Working on a Ship that I may never sail

Ship Gonna Sail

I stumbled upon this while cleaning out some folders on my computer. Early last summer I wrote this essay for the second issue of a zine on grief in radical communities called the Worst. The zine maker hasn’t been able to finish the next issue it seems, so here it is.

For more then a decade, I rehearsed getting that phone call from back home telling me my father had passed away.  I was still in high school when my dad was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure. The doctors gave dire predictions of an early death in the next 5-10 years. Well, my dad surpassed all expectations and thrived for over a decade with only half a working heart.

My dad was a radical….a radical singer, artist, historian, story teller…so many things. He was U. Utah Phillips. He was also (more often to me) Bruce Phillips the comedian, French fry lover, prankster, gardener, and fierce little league fan. His lessons, many of which I and others learned from watching him on stage, and his grace, kindness, songs and stories are blessedly enduring because he kept on working after his diagnosis.

Through the years the anxiety I felt regarding my dad’s health tested our relationship. At times I would go months without speaking to him, angry that he was jeopardizing his health to travel and share his songs. I didn’t want to believe that what he was doing was valuable. I didn’t want to see that continuing to perform and take part in his trade was what kept him going and made him stronger. I just wanted him to stay put and stay healthy. Over the years the pain and anger that raged in me gave way as I saw the anxiety he felt over the prospect of having to give up his trade. The road kept him connected and energized. The last seven years of my dad’s life saw my love for him win over any anger. Our relationship grew stronger.

My dad’s knowledge ran deep and a large part of our relationship revolved around my love of learning everything I could from him. He could talk just as deeply about the history of the labor struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World as he could talk about Celtic mythology and baking bread. Often I would call my dad, and after some short greetings about how we both were doing and how the cats were fairing I would ask a question that would be on my mind. His answers would be more like a story and would incorporate his vast knowledge of all things: histories, arts, poetry, literature, etc. Often I would call from my community garden plot to ask him about planting and growing. I would sit on a little mound of dirt while he would tell me a tale about growing things that would take us far, far from the original question.

I recall one particular question a few years ago. One morning during a summer I was staying with my dad, the New York Times ran an obituary for one of the last commanders of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. As I sat and read the paper I asked my dad what exactly the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was. I had over the years read a lot about the Spanish Civil War; it holds a special part in the hearts of radicals and anarchists the world over. But I didn’t really have a clear understanding of who the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was and why they existed. My dad began to tell me the story of young WWII soldiers returning home from fighting Nazi Fascists only to find their own government supporting the fascist Franco regime.  They knew what fascism was and that they had to support the resistance to Franco. Veterans and non-veterans alike shipped themselves out to fight in the Spanish Civil War as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. As he looked down at the paper he began to cry. As he continued, his voice cracking, the tears dripped off the tip of his nose onto the newsprint.

It was much, much later when my dad lay in a hospital in Sacramento for another heart procedure that I reflected on that morning on the patio, realizing how much my dad had been thinking about death, even back then. The obituary in the New York Times represented the death of another one of his elders…his obituary would be the same for many people. He was facing his own mortality and that was something I also had to do. My confidence in my dad’s miraculous recovery from a dire diagnosis of Congestive Heart Failure was being shaken. I started facing the reality that he had an ever-weakening heart.

The slow decline of my dad’s health was marked with more frequent hospital visits, increasing numbers of medications and fewer and fewer shows. Regardless, he was as alive as ever. I took heart as I saw him work enthusiastically to help establish the first homeless shelter in Nevada County, Hospitality House. For my dad, all the stories, all the traveling, and all the talking came back to that shelter, to those people and to his town. He wasn’t a super star; he was like all the other hard working people who made that shelter possible. He was like the rest of us…maybe he just knew it more then we did.

I tried over the years to spend more and more time with my dad. But looking back it doesn’t seem like enough.  I was living and working far away in Washington DC. Only now, a year since my dad’s death, can I look back and see that I barely registered the impact my dad’s health was having on me. During the last year of his life, as I jumped from DC to California tried to stay involved in the local projects I was already a part of. I was also helping set up legal support for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, working on trainings and workshops and volunteering at the local Infoshop – And I did it all half assed. No one said anything and neither did I. I passed the days in a mental isolation. I was sad nearly all the time. I even avoided my garden. I just never talked about my worry.

