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  • Edgar Mahaffey

Blog Post #7 See Ya

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

On March 10 I wrote my second blog post, Sia, and in it I compare my experiences with my father to Sia's song, "Elastic Heart". I briefly touch on my past dalliances with alcoholism and reference that my father was far, far deeper in that struggle than I'd ever been. I was afraid to write it for fear he'd one day see it. I spoke openly about having mental arguments with him, about how deeply he'd hurt me after I left Christianity and how his denial that I'd left was a source of continual pain for me. I referenced his good points, too, though I wish I'd written more of them (I won't edit the other blog post to add them in) but that's neither here nor there because my dad's never going to read that post, nor is he going to read this one.

Because my dad is dead.

Like I said above, I wrote blog post #2 on March 10th... on March 13th my father fell while getting out of bed and was taken to the hospital. It's the first time in my life I ever remember him going to the hospital. They ran tests and found that his liver was shutting down (which was one of the reasons getting into and out of bed was so difficult). After more tests they found that he had significant cirrhosis of the liver . At first we didn't know how bad, but over the coming week we got more information. The first "timeline" we were given was "about 2 years" to live. In order to be put on a transplant list, a person needs to be completely alcohol free for 6 months, so there was time. I was in China and COVID was still making reentry to the country very difficult. So I called home nearly every day, but made no plans to go back.

But the timeline changed.

And it changed so. damn. fast.

Within a week it'd changed to "6 months to 2 years" and Pengyun and I began planning a trip back home. A day or two later and he was in the hospital. Another day later, he was unresponsive and we were told he was going to die. Another day later, he was dead. He fell on March 13th and was dead on April 8th. It happened so quickly, the entire span of it feels like one of those 22 minute episodes of a sitcom, as if I remember specific lines and the overall plot of the episode but that it wasn't something life-changing.

There is so much I want to say about all this. About his death, about his life, and about my perspective on both. But this is just a blog post. I talked to Pengyun a lot. She was amazing. In every regard. From being open with her sadness to encouraging me to expressing mine to being okay with me leaving our favorite restaurant early because I was fighting back crying, she was perfect. One day I cried in the shower... and I cried hard. And when I got out she could tell because the capillaries in my face had ruptured (I learned later that the warm water makes it far easier for them to burst).

I took a day off work, and my the company I work for (I teach at a university, but I'm technically employed by an Australian co-op called QIBA) even encouraged me to take more time off. They were absolutely golden. But I didn't want to take more time off and really only took that Friday off because it was the day after the night I stayed awake waiting for the call where I'd video in for my dad's final moments.

Final moments.

Movies always show final moments as if there's both time and understanding for a last, deep conversation. And it's all bullshit. The Kominsky Method touches on this in Season 3, too, for those interested. It came out recently and I really connected with it in a deeper way.

My dad's final breaths came nearly two days after his final words. And the last words that I heard him say were entirely unpleasant and summarized one aspect of his life all too well.

Pengyun and I called, as we'd been doing for the last few weeks, and he was in the hospital. My mom hadn't told us he was sleeping when she told us to call, so our call disturbed him. My mom urged him to talk to us even though we were fighting her. I told her to let him rest, but she kept calling his name and telling him to talk to us. Finally he said, in a low, equally exhausted equally annoyed voice: "Joyce, let me sleep. I'm tired." And that was the last thing I ever heard my father say. I would give anything to have heard him say something else, but this is life.

My father's final words were of annoyance directed at his wife.

And I will always remember that.

I will always remember the frustration in his voice but that it was barely more than a whisper. If he'd have had the energy, he'd have yelled it or, at the very minimum, snapped at her. In their nearly fifty years of marriage, he'd not learned to control the way he spoke to her, instead it was simply his own exhaustion that forced him to lower his voice. And that's as depressing a fact as I know.

Divorce is one of mankind's greatest inventions. Of course, it's only a great invention because marriage exists. And marriage, perhaps because of my own experience growing up with two people who didn't really like each other, is entirely alien to me. I've said many times that if Pengyun were American, we'd have never gotten married. There wouldn't have been a reason to. I mean, what the fuck does some paper that we give the government mean, anyway? Am I more likely to be a good partner because I had a feast and a celebration? It's ridiculous. I married Pengyun because it made being together so much easier. But the only reason it's easier is because we live in a world that draws arbitrary lines on maps to show where one group of leaders is allowed to collect taxes and another group of leaders is able to collect taxes. And to cross those lines you have to have a passport and some passports are stronger than others and the weaker passports need extra validation to prove that when one person crosses the line, they're likely to cross it again and go back where they came from. That's a long, drawn out way of explaining that I don't think marriage really means anything. I have met couples married fifty years that still adore each other and I love it. I've met couples that have been together decades and never married. Likewise, I've met couples married and unmarried that seem to loathe and actively root against each other. All I know on this topic is: I love Pengyun and god damn do I like who she is. So I'll jump through any hoop that let's me stay close to her. But, back to the topic.

