Father's Day With Shakespeare

By Michelle Ephraim
Sunday, June 15, 2008

This is the second Father's Day that I am without a father. Two years, and his death is still hard to get used to. Unfortunately, my job doesn't make it any easier.

I'm not a doctor or a grief counselor. I'm a Shakespeare professor. I get paid to spend my days reading about children who lose parents -- among other heartbreaks and misfortune -- and organizing my thoughts into witty 50-minute lectures.

But when I lost my father, I also lost the critical distance that is the bread and butter of my line of work. Death, it turns out, is a serious occupational hazard.

My father's illness was the stuff of tragedy. One day, he woke up and couldn't remember how to work the remote control. By week's end, the doctors had discovered a malignant, inoperable brain tumor. They gave him six months to live.

Immediately I took a leave of absence from work and began a series of excruciating trips from my home in Boston to my parents' house in Washington. The week before my father's tumor was diagnosed, I had announced I was pregnant, and my condition only heightened the drama. Instead of showing up for regular obstetric appointments, I drove my father to radiation sessions, bickered with his oncologist and attempted, unsuccessfully, to console my mother.

It was then that my relationship with Shakespeare began to change. I was no longer a professor safely in the pulpit but became some kind of tragic character.

Like Hamlet called home from university, I was pulled from the luxury of analyzing major themes and literary conventions -- and plunged into something dark and incomprehensible. I began to read Shakespeare like someone in a support group, coffee in shaky hand, eager for recognition. I waddled through that sweltering D.C. summer, death and birth approaching like two trains on a collision course. Shakespeare's got a good line: "Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn."

And then the drama was over. My father died. I did everything I was supposed to: delivered a fitting, moving eulogy at the funeral; brought my baby safely into the world two weeks later.

But I learned that this final act is a ruse -- in life and in Shakespeare. He crafted tragedy so eloquently, but he saw death for what it was: disorienting, messy and unpoetic. Going back to the classroom was especially difficult. Reminders of deceased parents and their traumatized children were everywhere. Ferdinand in "The Tempest" is haunted by the thought that his father lies "Full fathom five," beneath the sea, with coral for bones and pearls for eyes. In "Love's Labor's Lost," the unexpected news of her father's death drives the perky, flirtatious Princess of France to postpone her wedding plans indefinitely.

And these are the comedies.

In "King Lear," Edgar believes his heart may burst after his father dies. Ophelia's grief for her father leads to her madness and death. And, most famously, Hamlet lives true to his murdered father's ghostly incantation, "Remember me." He never returns to school and becomes depressed, paranoid and possibly insane.

I don't know how Shakespeare felt about his parents, but he somehow nailed the timeless shock of losing them.

Instead of experiencing "closure" on this Father's Day, I am thinking about how conclusion feels so contrived -- a neat wrap-up that may work in the classroom or in CliffsNotes, but not in real life and not in the plays that Shakespeare left behind. The same reason I was drawn to Shakespeare's stories -- their power to evoke emotion -- is also why they aggravate raw wounds.

Still, I teach my students to make succinct arguments about death and loss and grief; to draw on textual evidence to support their points; to analyze this metaphor and that image. I continue to offer up serious interpretations in the most professional voice I can muster. And sometimes, just sometimes, the words soothe what burns inside.

The writer is an associate professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.


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