It was about this time last year that the first news of my father’s illness came to me. I was in a workshop, semi-secluded, when the call came from my sister that Dad was in ER. We were days away from a certificate of occupancy on The Vicarage, coordinating a move from a storage unit and a house, three cats, two cars, and a mountain of little things to finish before we could hang a hanger. I raced frantically toward the hospital, 90 minutes from the workshop to find out that our lives would be completely altered henceforward.
From then onward, until he passed 11 weeks later, it was a steady stream of days on the road, staying at his house, taking care of cats, Dad, bills, finances, and a whirlwind of legal and ethical and financial questions that I wasn’t at all sure of. I don’t think that I’ve seen anyone, short of Doyle’s mother Anna Marie, go to that long home with affairs in any sort of order. I don’t think my father’s affairs were a mess – but still… finding his first divorce certificate (he was married to a woman ten years before mom?) buried in his enlistment and discharge military papers was a bit of a shock. I knew he was in the Navy but also the Air Force? And why he never signed up for Veteran’s Benefits, I may never know. Not really. I digress. The physical stuff is, for the most part, finished. A few loose ends.
But here we are, a year from the onset, and I struggle a lot more inwardly now, with my own mortality. You are flooded with offers of grief assistance and counseling when a loved one passes, especially if there was hospice care. Quite honestly, I don’t think you need it then. I think the day to day shouldering of dealing with the messy materialism consumes you. It’s easy to push everything aside until you’ve dotted the last I and crossed the last T. Push. Push. Push. Until, really, you slow down and start thinking about your own mortality. You start to think about how your body is failing you, not doing what it used to do, or that it’s maybe something wrong with you, you’d better check it out. You think about the pain and suffering you saw and start applying it to your own short remaining years on earth. It’s not that I dread death. It’s the dying part that is messy. I think the grief counseling is something you should do six months after a loved one dies, not right then. I don’t need to be pulled off a cliff and I’m not sure that most people do. I need to be saved from the quicksand of my own mind later on.
I recently attended that same workshop again, with people that I love and cherish. There’s a lot of talk about mortal existence and how we live our life. How we live our life. How we think about our day to day, the choices that we make, the equality that we all have, the toleration for others and dealing with the oppressors of freedom and truth. We talk about things far greater than ourselves and how we, as small specks of humanity can help further the progress of humanity. Working on perfecting humanity. These are a lot of words to think about, when you think about death and dying, and how short our lives here really are.
It’s also hard to think about those things when your ankle hurts or you sprained your wrist doing the dishes, or maybe when you wake up from a bad dream, something you can never remember from your youth. It’s easy to get caught up in the physical and emotional pain of living. I think this is how most of the world works, living day to day, thought to thought with the ideas never really rising above the surface for a bit of fresh air. These workshops remind me that there is more, and there are better goals we can all achieve. If I can get out of my own way. The physical pain is generally temporary. The angst of living an unlived life, I think, is probably far greater. I don’t want to be that person. I used to say I don’t want to regret anything when I die. I’ve learned that we will all regret something. It’s about minimizing those regrets that seems most important. Have I done all in my power to make the world a better place? Even if I have to take Advil to do it?
Spring seems like the perfect time to pull yourself out of the mire of a year’s worth of mourning. A year’s worth of inward focus on pain and suffering. It seems like it’s time to take a little joy from the flowing Bleeding Hearts or the small bit of green that shows on my hydrangea. I saw a hummingbird for the first time today, whizzing past my window to land on our feeders we just put out. The house is settling, the mourning is settling. Perhaps it’s time I did, too, and just enjoy the warmer days, the beautiful green trees, and the fact that I have the opportunity to wake up and work on the world, aches, pains, and all. Take the days while they are here, because the Night comes when not one of us can continue to work.
I am laughing at myself. Seriously laughing. I bugged my lovely spouse to put together my new incline trainer because, come the new year, it’s time to work it. News flash: the new year isn’t news. It’s the same as every other day of the year, with the slim exception that the majority of the nation I live in celebrates it as a new beginning, too. It’s a new fiscal quarter, and for some, a new fiscal year. Stores here are open, partially, and stores are closed as well. It’s no different than any other day.
