Good Grief: Getting to Know My Father Through Art
By Emalyn Remington
My father died on March 29, 2020 at 9:36 pm alone in a hospital bed in Florida. Because of the pandemic, we were unable to travel and be with him when he passed. Instead, I asked a nurse to turn on a playlist that I had made for him with all of his favorite songs. It gave me some comfort knowing that he passed listening to Bob Marley and Paul Simon and Sublime. I think the playlist is what set me on this journey, honestly, because when I made it I asked his friends and loved ones to tell me songs that reminded them of Rob (my dad). Tell me songs that made them cry, made them laugh, songs that they used to jam out to on backroads in Vermont or under the bridge where they used to smoke grass and talk about life. Through those songs, I learned a lot about someone that I thought that I knew everything about.
When I was a little girl, my father used to tell me stories. He never wrote them down, having absolutely no skills in spelling or grammar despite devouring every book he laid his hands on. Instead, my father drew for us and through those sketches of dragons and knights and kingdoms far, far away my brothers and I created our own worlds with endless possibilities when it came to “happily ever after”. Aside from telling us stories, art was probably my old man’s only way of healthily expressing his emotions. He had Bi-Polar Disorder and a great deal of unresolved trauma including physical and sexual abuse. He looked up to artists like Van Gogh that were so destroyed mentally and even institutionalized, but still produced beautiful pieces of work out of that pain. I remember my dad leaving his acrylics out on our small kitchen counter, with large pieces of canvas and brushes that he cleaned meticulously, the ashtray next to his work filled with stubbed out Camel Filters or roaches. My father was never a strict man, unless he was painting. We weren’t allowed to touch anything until his work was finished, and only then could we revel in the splendor in something far greater than fresh paint caressing canvas.
In its own way, art was therapeutic for my father. But his prefered method of dealing with things was self-medicating with things like Vodka and prescribed pain medication. I think primarily it is because there was never a great encouragement when he was young to do artistic, therapeutic practices for himself to cope with his trauma. He pushed art onto us at a very young age because of this. My oldest little brother was an angry kid, and while my father definitely made sure that sports were the forefront of Sebastian*’s focus- he heavily encouraged him to draw and paint as well. Sebastian still does when his brain gets too loud, and he enjoys it a great deal (I would never admit this to him, but he’s also very good). Oliver*, my youngest brother preferred sculpture and my dad was always helping him collect junk to build something unique. Oliver has ADHD and this practice of focusing his energy on a project was a skill that would benefit him years into his adolescence. When it came to me, art became the one thing that my father and I could always agree on. He introduced me to Monet and Picasso and Grandma Moses. Showed me his favorite paintings, took me to museums, taught me how to draw. He also wanted to immerse me in culture and because of that he always encouraged me to go see plays or concerts. He would make me watch films or read books that would make me question my thinking and consider other perspectives, or just escape to another reality. I think that’s why I fell in love with writing. He loved my stories and my poetry and always reminded me that what I created was art. He often expressed that he wished that he was better with words because there was so much that he would write about if he had the capability.
This made me want to further understand my father. What better way than through something that he loved more than anything else in this world: art? Maybe I could discover my own artistic methods to help me through this challenging grieving period. Each week I will be reviewing a movie, book, painting, song, or sculpture that meant something to Rob. Something that helped him deal with his pain and offered him joy in his otherwise chaotic world. I will also be reviewing those pieces and sharing a work of art that I discover each week. Through this I seek to not only understand my father through art- but myself as well. For this week, I wanted to share Rob’s playlist. These are happy songs, sad songs, tender songs, and sometimes even cringey songs that helped my dad get through his almost 42 years on this Earth that I compiled together for not only him but for myself as well. Whenever I miss him I turn this on and whether it’s Frankie Valli or George Thorgood and the Destroyers, I know that Rob is up there somewhere hanging out in the sunshine smoking a Camel and jamming out with me. I hope that you’ll come along with me on this jouney, and try to find a way of expressing yourself or something that inspires you each week!
Three Favorite Songs:
- Man of the Hour (Pearl Jam) – a song that makes me cry, but also reminds me that it is okay to allow myself to be sad and mourn. Eddy Vedder’s voice is gentle and it almost makes you feel held.
- Heartstrings (Felly ft. Santana) – a song that Sebastian discovered as my father was in Hospice that helps him cope. It is the perfect mix of my brother (who enjoys artists like 6 Dogs and Mac Miller) and my dad who practically worshipped Carlos Santana. While it is a happier, more upbeat song on this playlist, because of the marriage between the two artists it is one that I find particularly important.
- Pepper (Butthole Surfers) – This is a song for Oliver, my youngest brother. He has fond memories of driving around with my dad in his truck, both of them singing along while the Texas sunshine streamed in through the windows. Oliver tells a funny story about sitting at a stranger’s house toking with Rob while this played softly in the background. Pepper is very catchy, chill, and I can very clearly hear Rob singing along to this somewhere up there.