This epitaph began as a commemorative speech written for my Father's funeral service. As these pure words began to flow following his passing, I realized the service wasn't the appropriate place for this raw, comprehensive and honest reflection on my Dad.
Throughout the post, I've woven in the lyrics to one of my favorite songs from one my favorite bands (Sanctuary "Epitaph"), written and performed by one of my favorite vocalists (Warrel Dane, who passed away in 2017).
Buckle in. There is a long and heavy ride ahead.
A Mystery Begins
There are many things I regret when it comes to my Dad. There is much sadness in the fact that I learned more about him while researching his obituary than I knew while he was present. He was a stubborn code that I will spend the rest of my life cracking,
In unlocking he cryptic mystery of Robert Zuege, I will understand myself better. In remembering him, my reflection will be clearer. In appreciating the legacy he leaves with me, I am nearer to the genes I inherited from his weathered, withering tree.
Ours was mostly a life of motion. By the time our road settled at Sparta, I had lived in 3 countries, multiple cities and tripped through a cycle of schools around the globe. While my Mom managed our family with much strength and patience, my Dad traveled for work, often away for weeks at a time. I know one of his strongest regrets was that his work schedule and commitment to winning the bread meant the connection to his family suffered.
And it did. Either by purpose or circumstance, my relationship with my Dad seldom felt close. He was a man of lectures and advice, stern judgement and stubborn sensibilities. I grew up fast and furious, often living counter to his advice. I finished high school and zoomed away to college in Green Bay. Then to marriage. To divorce. To chronic conditions and failures. To Corporate life.
And into a co-joined oblivion, with more questions than answers.
"Mark my grave, and call the winds of torment
Oh, remember me now, and feed the wind with your dreams
Feel my name, and feel my blood in your veins
Now the tide will turn, I will live on through you
Mark my name upon the flesh you create
No, don't cry for me, my son, myself"
My Dad was a stubborn, brilliant man. A man of programming and accounting, of secret porn collections and all-nighters with sci-fi books and the Ultima Online Universe. A man that once broke his Fraternity paddle over my bottom, and kept it as a trophy or totem.
In time, he was less present as a Father, and more distant in my orbit as a human.
My memory of my father will forever be imperfect. I took his obituary picture and I wrote his official exit. While I was the most absent of the brothers near the end of his life, it wasn't always that way, and it's not without purpose. I walked a different road with my Dad than my two younger brothers. They don't seem to remember the screams of my Mom during fights in our small apartment in Germany. Or the financial stress in the early days of returning to the USA, and featured regular calls and doorknocks by bill collectors, which caused violent screaming matches and uncomfortable situations.
With trowel of pain, I dug into the story of his life, into his dirty drawers and decades of disconnection. But for all of my digging, much of him is a puzzle that will never be solved.
"I am waiting my son, on the threshold to the other side
Cannot tell you what is here
What I see now is beyond your mind
I am formless, but I feel
All the questions burning in your head
Learn your lesson and never grieve
For there is no beginning, and there is no end"
Legacy of Pain
My Dad was born to Edward Barry and Margaret Skwierawski in Milwaukee in 1940. Margaret and Edward divorced when he was young (sidebar: my Dad notes in a story of his life written by the Veteran's Administration that his Dad "left to start a new family", which leads me to believe he grew up with abandonment issues. I had struggled greatly with abandonment issues due to my history with women until recently). His mother remarried, this time to a man named George Zuege. George adopted my Dad as his son, and my Dad enjoyed being his son. Soon, stepsister Beverly was born to his Mom and new Dad.
My step grandfather George died on Dec 16, 1966 when my Dad was 26. It is my understanding that he died while at his laborer job in Milwaukee, but there are now few people that exist that can confirm how George passed. And my family has never been connected to the enigmatic Edward Barry, whose genetic code and history, wild eyebrows and dismissive "Yes, Dear" helped define Robert Edward Lee.
And now the cryptic man who lost two Dads in his young life has also passed, along with all of his secrets, lies and genetic ties to who I am.
And the "Lee" in my given name, in honor of a Confederate General with whom I share little philosophical or historical appreciation or respect. I never had the opportunity to ask my Catholic father what he thought about being named after the side that fought for slavery in the Civil War, prod his complex mind on the paradoxes of religion and slavery and how our ancestors fought for such a vile and inhumane concept.
I'll never know the answers, but will be saddled with the guilt and regret for the rest of my days.
"I'm standing at the door of time, I see life complete
Oh father where will I be when I meet my time?
You will pass on and follow me, into the sanctuary
Truth is never what is seems
Bodies wither, but your mind still dreams
No one ever can rest in peace
Until they've learned the game and become light to darkness
See me shine"
People say I resemble him, often offered with the goal of compliment -- as if to look like him, to be his echo, is something I should be proud of. My mad scientist brows grow wild if not trimmed regularly. My facial hair bushes if not shaved. My sloping nose is more similar to my Dad's design than my Mom's, and my complexion seems more aligned to Barry/Skwierawski genetic ethnicities than Dent/Fallberg. Skinny legs and a battle to reduce the central bulge. Tendency toward diabetes and unhealthy habits. The stubbornness. The introversion. The battles with addiction.
