My father died just a few weeks ago. I always used to say he was the ancestor I was least proud of, but as he became sick with cancer this past year we became closer and I began to recognize that, as always, his story and self was more complex than that.
He was an alcoholic with a lifelong disease, and a stubborn anger inherited from generations of Bouterses, who never accepted the fact that willpower alone would not change anything. He was mercurial, and would suddenly fly into bouts of rage or sadness with no explanation, terrifying my childhood self. He could be petty, suddenly upset over seemingly small things with no explanation. He could be unkind or dishonest to the women in his life. He conflated illness with weakness. As I child, I learned many of these habits and took them as normal, learning to deal with them as best I could. As a young woman, I rejected them and put up walls to protect myself from him and others like him.
At the same time, I loved my father. He could be generous, vivacious and gregarious. He had a talent for making strangers love him. He was a musician who could make a room come alive with his guitar, singing and whistling. He had an easy directness and wicked sense of humor which was fun to be around. He had a background in biology, and through him I learned to look closely at the natural world around me, to forage for treats in the woods and love the outdoors in all it’s glorious small and big moments.
Through him I also developed an early appreciation for both how big and small the human world is. My father lived much of his life as an outlaw, circumventing the system in different ways, damning convention. He was always on the move, always seeking someplace where things would be different. When I was small, he took me away from the rest of my family for a time, and he and my 4-year-old-self hitchhiked together across the United States. Later on, I grew up with our family spread across three continents - the Netherlands, the US, and Brasil. My father brought a translator’s mind to the socio-cultural systems and political economy of each place. From him I learned early on that ours was both a deeply connected and deeply fragmented world.
It would be easy to choose only one side of my father and tell this as his story. I could choose to make him into the monster my teenage self saw him as, or eulogize his good qualities into heroics, as one is supposed to do graveside.
Instead, I choose to acknowledge that, like Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes. As we all do.