what you sow

werner in surf0001

Yesterday my partner Werner and I visited the small apartment where we are told his father has lived for the past four years. Werner’s uncle called a week ago to tell him that the medical examiner’s office was looking for him because his father had died. Werner was apparently the only known next of kin. It had been ten years since he’d spoken with his father, and 39 since he’d seen him, but still, Werner was the only known contact.

The apartment building is in downtown Seattle. It is a familiar landscape to us, but it now seems alien as we stand on the street and confront this new reality. How many times through the years have each of us passed by here while conducting the business of our lives? Did we walk by this man on the street? Was he sleeping in a doorway? We don’t know. Werner and I are connected on this mission by a deep thread of emotion, but we don’t look each other in the eyes the whole time we’re there.

The fact that his father was living a few miles away from us for at least ten years is startling enough. What is odder still is entering his apartment. We are greeted at the main office by a woman who seems to be the weekend manager. She looks tired, and she can clearly sense the heaviness of this mission for us. She is kind and seems sad herself. She says she barely knew his father. She describes him as “reclusive”.

She hands us a flyer for a “celebration of life”, a small service for his father which is occurring in a few days. The flyer is emotionally confrontational for both of us. It shows a picture of a stranger, an old man we don’t recognize with a defeated expression on his sunken, wrinkled face. At the top of the flyer is another more familiar picture of this man. He is young and he is surfing. He is riding a wave with his arms outstretched, balancing, strong and sure. What happened between these two pictures? We know some of the story, other parts of it we will never know or care to know.

The manager walks us up to the fourth floor. She opens the door to his apartment with a key from the giant cluster of keys she carries. She looks at us compassionately with watery, searching eyes and tells us to stay as long as we like, and she turns and walks back down the long sterile hall.

It feels invasive walking into someone’s private residence, someone we don’t really know, someone who is dead and can neither welcome us nor tell us to leave. What business is it of ours to go through his things or to be there in the first place? On the other hand, it feels oddly like he invited us here, like he was waiting for Werner to come all along.

All of the people we’ve spoken with thus far in this place where he lived have been kind and encouraging, which feels slightly unexpected. This is a place where the chronically homeless, poor, addicted, mentally ill or otherwise disadvantaged come to gain stability and recover. According to the manager of the building, he had a caseworker who visited him in the hospital at the end of his life as he lay dying of lung cancer. We will talk with her later.

Despite the fact that he lived here and appears to have had only social security income, he has a small stash of savings in his bank account. It appears he was very frugal with his social security check. As far as we can tell, he’s bought very little for himself through the years. The only objects in the apartment which appear to be of any monetary value are a small, new flat-screen tv and a cuckoo clock.

The cuckoo clock breaks my heart a little. It is hanging optimistically between the big windows which face the street, and it is the only thing in his apartment that looks like “home”, but in a sad, contrived sort of way. As I search through his paperwork, I find a certificate of authenticity for the clock and a bill that shows the monthly payments he will make until it is paid off.

The apartment building is fairly new, which is a blessing in some way. His clothes, his shoes, his objects of daily life are mostly old and worn. He has very few possessions. We are searching for clues. I sob a bit when we first walk in, and my tears give way to stunned silence and a feeling of numbness which propels us through the rest of the visit.

In the end we left the apartment with a box. The box contains some paperwork that we will need to close the few details of the business of his life. We also took some pictures which were hanging on his walls. The pictures are familiar, they are all pictures of his surfing days, and they appear to be copies.

There are more stories to tell. There is more to come and much in the past. To sift and sort through the memories and the pictures, to hear the stories of those who knew, those who were there – some of this will happen, and some will be left behind, intentionally or not. The only goals are peace and self-understanding.

The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveler to the shore.
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

22 thoughts on “what you sow

  1. I’m stunned and sobered by what this must be like for you and Werner. It’s heartbreaking and hard to imagine as an involved parent — being close by for many years and yet not being in each other’s lives. My heart goes out to you both.