There's no escaping the ghost of him -- and his programming -- in me.
Being told I look like him does not feel like a physical compliment, considering taking care of himself -- inside and out -- was the last of his priorities.
Being told I have his temper makes me remember the spanking session which broke his paddle when I was a young, impressionable kid (which I still remember to this day).
Being told I have his stubbornness recalls a fight that he and I had when I moved back into my parents house after my divorce, whn he was too busy being addicted to online gaming to help me get through my painful breakup, too busy building and coding computers and auditing Military money to lend a shoulder to a suicidal son.
Being told I have his disconnection makes me cry, because I know it's true: the face, the brows, and the ghosts in the mirror are the end of a human line. My brothers have not had children, and neither have I. The leaves of our family flutter in the winds of time, one breeze away from lost in the mystery of the human puzzle.
"I am in the mirror, see my reflection in the stars
And as you search for truth, so I will shine to spur you on
Spur you on
Bathe in the pure truth of my light
Time is an illusion, death is not conclusion"
"I'm proud of you, son. I love you."
While these weren't his last words, they are the words I will always carry with me from him, because pride was his mantra. Even when his mind and body were fading, when he spent days confused by meds or low heart function, he still managed to love us and voice how proud he was of each of us. On his deathbed, he managed a stubborn "Yes, Dear" to my Mom, echoing the short-tempered, impatient man that he had become in later years.
My Father had his reasons for being a man of lectures, rather than a man of action; for being a father figure, rather than an engaged participant in my life. My Dad never made it to my personal gallery nor to any of my Gallery Shows, never read one of my books (even though he is source content for much) nor read one of my blogs. He was proud of my drive and accomplishments, but was never interested in cracking the code of his own son, or the Art persona and philosophy I've spent twelve years developing, Artemis Sere.
In the end, all mysteries, cryptographies and sadness were dialyzed into one final exchange and a kiss on his big, wrinkled forehead:
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you too," he responded, in obvious and uncomfortable pain from a catheter that had been planted from groin-to-heart for two days following his last heart attack. Doctors worked frantically to elevate his INR levels so his blood would clot, and they could remove the tube. By 9PM, he was a drained, pained mess, but was shipped anyway to get the catheter removed and get necessary Diabetic treatment -- the first time he'd ever had it two days in a row. He left our family gathering in bad shape, and while we were all aware of the grim truth, we hoped he'd hang on.
The cryptographer bested by the most complex puzzle he'd ever encountered:
"All those who seek the truth will questions still remaining
Now listen closely, and all will be so clear
I am a messenger, a bringer of light from the other side
So chosen now to teach while drifting between lives
That's what people tell me regularly now: "Hang on. Hang in there. Be strong. Focus on healing".
The darkness of these days cannot be understated. We all knew his death was coming; multiple organ failures and fistula challenges rendered my Dad to a life of walkers, tubes, pills and sleep. For him, there was little true living to be had anymore, even with rehab.
It was more a matter of 'when', than 'if'.
Everyone dies, and most humans go through the throes of the passing of their elders at some point. The logistics and mechanics of what I've gone through are common; the cipher to the cryptoquip of death is unique to each timeline. As my mind stretches through the lines of my history, I struggle for solvency, for the big Human answer to what comprises us -- the genetic inheritance, the tools and traits we develop, and the lasting echoes of each.
I am the sum of all past and present choices, the coalescence of generations of dreams and hopes, failures and fears, worries and wants, adventures and mysteries. There is much that I will never know about my Dad, nor the lost generations -- natural or adopted --that preceded him. These days, I troll the massive matrix of my Ancestry timeline looking for answers to who I am, who we have been, and where we came from. But, for all of my hunting, I am fighting against a wave that won't weaken it's hold:
In time, we will all be forgotten by the quicksilver tides of fragile human time.
I am my Father's son, no divine answer or connection required. I am the final product of the grafting of generations of experience, pain, pleasure, knowledge, majesty and tragedy. The life and death of Robert Edward Lee Zuege is a cryptic puzzle that I will spend the rest of my life understanding and unlocking.
As an Atheist, I view life without much of the fantastical and fanatical mystery our species tends to apply. Here, science and secularism run in violent conflict with the mystical and supernatural. Somewhere in the intersection of truth and fiction, history and mythology, he and I are on the same page, on the same plane, partying like it was a better day, his patience and purpose guiding me to the person I am determined to come. The gifts that death offered aren't fully observed or appreciated until the end comes full circle.
And the story starts anew.
"I will be reborn."
Through the fires of creation.