And yet, here we are treating it as if it was a brand new you from yesterday. You all of a sudden have the tools and skills, will power and desires to make your dreams come true. You are a super hero now, all brightness, light, and perfection. Day three rolls around and somehow, you’re actually the same person you just were four days ago, with the exception that you now sign your checks with a new year.
“Downer, Kris.” So much for hope. So much for passion and enthusiasm. So much for a new beginning. I guess this is part Debbie Downer speaking. But… not really,
What I mean is that NOW is the time we should be thinking about how we want to take on the new year, and what commitment we’re really making to the world, ourselves, and the people around us. I just read another blog on “The Best Version of Ourselves,” wherein the author updates her essay each year, about what this year should be to her to achieve the best version of herself. She said she realized that her desire to eat well, sleep enough, and train hard were ends unto themselves; or, at least, she treated them so. What she really figured out was that they were a means to an end, which allowed her to do the things that really made a difference. They were the foundation to that better life to achieve…more.
In other words, we mix up goals for tasks, the pinnacle from the foundation, and the destination for the journey. The goal is to be able to be of service. The tasks to get there are to have a healthy body, mind, spirit, and emotional state. We achieve that goal by ensuring the tasks are complete. Or at least, setup.
That’s what I’m really talking about. I’m taking the time between Christmas and New Years to reset my mind to the goal, not the individual tasks. It is a journey, AND a destination. How am I going to do that? I’ll do it by driving Doyle crazy and cleaning out all the junk food. If it’s there, I will eat it. I’ll do it by getting my butt out of bed 1/2 hour earlier and get downstairs to the new gym – it’s 300 ft away – come on! I’ll do it by making sure I do get enough sleep every night, whenever I travel or when I’m at home. I’ll do it by controlling my blood sugar and exercising my mentality by reading more, and writing even more. Those are the foundations. And you know what? I’m going to stumble. I’m going to sleep in late every once in a while, I’m going to stay up too late talking with Christine, and I will eat that Irish soda bread that I can only get at the Phoenix, once in a while. It’s not about perfection. It’s about striving for that best version of myself. She may not always show up, but she’s there.
I have friends and family to help, I have a neighborhood of lovely people to support me getting out of my house, and I have a lovely spouse who no matter what, is right beside me – whether we’re together or not. The best version of myself can show up this year, and every year, if I let it. It’s not about pain to get there – it’s about the pleasure of finding the right path and dancing along its ups and downs.
The author I noted above has a toast that she and her husband give every year, every New Year’s Eve from the sound of it. I like it. I’m sharing it with you, because maybe you can remind me when I need it.
Here’s to the road behind; may we only have to learn those hard lessons one time.
Here’s to the road ahead; may we find better versions of ourselves.
And here’s to this moment, right now, which is perfect in every way…
It’s not new, or news – but Happy New Year, just the same.
After a particularly ugly night of un-sleep, I woke up to a gray morning. It looked how I felt. I was hungry, even though the stomach was still reeling. I sat in a gray scoop chair and looked out the window onto the pine forest and rocky slopes. It is the day after Solstice, and the Light returns. I feel like it’s slowly coming back in my life, too. An intense feeling of relief, gratitude, love, and beauty flooded my being. I felt, feel, truly content.
I wonder at times what happy is. What is “happy?” There’s laughter, and joy, tinged with the sense of mirth. Is that happy? I wonder if happy is this ethereal state that we strive for, in our American culture, where we’re not content until we or the people around us are “happy.” Can we settle for content, or even blessed?
I was thinking about the split personality of the year. On Solstice proper, I was thinking of Cernunnos, the Celtic God of the forest, fertility, the underworld, wealth, animals, and wildlife. Wildlife. I dove into reading about him as I was looking at the Solstice ceremonies performed for thousands of years. The two horns of Cernunnos may depict the two sides of the year, full of darkness or full of light. Involution and Evolution. Doyle walked in while I was thinking about all of this and said, “Did you know that the pause in the amount of light and darkness, that three days at the Winter Solstice, did you know it only occurs in Winter? There’s no visible “stop” in the Summer Solstice. It makes sense if the Summer is about evolving and the Winter is about involving. It’s reflective, soft, contemplative, passive, yin, black. It’s the snow fall and hush of the trees. It’s beauty overwhelming.
