dénouement: the lonely sea

the lonely sea

The flyer reads “Celebration of life”. The young caseworker who knew Werner’s father briefly at the end of his life is in charge of this event. On the phone beforehand, she tells me she has only worked here for a short time, and before this, she says, she worked with teenagers, so this is new for her.

Werner’s father is apparently the first of her charges who has died. She seems smart, compassionate and friendly, like someone you would want visiting you in your final days if you were all alone in the world. She says “It’s my job to make sure people here have the things they need and he didn’t even want ME to come around. He wanted to be left alone.” Those words don’t make sense to me and they land with a painful thud in my psyche. No one would want to be that profoundly alone, especially when they are dying..

Werner is ready for all of this to be over, but wisely, he chooses to go to this “celebration”. Grief is a funny thing. It is completely unpredictable, and it throws everything you think you know about yourself emotionally out the window. People who are stoic and steady will spontaneously cry like babies, and those of us who cry at the drop of a hat can inexplicably find no tears when we need them most. It’s puzzling. I haven’t seen Werner cry this much…ever. He doesn’t like it, but it is appropriate. I do not know what he is crying for exactly, but I can imagine he is crying for a lot of reasons.

So we pull ourselves together and head downtown, first to stop at the medical examiner’s office where we retrieve more clues to his father’s existence, a wallet, a pendant, some cash, and about $60 in quarters which weighs a ton, and must have been in his coat pocket when he went to the hospital.

Then it’s on to his apartment building for the small memorial. An assortment of people show up. A few residents. Only one of them, a friendly, bearded man wearing a “Cease Fire” t-shirt, seems to indicate that he knew him at all. The others came for different reasons, perhaps for the community, the refreshments, out of curiosity, or as it seems in the case of one woman, out of confusion. A small, quiet man with a thick accent who stares at us with soulful eyes approaches us and shakes our hands firmly. He says we are all “right behind” Werner’s father, we all will leave this place like he did. He says that he tried to exchange names with Werner’s father. He tried to have contact, but clearly it didn’t happen. He is kind and intense, and he shakes our hands again and walks away in his oversized coat and stocking cap.

There is also a small group of some of the kindest people you’d ever want to be stuck with in a strange room at a time like this: the manager of the building, some other caseworkers, and the nurse who cared for him at the end. Since no one really knew him, we’re all just guessing at how to carry out this small memorial. Someone, probably his caseworker, has very thoughtfully put together a program, and it includes some surfing photos, and the lyrics to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles. “I don’t know why nobody told you how to unfold your love” jumps off the page at me.

I figure it is our job as human beings to try to bring everything dark and scary into the light and then make the best decisions that we can about how to deal with these painful things. This one is hard. There is not a lot of light to begin with so we have to work hard to make some. How can a person repeatedly turn away from love and goodness with no final redemption? How can a person seemingly give in to the darkness and die alone without really knowing or caring for anyone? I am waiting for someone to say something to give the end of his life a knowable shape, some last gasp of meaning. I’m hoping someone might say even just a few words that make sense: “Werner your father loved you.” or “Werner your father’s last words were….”, but there is only a discomforting silence. What is it that kept him from this? Pathology? Personality? Life circumstance? There may be no answers other than the ones we make up for ourselves.

What we do know is that we are different than this, that love is what matters to us. While we will leave this world alone just like he did, we will leave it knowing that we loved deeply.

I have created a story about the end of his life to help me make sense of it all. It goes like this. When he was younger, he made mistakes and hurt people repeatedly with his selfish, abusive, careless behavior. He didn’t know how to change that. Instead of being a person who continued to hurt others, he decided, or perhaps just accepted, that he would be completely alone in this world, and thus he would not hurt anyone again. And this was his atonement, this was his act of contrition.


Related stories:

The tide rises, the tide falls: telling stories of a father who is gone.
what you sow
Choosing to do wrong and failing to do good…

14 thoughts on “dénouement: the lonely sea

  1. My father was similar to Werner’s in his final rejection. He knew he was dying and he chose not to contact us. I cried for all that would never be when I was told of his death.
    When my mother died I cried for all the wonderful funny characteristics that I’d loved in her because I knew precisely what I was losing.
    Sending wishes for comfort and peace to you both.

    • Thank you elroy. It doesn’t seem like such an unfamiliar story to many people, which blows me away. Werner was fortunate to have some wonderful male role models who loved him and took good care of him through the years and taught him what it is to be a man.

  2. I continue to be astonished at the beauty and sensitivity of your storytelling. Through this I begin to understand I think more fully my own sons, their hurt and loss when their father chose his own ending alone, not to reach out to them after so many years. At the time my fury was endless. Now, as I read this perhaps I am not so furious.

    • Well, it is hard to understand, and as a mother, I want nothing more than for my own sons to have a good relationship with their father, but I have learned the hard way that it is better for me to let them navigate through all of that themselves, and to be mostly concerned with my own relationship with them. I hope your boys have found healthy ways to explore and understand their history and their relationship with their father. It is inspiring how much can change through the generations, and perhaps in some way they were spared as Werner was, by the silence.

  3. While those of us who seek answers and meaning find it hard to imagine people who shut out the world, there are plenty of people like Werner’s father. You may never know for sure, but mental health issues play an enormous part in many of those lives. It seems highly possible in this case, given his actions before his isolation and after. I imagine Werner would cry for all of the lost chances, for the fears that arise when we see that the tree we come from is something that scares us or is entirely foreign… and perhaps he cries because this man was his father, and he lived and died a very sad life.

    I wish you both healing and peace with this episode in your life. Hopefully you can find some comfort in knowing that you both did everything you did, from a loving space, and that your lives are full of that love. Beautiful writing!

