I hadn’t seen my dad’s best friend for 25 years. Not since he was sitting in the kitchen of my dad’s flat when my brother and I came down for breakfast. We asked, "Where’s Dad?" and he said, "Your dad’s gone."
"Gone where?" we asked.
Ever since that morning I have wanted to ask questions. Twisted through the many branch lines of mourning there have always been unanswered questions. I had suspicions that we’d never been told everything about his life and about the circumstances of his death. So a year or two ago I set about finding his best friend. They were big fans of the E Street Band, this man and my dad, so let’s call him Bruce. I searched for Bruce using rudimentary investigatory skills (I googled him). I left some messages with some people and forgot all about it. I’m the kind of person who burns with passion for an idea and then lacks the patience or dedication to follow up, so I forgot about these messages. What had seemed terribly urgent suddenly wasn’t, so I went on with my own life, raising my own children, blissfully not knowing things I didn’t know.
One morning at work the phone rang.
"Is that Max?"
His voice came fresh and perfect across the years. In an instant I could see him, smell him. I knew him intimately. I was 6 years old again.
“Bruce,” I said.
In this instant I recognized the vast possibilities of memory. How slim our considerations of what we remember are; some photos, some snatches, the occasional whiff of something. I felt a little sick. I imagined this guy, speaking with this voice, wondering what to say to these two little children asking where their dad is.
He doesn’t want to say "Dead". It’s not his job. Our mum was on her way – it obviously fell to her to say those words.
He doesn’t want to say "Ask your step mum", because he’s trying to protect our step mum, and us. He’s trying to hold himself and the fragile chaos of that morning together. He’s trying to utilise the fundamental naïveté of children and usher us on to the next questions, what’s for breakfast, where’s my teddy, why is Mum coming, weren’t we staying for a week? We only got here last night, Dad said we were staying for a week. He said we would play with his remote-control car. He said we could dress our little stepbrother like an Ewok.
It turns out Bruce had a lot to say. Some things he wished he’d told us sooner, some things he felt needed a long time before we’d be ready to hear them. We met and talked and it was remarkable and sad, and I now know a lot about the way we tell children stories, the decisions we make. But all that happened later. In my office, on the phone, hearing Bruce’s voice, I had the most extraordinary revelation; something simple and obvious to someone who has thought about it, something colossally moving and surprising to me, who hadn’t.
I realised that if I recognized Bruce’s voice, I would recognize my Dad’s voice.
That was a fact. A fact like a frozen river flipping itself onto the bank. A significant change in the course of things.
I would know my father’s voice if I heard it.
The audio memory of these men’s voices had never been topped up (as our visual memories are recharged, altered, reinforced by photographs). I have no recording of Bruce or my dad. No home videos. I don’t hear a certain family member and know that they sound like my dad, because I have no source material. Until I heard Bruce’s voice I didn’t know I knew it. I had no access to that part of my brain. So now I can simply marvel at what else I have, but can’t access.
There is treasure buried, the most precious treasure, and we have no map.
Is the memory a muscle that we can build and build until we find the swag?
Should I sit in a dodgy velvet-curtained room somewhere and have some psychic or EVP charlatan try and find my dad’s voice out there on the airwaves?
No, I want to think about it, without a goal in sight.
Because I have recently been reading Greek myths to my son, I find I have slipped into some mythical thinking about where I am in the world, and where my dad might be. I’ve been dreaming about Orpheus. I have been thinking about walking through my life with my father’s voice behind me. If I turn around, I will lose it. I will not turn around. I know I will be attacked by many voices claiming to be his, singing songs of my childhood, telling me things only he could know, begging me to turn around and be reunited, but I will not turn around.
I am a non-believer, begging to believe in heaven, if heaven means I can hear this voice again.
When I was a child I fantasised a lot about my dad not being dead. I would be sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere and I would think, Here you go, Dad, I have created the perfect circumstances for your return. Come back to me now. I can keep a secret. Or in a busy place, surrounded by people, briefly thrilled by the idea that he is nearby, watching. Some excitement or danger means he cannot reveal himself, but I know he’s watching. I am colluding with him in this great theatrical stunt.
He could see us through mirrors.
He was observing our progress at school, as friends, as lovers, as men. Approving, mostly, of our decisions.
I felt, when my brother was sad, wasted, raging, hurting himself, Dad would pop out from behind the scenery and put a stop to it. "Enough, my little boys. It was all a test."
But in all this unsurprising wishful thinking, all this fantasising that makes up mourning, I don’t think I ever thought about his voice.