This romp through the linguistics of the name Cernunnos took me to Proto-Indo-European language forms, and into Dis Pater, the god of the underworld, where we are spending these three days until the Light returns. Dis Pater is thought to come from Dyeus or Dyeus Phter, the chief deity of the Prot-Indo-Europeans. He was the god of the Daylight Sky, a mirror to what occurred on Earth; the Sky Father. The name is etymologically linked to Jupiter, Apollo, Zeus, Zio, and also known as Akasha. It is most likely the Roman who split Dyeus Phter from its original roots into Sky Father and God of the Underworld. What better way to banish an old religion than to banish it to the darkness?
By the time the Rig Veda was written, Dyeus Phter was already old. It predates written history in thought and form, and it has permeated through so many human cultures that it most likely a faint copy of its original splendor. I think of the Silmarillion when I think of this. I think of the beginning of the light found in the beginning of the world and how, over time, it was a faint copy of the original. The archetype is lost and only a small seed remains of the original light. It’s bright and beautiful and yet, so faded. Perhaps we can only slightly comprehend what the original meaning was. Yes, I think about all these things. I think of what we’ve lost, and what we’ve replaced it with in our culture. It’s the big things that stir in me during Solstice.
I think about being “happy” and laugh. How thin a mindset is that? I think about what we’re becoming, and how to be in this world better than we are. I think these three days of involution are just fine and perfect, if we use them correctly. If I use them correctly. It’s a short window from which to plant the right seed in fertile soil. In Cernunnos’ hand. Today we walk up the road and down, to visit neighbors, to embrace the snowy silence of a forest waiting. It’s waiting for the Light to return, as are we all. Perhaps that is the better question to ask: what is Light? What will I do with the Light that returns and how can I bring it back to our modern age? Perhaps it just starts with me. Perhaps that is all I can do. I will not wish for peace because I think that is futile. I will not wish for happiness because that is fleeting and unsure. I will wish for Light evolving. It seems to me to be in sync with what the Earth is already doing.
There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from. – Elizabeth Kubler Ross
At the end of the year, I always do my goals. Always. Since 1984. Really. I tend to think back to what some of those first goals were: “learn how to cook,” “learn how to cook well,” “spend time with family,” or the ever elusive and completely ubiquitous, “get fit.” At the time, I was 21. Over the years, things have gotten more complex, and easier. I actually know what a “goal” is and what a task is, and how to set them better, for myself and others. I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, probably more than is normal or healthy. I think about achievements and setbacks, I think about what ifs, and how could I do whatever it might be better. I love this time of year. Autumn to Winter is for reflection.
This year, I spent a great deal of time thinking about death, and life, for all the obvious reasons. I think it’s healthy to think about our own mortality. And, let’s be honest: we all think about it at some point. When I was 13 or 14, I was terrified of dying. I would stop and think, someday I’m going to stop breathing. I’m going to not have my heart beat like this. My mind will not be…churning, thinking of goals. I will cease. If we’re honest with ourselves, that is scary if we have no other prospects. I won’t have this life any more. I think I might have said all of this before, but hang in there, it goes somewhere else I’m pretty sure.
Fortunately, I was in an English Skills for College class, and Mr. Curran was adamant that we learn how to write a term paper. I used this as an opportunity to write that paper on “Life After Death.” I delved, plunged, and sunk into everything I could find about death other than what I knew from the standard, suburban bible studies. I read Elizabeth Kubler Ross, a pioneer in death and dying in the modern age, as well as the Bardo Thodol or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Raymond Moody, another life-after-death pioneer. I listened to psychics and read “What Dreams May Come.” I read about near-death experiences and talked with religious people about what they believed via their religion.
What I found is that once I had an idea of what I felt, intuited to be true, I came to conclusions and beliefs that suited me. I wrote that paper with passion. I wish I still had that paper; I let Mr. Curran keep that paper for future classes. My pride overrode the thought of any future reference. Yet, the future reference was inside of me – I had integrated that into my mind and heart, and thus began my love affair with philosophy, death, religion, and spirituality. It also taught me that those that are most of afraid of death and dying do not contemplate it until the time is upon them, at which they have no construct to explore. In their horror, they simply cease to be. So, yes, I felt pretty stable about what I have come to believe for myself.
