The Death of My Dad, Five Years On

Dan for FacebookDaniel Franklin Farris, b. March 22, 1934, d. Nov. 6, 2011

I’m writing a piece for American Atheist with the working title “The Idea of Souls,” in which I look into some of the civilization-wide cost of believing in ensoulment. The writing of it coincides with the 5-years-ago-today death of my surrogate Dad. What follows is a feelings-level reaction to dealing with that anniversary.

This is an atheist — me — grappling with the death of a loved one. Nothing in atheism says we don’t feel all the same feelings goddy people feel — the same sorrows, the same yearning for it not to be. The difference is, we don’t fall into permanent fantasies of eternity and immortality, into imagining that every life is cosmically significant and that someday, someday, we’ll all be together again in glorious paradise. We accept the fact of death — real death — and simply live with it.

Someday I’ll write a book about it.


People die. And I hate that more than anything.

I’ve thought a lot about … not just the deaths of loved ones, but death itself. How it takes from us the bright lights of civilization, and replaces them with darkness. With nothing. So that we have to struggle to create new lights and put them out there.

I was never a great fan of Lucille Ball. There was something about her comedy that bothered me. The heart of what she did was often about personal embarrassment. She would do something silly that turned into a disaster, and the funny part was how mortifying it was. It just wasn’t my type of humor. But other people liked her, eventually enough that she was one of those legendary superstars, known to everybody.

Bob Hope was the same type of star. Timeless, immortal, forever.

And yet …

If you asked young people today about Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, they would say “Who?” Or maybe “Oh wait, wasn’t she on a TV show or something? And he was like this guy who’d go over and put on shows for the troops? I think my parents knew about them.”

One of the funny things about getting older is there’s all this stuff that happened in your life, events and people you consider Memory, but that younger people consider History. To them it’s a lot of dry, dull stuff that happened way in the past. Genghis Khan, John Glenn, it’s all the same. Eventually, it’s all the same.

I like to think there could be people who were so accomplished, or so good, they’d be nailed into the fabric of reality forever. I’m talking about something more than mere History, where names and dates and victories are recorded in books. I mean they’d be embedded in the bedrock of the Universe, so that everyone and everything that came after would be aware of them. You and I could look up at the sky and just KNOW things. “Vorpal Grishnak? Oh, yeah, he’s the guy who lost his life saving billions of Randalians from that plague on Zarefia IV, in the Korbin Sector.”

And “people” out there could look up at their sky and say “Oh, yeah, Dan Farris. Hank’s Dad. He’s the Earth-human who devoted 60 years of his life to mule packing, taking people into the Eastern Sierra mountains to camp and fish. Helluva story teller and all-around good man.”

To my sorrow, there’s nothing like that. Hell, we can’t even manage History, most of the time. I see cemeteries all over Upstate New York that have pre-Revolutionary tombstones in them. Some of them are so old, hundreds of years, that the chiseled inscriptions have been worn away by rain. I asked at an old church one time, “Are there permanent records somewhere that tell who these people were?” The guy chuckled and said “Paper records get burned in fires, eaten by rats, damaged by water. The stones ARE the permanent records.”

Who would ever imagine a carved granite stone would ever wear away to nothing? And yet they do. The names fall away into darkness, following the people who sported them by only a few years.

I saw a picture at a museum in South Lake Tahoe a ways back, a dozen or so loggers standing on and by a huge felled tree. A dog had wandered into the frame, and a team of mules stood in harness nearby. I realized that every one of those men had lived lives as long and as memorable as mine, or anybody’s, and yet today not only are they gone, but everybody who ever knew them, or even heard stories about them, is gone. The entirety of the impression they had left on the world was this one picture, a shadow-play of silver crystals catching one brief moment in their lives, showing their faces but telling nothing of their story.

And here’s Dan, who meant the world to me, falling away into that same darkness.

