Sunday Pages: "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"
A poem for Father's Day, by Dylan Thomas.
Last January, my father came down with a coronavirus. Not the coronavirus, but a coronavirus. Maybe it was covid-18 or covid-17. Or maybe it was covid-19, and he and his weakened immune system somehow managed to contract it a month and a half before anybody else in New Jersey. There’s no way to know, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
Whatever it was, it did a number on him. Since then, he’s suffered from a slew of other maladies, which I won’t get into here, but which have combined, in some way his coterie of specialists can’t properly explain, to wreak havoc on him. (My mother reports that his symptoms are consistent with “long covid,” and at this point, she probably knows more than the doctors).
My father was always a do-it-yourself kind of guy—the opposite of the doltish husband they like to show in commercials. He liked projects. He liked to go to 84 Lumber and pick out two-by-fours from the “economy stud” section and figure out ways to use them. He liked to build things. He also liked to take sledgehammers and jackhammers and knock things down. He’s always been like that, even as a boy. When he was 12 or 13, the story goes, he built a set of cement stairs in the back of his house—because, I suppose, stairs were needed, and because he could. For the better part of four decades, he slowly modified the house where I grew up. In that time, there have been probably eight or nine different floorings in the downstairs den, and he installed every last one. He was a man who scoffed at the Building Permit. When I was in eighth grade, he upgraded the unused room downstairs into a bedroom for me. I helped him install paneling on the walls and drywall on the ceiling—my job was to hold the panels in place—as well as the recessed lighting, which he wired up himself, using an old hardbound book as a guide (“I’m not as good with electric,” he explained). And he liked to do this stuff. It took me years to realize that what I found boring and tedious, he legitimately enjoyed.
That paragraph uses the past tense, I realize, but this is not an obituary. My father is very much alive. He still enjoys these things. He just can’t do them like he used to.
This is an exemplary man, a loyal and loving husband, and the best dad you could hope for. There is a trope in books and movies and rock songs of The Father Who Doesn’t Believe In Me; mine is exactly the opposite. He doesn’t really understand what I do, I don’t think, any more than I understand plumbing and electric work, but he recognized long ago, when I was still a young boy, that I was a creative type, and he always did whatever he could to support me—as he still does. He’s always in my corner.
I was given his name, but I did not inherit his mechanical skills—much to the delight of plumbers and electricians in the Hudson Valley. Nor was his slender, six-foot-tall frame passed down, alas. Although he is one of the least photogenic people alive, in person, my father looks like an amalgam of the stars of the movies he likes: Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, and so on, right down to the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. (He quit smoking cigarettes years ago, but he has found other ways to sate his nicotine fix, most recently by vaping, like Mare of Easttown). I didn’t get the rugged movie-star looks, either—but I did get the hair, so I can’t complain.
So it has been difficult to watch him struggle through these last 18 months, especially when I’ve been necessarily distant through most of it, because of the quarantine. He was 24 years old when I was born, and turned 73 in March. He’s not old, but he’s frail. He lost a lot of weight this past year. He has to use a walker to get around, for balance; several times he’s taken a tumble that has set back his recovery. And his spirits are low, because he can’t do the things he loves to do, which must be enormously frustrating, if not outright depressing.
When I first read the Dylan Thomas poem in high school—which I can’t run in full here, because it’s not yet in the public domain—my father was eight or nine years younger than I am right now. You know the one. It begins like this:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
When you’re a self-absorbed teenager, it doesn’t really resonate. You see “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and after determining that it is in fact iambic pentameter, you’re like, “Right, I get it, try not to croak, old man,” and then you flip the page of your Perrine textbook.
Now that the poem has (unfortunately) become relevant to me, I see that it is more complex than that. “That good night,” which I always took to be a poetical euphemism for literal death, means not expiration but surrender. And “the light” which is dying is not the body but the soul, the life force, the élan vital—that which animates us.
To his own aging father, Thomas is saying, basically, Don’t give up the fight; giving up the fight is what will kill you. And he tells us how to keep fighting: by tapping into the well of that most primal emotion, one most men—whether creatives like me, or get-your-hands-dirty types like my father—have in boundless reserve: anger. This is a powerful emotion that we repress or repurpose for most of our lives, with good reason. But the only way to stave off the “dying of the light,” the poet tells us, is to unleash the full force of our pissed-off-ness. To go nuclear. Which is weird. You don’t see many pro-anger poems. But one does not “rage, rage” by emulating the Buddha. Jedi are chill, too, until they’re not.
And so, on this Father’s Day, I leave you, Dear Reader, with the last stanza of the Dylan Thomas poem, which I hope my dad, Greg Sr., takes to heart:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Photo credit: My dad, a few months ago, in front of his house. That is as much stubble as he’s ever had.