A couple of years ago I had to do a plumbing task, so I cued up my IPod to Jim Dale reading “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and began disassembling drains. It was easier this time to do the work and listen, for what must have been the 20th time, to Harry as he struggled with adolescence and government oppression, than it had been in previous plumbing experiences. As it turned out, Harry had a lot to do with that.
Rewind to about two-and-a-half years before the drain project. I had woken up earlier than usual on a Monday morning, about 4:30am. Rather than lay in bed until the dreaded alarm I sat myself in front of my computer and surfed the net. At about 5:30am the phone rang. A phone call at that time is rarely someone telling you good news. This call was no different. It was my mother calling from New Mexico where she, my father and brother were taking a vacation to tell me that during the night my father had died suddenly. Certainly not what I was expecting, but, as it was August, I was more guarded for this sort of thing than had it been, say September. (My family has had a string of bad luck with the month of August, so it is a month that we seldom take for granted. In fact, we no longer acknowledge it as an actual month, but instead refer to it as the month of Gloop, as in Augustus Gloop.)
The next week was fairly standard death-in-the-family fare. My mother and brother flew back from New Mexico in an unimaginable state of shock, we arranged the funeral, we were given a ton of food by the many, many visitors and we just tried to get through. My way of getting through was to build his coffin because he had always said that he wanted something simple and because he was the man who had taught me carpentry. Finally, the time for the funeral came and I delivered the best eulogy that I could. I have since decided that no eulogy should be delivered until at least a year after the deceased has passed. Only then do you really know what you are going to miss. It is this last part that leads me to how Harry Potter changed how I do plumbing, because I found that I really missed calling the old guy.
It was a tradition of sorts that whenever I began any job around the house, be it carpentry, electrical or plumbing that I would call my dad while I was driving to the hardware store. Sometimes it was for advice, but more often than not it was for commiseration. The conversations went something like this:
Dad: Hey, bud! What are you up to?
Me: Changing out the kitchen sink.
Dad: Ohhhh shit. Your mom is after me to put a new faucet in ours.
Me: I am pretty sure that this new sink was just a ploy to get a new faucet.
Dad: Your wife is so clever.
And so on. Not long after his death I found myself on the way to the hardware store for something and I was dialing his number. Since his death I had kept his cell phone with me in order to take calls from any work associates he had who may not have heard about his death. It was not until it began buzzing in my pocket that I remembered that he was not going to answer. This would turn out to be something that I would continue to do out of habit. More than once I would be ensconced in a project and realize that I needed his counsel only to catch myself in the act of dialing his number. It was equal parts frustrating and depressing. I was frustrated because he died just days shy of his 60th birthday. How does that happen in this day and age? Why didn’t he take better care of himself? The nerve of him to die when I still have projects to do.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was released two years after dad died. Prior to its release I had listened to the audio books from Book 1-6 in order to be up to speed when reading the final book. It was while reading book 7 that I felt a great weight slowly being lifted from my chest. It came in the understanding that the books were less about an adolescent hero facing an evil foe, but more about the fragility of life and the appreciation of life that can come only when one accepts that death is not the end.
Let me note now that this is not a new thought. Rowling herself has been quoted saying, “My books are largely about death.” New or not, for me it was a revelation and a source of great comfort. Dig it:
“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” –Dumbledore, HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” –Dumbledore, HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
"Oh, come on. You heard them, just behind the veil, didn’t you? They were just lurking out of sight, that’s all. You heard them." –Luna Lovegood to Harry explaining why she is confident that she will see her dead mother again, HP and the Order of the Phoenix.
"Indeed, your failure to understand that there are much worse things than death has always been your greatest weakness." -Dumbledore, HP and the Order of the Phoenix.
“Do not pity the dead, Harry, pity the living. Above all, pity those who live without love.” –Dumbledore, HP and the Deathly Hallows.
For the record, I was not, until the moment of realizing all of this, a slobbering drone of inefficiency. While I was still burdened by the untimely death of my father, I was moving on. It is simply that these, let’s be honest, fairly benign pontifications about life and love and death are generally taken for granted by all but only the most romantic among us. And even Lord Byron took a day off once in a while.
When it comes down to it, these books helped me to understand that my loss was neither unique nor was it insurmountable. I think that anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a loved one could attest that it is often a longer lasting grief than the loss of one whose death is predicated by disease or age. It turned out that the understanding of death that I garnered from these books lead me to read more on the subject, which many of us, understandably, avoid out of a guarded sense of our own mortality. I found that the sudden death of my father two plus years previous and even the equally sudden death of my sister some seventeen years before that were both far more present in me than I realized, but suddenly I was able to embrace the memories of them rather than mourn the loss.
Because of this I am now able to embark on a DIY task and no longer hate the thought that I cannot call on the old man for help. Instead I pick up the tape measure that he gave to me all of those years ago and know that he is here, ready to remind me to measure an extra eighth of an inch beyond to compensate for saw blade width, or simply to commiserate on the drudgery of the task at hand and to remind me that there is a good, dark ale awaiting me in the fridge when I am done. “Your father is alive in you…and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” Indeed he is, Professor.