My dad died suddenly at age 62. I read this at his memorial service.
September 10, 2015
Earlier this year, I was talking to my dad on Skype, as usual. It was late afternoon in Cardiff, and he was telling me about my life. "I don't know whether you'll get a teaching job," he said, "but I know you're gonna write." And he was right; here I am writing. He was a very practical fortune-teller, my dad. He wasn't into surrealism or dramatic license, at least if we judge by his paintings, which were always resolutely realistic. I think he thought it was more magical to draw real curves and angles, the rooftops of actual buildings, the leaves on actual treetops, than to make up imaginary colors or creatures. You get a strange species when you cross a car mechanic with a utopian socialist; and when I think about all his many utopian projects, most of them were horribly feasible, no matter how much they were at odds with social convention or the spirit of the times. A post and beam house in the woods; a new stop on the railroad in Willimantic; a plan for a new downtown in Mansfield; a halt to the state government's plan for an expressway between Columbia and Bolton Notch; a book critiquing Car Culture. They sound almost prosaic, don't they? Unless you remember how much love and desire and utopian longing and energy and hope was buried just under the surface of my dad's many projects. He liked to present himself as a common-sensical radical, prudent and practical, with good ideas that just needed to get tried out, but maybe none of us will ever quite know just how deeply he must have been attached to the flesh and bones of some imaginary better world that he saw, always just around the corner, slipping closer at times, but too often sneaking away into the distance. But I suppose he didn't think of the future as being like a sneaky animal. Probably more like a car with a dead battery, a finicky ignition, a slipping clutch, and broken headlights. A lot of problems, but they could all be fixed if our hearts were in it.
But instead of getting fixed, it's exactly seven weeks today since my dad died from a busted heart, lying on a couch in Cardiff on a Saturday night. Don't leave me, I heard he said to Patsy, his friend who was there at a time. And then he got weaker. At the end, all he could say was OK. OK. OK. As if the words were keeping time, standing in for a slowing heartbeat.
I can't help wanting him to help me make sense of it all. I never believed I wouldn't get to see him again, even though the past few months he'd tried to tell me how scared he was, how he wasn't sure he'd still be here to see our kid born this fall. "Don't say that," I said to him one time. "I'm not ready," I said. "I don't want to go, Eli," he said, and I could see his eyes filling with tears. And I felt my heart breaking into a lot of little pieces. But now I just think of him saying, Don't leave me. And I can't help wondering: Who's leaving who, in the end? And what did he mean by OK, OK, OK? Just who is supposed to be OK? Him? Us? Everybody? It's the last thing he said, but was it the OK of "It's OK, everything's alright"? Or "OK, this is such bullshit"? Or "OK, OK, gimme a break here"?
As I think about it, I'm increasingly sure of just one thing, which is that my dad would have teased me and maybe laughed a little if he had seen me standing up here, pedantically scrutinizing the meaning of the word "OK." "Why are you going on and on about the meaning of this dull, everyday word," he would have asked me? Just trying to keep the Thorkelson family culture going, I would have retorted. But he's not there to argue with now.
It's sad. And I can't help wanting the sadness to come more clearly into the light. It's hard to tell you how much I miss this guy. I miss his cigarette smoke halo, his broken hands which he'd taken to calling claws, his fearlessness, his love of going too fast, the light shining in through all the windows of all his different houses; I miss his eyes, his crutches, his massive enthusiasms, his tears when they came.
But it turns out that my dad believed in a hierarchy of sadness — meaning, some things are sadder than others. Do you want to know what he thought was about the saddest thing in the world? I'll tell you: Unused parking lots. He wrote in his book about car culture: "There is very little use of the outlying spaces most of the time, they just sit there blocking rain from getting into the ground." Go out and teach this to your children: according to Chris Thorkelson, the saddest thing in the world is just sitting there, blocking rain from getting into the ground. There's a whole philosophy bound up in that sad little image of capitalism obstructing the raindrops. That's where the worst sadness was for him: not in the individual, but in the world.
And I thought I'd leave you with a few more words from my dad's writing, which seem to sum up the modestly radical values he subscribed to:
Certainly life requires a certain minimum to be comfortable and fulfilling, but it is perverse to believe that ever more food, clothes, cars, gadgets, cosmetics, houses and other things will lead to ever more happiness, especially when it is at the expense of others. Humans are social animals and we live best through cooperation, not conflict and competition.
We all have personal desires: to be attractive to others, to have status, wealth, power, security and respect; desires the system plays upon when trying to sell products and services. These desires might be inherent to some degree, but they are not our only needs. Kindness, generosity, altruism, loyalty, respect for the arts and other virtues are also innate desires but they get little attention in the modern world. Why? They lead not to consumption but to contemplation, yield no profit, but enrich us in non-material ways.
I don't think he was kidding, or being generic or vague, in saying that kindness gets too little respect, or that loyalty is too unprofitable in some quarters. And I wouldn't be kidding either if I said, not for the first time, that what he would have wanted today was for us to mourn, yes, but then to carry on the struggle for life, for love, for freedom and justice and kindness and solidarity, and, above all, for each other.