I love "The Offspring". All things considered, they may be my favorite band. My dad loves music, too, and I remember a few times where we exchanged music with each other. He introduced me to "Meatloaf", "The Who", and Bob Dylan and I tried to introduce him to any number of bands from the 90's. He didn't much care for "The Offspring" but there are two songs that make me think of him. One, which I'm listening to right now, is "Gone Away" and it was written by Dexter Holland (his wikipedia linked for those who want to learn more about him. He's an incredibly interesting guy and if you have a moment, check him out) about his girlfriend that died in a car accident. In it, there are some lines that take on a few meanings for me. One of them: "I reach to the sky and call out your name. If I could trade, I would" has meaning to me outside the realm of loss. I loved this song before I ever came to China, but my first year, when I was 20 or 21, I was a lost child. I was deep in Christianity and convinced it held all the answers. But despite how often I asked those questions, I was met with nothing but silence. I remember several times standing on my balcony in the school-provided apartment in Jiangmen, Guangdong with my arms outstretched to sky and begging for god to just speak to me. I'd had this desire to hear god for a decade at this point. When I was eleven, my dad told me to pray and that god would answer in his time. I prayed every night from eleven to into my early twenties. As I grew (understandably) frustrated, I spoke with my dad about a dozen times and he would change slightly as the years went by. He'd tell me that I was asking too much and that I was putting myself in the place of god by commanding him speak to me. I didn't feel like I was commanding him at all, but it's what my dad said. And I trusted my dad, so at his recommendation, I changed. When I was around 14-15 I began praying that god speak to me or send me an angel to speak to me so that I would know he was there. Again, nothing. When I was heading off to college was the last time I brought up this struggle and again my dad told me that I was at fault. That my faith should be enough and I shouldn't need an angel to speak to me. So, again at his recommendation, I changed it. I prayed that god would speak to me or send an angel or just have someone come and tell me: "God is with you." That was all. I'd grown in churches where people frequently spoke about how god had guided them or led them to do something. Surely god would do the same for me, right? Because he loves me, right? Even in his silence, he loves me, right?

Again, nothing. So there I was at age 21 with my first real doubts that there was a god who was out there that loved me and valued me. I stood on a balcony in China, arms outstretched and waiting for something—anything—to reaffirm my faith in god. I didn't care about heaven or hell... I just cared about knowing god. And I didn't know him. So I did what a smart person would do: moved on to the next chapter of my life and put this all behind me.


I continued searching for god, even going so far as to get a master's degree in theology. I was so convinced other people were right about god that I ignored the glaring lack of evidence surrounding the whole issue. (Like I did in blog post 2, I want to take a moment to say I have nothing against Christians. Most of my American friends are Christian and they are wonderful, wonderful people who have helped me and listened to me far more than I could ever repay.)

Back to my dad.

This song, "Gone Away", has new meaning for me with the death of my father. Here are most of the lyrics:

Maybe in another life, I could find you there

Pulled away before your time, I can't deal it's so unfair

And it feels, And it feels like

Heaven's so far away

And it feels, Yeah it feels like

The world has grown cold

Now that you've gone away

Leaving flowers on your grave

Show that I still care

But black roses and Hail Mary's

Can't bring back what's taken from me

I reach to the sky, And call out your name

And if I could trade, I would

And it feels, And it feels like

Heaven's so far away

And it stings, Yeah it stings now

The world is so cold, Now that you've gone away

I didn't put all the lyrics because, as anyone who listens to these guys can attest, there's a lot of filler-style words (these boys got the best "Yeah's" and "Hey's" in the business, I swear)

Anyway, whereas Dr. Holland's (Yes, he has a Ph.D) girlfriend died of a car accident, which is clearly "before your time", my dad died at 66 of complications from his own decades of alcoholism. One has no causality and one is almost entirely causal in nature. Even so, my dad died twenty years before his time. He smoked for fifty years and drank for forty. Anyone who stays around with those habits until 66 is almost guaranteed to hit 80 in the world we live now. My dad traded two decades of life for alcohol. And I can't fathom it. Pengyun loved my dad and they had such a special relationship... and they were around each other for a summer. Yes, with technology they video chat and got to know each other, but they were only in the same physical location for a summer. How many months or years of interactions are gone because he's gone? Any my kids. One day I want to have kids and they'll grow up never knowing their grandpa. He'll be this intangible figure with pictures and stories as if he were trapped in some history book. And to my kids he'll be nothing but those pictures and stories. He'll never be a memory. Just a retelling of someone else's memory.