And now, suddenly, Bruce is on the phone and I am doubled over in my chair thinking WHAT THE FUCK, thinking, WHAT ELSE HAVEN’T I CONSIDERED?
Thinking please, please let me have the meditational or religious tools, whatever it takes, whatever I need, to address the strength of this weird yearning I now have to hear his voice.
If I concentrate hard enough.
If I block out all other noise.
If I train myself.
If I learn new ways of listening.
The most exquisite thing is the acceptance that I won’t ever hear his voice again, but I would know it if I did. Acceptance is a faith of sorts. And so I can, feasibly, train myself towards this. Towards believing and that being enough. And I can send this belief outwards, into my love of my children, of my family, of music, of birdsong. I can put my father’s voice into all these things and this might be medicine for my soul far richer, far stronger, than any home video or tape recording I might wish I had.
If he had died in the mobile phone era and I had a message saved, how different would that be? Would I listen to it every day? Would its impact lessen with every listen? Would it become just one thing in a sea of things? Would I punctuate my listening of music with my dad’s voice? This is some kind of horror, this thought. That I would flatten the rich possibilities of being haunted, being spoken to, into the everyday saturated world of content.
No, I prefer this weird map of hunger and ghosts that has opened up to me.
Someone I know lost the love of their life. He had some messages from her saved on his answering machine. They were agony and they were bliss for him. Little snatches of a lost domesticity ("I’m going to be late, but I bring cake and wine") and subtle romance that swelled to terrifying dimensions in the context of mourning ("I was rude this morning and you don’t deserve that, I’m sorry. I’ll try to explain."). He travelled for a long period and the answer phone ran out of batteries, and the messages were lost, and he grieved all over again.
There are societal expectations, crude clichés, vulgar banalities, and all sorts of public and private ways of moving through the unruly emotional chaos of shock and loss. But there are also the little rituals that actually help. And the loss of these messages was the loss of that little help. I don’t know but I guess he re-plays them in his head and is terrified that soon he won’t remember them. There is the first loss, physical, and then the second loss, of memory, and that second loss has been hastened. But perhaps also delayed, because rather than resting easy, knowing he can hear the messages, he has had to plunge into an underworld of seeking for them. This is where joy and pain seem to me huddled together around the shifty character of this loss. When Aeneas sees his father across the throng of the plains of the dead it is ecstatic, but his journey to it, his tricky blend of hope and expectation, free from language, free from topographical or spiritual mooring, just seeking, isn’t that blissful too? Believing?
In the instant of hearing Bruce’s voice and understanding that my dad’s was buried beneath me in an underworld I had no access to, I felt light and emotional and spiritually ambitious. I felt the range and depth of my investigations were worldly and limited. I felt suddenly inspired to look harder, remember better, think more about the connection between living and dead. I felt I could write my own guide to this. Or that everything I wrote would be a chapter in an fluid archive of personal searching.
It’s a thrill, too, to know that our brains have these glorious cavernous areas, shut off from us, temporarily, maybe permanently. All the voices.
It’s a thrill, and it’s also unspeakably frightening.
My wife received unpleasant sexual phone calls when she was a girl. They never caught the guy. She says that without a shadow of a doubt she would recognise his voice. In a closed-off cavern in my wife’s brain is the voice of this nasty little man, this person who turns himself on, using his voice to scare little girls. And how many other little girls in that small town, in that corner of England, also have that voice in their heads somewhere.
And that voice didn’t just do one thing. The same voice may have calmed, may have seduced, may have sung lullabies. Someone somewhere might be craving one more chance to hear that voice. One for the nightmare, one for the dream.
I can’t help but romanticise the drama of possible revelation.
This is what I’ve learned since Bruce phoned me. To slow down a bit and consider the huge landscapes of what is not known. To consider possible ways of communicating, ways of missing, that aren’t documented, that don’t have immediate emotional payback, that can’t be factored in to any conventional notions of happy and sad, grieving and recovered. These binaries are nonsense, bullshit by-products of a sham happiness industry that seeks to bulldoze over nuance. The real action happens in the caverns. In the journey to and from the caverns wondering why, ready to be awed, ready to be scared.
I am happy to think that the voice of my father is in the violent yelp of my son when his brother kicks him in the balls.
I am happy to think that the voice of my father is in the bone-dry tones of my brother when he says, "You are into some sentimental bullshit there."
I am happy to think my beloved grandmother was speaking in my dad’s voice when she warned me off falling in love with the words "a fuck is a fuck, my darling".
But I am most happy to think that the voice of my father is unfinished, everywhere.
Max Porter works in publishing. He lives in South London with his wife and children. Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is his first book.
To learn more about Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, click here.