Until this year. I’ve known and loved people that have passed before; my mother, JB (a co-writer with me), my grandparents, school acquaintances, beloved pets, and work colleagues have all left my life. Some I have cried for my own loss, and some of the loss to the world. For some, I never cried and in my detachment, I had wonder at that. I think the difference, now, is that I’m closer to my own mortality than I had been previously. I’m on the other side of my life, rather than on the uphill climb.
Had I been smart and conscious, I might have realized that I could have died at any time. Poof. Gone. Now, I know. Now, I think about it. Dad went relatively fast, from life to non-life. Faster than I might have been ready to deal with. And for a person who has handled so many things, been in charge and in control, it was icy water splashed in my face. Hey! WAKE UP!
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
At the same time all was happening with my father, I began rereading Epictetus and Zeno – the Stoics. I realized a while ago that while I love neo-Platonism from a spiritual perspective, I feel more like a Stoic. I think that my basic way of being is more stoic. People in my past might be laughing right now. That’s fine. I was not very thoughtful as a young adult – I was much more animated and, as HR likes to say, “passionate” about things. Now, the pendulum does not swing so wildly. My breadth of emotional response is far smaller. I feel, of course. I just don’t emote as…fervently. However, emotion isn’t all there is about stoicism. There are some principles of stoicism that authors have examined. The interesting thing is that none of the philosophers who we acknowledge as stoics have listed these principles in some sort of writings. Perhaps the closest is Marcus Aurelius, followed by Seneca.
I particularly love Marcus Aurelius…
Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to mine, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of divinity, I can neither be harmed by any of them, nor no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my brother, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
In essence, it’s about what we as humans can control. Many of us, including me, are fond of saying that we can only control ourselves. However, most of us do not. We think that by thinking and worrying and emoting, we can actually change those things around us. A very good book about this is “The Untethered Soul,” by Michael Singer. He wrote a follow-on, autobiographical book titled “The Surrender Experiment.” I digress, sort of. We cannot change the fact that we will die. It is a foregone conclusion. That we know of it makes no difference; it will happen at some time as we are flesh. All we can do, to quote Gandalf, is “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So, I decide by writing goals. By deciding how I want to leave the world, how I want my one moment of breath in the long scheme of living beings in the universe to matter. I don’t want to spend my time thinking about the latest pop song, what some scheming politician has or is doing, or what I’m going to wear to look “presentable” for something. I want to be who I am and I want the long term, the big vision, the whole heart. I do think about those small things that happen around me almost as a matter of course. My brain picks them up and stores them, for some unknown crazy reason. But what I think most about is how the world will look in 5000 years, or 10000 years, and what will humanity’s path be, and what will be left after the earth rebuilds itself from our mark. I also think about 10000 years ago, and how far humanity has come, what we’ve invented and what paths we take. I think of this in a very Matrix-like mentality, like it’s a game that we’re all playing. I don’t say that outloud to many people, so you get to hear it here. I do think of life as a bit of a game, laughing at the seriousness with which we all go about our daily lives and emotional hiccups. Laughing at myself for buying the September Vogue and then thinking, really? Let’s think about something that actually matters… then laughing again because that’s just what matters to me. The circle of awareness expands. Maybe I don’t think that way when I’m the depths of humanness, crying for my dying cat or frustrated at family, I admit it. There is a part of playing human that we all have to do. I do, though, find myself lifting out of the depths some times and, like Trinity at the end of the Matrix, lifting above the clouds to see the possibilities of all Life and existence – the great game that we’ve all bought into playing, whether we believe it or not. What we believe is irrelevant, – belief will not let us control the outcome. It is what it is.
All very Stoic.
So, I write goals to play my human part and to participate in the world that we’ve created, nurtured, and sometimes destroy. My goals are lofty and pedestrian, sometimes in equal measure. It helps me keep playing the game and yes, part of that is playing the death part, too. I want us to all be a little less afraid of dying and death. It’s part of the game, after all. If nothing ever really leaves the material universe, we never really leave. We just come back as a new player, a new pawn or queen, knight or bishop, or perhaps the King. Maybe we come back as the board, the air, or the time clock, or maybe all three. Does it matter in the great adventure? Goals tickle my humanity and make it feel important. I know, though, that I’m not. We’re all not. And we are. We’re part of the game, part of the Matrix, and it won’t matter what pill you really take, will it?