You know what's weird? After my dad's death, all the pleasant memories I have of him came flooding back. Even the unpleasant ones grew more favorable. Memories of my letting him win in Cruisin' USA because he'd get angry when he lost too many times became mildly funny because, well, "that was just dad". But the truth is, I'd never remembered those times well because I always felt it was so unjust that I had to hold back because he couldn't handle losing. But the sheer silliness of it all made it easier to reflect on. While on this note, there were so many amazing memories. Conversations about Christianity and god that ended with me feeling so... good were still present. It's weird thinking back on them so positively as a non-Christian now, but the feelings I had while talking with him were powerful. And I'll never forget them.

And on this line, my dad was such a mentor. Ask anyone he'd ever worked with and they'd say the same. He had a way of non-judgmentally asking questions and growing people. In the poem and eulogy I wrote, which my sister read on my behalf (I'll do another blog post after this with it) I go on and on about this because it was an area where my dad was truly special. If only he'd been free of his financial burdens he could have gone out and impacted countless lives. But his lack money kept him chained to a job, but even within that constraint, he naturally guided the people he was around. And it was such a privilege to see the way he helped those who were near him. But even with how wondrous he was in this element, it wasn't my favorite thing about my dad.

The way my dad sang and danced was incredibly unique. He did these hilarious little dances when he was happy or excited about playing something. He'd point his fingers while shifting his body one way and then the other. I loved it. He'd sing the same songs he always did and occasionally invent new ones. And I loved them. And he always wanted hugs. He loved to hug those close to him and they were the warmest hugs in the world. Almost always accompanied by a hint of bourbon as he'd breathe and even that became strangely comforting. And he loved to laugh. He loved anything that would make him laugh, everything from stand up comedy to TV shows to exchanging jokes with people. He loved it. And he loved being happy more than nearly anyone I've ever met.

My dad chose to be happy even though he didn't really have the life he thought he would have. And that leads me to the next song by "The Offspring" titled "All I Want". It's a quick song, but a powerful one to me. It goes (again, mostly):

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (See? I told you they had the best "Yeah's" in the business)

Day after day (Your home life's a wreck) The powers that be, just breathe down your neck You get no respect (You get no relief) You gotta speak up And yell out your piece

So back off your rules Back off your jive 'Cause I'm sick of not living to stay alive Leave me alone Not asking a lot I don't wanna to be controlled

That's all I want That's all I want That's all I want That's all I want

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

How many times (is it gonna take?) Till someone around you hears what you say? You've tried being cool (You feel like a lie) You've played by their rules Now it's their turn to try

So back off your rules Back off your jive 'Cause I'm sick of not living to stay alive Leave me alone Not asking a lot I just don't wanna to be controlled

My dad didn't want to be controlled. I mean, no one wants to be controlled, but my dad really didn't want to be controlled. His form of rebellion from being controlled came in the form of smoking and drinking. Regardless of what anyone told him, he wasn't going to change those habits. Even after he fell and the state of his liver was discovered my dad told me, "Yeah, I was enjoying life a little too much, I guess". I wish he'd had other ways to enjoy life. But besides video games, Fox News (we'll tackle this bit in another blog post) and talking to his friends or my sister or me, he didn't have a lot. That's why, for me, this line from the above song stands out:

'Cause I'm sick of not living to stay alive

My dad couldn't afford to live. A failed company kept him in debt for most of my life. It was also one of the sources of contempt between him and my mother and thinking back on their countless arguments, I remember money being a central theme. (Side note: my mother and father are both good people... but they were just really wrong for each other. Side, side note: I'm super thankful they were together because that's obviously how I got here... but I often wonder if they'd have been happier if they'd just split up at some point.) My dad was unable to live because he couldn't find a way to both live and stay alive. He could work as a delivery driver for Domino's, while also working at another restaurant during the day in order to provide, but that left him with no energy and no time to do something else. Later, he began working at a restaurant in Columbia, SC (an hour and fifteen minutes away) six days a week. He'd sleep all day Sunday just to get up and do it again the next six days. When the ice machine broke, my dad would go to another location of the restaurant in Rock Hill SC (half an hour away) load his car with ice and whatever else the Columbia location needed and then drive an hour there to work ten hours and then come home. Again, this was six days a week. And I'm holding back tears right now because his life was like this for years. Six days a week from early morning until when he'd get home around 10 PM. And I still remember hundreds of times he and I would talk. How on Earth he found the time to talk to me, I'll never know. But he did. And if I'd remained a Christian, I'm certain our relationship would have stayed great. But I didn't and it didn't. I don't regret leaving Christianity, but there will always be hole where my relationship with my dad used to be.

