A Complicated Mourning

When Nick Flynn posted on Facebook that his father had passed away on Sunday, I realized that I’ve never really written much about how much his memoir about the two of them had really influenced my own writing and my own life.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is Nick Flynn’s memoir about his complicated relationship with his father who was absent for most of his life. Then it took yet another complicated turn when his dad showed up needing a bed at the homeless shelter that Nick was a caseworker at. Alcohol had destroyed his father’s marriage, his livelihood and alcohol had destroyed his ability to understand that his talent as a writer was depleted with every bottle of vodka he’d drain. Meanwhile, his son wandered aimlessly through life after his mother’s death, filling his nights with functional drinking supplemented by his income from being a caseworker with the homeless. Nick used to write, until the day his mom picked up an unfinished short story that she interpreted to be about her and referenced it in the suicide note she wrote when she shot herself several days later.

When your own alcoholic dad who fancied himself a poet takes off on you when you’re young, and you’re having a crisis of self regarding your place in the writing world, you relate.

I had just spent a week essentially in bed after several drunken nights, feeling unable to do simple things like shower, brush my teeth, or even obtain fast food to eat when I became so angry that I couldn’t even manage to read a page in a book. Earlier that year, because my undergraduate creative writing teachers told me I needed to read voraciously my contemporaries to become one of them, I bought a ridiculous amount of books I found on various “best” lists. Now with a BA that didn’t feel like it was worth the paper it was printed on, a well of anger about this lie that I’d been fed that education would directly better me and a bookshelf of paperweights, I became determined by nothing other than rage.

I will finish reading a book– a book I’ve never read before.

When I walked out into the freezing cold living room in the shit apartment I lived in, I found my muscles weak from lack of use, but I also found myself in front of a wall of books I hadn’t even cracked since I bought them.

If I was gong to read, I was going to read something that summed up the way I felt right here, right now, in this shit apartment in February. I hated that Valentine’s Day had been a few days before, I hated that the water from the outside leaked in around the window sealant onto my head as I slept, and I hated that the only reminder that I was actually alive was when I’d exhale I could actually see my breath as I lay in bed everyday.

When you feel like I did, a title like Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is beyond a rally cry. You feel it in your soul. It’s one of the best book titles ever conceived and Nick’s dad conceived it.

It ended up being a perfect book to read for me in those days too, because of its structure; short little vignettes that built upon each other. The first day I could only manage to read two pages. The next I think I managed ten. The day after that I read for four hours straight. For the next two days after that, I devoured the book and actually cried when it was over but it took many years later for me to figure out why. It was a catalyst.

Since Nick Flynn posted on Facebook that his dad died on Sunday, the same day Lou Reed did, I found myself empathizing with him. But what am I empathizing with exactly? He might be sad or he might be relieved. He might be both. It might feel like a real weight of pain is lifted off him completely now. Or maybe, like many I know, he feels guilty for not feeling a damn thing by his father’s death.

I think I personally feel a bit of loss by his father’s death myself because the reality is this—his father changed my life. Perhaps, even if a specific person causes nothing but pain and heartache to you directly in your own life, we need those people around to model those abhorrent behaviors and do us wrong so we can know that we ourselves must never behave that way.  One night I was out with writing school friends when we all started complaining about a specific class we’d all had together from a specific professor, and consensus had been that the guy was an ass and the class was a waste of time.  But I’m glad I took that class in retrospect, because that professor helped motivate me to never, ever be like him in the classroom with my own students.

Nick Flynn’s feeling about his father and the form his grief will take is obviously his own business, but I watched as people wrote all over his page “this is complicated” and it is, but I still couldn’t help feeling like now that he had made his father a public figure, it wasn’t necessarily our job to super-impose our feelings of grief upon him. We each needed to mourn him ourselves because Nick gave him to us when he wrote the book.

I haven’t seen my father since I was nine. At twenty-one he sent me a birthday card with the divorce papers in it reminding me that he no longer had financial obligations towards me, and asked me not to come looking for him. I don’t know how I’d feel if I was told he was dead tomorrow, but at this point I’m betting I would feel the way I felt the day after I finished Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and like I’ve felt every other day since the day I closed that book.

I must persevere or I have learned nothing.

But if my own story about my life without him inspires another– well, you can feel free to mourn him for me.

Jonathan Flynn died in Boston on Sunday and he gave birth to a man who was determined to break the cycle of heartache he grew up around, and did. In turn, Nick writing about that story motivated many other writers to persevere and do the same.  So while Jonathan Flynn may have lived a chaotic and terribly sad life to some, he helped so many to drag themselves out of their own gutters.

For that, I honor him.

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