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Remembrances of My Father

Kirk Bangstad

We’re all sharing pictures of our fathers today, and although it’s tough for me, I want to tell the story of my father from my perspective, not the perspective that is easily google-able.  It’s a story of mental brilliance and mental illness, but the brilliant part often gets left out.

My dad was a professor of choral studies, a university choir director.  His last college conducting job was at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, thus me growing up there.  The earliest memories I have of my dad is watching him direct big works of art from a church pew or university auditorium and being in awe of the majesty happening around me.

In rehearsal, he would drive the choir to be better, always knowing the score inside and out so if there was a question as to what artistic choice should be made, he would give the answer immediately so as not to derail the learning process. 

He was stern but could also crack a joke at the right moment to loosen everyone up.  In short, my dad was in his element when he was in front of a choir, and I always glowed at the end of a concert when I watched the line form to thank him for helping create such great music in a small Wisconsin town. I’ve sung in a lot of professional choirs, and still remember experiencing brilliant euphoric moments under his baton.

Unfortunately, my dad wasn’t in his element when having to deal with people.  For every inspired move he made musically, he seemingly made choices that alienated his colleagues in academia.  He didn’t get tenure at three different universities and ultimately left the profession to help make ends meet as a financial planner.

I think the move out of music started the unraveling of his mind.  He never was good at cold-calling clients, and the pressure of earning a living doing something he hated began to undo him—he showed signs of depression: becoming distant,  watching TV long after we all went to bed, and sleeping all morning instead of going to work.

My mother eventually divorced dad. His depression was undiagnosed but hurting our family finances.  He later remarried an absolute saint who would stick by him through two attempted suicides.  He was always stable with a strong woman beside him.

I stuck with him after the first suicide attempt, doing whatever I could to motivate him to stay on his meds, although the dosage took a long time to get right.  After the second, I wrote him off.  I couldn’t handle the chaos of suicide.  I was in my twenties, still figuring out my purpose, and my level of empathy wasn’t nearly what it is today.

When my step mother passed away from cancer, by dad’s decline seemed steep, although I only allowed myself to hear little portraits of it from my mom, who was the only one of us who kept in touch.

I’m not sure if he could have found stability through therapy and drugs, but without any support network, he eventually ran out of money, fell through the cracks of whatever mental health system existed, and lurched from disaster to disaster until he ended up in a Florida prison where is today.

Is my father a bad guy?  Some would surely say yes.  I see a man who was meant to direct choirs, and without the mental balm gained from utilizing his god-given talents, he lost the ability to navigate his existence.

I’ve tried to help my dad, but the struggles of dealing with my own grief of losing my wife to cancer and of running a brewpub during a pandemic enabled me to push the hard task of doing more for him to the “I’ll get to it” part of my brain instead of the forefront.  Writing this piece is getting me over the hump, however.

Why do I share this story on my campaign page?  Well, I’ve written in earlier posts that I’ve got a lot of baggage that’s gonna look bad if I’m ever a public figure, and I want to expose that baggage on my own terms, not on the terms of someone trying to hurt me.

I also think that politicians need to have empathy for the mentally ill when creating policy, and we need to build a stronger mental health system that keeps people like my dad and those around him safe but out of crowded prisons when they’re really not criminals.

How many times after a mass shooting have we heard from the far right that we have a mental health problem instead of a gun problem?  Ok, so if that’s the case, what has the right done to improve our mental health system?  I may be wrong, but I suspect not much. They’re not known for increasing budgets for government programs not associated with policing or war.  This mental health lip service merely allows us to ignore the fact that we have a gun problem in this country.

So happy Father’s Day everyone.  As you’re celebrating your fathers, I’ll be focusing on the memories of being in awe of beautiful singing and proudly watching my father in his musical element, where he was meant to be.

Written by Kirk Bangstad on 06/21/20

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