He had his day in the sun. He took life into his hands and shaped his own course. He had his victories and his disappointments. He was treated both well and shabbily by the people around him. He found love, and gave love, lost love, and gave still more. He packed mules, he wrote, he told stories. Breaking bones, skinning his knuckles, dessicated by the dry air and the high country sun, he unfailingly stood tall, stood strong, stood steadfast, making a rare impression on the people who knew him. By no means did he come away from life with everybody loving him, or even respecting him. But he lived on his own terms, rock solid, and I see that as victory of a sort many of us never manage.

I have thought many times that we humans have this two-part gift, that we get to be Human and Beast both. We have our Humany parts – which are language and humor, intelligence and creativity, in the heart of our cities and civilization. And we have our Beastly parts – which are things like eating and sleeping, fighting and carousing with our packmates, at our best delving into the wilds around us, becoming one with it.

It seems to me that to be the best person, a COMPLETE Homo sapiens, you have to be not just a good Human, but also a good Beast. And Dan was a good human, intelligent and funny and creative. But he was also a very good Beast – not just good at living in the wilds, but feisty and lusty as well, in every part of his life. Glorying in his beastliness, he ended with memorable scars and stories, but he lived up to the best of both roles.

He’s one of those people who should be branded on the hide of Earth, recorded and preserved forever for all who come after. There should be a story, a vivid memory of him, floating in the clear air and the crystal waters of the Eastern Sierra, so that anyone who came after, the moment they took their first deep breath of the backcountry air or drank the cold, delicious waters of a Sierra stream, would instantly know him. They’d look up in surprise, the water still dripping from their lips, and go “Oh! Dan Farris!” as the memories unfolded in their heads.

But … we have nothing like that. Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, Genghis Khan and John Glenn. And Daniel Franklin Farris. They fall away into darkness, and nothing but words on paper, carvings on stones, hold them here.

We live our lives, creating our own memories and impressions, but also loving and cherishing the memory of each other to the best of our ability. What immortality there is, we provide it, for as long as we ourselves live and retain the memories.

Some of us get stones, some of us get stories in history, some of us even get statues. But some get only memories in the minds and hearts of the people around them.

To a writer, one used to putting down thoughts and words on paper, those memories are as vivid as any bronze statue, recorded for me in a timeless Now. I see Dan as he lives his life on the sunlit trails of the Sierra. The creak of his saddle sounds in the crisp air of a mountain pass, the clink and thud of horse and mule shoes ring and thump on the dusty trails. I see his strong hands on rope and tarp and pack box. I hear his friendly voice as he tells stories by firelight, hear his laughter at the punchline of a joke. I see the last dying light of a Coleman lantern strung overhead, and hear its final little pop.

In the darkness, five years past, I feel him give my hand a last squeeze, see him smile briefly from a hospital bed, a smile that lights the infinite night for me, a light that will – no matter who else remembers or cares – carry on with me for all the years of my life.

For me, it will never be “Here Lies Dan Farris — little-known man of this one small place.” It will be “Here STANDS Dan Farris, A Good Man, A Mule Packer and Mountain Guide, A Rare Specimen Of The People Of Planet Earth, Unforgettable And Unmatchable In All The Worlds.”

The world is poorer for his loss, and there will never come another like him.

But maybe … for this life, for this history, for me, the one was all I needed.


Ha — of course that doesn’t stop me from thinking, pretty much every day, “Dammit, Old Man. I miss you.”

Saying Goodbye to the 100-Year-Old Man

Today I went to the funeral of a friend, someone I’ve only known for about 5 years, but who was one of those quality people who brightens the life of everyone he comes into contact with.

Ed lived just shy of 100 years. He saw 100 Christmases, 100 Halloweens, 100 summers and winters and falls. And up until a couple of weeks before his death, he was still driving his own car, still — IN INK — working crossword puzzles. A mere three days before he died, he was traveling country roads with a friend, riding and enjoying the warm springlike day, laughing and making bad puns.