That’s how I choose to end this year. On a Stoic’s note, as it were. Enjoy this, and laugh. ( Love this cartoonist… 🙂 )
To all of you, Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Yule, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Mithrasmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy days off, and most of all Happy New Year. May it be filled with laughter and love for the Great Game in which we all play a part, and filled with the Virtue toward which we aspire.
P.S. – I love this wheel of Stoicism, this compass. Sailing on the Sea of Life.
This is Thanksgiving day, and I am Hiding. Hiding from the world at large, not any one thing in particular. I am no different than a lot of people, facing a year of challenges. Usually, I’m not one to reflect on how “tough” or “terrible” something has been. I usually not one to reflect on much of anything. I think forward, and this does a disservice at times, I think. I forget how much of the world has affected me and what I have done to affect it, over time. Hiding is something I do to try to get myself back on the rails of life, moving forward as it were. I need to look back to look forward.
This Thanksgiving is a different one for me. No family dinner. No overstuffed turkey or gelatinous cranberry loaf on my table. We went to a place where no one knows us, where we can just do f*** all, as I’ve been wont to say lately. Get up late, don’t stress over the cell phone or emails, turn off notifications, sleep when I want, write, and think.
There’s a lot of thinking that goes on in Hiding. One of the things that I do every year is a set of goals. I usually start it around my birthday and work on it for a few months, until I feel good about where I’m going. It struck me the other day that I haven’t done that. My birthday came and went and not a glimmer of goal was to be found. So, we have gone into Hiding and I want to explore this with Doyle. We packed a bag and took a train, and went away with proverbial pen in hand.
One thing that struck me this year was that we accomplished one of our major life goals: we built our forever house. We moved in. This is what we had spent the better part of our lives working toward for decades. And there it is. Complete. Lovely. Ours. It’s what we’ve dreamed of and worked hard to achieve. We made it. A creation for decades to come and to share when we’re gone.
Now what? That was the question that kept coming to me. On the train ride up into the mountains, there was an abundance of beautiful land, bald eagles, deer crossing streams, and sheer wonder at nature. Now what? I don’t know. I am not sure.
I was surprised by one comparison that jumped to my mind: my father died as I was completing the house which is, to me, a major life commitment. My mother died as I was releasing my first book, becoming a Freemason, and divorcing my ex. Another set of major life changes/commitments. It’s like the universe had to help me shift my reality to be able to see a new life ahead.
Unfortunately, right now, I don’t know what that life is. I still feel plodding, stuck in a weird mire of apathy, fear, and meaninglessness. I search on the inside for some deeper feeling, something to connect me with life – with Life and Nature – and I’m struggling. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first time I’m the adult, I’m the matriarch, I am the holder-together-of-the-family-left. It’s a job that is extremely challenging for me. Hiding tugs at me. Yet, the Need does as well. The Need? The need to grow, the need to be the best version of myself, the need to create, the need to laugh and find joy, and the need to have purpose. I’m full of others telling me I have purpose – but I need to feel it. The Need.
I know that everyone deals with these things, I’m just in the soup with all the rest of you. I am fiercely independent and want to find my own way, no one helping me. That’s freedom, to me. Yet, I know that asking for help is freedom, too. I’m learning not to be shy, not to shy away from the hand that is offered. I would not have made it this year if I had not reached out and grasped those hands. It was hard for me to do – not because I didn’t see the need, no. It was because I was afraid of committing more of myself to relationships that would take work. More of me would be lost.
This weekend is going to be filled with conversation and questions, eating, and sleeping. More of digging into what I love and what I Need. Hiding brings me to balance, where the Need can raise its head and make itself known. I don’t know where this next segment of life journey will take me. Probably on a train back home with a few less questions roaming around in my head and heart. Most certainly to a new life that will rise from the ashes of the past. Isn’t that always the way?
It’s been a little over three months since my father passed. I asked Doyle today, on the way to the airport, if it’s weird that I just keep remembering Dad’s face right after he died, and playing the moment of his last breaths in my head over and over again. I remember the heat of the living room and the lack of weirdness in walking through the room with him lying in bed, waiting for the nurse to finish her work. It’s not something I dwell on, not really. But there’s these surprise random moments where memories of that day pop in and make me think; moments that give me clarity of emotion that surprises me. It surprises me because I have a thick wall of “coping” with things that happen. I can function, life does not impede me. Yet. Yet. I walk up to that moment in my mind and I can’t quite cross into it. The large of it all stops me.
