Written by Darren Gleeson. Photographs by Leah Oates.
The cold chill in the air was not enough to stop Deragh the bear cub waking with a smile on his face. The long winter was over, and though there was still snow on the ground, he was excited at what the spring would bring. Fueled only by a giddy energy, Deragh ran out of the cave and into the sunlight.
Running, bounding, and rolling along the ground, Deragh moved his heavy limbs, happy to shake off the stiffness of the long winter’s sleep. It didn’t take long for his energy to run out. Giddiness, after all, carries very little nutritional value, so Deragh returned to the cave. He would wake Daddy Bear so they could get breakfast together.
“There’s something a little off,” thought Deragh at the mouth of the cave. It was quieter than it should be, and it smelled, somehow, less. The fur on the Deragh’s back pricked up a little. “Dad?” He called out nervously, but there was no response. Looking to where Daddy Bear went to sleep every winter, Deragh was surprised to find that Daddy Bear was nowhere to be found.
Deragh was confused and lonely, but still very, very hungry. He realized that he needed to eat so he decided that he would go and look for food. Daddy Bear was probably hungry too he realized, and was probably out looking for his own food.
“It’s funny that Daddy Bear didn’t wake me before he left,” thought Deragh once he was outside. The thought made him sad, but it was quickly replaced by another. “He probably woke when you were out by yourself.” Just as quickly as the new thought replaced the old, the feeling of sadness swelled up in Deragh as he remembered how he selfishly ran out of the cave as soon as he woke up. If he had been a little more attentive, he thought, Daddy Bear would probably still be here.
Sadness often passes but hunger never does, so Deragh went in search of what Daddy Bear had told him was good for a bear cub to eat. He found what berries and tree saplings he could and ate what food from them he could find, but he was still hungry. Deragh then heard some squirrels eating nuts. When the squirrels saw Deragh, they scrambled up the nearest tree. Finding their cache of nuts, Deragh filled his paw with them and headed back to the cave. Perhaps Daddy Bear would be back by now, and they could share the nuts together.
The cave was still empty when Deragh got back. He sat and ate his nuts, and though he was sad that he was alone, he was happy that he was not a squirrel. It was unusual for Deragh to need to sleep so soon after waking from hibernation but his heart was sore from worry, which made him very tired. He thought a nap would be good.
Panic! Deragh had woken and the only thing that had changed was the ravenous hunger now living in his belly. Daddy bear was still gone, and Deragh still didn’t know how to gather food properly. This was the spring Daddy Bear was supposed to teach him. But Deragh refused to let the panic control him. He realizes that he won’t be a bear cub for long, realizes that he is getting very big, that he NEEDS to eat.
Deragh went outside again. He looked for more tree saplings but couldn’t find any. He looked for more squirrel nuts but couldn’t find any of them either. Deragh searched for food to feed himself until he heard a buzzing – honey bees.
He was scared. He had tried to climb the trees before winter came but he was too small, and Daddy Bear had warned him that he was too small to go near the bees. He remembered being stung before. He didn’t like the pain or how much the stinger swelled his nose up. But thinking back to what Daddy Bear had done before, he climbed the tree himself and, even though he fell out a few times, eventually got to the top and took the honey without any trouble.
Deragh was surprised at how easy the tree was to climb. He was bigger now that he was before. The bees were angry at him, but their stingers were too small to penetrate his thick red fur. Deragh got the honey and ate his fill. It didn’t make him happy though. All he thought about was Daddy Bear and how they should be doing this together. The sweetness of the honey couldn’t take away the bitterness of the loss.
After eating the honey, Deragh sat and thought about what he should do. He didn’t know. He didn’t know what a bear did except for eat and sleep during the winter. He realized that there were only two things that he wanted to do- eat, to stave off the hunger from his long sleep- and look for his father. He didn’t know where to start looking, but knew that if he stayed there only hoping, nothing was likely to change.
After wandering for a while, Deragh came across a river filled fat with salmon. Again, thinking back to what Daddy Bear had done in the past, he tried to catch the fish in his mouth. But instead of catching fish, he kept hurting his jaws, snapping them shut without catching anything. He tried to catch them in his paws, but he got frustrated at how they kept slipping.