After the lengthy opening by a priest, his two sons stood up to speak, and one of the stories they told tickled me greatly, as it was both funny and warmly, completely ED:

In his early years as a math professor, Ed had a math-faculty friend who didn’t have a car. Ed readily volunteered to help out, giving him rides to and from work, day after day. One day as Ed and his wife Barbara were having dinner in a local diner, the guy happened in and saw them. “Ed! I just got a new car! I can start paying you back for how kind you’ve been over the past year. You have to let me give the two of you a ride home!” Ed and Barbara happily accepted the ride home, thanking the man warmly as he deposited them on their doorstep, waving as he drove out of sight.

After which, the two of them walked the mile or so back to the diner to pick up their own car.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a religious memorial, and I had forgotten how utterly odd they are. It may be the ritualistic ceremony really does give comfort and peace to the friends and family of the departed, but they’re still, to an atheist, distinctly strange.

The opening I mentioned consisted of a retired priest / friend of the family welcoming everyone and asking all to be seated. He waved a program (there’s some more devout name for it, but it’s not coming to me at the moment), making sure everybody had one so they could follow the ceremony. The program is 15 pages long, and it consists of long sections to be read by the priest, but also included call-and-response sections where the priest reads one line and the celebrants read a line back to him, with lots of Glory to Thee-ing and Amen-ing and bowing-and-praying along the way.

It is 12 pages before the name of the deceased gets mentioned, which in this case was some 32 minutes into the ceremony. To my atheist ears, the entire show up until that time seemed to be an extended arm-twisting, moment-of-grief commercial for God.

Again, if it gives people comfort, I can’t knock it TOO much. And if that’s what Ed would have wanted, I’m entirely at peace with it.

But … when I did the memorial ceremony for my Cowboy Dad, the entire thing was about the man. Not only did I read his entirely non-religious eulogy, everybody at the event was invited to share stories and memories of him. There was a single Bible verse — “To everything there is a season” — read by one of his cowboy friends near the end, but most of the ceremony was meant to focus on the life and happy effects this tough, good man had had on all of us. The purpose of the event was to celebrate a man’s life, not to send a tidal wave of religiosity over the attendees.

I often wonder why African-Americans and Native Americans can be Christians, as the religion was so obviously used to bludgeon them into line, but I can appreciate that if you grow up with it and never examine any broader context, it feels good and right to you.

Looking around me at this funeral, I could see that THIS ceremony felt good and right to the people there with me. But it still put me in mind of, oh, a tiny little sandwich in the middle of a heaping platter of garnish, or that friend who does you a 5-minute favor, and then spends ten times as long telling you what a nice guy he is for doing you the favor. It was a lot of goddy STUFF and only a little of Ed, and I would much rather have heard more about Ed.


Dog Years

Ranger3I aspired to be a scientist, once: I was a genetics major at a western university, way back when. (To show you what a cerebral nerd I was, the most exciting class I ever took in college was Calculus.)

If you had asked me in those days what I thought went on in an animal’s head, I would have related the majority view of the day: the most you could say about an animal was that they “exhibited certain behaviors.” There was no evidence for the presence of feelings, or anything resembling thought. Animals were little more than clockwork mechanisms, without love, or grief, or any other of our familiar human passions.

And then I got my German shepherd, Ranger. I picked him up from a kennel in Riverside, California back in March of 1986, at the age of ten weeks. Twelve years later, on a winter’s day, he died.

I wish I could relate to you all the good times we had together in those years in between. Some of the highlights:

I drove draft horses on hay rides and sleigh rides for eight of Ranger’s years, and he came with me on every one. He ran alongside in obvious joy, sometimes leaping up to make mock bites at the horses’ annoyed noses, frequently dashing off to check out interesting smells or wildlife, always coming back to check on me, making sure I was there, and pleased with him.

We went for hikes twice a day, almost every day of his life. We hiked along clear mountain streams, where my four-legged friend could cool off on those hot summer days. We passed through clean, green mountain meadows, and Ranger would flop down and wallow luxuriously in the grass.

