Reckoning with the memory of losing a father

Dad’s Cave, from “We’re Just Here For the Bad Guys, 2022”. (Brian Van Lau)
Dad’s Cave, from “We’re Just Here For the Bad Guys, 2022”. (Brian Van Lau)

Losing a loved one, whether family or friend, always creates a void. And sometimes, along with that, the loss leaves us searching for answers, pining for closure. I am not sure closure ever really comes though. We are left with memories — how a father’s rough whiskers felt when he hugged you; the infectious laugh your sister always punctuated conversations with. People die, but they linger in the memory, folding into the lives of those who carry on.

Brian Van Lau’s project, “We’re Just Here For the Bad Guys,” is a reckoning with the memories that remain after his father died of brain cancer. There is pain, loss, love and searching in the totality wrought by the images he made after beginning the project to document his father’s journey with the illness. Lau told me that the work was, “initially conceived as a project he requested we make together to document his journey through this illness and his eventual recovery.”

During the pandemic, Lau began looking at the images that he made during the last two months he spent with his father in Vietnam before he passed. He began to see the work as an attempt to answer and, “piece together the ambiguities still left in his wake, and the lack of emotional closure” they had.

Life rarely gives us tidy answers, does it? Lau’s project underscores this. He says, “this became more of a question and reflection on the relationship between my father and I, one of mutual interpersonal grievances, and a practically Ouroborian cycle of shame and alienation.” The snake biting its own tail — that is certainly how it can feel when you’re grappling with loss and its meaning — an infinite loop of grief.

Here’s more from Lau:

“I began to see him as a character in my unconscious thoughts, a central albeit intangible force that continues to leer and haunt in the periphery, a “Phantom” of sorts:

‘The May air deluged through his spectral skin, and we remained on the concrete sharing our meager dinner. The horizon billowed into a drab blue the longer we refused to face each other, and the sweat caked to us like dry ash. The lots emptied in a hum, and we chose to continue sitting there, as two lamenting bodies upon the small hill.

We continued eating, watching as the engines trekked against the gravel road, lazily drifting off into the black periphery. He would not look at me, as if being seen was already too much to bear. I did not want to get up, and neither did he, as we continued detachedly plucking at the fried skin of the chicken within the plastic. We just wanted to watch.

This journey had me reaffirm what I wanted, to be a Phantom. To disengage. To relinquish my need to be seen. Eventually, we stayed to admire even the clouds settling into their ephemeral forms, becoming wisps of drifting white paint, and as I looked back at him, I could recognize only the Phantom, and no one else.

My stepmother sent me pictures of his corpse, telling me how he wanted to be burned. His eyes clasped, mouth ajar, my father’s dangly body in a suit far too large for his twig bones now.

When we burned incense at a temple, a wafting ash smell had arose that reminded me of the air that made me sick those months I was with him. In the following summer after the Phantom’s End, the air was tainted in that smell, the city became imperceptible, and I felt sick again. All I remember now is how that summer ended in an ash sky.

Set between a pseudo-amorphous setting of the Pacific Northwest, and providing artifacts, memorabilia, and letters sent back and forth between my father, the justice system, and myself, the images act as evidence being unearthed, paralleling the search for closure I had in my father’s wake, evidence that either leans towards catharsis or entrapment, a divorce proceeding of sorts.”

You can see more of Lau’s work on his website, here.