He slapped at them with one paw in frustration, accidentally batting one onto the bank. Deragh, laughing at how surprised the fish looked, ate. Deragh was proud at his success but felt more alone than ever because he didn’t have anyone to share it with. He batted enough fish to eat his fill and went back to the cave, alone and sad.
After the exact length of time it took Deragh to process that Daddy Bear was gone forever, Daddy Bear came back.
At first, Deragh was happy. Joy and confusion crashed through Deragh’s insides, hurting him more than any hunger ever could. But nothing hurt more than when he came face to face with Daddy Bear’s sadness.
“Where did you go?” Deragh asked. Daddy Bear simply said, “I just felt I needed to go away.” Deragh was confused, but he said that he was happy that Daddy Bear had come back.
“Well, too be honest,” Daddy bear said, “I didn’t come back. I was trying to leave forever, but somehow I got lost and ended back here.” He became angry and blamed a squirrel he had asked for directions for misleading him.
“What did you want to leave?” asked Deragh. “Was it something I did?”
“No,” said Daddy Bear. “I just didn’t think that there was anything left in the forest for me anymore.”
Deragh felt a stab of pain in his heart. He felt like he should have been a better cub.
“I’ve made too many mistakes,” said Daddy Bear.
“That’s O.K,” said Deragh, “I’ve made them too. I tried to climb a tree and kept falling out, but I learnt my lesson. I kept trying till I found the best path.”
“You don’t understand,” said Daddy Bear. “It’s so much harder being a bear than you realize. Catching fish is hard. They’re so slippery, they keep sliding out of my paws.
“I found that they were slippery too, but I found a different way of catching them and ate my fill.”
But Daddy Bear didn’t listen. Instead he just said, “You’re too young to understand.”
“I thought I was too young to climb trees, too young to fend off the bees, too young to catch the salmon, and too young to fend for myself but everything that I thought I was too young for, it turned out, I was perfectly capable of doing. You’re still important to me, though.”
Daddy Bear looked confused.
“I don’t know why,” he said with a glum voice. “You saw me climb trees but you learned how to pick yourself up all by yourself. You grew strong enough to ignore the bees without me doing anything. You don’t need me.”
“But I followed your example by going to the river to catch fish,” said Deragh.
“Maybe,” Daddy Bear said. “But whatever you did to catch them you didn’t learn from me. It seems to me that you’re better off on your own.”
“It’s ok, Daddy Bear. Let’s go to the river to catch some fish together. I’ll show you how I did it.”
“No. I’m too tired.” He lay on the ground and refused to get up no matter what Deragh did to try and wake him. Deragh didn’t understand, but he had to eat so he went back to the river.
When he got there, he waded into the water. Seeing his reflection in the water, he realized that he wasn’t a cub anymore. He was a bear, grown full and strong. He had climbed his trees, claimed his honey, and learned how to fish all by himself. He had grown when Daddy Bear was gone and, now that he was back, he realized that Daddy Bear wasn’t willing to learn from him the way he was willing to learn from Daddy Bear.
Suddenly, the biggest fish he had ever seen leapt out of the water in front of him. With a swipe of his paw, he slapped the fish onto the bank. As he picked it up, he felt pride in himself. He wanted to show Daddy Bear his catch.
But he thought of the bear who came back, the bear who didn’t need Deragh, the bear who thought fish were too slippery to catch but didn’t want to learn how to swipe. Deragh thought of all of the things that he had to learn how to do for himself. He thought of daddy bear leaving as he looked at the big fish on the bank and though, maybe the greatest lessons I got from you, was to not follow your example.
“Daddy Bear is gone,” thought Deragh, “so I can no longer be a cub.” As the hunger crept back into Deragh’s belly, he returned to the river to fish as a Bear.
It’s hard now, to look back half a lifetime ago, and remember it with clarity or certainty. Pain is funny like that, the way it plays tricks with your mind. It’s the same with betrayal.
The day was supposed to signify newness. The first of January. It was more than just a regular New Year’s Day. It was the first of January 2001, the real turn of the millennium. The year previous the world had gone delirious with excitement when 1999 rolled over to 2000. I had very little support in my grievance of it. “The world didn’t start at year 0.” I argued, but not too hard. I did get it; people love a celebration too much to worry over insignificant details.
It was significant to me though. It was my 18th birthday.
