(This piece appeared in Conspire, Volume 6:1, (2014): 37-39. Print)
Five years ago, while staying at a cheap Bangkok hotel, I found out my dad, who I only met a handful of times, took his life. He left behind a blue backpack, some books, pictures of his family, pictures of Gordon Lightfoot, a notebook, binoculars, a belt (I sometimes wear), a wallet, his bracelet, some polished rocks, the letters he sent to me over the years, a set of chromosomes and my blue eyes. I usually don't know what to do with most of it. Sometimes I put them on the shelf, sometimes I peer inside, sometimes I feel like a detective, but this week I ended up making art with some of it.
Three little encaustic postcards.
I didn't even mean to. It just kind of happened. Visual-art vomit, it needed to come out. Hopefully, the post cards look better than the metaphor I just used.
My relationship with my dad has always been defined by a handful of letters. I read a book this past year about a beekeeper, who doesn't want to open a letter, because he is scared it will change him. I remember the day after finding out he was dead. I kept thinking that I didn't want this to define me.
I didn't want this to be my story, because I didn't have any control over it. It wasn't fair. For a long time I kept downplaying the loss. I didn't want to make a big deal of it. I didn't want people to see me differently. I was almost relieved when not very many people said anything to me after it happened. It's so awkward to know what to say.
But it was kind of a big deal. It was like I'd been in an emotional car accident. It wasn't my fault, but I definitely was injured. Except I wasn't just dealing with the one injury. I was dealing with the loss of never having him in my life, and now the loss of never having the opportunity to get to know him.
For a long time I didn't feel like I had the strength to open up that backpack, but when I finally did, it was like going deep beneath a wave. When I dove down, I didn't know if I would ever come up again. But I did.
Sometimes I have to dive down again. There are lots of different waves.
Being the daughter of a dad who was absent, who probably had a mental illness, who took his life, does not define me, but it has shaped and changed me in profound ways. I had a really amazing mom growing up. I usually like the attention to go to that. I'm the kid that wanted to get great grades in school and go far, to beat the odds, to show everyone how amazing single parent families can be. So it's hard for me to balance this need to be strong, with my firm belief that there is strength in weakness. There is strength in sharing our stories. Grief can be a lonely journey especially when it involves something as polarizing as suicide, or when you don't even know the person you are trying to grieve.
A year ago I decided that I wanted to try learning encaustic art. I spent too much money on supplies and made big plans about how I was going to explore my dad's past. I made photocopies of all his letters, notes and scraps. I was going to take my art to the next level. Nothing worked out. I was super frustrated, so I stopped pushing so hard and watched Mad Men and Orange is the New Black.
Three seasons passed by and I started reading The Death of a Beekeeper with my art collective. Since the book was about a beekeeper, I thought I would try out ‘that stupid encaustic wax’, one last time. As I was dipping letters into the wax, I remembered all the photocopied letters from my dad that I had tucked away. I brought them out and started to play.
Play is probably the most important thing an artist can do. A few days later I heard about the 'International Mail Art Exhibition and Swap'. This year's theme was memory. Suddenly I knew what I needed to do. I sifted and wove, collected and cut up, all the memories, photos and bits of poetry that was connected to grieving my dad. In fact, this was the first time that my poetry had intersected with my visual art. Newness was bubbling. I played all night.
The last letter my dad ever sent me was filled with pictures of his family. At first, this really pissed me off. I wanted a letter from him, explaining why he did it and how sorry he was. I fantasized about going through his old journal and discovering how he felt about me, secret love affairs and other interesting confessions. But his old notebook was filled with diagrams of boats and lessons on how to tie a knot, hardly the juicy plot line of a movie. Although, I still grieve the absence of that letter, I see more and more that he was trying to give me a piece of himself, by connecting me to his family. It has been through getting to know his family - my family- I feel connected to him and in turn myself. It's the strangest feeling, to meet someone you've never met before, who shares the same eyes as you.
These three postcards are small and precious to me. They are the result of a lot of things coming together naturally, when the timing was right. Kind of like grief-you need to be brave enough to get the process started, but you also need to just let it unfold. Enter the wave- and let the water flow. I sent my postcards out into the world a few weeks ago. They are the most personal artifacts I have ever created, but I am ready to let go. I'm ready to send our story out into the world.