Rebuilding My Relationship With Dad Now That He's Gone
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
Guest Post by Don J. Usner
Dad, Author, and Photojournalist, Searchlight New Mexico
When we laid my father to rest 21 years ago, I initially felt a sense of finality. The ordeal of dying was over, and we could let him go now and he would be free. Or so I thought.
It was only in the following days, weeks, and years that I realized his momentous passing was just the beginning of a new kind of relationship with him, one that has become richer and deeper in many ways than my relationship with him in his life. It’s an odd paradox that has turned on its head my understanding of life itself.
I should have sensed on the very day he died that something mysterious was afoot. I had spent the night at Dad’s bedside and then left to go home for a needed rest and shower when the phone rang. I jumped in the car and raced back to his home, arriving to find a startling cacophony of ravens that had gathered outside his bedroom window moments after he passed.
As my siblings and I gathered in our own flock, we marveled at this unexpected “conspiracy” of ravens – and then they flew off, en masse. It was the beginning of a long string of events over the coming years that reminded me, again and again, that my father’s passing marked the beginning of a new conversation with him.
Why should this be so? Answering that question soon took a back seat to immersing myself in the new relationship. The conversation took place in many episodes, like the time I was driving down the highway and found myself growing angry with Dad about the way I felt he had abandoned me at times of need in my childhood and adolescence. He had refused, for instance, to take me to Little League practice and even avoided attending my games. He was averse to such things for reasons of his own, but I took it as a personal rejection of me and a negation of my need for his affirmation.
Driving down the road, as I recalled my sadness at stepping up to bat with no one in the bleachers to cheer for me, I jammed the power button on the radio with an angry gesture, wanting to distract myself from the memory. Out of the speakers came the rousing climax of the violin solo in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor – one of my father’s favorite pieces of music and one he would bid me listen to often.
He may not have taken me to Little League games, I realized, but he gave me this, an appreciation for great music and an ability to find in it deep nourishment and wonder. It’s a gift that has lifted me and deepened my emotional life countless times – a source of strength at least equal to what I might have gleaned from Dad cheering me as I stepped into the batter’s box.
Realizations like this about the gifts my father gave me have multiplied over the years, often taking place as literal conversations with him – conversations we could have never had in life. I’m not sure why. Perhaps while Dad was living, the static of our own interpersonal dynamic stood in the way.
In examining his life through the medium of our new relationship, I’ve come to see my father’s life as his own journey through many trials, triumphs, and disappointments. I began to see him out of the context of the life we shared as I grew up, apart from the daily jumble of events and stresses as he strove to keep himself and his family together while dealing with his own internal turmoil. I began to see the many struggles he faced, perhaps the most fundamental being the sudden death of his father when he was a mere six years old.
That profound trauma, I realized, shaped the trajectory of everything that came about in the next seven decades of his life. And it deeply affected his ability to be a father for his own children. He, more deeply and painfully than I can imagine, missed a father at childhood events – certainly, more than my disappointment at baseball games – and throughout his upbringing.
In the context of my father’s own complicated life, and realizing the deep wounds he carried, I marvel more than ever at his great strengths and talents. These, too, I see more clearly, now that the clouds of daily stresses and the tensions of our interpersonal relationship have lifted.
I’ve learned that he read – and wrote! – poetry. I’ve come to appreciate his passion and acumen for science. With renewed admiration, I see him tinkering in his workshops (he kept several at home) with electronics; lying on his bed, eyes closed, listening to music; striding in the mountains and woods, collecting plants; crafting fine woodwork; laughing and romping with grandchildren.
In all this reflection comes a realization that my father had so much to give, and he did give it, freely and abundantly, to me and his other children and grandchildren. But for me, at least, many of the gifts have come after his passing, as I immerse myself in the relationship that began that day the ravens departed the pine tree outside his bedroom window.
Don J. Usner is a dad to Jennifer and a 13th-generation New Mexican. He grew up in Northern New Mexico, where the natural and cultural landscapes inspired in him a passion for the natural world and for diverse cultures. His affinity for photography and writing was greatly nurtured at the University of California at Santa Cruz and led to his first book, The Natural History of Big Sur. When Don returned to New Mexico to earn an M.A. in Cultural Geography, he wrote Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, published in 1995 by the Museum of New Mexico Press. He has since written and provided photographs for several more books, including, most recently, Órale Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico, Chasing Dichos through Chimayó, and Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve. Don was named a New Mexico Luminaria by the New Mexico Community Foundation in 2013, an award given to New Mexicans who "motivate, inspire and support the dreams of others, promote diversity and equity, and build community strength through their leadership and vision." He is developing more book projects as he works as a writer and photojournalist for Searchlight New Mexico, a journalism nonprofit in Santa Fe. "The most rewarding experience of my life has been doing fatherhood with our only child, Jennifer," he says. "Raising her brought a depth of emotional resonance and abiding love that I never could have imagined before." Find more of Don’s work at donusner.com.