I keep receiving letters from the TRU hospice care facility, the people that helped me take care of my dad. Most of the time, they are letters for grief counseling. Sometimes a random person has given a gift to them in his name. The latter is easier to read, of course. I tend to be dismissive of the former. I don’t need that. I am fine. See? I can function perfectly well, thank you very much. Life does not impede me.
But life is impeding me. No. Death is impeding me. Is this something I’m supposed to go through? Should I scamper up that dark wall and drop into the Mordor of feeling? Is it that I can’t face my own death? Is it that I just feel like it’s all futile anyway, I mean, why bother? Can’t I just make this grief time thing shorter so I can get on with things and forget the past? Can I be snarky and harsh and critical of me, of him, of life?
I find myself being overwhelmed more easily these days. Dealing with change in one’s life is one thing but dealing with change and with estate filings, that’s another. I find myself caring for my siblings more than I thought I would, but I don’t know why. Yes, I do. I think I’m responsible to make sure they have what Dad wanted them to have, as quickly and as easily as possible. I worry that something will go horribly wrong. What? I have no clue. Like, I’ll miss something important. I find myself dealing with twelve things at once, like life insurance, escrow, car titles, bank accounts, and dinner for Doyle and me. Grocery shopping and lawyer’s bills, electricity payments for two houses, and wondering if my actions will cause anyone else harm. Are my cat’s okay and did I pay Dad’s electrical bill? And traveling… traveling for my avocation, traveling for my vocation, and making sure that I am still unpacking boxes in my new house so I can finally live there.
Dad’s house is in escrow, the estate sale has come and gone. A roof will be put on soon, to replace some hail damage. The car has been paid off and is being sold and the garage is cleaned out. The remnants of a life have dispersed to the four winds of heaven. Memory is all I have. Sort of. Even that is a little shot these days.
It’s no wonder I’m crabby. I get it. I can intellectually see it’s a lot. But. Someone’s got to do it.
This too shall pass, and I tell myself that often. I tell myself that phrase when the world seems dull, that I miss humanity and can’t stand them. I tell myself to move on, when I feel lonely and living out of a suitcase. I play games on my iPad to pass the time and fret that I am not more productive. I wonder why that happens – making an impact on the world seems less shiny. Less pretty. Less useful. It’s easier to hide. It’s easier to be dull and move on with the day to day.
I ask myself often why am I here? Why are any of us here?
I have learned a lot about dying and death, and I hope to make mine a lot easier on whomever is around at the time I go. There’s so much you can’t conceive of, and the ones who have dealt with it before know what I mean. I know you’re out there, and yet, you all survived. Happily, it appears. Maybe that is the illusion. Maybe that is what we don’t talk about enough and should: surviving a loved one’s death. The world is just all weird. My apathy is growing at the same time my sense of self is shrinking. Why should the death of a parent, or anyone close to you, trigger this kind of backing up into the dank, garbage-filled alley of fear?
I don’t think it’s fear. Really. I think that there’s something that happens to you, over time, if you don’t walk through grief with people who are alive and in your life. There’s a kind of crystallization of feeling. Emotions feel disjointed, out of step with what you are living. You sense everything from a great distance and the closer you come to really feeling something, the less you remain…you. I’ve done some soul searching, some grief… a little bit. Not nearly enough, I think. In the honesty of the moment, I wonder if I am resentful of the fact that I would spend tears and time on someone who I’m not sure felt depth of feeling for me. For all his goodness, he didn’t really connect with me. It is interesting how much I found out about my father and his family after he passed. My grandfather on dad’s side was adopted, and his name was Lawrence Comfort. He was adopted by the Bakers, so they of course changed my grandfather’s last name. Huh. Found my father’s first divorce papers, including the name of the woman. Elizabeth. He buried them in his military records, reminders of his time in the Service that went wrong. Did you know that some insurance companies what you to put all marriages someone has? I didn’t. Good to know but certainly something for shaking out the skeletons in closets. Dad never shared. He never talked. Even in those last weeks, when I was desperate to be there for him, sitting by his bedside. He never really spoke. Not about what mattered.
There is resentment, I can feel it, and part of me feels ashamed of it. Ashamed that I should feel resentful of a man who took care of me when I was a child. I wonder if being adopted makes it different? Who knows?
