From the Director: What It Means to Be Seen

This evening, my wife is preparing to write her father’s obituary. Earlier today a close friend sent me the obituary for her son’s adopted grandfather, who I had come to know. I don’t know who wrote my mother’s obituary, but I remember reading a poem at her funeral. I had written the poem when she was sick. Her body had hollowed out, and her teeth shone forth in her mouth. She would, when she still could, dance in her room in the dark. That’s what the poem was about.

Hana is trying to figure out how to address her father’s four marriages, his becoming a father to many children, his work in the defense industry during the Cold War. Atop the obituary that my friend sent, there’s a photo. Thomas is standing on a slope in the desert, one hand on his waist, the other planted just above his knee on his uphill leg. He looks calm, alive, happy. The photo is him, his life in a picture, the picture a story, the story a life. 

Meanwhile the deaths come in numbers: how many, the ages, the percentage of positive tests. The arrows and graphs. The ratios. I can’t stand myself for scanning the Oregon Health Authority updates and seeking out the ages of the dead. The people who have died disappear, pushed out by the causes of their deaths. Unexplained underlying conditions somehow become the explanation that stands in for their lives.

Hana’s father, like every father and grandfather, like every mother and sibling and child, cannot be seen in a number, a graph, a ratio. He was a physicist who became a businessman who led classes in his church. He once welcomed me into his devout Presbyterian mother’s home by thanking, during his words before our meal, the God of the great Abrahamic religions. 

Hana wonders whether she should use the words “generous,” “loving,” and “kind.” These words in this context can lose their meaning. Maybe the bare facts of her father’s life, unadorned, would say more about who he is than these kind adjectives can. What, I ask, would you want our kids to know about your father? 

She is writing the obituary in Portland. He is about to die in Virginia. If she were to travel to him one more time, she might bring the virus to the people who take care of him and the others who live there. If she were to see him, she might only see a shadow, and he might not have the strength or clarity to really see her. 

I wonder how much it matters to those who are dying whether they have been seen, and for what, and by whom. While my wife wonders what to write about her father, I wonder what my daughter, if all goes well, might one day write about me. I wonder what it means to be seen. I can see why numbers matter, but here, up close, as my wife’s father approaches his death and my friend’s almost-father has just died, I can’t see what the numbers mean. I don’t think that they mean. Hana cannot explain her father and his life in numbers, but she can in words, in pictures. I think this shows that she sees him, and it points toward how all of us can see each other. Maybe it points toward how we can love one another. 

Hana told me early on that when she was in high school she would, every Saturday, bake a box cake that she and her father would share. And he would tell her, as he savored the first bite of each weekend’s cake, “Now, Hana, I know I’ve said this before, but I really do think this one—this one right here—is the best cake you’ve ever made.”

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Thank you for this lovely, timely essay. Each night our family stands in silence watching the acknowledgement of the lives of some of those human beings who have died from COVID. Tears come for the tenderness of the memories, and at the end we always say out loud, "You were seen, you will be missed." Our world is full of many individuals who feel "invisible". Thank you for reminding us of the gift of seeing and being seen.

Virginia Sponsler | March 2021 | Bend, Oregon

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