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”
Today I’ve chosen to discuss John Birmingham‘s excellent, moving, and analytical essay “On Father.” It’s about grief, his mourning the loss of his father, and his descent into depression. This book was a tough read for me; I avoided it for a while. Usually I snap up anything that Birmingham writes immediately, this essay was different. But it was a damn good, meaningful, read.
This essay is visceral, personal, moving. It touches something universal, it speaks to us all. Grief is part of the human condition, sooner or later all of us will mourn someone or something.
What sets Birmingham’s essay “On Father” apart is first his skill as a writer. This gentleman can describe anything and drive his point home. Secondly, he has a keen eye for analysis, he delves into Freud, St. Augustine and Seneca with aplomb. Finally, there is a human, personal tone to his writing that reaches in and touches the reader; it touched me. Deeply. The last page of his work, his conclusion, is magnificent.
“On Father” made me think back upon sorrowful episodes in my life, in the lives of others. There were many. One example. A thread that ran through my life and the lives of my family was the death of my uncle, a seventeen year old soldier who died violently in Korea in 1952. This event sent shockwaves through the extended Johnson clan that echoed for generations, and plagued my ancient Grandmother to her dying day in 2016. Just thinking of her describing his death, shortly before she passed, and the bitter, drawn out reaction of my Grandfather, fills me with sorrow.
Strange, because I obviously never knew my uncle, and I never knew my Grandfather. He passed in 1966. But I knew and loved my Grandma, and I felt her pain across the long decades as she herself lay dying, speaking, in her sunlit bedroom. Grief and empathy are intertwined, they are part of who we are.
So I’d like to thank John for sharing his path through sorrow and depression with us, this most intense and personal of experiences.
Ultimately “On Father” is an uplifting book with a powerful message.
By all means read it.
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Also worth listening to the podcast