Fish Tales and Grief
Far and away my favorite hymn is “I Love to Tell the Story,” because I believe in the power of story to change, to transform, and to heal. Thanks for the privilege of being able to share mine.
My Dad, Harvey Markinson, died November 25, 2012. Dad was a good egg, and he had little ill to say about anyone; similarly, I don’t know anyone who did not appreciate his kindness. Dad’s world revolved around his kids and grandkids, his work, and himself—increasingly around himself as the years went on. That’s important because, as he grew older, he told stories about his own life that really became his Scripture. Now, like Christian Scripture, Dad’s stories were a combination of several parts reality and several parts belief. Part of my grieving has been having watched Dad grieve his own life—grieving the dreams that did not come to fruition, telling sad tales of what might have been, then telling fish tales of the glories that a seventy-something man accomplishes, or wishes he could accomplish— the little victories, every day.
Dad’s stories frustrated my brother, sister, and me—because to us, it really was OK for Dad just to be Dad. The image of Dad I prefer to remember is the bass relief sculpture I took from his home, now hanging in mine, of two salmon, like father and child, in repose together. I had commissioned the piece as a gift to Dad – a way to communicate that who he was OK.
I, too, have a fish tale or two in my life, and I suspect that many of us do. My Dad thought my Christian faith was a bit of a fish tale – religious hokum that was comfort for those who could not write their own stories. But my Dad was very clear that I was happier and more whole as a result of my Christian life.
Rather than mourning my Dad’s lack of Christian faith, I simply rest in my own faith, and, not surprisingly, I find my father there. At the end of his life, he exemplified the surrender to God’s creation, in its gift of life and the gift of life’s passing. During the last two weeks of his life, Dad could barely eat; he was tired of dialysis, not willing to subject himself to surgery to try to correct what ailed him. When the family sat in Dad’s room with a hospice doctor, we witnessed Dad give his greatest gift, to himself and to us. He surrendered to the universe, of his own free will; and he had taught my siblings and me well enough to trust his letting go. It was brave, full of conviction and full of gratitude for the real treasure in his life, his family. Dad was very calm at the end of his life, in very good humor, and grateful for his being able to make the decision with sound mind. It was an incredibly faith-filled choice.
My sister and I were able to hold Dad as he took his last breath, and in spite of the sadness of his death, of his absence, he remains incredibly present—every time I look at the salmon or think of the family he loved, or think of the gift of his life—and his death. I believe in the resurrection because of that presence, and my Christian faith grows in strength because of that presence. And that’s no fish tale.
To end, I’d like to share a poem that brings me real comfort as I remember Dad, mourn his absence, and rest in his presence.
“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver
Look, the trees are turning
their own bodies into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders of the ponds, and every pond, no matter what its name is, is nameless now.
Every year everything
I have ever learned in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side
is salvation, whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal; to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
Eric shares the story of his grief journey in this post and the first season of the Faith & Grief podcast. Eric found comfort & hope in his meditations on the Pietà which he discusses in the podcast. The first photo is Michelangelo sculpture, in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome and the second is Michelangelo’s “Rondanini” Pietà, housed in the Sforza Castle in Milan.
Eric joined CC Young in 2019 and offers Pastoral Care in Assisted Living, Long Term Care and Hospice. He earned a BA in History from the University of Michigan, an MS in Educational Policy and Management from the University of Oregon, and a Master of Divinity degree specializing in Pastoral Care from SMU/Perkins School of Theology. Eric is a Certified Lay Servant and has served on the staff of Grace Church Dallas.