  4. I think you’ve got him figured out. I haven’t known Gary since being roomates in ’72, Costa Rica, and then after a month I joined a salsa band and moved to Panama. The only time he seemed really happy was surfing, which he was truly great at. Otherwise he was drinking excessively, I figured self-medicating. He was always trying to act like a father to me, which I continually told him to back off from. One of the reasons I was down there was to get away from an ugly scene at home, where my own father and brother had committed suicide within ten months of each other. It was like flying to a different planet where the water was warm, people were kind, surf was good & uncrowded, women were friendly, everything was cheap, and the pace was slow! Quite the contrast from Santa Cruz. It was a time for healing, and away from nasty gossip. It was great to travel at 21, and turned into one of the great times of my life!

  5. I should add that I think Gary really meant well. On the wall of the Boca de Barranca house was an article from the local paper about him teaching poor Costa Rican kids how to surf. He was proud of that..And he always did talk about how much he loved his son Werner…

  6. I agree with you that our mission in life is to make meaning our of the difficulties, or find ways to bring the darkness into the light. As the wife of a surfer, I read this with such a heavy heart. Through my husband, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people in the surfing community. There is a constant longing and discomfort that seems to be part of all of them- yearning for the perfect conditions and the perfect waves that never actually come. And then frustration about all of the times they want to be surfing but have to tend to other things. However, there is also community, humor, comfort and when wanted, distraction from the longing through all of these things. It is very tragic that Werner’s father was not able to find some peace with that. I’m sorry for what you are going through right now, Chris and thank you for sharing it with us.

  7. I could not believe how much my own tears flowed last spring when my father passed away. I think I finally figured out that a big part of my mourning was for the father I never had.

    • Oh Dianna, that is so sad, and so true I’m sure, and I feel that’s probably true for Werner as well. I guess in the end, we have to find a way to be a loving parent to ourself, so we don’t spend our life looking for someone to fill that void. On the other hand, I think other people can fill in the gaps a bit too…

  8. Dear Chris (and Werner),

    I read your posts as you published them this week, but I wanted to think about what I wanted to say because once again, I drew a blank. I think this line had something to do with it:

    >There is not a lot of light to begin with so we have to work hard to make some.
    – I, too, find it hard to visualise and therefore, feel, if I have nothing tangible to go on.

    This segment added to my inability to express myself:

    >I am waiting for someone to say something to give the end of his life a knowable shape, some last gasp of meaning. I’m hoping someone might say even just a few words that make sense: “Werner your father loved you.” or “Werner your father’s last words were….”, but there is only a discomforting silence.
    – As I read this and realised how I could think of nothing, I also thought of Werner and how incomparably worse that seeking, aching void would have been for him. And for you, knowing what he was going through at the time.

    >Instead of being a person who continued to hurt others, he decided, or perhaps just accepted, that he would be completely alone in this world, and thus he would not hurt anyone again.
    – Yes, this is one way of looking at it. I’ll offer another angle.

    There’s a mother-son duo I know. The son in my friend.

    His parents had divorced when he was in his early teens, and my friend was badly affected by the split. He lived with his father for the next few years until uni. Since then and until now, my friend meets his mother, the parent he is more fond of, a few times a year. Mother and Son (and Father) are lovely people, but they do not give their best to one other.

    My friend and his mother are so afraid of being hurt by and hurting the other, respectively, that they have built this wall between themselves. Worse still, not just between themselves, but between each of them and the rest of the world.

    I’ve been working on this with my friend for a few years now, and still, quite a few years on, he recently said something along the lines of:

    “Mom has sacrificed so much to show her support and love for me. It is touching, but the REALLY sad thing is that I don’t believe I deserve it. And that’s why I act and react the way I do i.e. destroying peoples’ faith in me with my guardedness, and unwillingness to trust.”

    Given Mr.Cooke’s own turbulent childhood, could this fear of STILL getting hurt by another family member or known person been a factor with Mr.Cooke being so remote – physically and emotionally – with Werner? I’m tempted to think so.

    And there were some parts of your posts that gladdened me. This one, for instance:

    >That time in my life occurred around the time I first met Werner when I was 19.
    – And everything that followed. 🙂

    >When I reconnected with him again as an adult I was shocked. How could someone have changed so much? He was a different person, he was a man!
    – How very nice for you, Chris! Lucky you, too.

    I fancied my music school mate at 14. It was mutual. Even at that age, my instincts did not let me take that crush to another level. I found him conceited and rude, which I attributed to his wealth, intelligence and talent. But he WAS oh so clever, and well spoken, and good looking, and the best guitar student and bass (singer) in (our music) school. No rose tinted vision here.

    We did not keep in touch after I left my state for uni and he left the country for the same.

    A decade later, I wondered if (more like, hoped) he had changed for the better. I visited his family. And was disappointed. Two decades have gone past and at my last, chance encounter, I still did not find the changes that are important to me for him as a platonic friend. All that I find attractive in … that person I know (I don’t want to call him my ‘friend’) means nothing in the face of all that I find distasteful about him.

    But I am heartened to see that this was not the case with Werner.
    Now, THAT’S a nice note for me to end this chapter of your lives on. I hope Werner and you find equally comforting endings to the same.

    To echo a frequent line in the comments you get – you have a drool worthy style of writing. 🙂


  9. Chris,
    This seems like one of those life moments that stands out and becomes a milestone on the journey. Rolling through emotions and learning about the past and making the story fit the life is difficult yet somehow fulfilling. Thank you for sharing such a personal event. It is an amazing and sad story. I sense that it will somehow add to your family bond and love for each other.

    • Thank you, and yes, it has brought us closer. It does seem important, even if it’s not what you think you want at the time, to understand and make sense of the stories, and I am grateful to Werner for letting me have freedom to write about all of this and share it.

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