A Son's Duty
August 10, 2006 - 11:02 a.m.


Say what you will about Windows, Microsoft or Bill Gates...the man just pledged $500,000,000 to research cures for HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria. He's spending money as fast as he made it. Andrew Carnegie would be proud.

Now, if I could just find a billionaire who wanted to fund Anglican seminary education...

A while ago someone spotted a newspaper announcement of unclaimed property in my father's name. He died when I was 7, so the unclaimed property is mine by inheritance. I contacted the appropriate people and discovered that the property amounts to the grand sum of $13 of reimbursements from the restructuring of my father's life insurance policy. At first I was going to leave it. I don't think $13 is worth the rigmarole one goes through to claim these things. But I kept the small a bequest as it is, it nagged me.

Last week I decided to claim the property, not for the meagre money but to finish the business, to take some active roll in closing out my father's affairs. I was 7 when he died, so the event happened to me. I was too young to do anything to claim ownership of the loss. This last, dangling and insignificant bit of business is my chance to step into the role of surviving son, taking on my father's responsibilities.

I don't know if I'm articulating this very well, but it's something beyond crude practicality. There's a mythic need to assume the father's mantle. Most people are adults when their parents die. Arranging the funeral and closing the accounts is part of the unceremonious ceremony that acknowledges death and passes the torch to the child. Children have a very different experience of parental death, one centered on abandonment and helplessness. With no active role to play, the child becomes mute witness to an event that impacts him in immense and permanent ways.

So I decided to grab onto the active role left to me, to settle this one outstanding account and let the last uninformed party know that my father is dead. Part of the more mundane aspect of the process is proving that he is, indeed, dead. To that end I contacted the register of deeds from the county in which he died, and requested a copy of his death certificate. It came yesterday.

This piece of paper is something of an anchor for me, a way of attaching reality to the confused cloud of memories. It's solid and real and grown-up proof, in my hand, that my father is dead. There it is...cause of death: asphyxia due to laryngospasm due to epilepsy. Interval between onset and death: acute. The terms are clinical, almost banal, but unyieldingly real. He died quickly when his throat muscles contracted during an epileptic seizure.

I can't say that holding my father's death certificate has brought about an epiphany or catharsis. I haven't cried, I haven't raged or even felt any shock. In 26 years I've done slowly by myself the work of accepting his death. What has happened is that I've attached some reality to the child's explanation - Daddy's gone. Asphyxia, laryngospasm, epilepsy. Acute. My father is now long dead.

Rest in peace, Dad. I'm taking care of that last bit of business for you.