And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears,
I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
–Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
Here’s the obituary I wrote for my Dad, who passed away just a few days ago:
Peter Schilling let go of the world he loved on Sunday, July 13. He was a wonderful Dad, friend to countless people, a teacher, activist, card player, film lover and avid reader, handyman, and a magician of exquisite talent. He would perform sleight of hand with a simple yet complex grace, tricks that grew in wonder as they progressed, surprising even the most hardened cynic. But Peter was magical in every sense of the word: small gestures of kindness toward everyone, a devout commitment to justice and peace, and an ability to uncover beauty in even the most mundane. Thanks to his passion for life, he leaves this world a better place.
I know that this world is still a beautiful place. He held it in his hands. The world, that is. Those strong, soft hands of his seemed to take every little thing and make it something, well, magical. You get tired of hearing that word, “magical”, when your father practices legerdemain–slight of hand, doves appearing out of nowhere, all that biz.
Dad was a conjuror, a wizard, a guy who was hired to perform at children’s parties. You should have seen his audience. I watched him, and I watched the crowd. To the obvious surprise of the adults in the audience, who no doubt thought that this would be the time they could tidy up or grab a drink as the urchins stared slack-jawed at the hired help, they would suddenly notice his careful way with the cards, his mastery of the linking rings. And after a moment, every adult stood in rapt attention and wondered, where the hell did this guy come from?
Well, I don’t know. He was my Dad, he came from God. The room with the top hats and the doves, a wall of old magic books, mechanical pencils, bike parts. He could sew, act, play the recorder and harmonica, argue about movies to beat Ebert anyday (and real critics, too), build bookshelves, march on Washington, D.C., teach, and myriad other talents. With those hands he could do anything.
When I was a baby he held me in his arms and caressed my head with those fantastic hands. Worked in a factory, he did, and applied lotion on those mitts to keep them soft. Cards will slip from calloused hands. When he held my hand as a child–and even as he was dying–it seemed as if no one could be as strong.
Going through his house is plumbing the depths of a cave of imagination, Ali Baba, Forty Thieves. All that magic. Painted chairs with the sun and the moon, boxes of tricks, miles of rope, books, books, books, a half dozen walking sticks, wizard costumes, fifty or so journals all started and stopped after fifty or so pages. Old photos, inexplicable tricks, magic books and magazines, numerous coins and my favorite, a silver dollar split perfectly in half and glued to a British penny, which is the same size, but copper. Christ, there’s little sewn bags with everything imaginable, from memory sticks to Petoskey stones to Trojan condoms (leaving me hopeful that there aren’t any surprise brothers out there). Every little thing in his house was improved upon, shaped by those lovely hands.
Of course, these same hands smoked Camel unfiltered cigarettes. Oh, yes, you run a course of extreme and violent emotional outbursts, most notably, most terribly, that rage against God that tumbles me into despair, and leaves me jealous at other cancer survivors, a thought not only shameful but unhealthy, for sure. Anger at Dad for not giving up smoking and a sickening feeling coming upon a picture I took of witty notes on his fridge summing up all the reasons to quit… from two years ago. Guilt and melancholy, and those strange, sunny times when you find something to laugh at and thank the same God for that.
Baffling times, frustrating times. Did I just throw something away that was a trick like no other, something to put him on par with the great Dai Vernon? I will never know, and I feel like I’m wrecking his memory, trying to fit his life into a U-Haul truck.
He hasn’t visited me in dreams, which pains me. My dreams have been forgotten, or mundane, the usual in this unusual time. I thought he would visit me in the land of sleep. It’s happened in the past–I watched a good friend, murdered at 23, ascend to heaven in a dream the next night. My Grandpa Derr said a simple hello the very next evening after his forever sleep. In bed, unable to sleep, staring at that yellow light coming in through the curtains of the Best Western, I can only remember the horrible night last Friday, when he was drowning from pneumonia, his eyes wide, repeating “I don’t want to live.”
He died peacefully, surrounded by his two sisters, three best friends, his two sons. And now one of those sons fears sleep, fears the night, wakes every morning nauseated at another day of packing our inheritance, and leaving me to feel I traded this man for a pile of DVDs and a check for one year’s salary.
But I am comforted by friends. By the dozens of people who write, by Aunts Mary and Betsy struggling and crying and laughing right there with me as we wonder why anyone would own so many boxes of rubber bands, six–six!–bottles of Old Spice cologne, a giant jar of used soap, pens, and ancient jars filled with nothing. We marvel at the people who come by to offer help packing, hauling, feeding, calling–sometimes a new person arrives we haven’t seen before, shocked at Dad’s death and moved by his life. They’ve been here the whole time, this long month of moving Dad from house to hospital to new house and hospital again. Every step of the way they were there, these friends. They loved him because of his love for them, and his love for life, and the way he shaped this painful world with those hands of his.
And his heart, of course. “Damn it,” he used to quote Vonnegut, “you’ve got to be kind.” That’s something. That’s my hope. The people who loved him. Memories. The returns on his investments in kindness. Evidence that something good of his has settled on this melancholy fool. And when all this clears, and the stuff, the mountains of fucking stuff, starts to go away and the paperwork is filed and the ashes scattered on a bright blue lake and life settles and runs on time, his kindness will descend upon me from afar. Hopefully. For without it, I’d be lost.