As a special treat for him, some nights I drove to a nearby gravel pit, shining my car lights across the flat expanse to spotlight lanky rabbits. Ranger would spy them and charge out with an unbelievably graceful  long lope, happy carnivorous thoughts driving him to his limit – which was never fast enough. But he dearly loved the chase, and it made me happy to see him happy.

For about the first three years of his life, he was with me every second, and he got to run free all that time; he was well over two before I even bought him a collar. He lived most of his life as a mountain dog, able to roam loose over vast expanses, but he almost never took advantage of his freedom. He was a compass and I was his North Pole, and the whole of his life was being with me. Some late winter nights after I put away my big draft horses Duke and Dan, and went into the ranch house for dinner, Ranger would circle the house and somehow locate me indoors, sitting outside on a snowbank and peering in through the window nearest me. The guests would sometimes startle at the sight of a huge wolfy face looming out of the darkness.

I surprised myself by developing a fierce protectiveness for him. Somebody asked me once if he was a guard dog, and I said, “No, he’s a guarded dog. If somebody tries to hurt him, they have to answer to me.”

One afternoon as we walked along a street in our little mountain town, another German Shepherd, larger and heavier-bodied, bolted out of a yard in our direction, in full attack mode. I pushed Ranger behind me and stepped towards the dog, perfectly furious, ready to wreck him. I can remember his eyes, aimed ferociously at Ranger for the first half of that charge, all intent on mayhem, then suddenly switching to me as I moved into his way. He skidded to a halt with a shocked look, then backed off into his own yard.

Ranger was always, always either there with me, or there waiting for me when I came home. How do you deserve devotion like that? I don’t know. But in twelve years of unceasing effort at canine affection, my friend worked a gradual and permanent change in me. This animal which I would formerly have said was without feelings of his own was the catalyst for working a transformation in my own human heart. By being there all the time, he forced me to notice him and his feelings – and, by extension, the presence and feelings of others – in a way that I doubt I would have on my own.

I still appreciate the objectivity of science, the necessity of standing back and waiting until you get a lot of evidence for a hypothesis before you allow yourself to embrace it.

At the same time, I know for myself that each of us is trapped in the cage of our own heads, and the only key to that cage is the learning that we’re not alone. We share in this world the experience of others, human and animal both. And those feelings – of loneliness and pain and fear, but also of playfulness and joy and warmth – are as real as anything we’re capable of experiencing.

Oh, how I miss my dog. My teacher, my example. My best and forever friend.

Rumination on Death, and Love, and Life

Cowboy DadThree years and a bit later, I don’t dwell on the death of my Cowboy Dad all the time. When I do dwell on him, I can have these surges of sorrow, missing him with painful intensity. But it’s not all the time now.

The loss of him is kind of fading into the background of my daily life. He’s passing into a sort of history in my mind. And I hate that. But I’m sort of okay with it too.

I’ve said many times: “When you lose someone you truly love, it should break you forever.” That’s the fitting tribute for the loss of a loved one, and nothing less will serve to honor them. But if you’re going through this right now, the terrible truth, and the wonderful truth, is that you’re going to get through it. You’re eventually going to be okay. You’ll go about your day and you’ll have happiness and you’ll smile and laugh. It’s probably going to take a couple of years.

The fact that they pass into the history of our memories is an ugly thing. But it’s also a good thing. You want to honor them by being broken, but if you honor THEIR love for YOU, you’ll understand that it’s okay to go on and live your life. Because that’s what people want for each other.

What do you want for the people in your life? There are people for whom I would step in front of a car and push them to safety, or step in front of a bullet, and say “Save yourself! Run!” And I wouldn’t regret it. It wouldn’t bother me at all to give up my life for someone I love.

The thing is, the people you love and who love you back, they feel the same way. It’s okay to go on and live, and be happy, and even, someday, to find other people to love. Because that’s what THEY would want for you.

Remember that.

Death & Dying, Unbeliever Style

Comforting-ThoughtsI’m late to the party, but Greta Christina has a new book on death and dying as it relates to unbelievers. So far available only in audiobook and digital versions, ordering links to Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God are listed on her blog.

