The Character Lessons

Picture Credits: remy-penet

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

– W.B. Yeats 

My father wanted to build my character so that nothing could destroy me, not even him. He wanted me to be strong and resilient, confident and self-assured, capable of overcoming any obstacle. My father wanted me to be determined and driven, defying gravity, like a falcon in constant flight.

My father was the falconer. As a fledgeling, I was expected to alight on his outstretched arm, in a flawless landing, rearrange my feathers this way and that. I’d tuck my beak into my bird chest and swallow my girlhood. I called myself Piper. 

But there were many times I could not hear him, his voice lost across the marshlands of childhood. I was practicing my own flight, spinning and turning in a widening spiral. Sometimes the order of things broke down. The fragility of order can quickly fall apart when the forces that hold them together are weakened.

The character lessons were often cruel and volatile, sometimes ruthless and reckless, and typically focused on overcoming fear, pain, or both. 

When summer drew to a close, we trudged through wet fields dotted with tall, stinging nettles and overgrown brambles. As the days grew shorter, we traversed dark, wet bridges made of old rotting wood. We took brisk and punishing walks in the rain against the strident piping of the marsh birds in mid-flight. This was the nature of the training. 

As the nights fell early in October, we ran across the train tracks and through tunnels. The tunnels contained a corrosive material that dripped into the darkness. The dripping sound follows me like footsteps, ringing out in an echo through time.

In November, we walked through the abandoned and vacant parts of town, against the creaking sound of the wooden merry-go-round with the peeling paint. I spin around in an endless rearticulation of the memory of the evening. The memory takes me to the gyre: a never-ending sensation of fear and terror; I am trapped in an eternal interminable moment. 


I learned the word gravitas when I was young, and I quickly came to understand it as meaning something that resists falling or remaining in flight against all odds. I came to see it as persisting in the face of adversity, defying all external forces. I looked up the word in my father’s dictionary with its soft, rustling pages that I could run my fingertips across. I realized that this was the trait my father was trying to instill in me. 

At school, the cultivation of gravitas involved performing tasks that would allow you to exhibit seriousness and sincerity, perseverance and courage. Knowledge was a rehearsal performed in front of others while you swallowed your emotions. Marks were earned based on the degree of the disguise.

At home, exhibiting gravitas meant being a person with presence, who could articulate themselves but also effectively control the emotions of others. My father displayed the trait when he calmly left the kitchen and returned to his study, rather than reacting when my mother threw plates across the room during dinner. His reserved demeanor demonstrated his ability to remain composed and in control of his emotions, even though he had provoked her to the edge of self-control in the first place. He was skilled in making her doubt her own perceptions of reality, always convincing her that she was crazy.


After my mother and brother died within a year of each other, from the cancer and the fall, my father decided to leave England and move to the United States. Leaving behind everything I knew was hard but my father saw it as an opportunity for me to grow up, although I was only 16.

“It’s character building!” he shouted at me through the doorway of an empty apartment in a North American city, shortly after we had left England. I was in tears, terribly homesick, but this was the only way my father was able to address my emotions: dismiss and dismantle; deny and disavow. I was the youngest daughter and had no choice but to accompany him here.

My father’s final act of building my character was to die within five years of moving to the United States. Like all the deaths before and after – my mother and brother and then my sister – this was a pointless death. When the paramedic said he was “in fact” dead, I felt as if the ground slipped beneath me.

My father died unexpectedly on the way to work after suffering a massive coronary event while driving his car. He was 59. The paramedics worked to resuscitate him for a while to no avail. He was gone and the gravitas inside him was gone too, sinking to its lowest point. But they rushed him to the nearest hospital anyway, hoping for a miracle that did not come. The attempts to save his life had themselves been violent and extreme, although executed with the best intentions. 

I wasn’t allowed to see his body. 

“I don’t think that would be the best for you,” the paramedic said as we stood outside the heavy white door behind which my father’s body lay.

“We had to work on him for some time.” 

The euphemisms he used rendered language impossible to understand. Communication and understanding began to break away. I know he was being kind, but I was left to imagine what he did not want me to see: the red cavity of the open chest, the clenched open jaw, the plastic tube winding down the throat, the bruised inert heart. The viscera of my father; the theater of death enacted within his body. I could not unsee what I saw in my mind. 

After he died, things fell apart for me for a period of time; the centre could not hold. The grief turned and turned inside me; I felt detached from things happening around me. Outside there was only chaos, disorder, and a loss of stability in my world. Inside there was silence.

One time I returned home to my apartment and saw there was a fire truck outside because I had left the kettle on. 

“Look mummy! There’s a fire!” my small son had cried out with excitement. He was three. 

I walked to university carrying my father’s briefcase instead of my own satchel; I wore his green felt jacket instead of my own coat. The large jacket hung on my thin frame as if I was a child playing dress-up. I was just twenty-one. 

In time, I slowly returned to inhabiting my own body. I stopped crying the minute I woke up. I felt life returning to me like a small light inside. I began to hear the sounds of the marsh once more: the calls of birds flying overhead, a croaking and chirping of new life, a distant rumble of thunder and the quiet patter of rain on leaves and grasses. One morning, I stretched my thin tapered wings and flew from the window, circling over the rooftops of the houses in an arc of perfect flight.  


My father’s favourite poet was W.B. Yeats. He always quoted the lines from poems to me in the long childhood walks next to the marsh. He had explained how the soul might continue to exist after death which comforted me once the shock of his death began to subside. As well as coming to terms with my own grief, I needed to believe that my father had accepted his own death and whatever lay beyond. To help him accept his own destiny, I recited the lines from a Yeats poem to him one morning: 

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard, I do not love.

When someone dies, they surely take a part of you with them; a part of you is lost. The dead depart with the memories, experiences, and love, leaving us to navigate the world without them. 

You glance over your shoulder to see them but they are not there.

Although my father was gone, the lessons he taught me, although sometimes cruel – unabating like the grief that followed his death – stayed with me. Across the marshlands of time, I hear his voice often, when I walk in the rain against the strident piping of the marsh birds in mid-flight. This was the nature of the training: to inhabit my own gravitas for the time he went beyond the grave. 

Sarah Harley

Sarah Harley is originally from the UK. She works at Milwaukee High School of the Arts where she supports her refugee students in telling their own stories. Her essays have appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Idle Ink, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell Magazine, and elsewhere.

Sarah Harley is originally from the UK. She works at Milwaukee High School of the Arts where she supports her refugee students in telling their own stories. Her essays have appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Idle Ink, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell Magazine, and elsewhere.

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