Yesterday, my six-year-old daughter asked me why I put up two fingers as I waved to the homeless man selling newspapers on the corner. I initially explained that I was greeting him as a way of saying “thank you” for always waving and always sharing some positive energy as we sit in traffic at the stoplight. The guy does a great job.
She pushed: “But, why do you put up two fingers?”
Me: “It’s a way of saying peace to the person, but just using your hands.”
Me (reflecting further): “And, it’s something Bugsy (her grandfather, my Dad) used to always do when he was alive. So, I guess I got it from him.”
As she pondered my response for what was certainly only a couple of seconds, I was triggered, as I often am, into the flooding memory of my Father and to the realities of the things he instilled in me that I only sometimes recognize as his. Behaviors. Posture. Perhaps a penchant for cursing. My sister says my hands look just like his (I also happen to wear his ring every day).
I am particularly aware of his legacy each April, the month of his suicide - April 27, 2006. I always try to write something around this time as some small effort in helping people know they are not alone in living with suicide. Their loved ones were not alone in their struggles with Depression, with sexual abuse, with religious-guilt-turned-self-loathing. These things killed my Dad, and have killed countless others. There are even more of us still living with them.
My daughter persisted…
C: “But, what is peace, Daddy?”
Me (buying time): “Well, baby. That’s a good question…”
I muddled through words like happiness and presence and contentment and safety – although I emphasized that it’s not necessarily about comfort. I spoke of its opposites of anxiety and worry and concern – even physical violence in terms I believe she is ready to understand. I stumbled. I repeated myself. At some point, she seemed to accept at least some piece of what I offered as an answer and she stopped pressing.
I was less accepting of myself.
My answer wasn’t wrong. It was just a mess. But, maybe there’s something in that reality that’s at the core of the idea of peace.
In the quiet moments that followed as we continued down the street, my head again returned to my Dad. What a mess! His struggle. His contradictions. His love for others and hatred of himself. The pieces of me that are of him. My empty dreams of him holding my children. The stories and reflections I will share with my kids in hopes they might understand what may simply not be understandable. Will they get it? Will they get him? Will they be angry? Will they be confused? Will they care? Can they love him without knowing him? Can they learn from his life? From his death? Does it matter?
And, once again, I returned to peace. My Father is no longer suffering – for me, for us – despite himself. I understand why he committed suicide. It’s all a big fucking mess, but, yes, I am at peace. He is at peace. My family is at peace.
So, maybe at its core, peace is just something that lives deep within us and is not definable, recognizable, or understandable by others. Perhaps peace is as unique in definition as its possessor. Maybe peace is best understood as a personal journey and a process that we must commit to for ourselves, and can only hope for others to embark upon for themselves - and we wish them the best.
Throw up the two fingers: Peace!
So, perhaps this is a better, if still unsatisfying, answer to my daughter’s question:
Me: I don’t know what your peace is, baby. I hope every day that I am doing my part to help you define and find it for yourself, deep within yourself. I hope one day when you are older and have lived through some of the brutality and brilliance that life can put upon you, that I can ask you the same question, and you will know what it means to you, even if you struggle with the words to express it.