An earlier post on Alternet covers the ground on  what to say as a bystander to someone dealing with death — When It’s Not God’s Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers.

Finally, one of my own thoughts on the subject, first posted on Facebook. Someone grieving a lost pet remarked on how comforting it must be to think of being reunited with him, and I tried to provide a gentle but realistic response:

It is absolutely normal to want death to NOT BE. Every one of us feels that. And I certainly don’t blame anybody for falling for a comforting just-so story about afterlives and happy reunions.

But in my own case, I can’t allow myself to believe in any such thing. Not only do I believe it to be untrue, and personally destructive for just that reason, I think the belief across all of society and all of history has been hugely poisonous. IMHO, the side effects of it have impacted everything we do, and in a negative way.

One of my personal goals is to live in Real Reality, to attempt to understand and savor it in all its glory and pain. To see what I can learn from it, even amidst the pain of the loss of loved ones. I doubt many people throughout human history have tried to do this, which makes us (I hope it’s not just me) pioneers and adventurers of a rare sort.

I sense that there’s something very important — revolutionary, even — and extremely life-affirming waiting to be discovered, if we can avoid falling into the old, old trap of the mystical. It may be as simple as that the constant consciousness of impending death helps us enjoy the in-the-moment closeness with others, but it may be something much more profound.

I’ve gradually come to understand that losing my dogs and my dad, while horrible, gives me the daily joy that I had THAT, that love, that relationship, that closeness. Nothing can take that away, nothing can change that.

We live in the day-to-day moments and don’t notice how special they are — I think because we CAN’T do both at the same time, live them and notice them. It’s only after we lose someone that we see the Golden Moments for what they were and are — the purest joys that life can offer.

When you think about it, this is a gift that death gives, the conscious appreciation for what we had. We can’t have the moment anymore, but we can have the joy, the realization that something special and wonderful is still a part of our lives, our memories, and that we’re immensely richer for having had that living presence in our lives, and for now having those permanent memories. The time of pain is a doorway to this larger joy.

It seems to me that believing in an afterlife-myth cheapens and blunts this process. We think “Oh, I’ll see him again,” and it slides us away — as individuals and as an entire civilization — from the pain, yes, but also from the fullness of this other understanding.

It seems to me that facing death in full vulnerable honesty should transform you, make you into something bigger and better. And it seems to me that a civilization-wide history of denial, so that few of us ever experience this transformation, has made us small and … terrible.

Facebook friend Dorothy Grasett added: “If you live in the ‘Real Reality’ you also remember that there are no make-overs – if you hurt someone, something, somewhere, you don’t get to go back and be really sorry and get forgiven after you die. (Or they do). I always found that belief to be a cop-out.”

Processing Atheist Grief: Some Thoughts

blue roseI continue to think about death and grieving, coming up on three years after the passing of my Cowboy Dad (not a blood relative, but someone more special in my life than any of my real relatives). I occasionally have new ideas about the subject. Here’s a couple:

1) If you lose someone to age or illness …

Ask Yourself ‘What If?’

Consider the pain you’re in, the magnitude of it. Now imagine that you could go back in time and change the events of your life so that you’d never met that person. So that when they died, it would be just some stranger off in some distant place, dying a death that would have zero impact on your feelings.

Okay, here’s the big question:

Would you take that trip? Would you relieve yourself of the pain by erasing the entire experience of having them in your life? Would you rather never have known your son — your sister, your mom, your grandmother, your wife, your dad, your best friend — never have had them in your life for those years (or months!) … so you wouldn’t have to feel like this now?

If your answer is NO!!, as mine was, it’s because you know you wouldn’t trade a day of that too-brief togetherness, even for a lifetime’s freedom from grief. This pain is, in its left-handed way, a GOOD thing, a necessary thing, and shouldn’t be avoided.

Grief is love.

That’s what it is. Love, interrupted. Few of us would trade love for the tepid unconcern we feel for distant strangers.

