Dear Harris Boys: I Know What You’re Going Through
By Mike Hess Posted Feb 24th 2010 10:48AM

For Josh and Jake Harris, this February will likely be the worst month they’ll ever have to endure in their lives. Their father — ‘Deadliest Catch’ skipper Phil Harris, who was not only their dad, but their boss — died following a stroke on February 9. The pain and emotional void left by the unexpected and all-too-early passing of a father is indescribable, something incomprehensible for most. Unfortunately, I know firsthand, because as they trudge through the awfulness that is their February, my November was equally devastating when my father passed away.

So, Jake and Josh, while we’ve never met and likely never will, I thought I’d offer what little advice there may be for dealing with something as miserable as what we’re going through.

There are quite a few things about your current situation — and your father Phil — that remind me of myself and my dad. While nobody can be exactly in your shoes, there’s certainly a handful of similarities that bridge us closer than most others. Your dad Phil, who was just 53 when he died, reminds me a bit of my father, Jeff, who passed away at 63 — 10 years apart, but both certainly going well before “their time” … whatever that means. You’re 24 and 26, respectively, and I’m 30, so we’re almost in the same boat.

So, as brothers in loss, here we are.

Our dads were hard-working everymen who knew nothing else but working and providing. They both also would look completely out of character in anything aside from a pair of crusty jeans and work boots. Hair gel and other beauty products never appeared in their toiletry arsenal, unless they were secretly planted there by a wife pleading for them to clean up for a wedding. Your dad was a salty fisherman, and mine was a bloody butcher. When it all boils down, both got paid by providing forms of protein for others to consume and enjoy. Their quiet demeanors made the times when they were truly angry all the more riveting. When my dad yelled, he meant business, and judging from the spats we saw on ‘Deadliest Catch,’ Phil’s red-eyed rants were equally intense.

Firstly, I’ll say this: When a parent passes away, there will be a handful of well-meaning people who say that they understand what you’re going through, or that they get the pain you’re barely able to contain. Unless they’ve experienced it first-hand, they don’t. It’s like visiting a friend in a hospital who just snapped his femur and saying you can relate because you once sprained your ankle.

Both of you were lucky enough to have spent a good chunk of time working alongside your father. For weeks at a time, you worked, lived and experienced everything with your father aboard the Cornelia Marie — and gave the world the gift of watching your family work, fight and laugh on television. His pride in the both of you was blatant, and your adoration for him, even in times of disagreement, was equally prevalent. Few things can bond sons and fathers together like when the kids try their hand at dad’s craft. You two fished with your dad. I worked occasionally with mine in his butcher shop when I was younger. I never made it my full-time job — mostly because he refused to let me, thanks to the hellish hours, low pay and slumping economics of it all — but I’ve rubbed blue-collar elbows with my dad just like you: Learning, watching, observing — bonding. To anyone reading this article who still is lucky enough to have their father with them, I implore you to go out of your way to work with him, whether it’s for a day, a week or longer. It’s a life-altering experience that will be a part of you for eternity. (For more on my times working with my dad, read my funeral day memoriam here.)

It’s now been a little more than three months since my father’s passing, and while there’s copious amounts of memories I have of him, the most vivid ones seared into my psyche are instances where work was involved. It’s that passing-of-the-torch nostalgia that makes those memories essential to me, and I’m sure once you get past the initial shock and disbelief of his passing, you’ll come to find the same in your own lives.

The first month of mourning is clearly the worst. Once you get over the sheer insanity of it all and get slowly back to everyday life, you’ll have those moments where normally your father would in some way be involved, but he can’t be anymore. For me, I’d think about cooking something and want to call him to see what kind of meat he could get me … and seconds later, I’d remember that that nobody was going to pick up if I called. Or if I’d written an article I think he’d get a kick out of, I’d drop him a quick e-mail with a link to it. Now I’ve gotten used to closing that e-mail box before hitting send.

You’ll likely encounter similar instances. Should you go back to your fishing careers, the empty captain’s chair your father once colorfully manned will become not just a jarring memory of him, but a shrine in a sense. Everything you do, see and hear will remind you of him, and some moments will transcend all reality and logic, making you wonder if he’s sending you a message from some other place.

Take, for example, my Valentine’s Day. It never really meant a whole lot to me, but having two older sisters, my dad always had a sentimentality towards it — a total juxtaposition to his brawny, Vietnam Vet, tough guy persona (badass Vietnam photo at right, and yes, that’s a bazooka he’s holding). He’d always come home with chocolates for the three of us, to which I’d always tease him that it was a bit weird giving his son a “Be My Valentine” gift. He’d just shrug his shoulders. I wasn’t looking for a sign from my dad this Valentine’s Day … in fact, for some reason I hadn’t thought about his death that much as the holiday approached. Then, I got the clearest (and literally) most painful sign he was watching me that I’ve had since his death: I pretty much cut off the tip of my thumb.

It was the first cooking injury I’ve had in 10 years (and I cook constantly, so that’s saying something), and for it to happen on Valentine’s weekend was blatantly the twisted and hilarious work of dad. As a butcher, slicing through your hand every now and then was an expected hazard of the job. My dad, ever-resilient, a la Capt. Phil, would generally tend to such wounds with the sterile and doctor-approved use of electrical tape and keep on plowing through his day. Sometimes, though, if the culprit of said wound was the bandsaw or another gnarly instrument, actual doctors were employed to sew him back up.

As I stood at the sink with blood running down my arm and the pain so sharp I could feel it in the back of my eye, I began laughing. “You bastard,” I said aloud, smiling at my dad, thinking that if me slicing through a digit is his new version of patting me on the back or giving me a box of chocolates … I’d be just fine with that.

So, Jake and Josh, as you traverse your way through this hell ride called life, trust me: You’ll eventually find your moments where you can take a step back, look upward and laugh, no matter how much hurt is in your heart (or hand). Life will never be the same, but you’ll learn to live with the pain. It will always be a part of you, like a clicking elbow following a bad fall or how people who have hurt their knees can tell when a storm is coming. It will never be easy or “normal” again, but it’s part of you, now — and part of me as well.

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