During the last long visit I had with my dad we were told that he needed a heart transplant. This shook him to his core. He was angry when he got his pace maker, saying that the sun gave him energy and fuels his heart, not a machine. When he spoke about the possibility of getting a new heart, he spoke of his heart with sadness as if he was losing a friend. After all, his heart had been with him through an incredible life.

I didn’t have to tell many of my friends that my dad was being considered for a heart transplant. Before I even returned to DC word had spread. There was even a Facebook “Cause” page all about it. It all made me want to hide my worry even more. I was stressed and afraid, but still I tried to stay involved. Bumbling as I was, people didn’t say anything about my crappy work.

A hospital in San Francisco that specializes in heart transplants asked my dad to come down for an evaluation that involved a month long stay in the hospital. My oldest brother Duncan came to stay with him and my step mom, Joanna. Together Joanna and Duncan stayed in a hotel at night and with my dad in the hospital all day. I talked with them often. But I never went out there; I stayed in DC and continued to stumble my way through various activist projects and social circles. I was preparing for a trip of some sort when I got a call from my dad. After much thought, much deliberation, he decided that he did not want a heart transplant. I knew this was coming. The truth is I didn’t want him to have the transplant. It would have meant more time in hospitals, rather then at home among his friends and loved ones. It would have meant poisonous anti-rejection meds and the constant fear of infection. But it was still hard to hear.

I was planning on spending the summer with my dad before heading to the RNC. But eight days after his 73rd birthday and a week before I was to leave, I got a voice message from Joanna asking me to call. Based on the urgency of her voice I knew it had something to do with my dad. I assumed it was another stay in the hospital. It wasn’t. My dad had, quietly and after several days on the couch with friends and his Unitarian minister visiting, passed away in his sleep, in his home, next to his wife, among all the things he cherished. There was a pain I felt in that moment that I cannot now imagine having lived through. All the rehearsal in the world had not prepared me for that call.

My family recently gathered in Nevada City to mark the one-year passing of my dad. In the weeks before I traveled home I thought a lot about the past year. I thought of how I am still afraid of my cell phone, actually afraid of it. Whenever family calls I get this sick feeling in my stomach could it be bad news? More often then not I leave my phone at home on my windowsill. I thought a lot about my shame over my shoddy organizing efforts over the last two years and my lack of staying connected to old friends. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I disengage completely and take a break? But mostly I asked myself over and over again “why didn’t I go out to be with him sooner? Why did I have to stay in DC?”

Being back at my dad’s house this spring, I felt some relief. It was nice to be among family, to be around people I knew for sure understood the quiet and unspoken grief that we all carry around. But we didn’t talk about it much. We just enjoyed each other’s company, playing music and telling stories. Coming back east to Boston where I now live, I flew out of San Francisco. My Brother Brendan and Joanna came with me and we spent the day before I left on the beach in S.F. We also stayed in the same hotel Duncan and Joanna stayed in while my dad was in the hospital. Being there and even eating at the restaurant Joanna and Duncan ate at each night made me feel wretched.  I should have been there at the hospital with my dad too. I should have had that experience they had. In the wake of my dad’s death, besides being exhausted and traumatized, I need to find some answer to the question of why I didn’t go out to California sooner.

Last year, I did spend the summer in California, but instead of going to the river and eating JuJu B’s at the movies with my dad, I was sorting the many boxes that make up his archives. As I sifted through the fine details of his long and rich life of song and story I began to embrace what may be part of the answer. In all that haste of youth we drive ourselves to tackle each new issue and each injustice as if in our lifetime it must all be solved and we will be the ones to do it. But in reality we have only the time given to us to add to what has been built and leave something more for those who will come next: small victories, stronger movements and in my dad’s case songs and stories of struggle and times gone by.

My dad had a song, the chorus of which is, “work’n on a ship, may never sail it, ship gonna sail gonna sail some day. Working on a ship may never sail on, gonna build it anyway”. And there it is…the lesson and the legacy. In what I hope are the many long years of my life, I’m going to be working on that same ship as my dad and so many of my friends. I will probably never sail on it, but that’s not the point. The point is to be a part of building it. And there’s time; time enough to explore and learn and grow. To read every damn book about every damn topic, to study ancient prose and attend every protest, to bake sweet bread and plant blooming lilacs. There is time to breath and there is time to grieve and time enough to sing songs with friends and make pie and grow a garden. There is even time enough to stop and say to your friends, “My heart is too heavy for this work right now. I need to care for myself and be cared for.” And to not walk away, but just begin to work on a different part of that ship we are all building.


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