared in the black hole in my sister’s head.
We have to go home now. My mom decides. I look at my book. The two open pages are wet but now means now. I carry my book, forearms extended in front of me, open and blow on the pages all the way home. My sister stops crying before we even open the gate but it doesn’t change anything, mom is still upset. I know it because she doesn’t say anything until we enter the kitchen, and when we enter the kitchen she says something outrages by mistake.
She meant to say: “Put the stools under the table.” But instead she says: “Put the table under the cabinet.”
The three of us stay still looking at the table and only my sister’s enormous blue eyes roll up to look at me and then at our dad. My mom leaves the kitchen. We can hear her going downstairs and then out the front door.
My father is very calm but I know that he is giggling inside. He approaches the table, asks us to move the stools, and then turns the table up side down. My sister and I are excited, even though we have no idea what is happening. My dad takes a screwdriver from his “little tools drawer” and unscrews the legs of the table. Then he slides the top of the table under the cabinet and then arranges the unscrewed legs on top of it.
After a while my mom enters the kitchen with an impetus of a still angry person but the missing table puts her steps immediately into a halt.
“What now?” She looks at my sister and me.
We shrug our shoulders and try not to laugh.
“Where is the table?”
My sister and I turn slowly around and point under the cabinet. My mom looks at my dad and I can see that she is melting, trying very hard not to laugh, even though her eyes are already laughing.
“You asked us to put the table under the cabinet,” my father says smiling. “So we did.”
My mom looks at my sister and me and we both nod to our dad’s statement.
“Very funny, very funny.” Now she only pretends to be angry with us. “Put it back together or there will be no dinner tonight.” She tries to be stern.
“Whatever you say, honey,” Dad says smiling.
“Whatever you say,” makes all four of us laugh, and this is the moment that makes me think that the Catholic Church is not as reliable as I believed.
My dad is the saint again because he is the one who made everything better. The air is light, our bodies are light, the laughs are light, and the summer is light. My mom is laughing, my sister is laughing, my dad is laughing, and I am overwhelmed with the angelic feelings I have missed so much.
Image in this post is from: here