The songs connect in one, strong way. It starts with this line from the first song, "Leaving flowers on your grave... show that I still care."

My dad was cremated. There's nowhere for me to leave flowers (or a bottle of bourbon, if I were to leave something of actual emotional value). Also, in my dad's pursuit to stay alive—and keep us alive—he never took me anywhere. He never took me anywhere outside of the Carolinas with the exception of driving with me to Missouri when I went off to college. Aside from that two-day trip that I'll remember forever, we never went anywhere together. When I was a child we did family vacations to Holden beach, which is in the Carolinas, but even that was family vacation. He never took me anywhere just he and I. He taught me how to play basketball, how to hit a baseball, but he never took me anywhere. I don't hold it against him, he was tired. Tired and broke. But it still hurts that I don't have that. And it wasn't for a lack of trying, either.

Ever since I was in High School my dad said he and I were going to take a mountain trip one day. He said we'd rent a cabin for a week and just spend our days enjoying nature and talking. We never did and after my first year in China I decided to remedy that. I made all the plans. From choosing the location to pricing things to even choosing the dates, I planned everything. But we had my grandma at that time and her health was failing. I'd watched her by myself for a few days so my mom and dad could get away, but my dad felt said he didn't want to leave her for my mom to take care of so he and I could get away. But it was okay, because he told me he was going to visit me in China. In fact, he told me several times he was going to spend his twilight years in China, helping me raise my kids. But every time I invited him he said he didn't feel up to it. He told me he was going through some pain or was sick. I tried to get him to fill out the forms for a passport... but he didn't even do that. Then, years passed, and I met Pengyun.

My mom came to the wedding, three of my best friends came to the wedding. But my dad didn't. And during his last week on Earth, he told my mom that he "should have gone to China". He regret not going. He regret a lot of things in those final weeks. He tried to make up for some of them, spending the week he had after his fall by doing exercises during the day and watching old movies with my mom. If you hear her tell it, she says it was like the days when they were first married. They talked about the movies they'd just watched and that would lead them to other, deeper conversations. I think they may have fallen back in love, for that week anyway. And there's beauty to that. But I can't bring myself to romanticize it. This isn't a novel or a movie or a play, this is real life. And I just can't reconcile the decades of arguments and hearing the way the spoke about each other with a single week where things were good.

My dad died. It's been almost three months and I still don't really believe it. I don't think I will until I go to my home, the place he never left except for work or to buy bourbon.

My dad died. I'll never see him dance again, I'll never hear him sing again, I'll never hug him again, and no one will ever benefit from his patient wisdom again. And that sucks. That sucks so badly. And the relief I occasionally feel when I remember I don't have to mentally argue with him anymore is always met with guilt. And even though I have no regrets in my relationship and interactions with my father, I hate that I feel relief I no longer have to live up to his expectations. That's got to be the most unexpected obstacle in dealing with my dad's death. The absolute, unending relief that I'll never hear him drunkenly scream at a computer because something bad happened in his game, I'll never be yelled at for not being a Christian anymore, I'll never be forced to pray in front of an entire church congregation to perpetual his lie that I'm still the Christian he wants them to think I am, I'll never have to watch helplessly as he stumbles through the hallway and angrily mumbles about whatever he's annoyed by, and I'll never, ever have to heard those god awful gasps he would make while vomiting into a toilet. I'm free. I'm free from so many things... but even with all that, I'd give just about anything to have him back. In my second Blog Post I wrote this:

"I suppose I'm trying to conquer love. But I fail. And maybe, with this specific type of love, that's the point. The goal isn't to succeed, but to simply keep trying to. It's not ideal, it's not even sub-optimal. It's bad. It's a bad form of love. But wherever there's love, there's reason to endure. Wherever there's love, there's an understanding for pain."

And it resonates with me now. Even with all his flaws I really would give almost anything have him back and for the last two and a half months I've wondered countless times why. I think it's because I genuinely believe that: "Wherever there's love, there's reason to endure," and love is so valuable. If the economists are right and value comes from rarity... then that really does make love the most valuable thing on Earth, which is as depressing as it is beautiful, I suppose, but either way... it's worth fighting for. And I fought for it with my dad and if he were here I'd still keep up the fight.

So I guess in a way, I did conquer love after all.


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