  2. The father, the lost father, so close, so far away.
    In your heart you’ll find him, there He plans to stay.
    Chant Hare Krishna is all that one can say,
    At least a foolish monk, who often looks the other way
    Drawn in it to your battle, with tears and a numbing void
    A chant seems the only hope, because we never can repay
    The gift of birth,
    Existence itself, weighs heavy on our brow
    Ignoring leads to ignorance, embarrassed by our proud
    Uncompromising crow, “I control my life,” despite all facts seen now.
    So chant to lighten, take shelter of the Name, release is so simple You’ll not be bewildered again.

    Our Father awaits all of us, but not in a lonely quiet room.

    I feel rude breaking into your sadness, but some how it seems to be my job as you are so kindly sharing it with me. It is all Krishna’s arrangement, in conjunction with our choices.

  3. When I go to work today and pass familiar people and places you describe; I will see them through different eyes. I once found a journal of someone long since gone in an abandoned warehouse. Your stories here remind me of reading it, and piecing together the sadness that person wrote about.
    Thank you both for sharing. This couldn’t be better written.

  4. First off, thank you, Werner, for permitting Chris to share this very personal and painful part of your life with us. And thank you, Chris, for being brave enough to do so. Yes, you write to assuage your pain, but you don’t necessarily have to share it with strangers. Thank you, both, for your courage.

    >She looks tired, and she can clearly sense the heaviness of this mission for us. She is kind and seems sad herself.
    – The manager’s reaction to you both was the first thing in both these posts that made me feel good.

    >She looks at us compassionately with watery, searching eyes and tells us to stay as long as we like, and she turns and walks back down the long sterile hall.
    – I liked this lady even more with this sentence. She’s tired, she’s been through this drill before, all her clients are strangers, yet she felt for you two. She is rich in ways I hope she realises.

    >All of the people we’ve spoken with thus far in this place where he lived have been kind and encouraging,
    – Another line that made me feel good. Goodness knows these traits are exactly what you both needed. And yet, not everyone is lucky to be afforded them.

    >which feels slightly unexpected.
    – Whew. I’m glad you noticed, too. I am often accused by some of being a sap when I notice and comment on such compassion. Quite a few people I know seem to expect the lack of caring; so much so, they barely feel the goodness when it comes their way.

    >pictures are familiar, they are all pictures of his surfing days,
    – Oh, they are the ones in the previous post. I don’t surf and know zilch about surfing, but Mr.Cooke looks like he’s having fun. 🙂

    > The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls
    >by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
    – I’m not terribly fond of poetry. I like it, but much less than (good) prose. But I read this poem and began to read other poems more closely after I read this article recently.

    ‘Shakespeare and Wordsworth boost the brain, new research reveals’


    I’m the sort who prays … for everything. I hope you, Werner and Chris, will not be offended if I say that I prayed for your dad. For both of you, too, to have the strength to deal with this new turn in your lives.


  5. You’ve written this so poignantly I could not help but feel the numb sadness at the loss of a life. To know how someone lived, to see their life in their belongings and home, creates a sense of intimacy.
    You capture this feeling so well. Thank you again for sharing.

  6. Another beautifully written piece Chris. As I was reading it, my chest tightened as I could sense the sad loneliness in that room. So many are estranged, it is heartbreaking.

    • Patty, thank you. I did feel, in the end, that for being as isolated and estranged as he was, he was in a place where the strangers cared for him, which is more than most people in that situation can say. He had opportunities for connection at least, but yes, heartbreaking and chest-tightening for sure.

  7. Wow, Chris. This is beautiful, tragic and courageous. Thanks to Werner for allowing you to tell this story and thanks to you for telling it with such clarity and tenderness. Many will be moved. Bless you both.

    • Thank you, and yes, I am so grateful to Werner for allowing me this opportunity to be open about a painful chapter in his life. There are so many times I wish I could write about people like our patients in the clinic but it is too private. He gave me total freedom with his story, because he trusts me, and that kindof blew me away.

  8. Pingback: dénouement: the lonely sea « misslisted

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