To me, the new millennium meant a new version of me. I woke that day a man, in the eyes of the law at least. A newly crowned adult, eager for the new duties and responsibilities that I had survived long enough to be rewarded with.
I thought that it would feel different, coming of age, but I was wrong. There was no newness to being 18 anymore than there was at 13 when I became a teenager, or at 10 when I thought breaking into double digits would make me feel different. Birthdays don’t change anything. Not unless your dad tries to kill himself.
Attempted suicide is a funny thing. Well, not really. But I don’t know another word to describe how wrong I was in thinking that that day would be about me. “Tragic” could probably fit, but to me that has always been the alternative to humour. Given the choice, funny will keep you sane.
There is always a choice.
What I remember most is what he said after. Not the wail of the ambulance that I know must have come. Not the care that was given by the paramedics who presumably pumped the prescription drugs out of his stomach. Not how my 13-year-old brother reacted to find what he thought was the dead body of his father in my parent’s bed. I remember days later when he came out of hospital talking to me and my two elder siblings. We were apparently old enough to bury him but too young for an explanation.
“I don’t regret it. I only regret that it didn’t work,” he said to us before placing the blame for his failure on his sister-in-law, a nurse, for overstating the danger of the pills he had taken.
I remember wondering then if his inability to admit fault about anything was what made him so unhappy.
“Life is hard,” he offered as explanation to us. I wondered how he could think, after moving cities, schools, and countries so many times, and the years of bitter hatred he and my mother filled the house with, that I was unaware of this.
“You’re too young to understand what it’s like to live with your mistakes,” was his final explanation to his sons.
I remember wondering if he even cared to know what my mistakes were, let alone know what it was like to live with them.
“Do you remember me bringing you in your coffee?” I asked, probably more feebly than I would have liked. He said that he did not. I didn’t ask any more questions. At some point the conversation ended and life, including his, carried on.
I reflected on what I did remember of that day, before the discovery of his dying body.
Coffee. Brewed with the mug of tea I made myself that morning. I had brought it to his room, left it on his locker without trying to wake him up. He never really was a drinker, so I figured the reason there was no response to me knocking on his door was his intolerance to the previous night’s celebratory tipple.
I felt that was my mistake, but I couldn’t tell him. How can you explain that kind of guilt to someone still who wished that they were dead? How can you expect them to understand what it’s like to know your baby brother found his father dying? He tried to kill himself in his own bed- who did he think would find the body? Either he didn’t care and there was no point, or he did care, and I was afraid knowing would only drive him over the edge. Again.
Life carried on, and so did I, but just like the memories of that event are hazy, so are the lessons that I learnt from it. Sure, I learned that the greatest mistakes are the ones you refuse to admit that you made, but it was my own mistakes, later in life, that really taught me that. I learnt that life is hard, but it was my own pains that made figure that out, not his. I learnt that someone who tells you that you’re too young to understand is probably underestimating you, but I got that from underestimating people myself.
Surely, I did learn something, but it’s hard to pinpoint what it was.
If there was one true lesson learned that day, it came from what I saw in his eyes, a pain so deep its scarred my insides. His eyes, so like my own, swam with hatred toward himself.
It took me time. It took a lot of anguish, a lot of reading, and a lot of listening, but eventually I looked at that suffering and figured that, even though it exists in all life, all life was not suffering. I discovered that love will hurt, that destruction breeds creativity, that every end will be the start of something new. I learnt that pain, as ugly as it is, can be beautiful, and that it will teach you the greatest lessons, if only you choose to listen to it.
There is always a choice. I choose to live.
Darren Gleeson was born in a city, ancient, and well versed in war. He has a passion for all things history, literature, and language. He likes smiling and taking things apart to find out how they work.
Oates has B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design and M.F.A. from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a Fulbright Fellow for study at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. She has had numerous solo shows in the NYC area at venues including the NYC MTA Lightbox Project at 42nd Street, Susan Eley Fine Art, The Central Park Arsenal Gallery, The Center for Book Arts, The Brooklyn Public Library and at Real Art Ways. Oates has been in group shows at Wave Hill, Prospect Park, The Pen and Brush Gallery, Nurture Art Gallery, Bob Rauschenberg Gallery. Edward Hopper House and the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art.