2) On the other hand, if you lose someone suddenly, so that you don’t get to hear their final thoughts, or tell them yours …

Write a Letter

Not long back, I hit on the idea of writing a letter to my dad. I was thinking it would be cathartic in that I would get to say some things I’d thought of since his death, additional things I would like to have said to him in his final days. And I still intend to write that letter (and maybe some letters to OTHER departed friends), but meanwhile, when I started writing, it was this other letter, the one HE would have written to ME, that came out.

I discovered I really could write his letter. When you know someone so well through the familiarity of years of close attention and love, you can often tell what they might say on any subject. What sort of goodbye would he write to me? In part, it would be this:

Hank, thank you so much for being there in my last days. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to open my eyes and see, not just a hospital and nurses, but somebody who loved me. And it was clear all those years, even when you were unhappy with me for not calling, that you really loved me. Dying is scary business, and it helped to have you there, talking to me and touching me, in my last hours and days. There can’t be many greater gifts to give a friend than to be by their side at the end, comforting and caring. I want you to know I heard everything you said, and it made those last days bearable, knowing I was loved so much by someone I cared about.

Just like you, I wish we’d had time for one more pack trip, one more fishing expedition, one more Whiskey Ditch, one more shot of Apricot Brandy. I saved up some jokes from the years we were apart, and I would have loved telling you one or two of them.

One of the best things ever to happen to me was meeting you, having you in my life all those years. Partner, I couldn’t have asked for a better heir to remember me and carry on with life in grand style.

I know you’ll do something wonderful with your life. I ask you to remember this: Find someone to love, find someone to love you, and live your life to the fullest. Have your adventures, make your life as full as you can of the things that only you can do. I know you have greatness in you, and the world needs you as your best self.

For whatever mistakes you feel you’ve made with me, I forgive you. None of that stuff ever really mattered to me. For the mistakes I made on my side, I hope you can forgive me.

I’ll close for now. Well, I guess I wish I’d done more with my life, but all in all, it wasn’t a bad one. I got to do the thing I loved, being a packer and wilderness guide, living in a place I loved, for 60 years and more. I met some wonderful people, and had my own adventures to be proud of. And it wasn’t such a bad end, was it? I wouldn’t have chosen this time to go out, but knowing I was going, at least I got to choose the way of it. Despite being in a hospital bed, I think I died with my boots on, as Louis L’Amour would have put it.

Hank, I wish I could always be there for you, but the best I can do is tell you that you were on my mind in all the years I knew you, and I thought nothing but the best of you.  In return, I hope you’ll remember me in all the good times we shared. You called them Golden Moments, and there were a lot of them between us. I hope you live a long time, finding all the happiness and success and adventure you deserve, making your own Golden Moments over the years to come.

You were one of the good things in my life, partner. Thank you for being my friend, my confidant, my audience. My Son.

Take care.


Final Notes

When it comes to dealing with death, we unbelievers are imagined to be at a disadvantage compared to believers. After all, having no Heaven to hold the spirits of our missing loved ones, we have to live with the constant grim reality of Real Death.

Probably even most of US believe that, on some level. But we stick to our guns, feeling that we’d rather experience this pain than live by lies.

The thing is, my own careful considerations about religion and its repercussions, over decades, has invariably shown that reality-based thinking is better. The chief reason always seems to be that religious thinking is just about 180 degrees opposite of reality.

Atheism itself, viewed through the lens of religion, looks like a hateful assault on all things good, a refusal to accept the glorious wonders of God’s Kingdom on Earth. But what it REALLY is, is the opposite. It’s a respect, a love, for true things and real people, unsullied by a harmful, petty fantasy. It’s the hope that the lives of everybody and everything can be made better, if we only claw our way out of the falsehood and begin to understand the way things really work.

Likewise, I think grief as an atheist is better than that same grief colored with a religious filter.  Far from being at a disadvantage, I sense that we atheists/unbelievers have great advantages over believers. The problem is, having had to exist in goddy culture that has stifled and stepped on non-religious thought for thousands of years, we don’t yet have clear ideas of what-all those advantages might be.

But we will. We’ll find them.