I think, more than anything in these last few months, I’ve learned to say “thank you” to people who say I’m sorry for your loss. Part of me thinks they don’t really mean it and, when it comes down to it, maybe neither do I. I don’t like being the object of someone else’s pity/grief/sad feelings. It makes me uncomfortable. Like I don’t deserve it. I say thank you so I can quickly move on to the business at hand, whatever it may be. I don’t want kindness. I don’t want empathy. I’m not sure what I want. I do know all that empathy/sympathy/grief makes it hard to create the shell that allows you to deal with day to day things. It’s as if saying “I’m sorry” tries to poke holes in its fragile membrane. I want to scream, Leave me alone! I don’t let many people in – that’s very controlled. If you think you know me, you should know you only have one face of me. The rest are tightly sealed up in a box, in the back of a closet, where only one or two have the key. You know who you are, I hope.
What have these three months taught me? Life. They have taught me life and death and life, which is all just life. It’s all a cycle, over and over, until we get off the Ferris Wheel of human karmic debt and experience. Don’t worry about me. I will be like the all-the-rest-of-us who lose a loved one and have to still keep breathing in this sublunary abode. We all do this. My journey might be mine, and unique, but it’s a journey each of us has or will take.
This piece of writing has taught me that I am a mirror of my father: closed up, walled off, coping with the day to day so I don’t have to share the humanity of it all. He closed off, I felt resentful because I wanted the Truth of him. It can only teach me that I shouldn’t wall off me, because there might be you who feels resentful of me for not sharing. God forbid. I’m human. Go figure.
I’m sorry if this was a raw moment for you. It certainly is for me, if necessary. I wanted to share what I was feeling and thinking with those of you who came on the journey with me and my dad. Writing is the best way I know how to deal with this and will probably do this every so often, to let you know what’s come up. I hope you don’t mind me sharing. I think perhaps more of us should do that, so that more of us can get on with it. With Life. With living. I may not say it nearly enough – thank you. And I love you in my own silent way. Maybe that is the key to all this: take away the shields and be myself, and not the silent, unyielding voice of my father.
For those of you who read all through Dad’s Journey posts, when I was staying with him during his last days, I wanted to write a little bit more about the past week. It was a week ago, on the 5th, that he passed. There’s been a lot that I’ve been processing, so I thought I would do a true post-mortem, a share about my exploration of his life that I have discovered in the past week.
First, let me say that one of the good things that has happened has been that we, Doyle and I, have grown closer to my sister and her husband. She said “I feel like I understand you better.” I could say the same about her. She’s known me at my worst and at my best, and I’ve probably known her the same. I’m feeling freer to be me around her, and I think the same is true for her. In this sense, something new has grown out of dad’s passing.
The first day was just strange. I always thought it might be weird to be in the room with someone who had died. It wasn’t. In fact, it seemed rather (oddly) natural. The nurse came, an associate pastor that my father loved was there, and a social worker showed up. The TRU Hospice worker that had walked me through things, Jessica, was back on the phone with me and telling me “you did well.” It didn’t register. I felt like I had run a race and all the people who are supporting you show up after the finish line to give you water, help you walk it off. It still felt frantic. I thought at any moment that he might sit up and say, “just kidding.” I certainly expected him to keep speaking, in some fashion. It’s as if your brain just can’t turn off a life. It needs time to process.
After the mortuary attendants came to the house and picked dad up, it simply felt quiet. Peaceful. I sat on the couch and reveled in the peace. I was hoping he felt the same. There was an expectancy of…something… like an exhalation that came after holding your breath for so long. I wasn’t sure what to… do. So, I sat and waited for time to pass. I had planned on spending that night there because I knew we would have to continue to do more work there over the next few days. I think I asked myself several times, “what do I do now?”
After the last of the people left, including Doyle, I walked back into the house, closed the door, locked it, and said, “well, it’s just you and me, Dad. Well, and the cats.” I felt like I needed to talk with him, or whatever energy was left of him. I was a little numb and exhausted but read a little before going to bed. I slept a dreamless sleep.
The next day. The next day was about assessing. What is the measure of a life? What is one supposed to do when you have new things to care for? It’s like someone abandoned a baby at my door and now I had to care for it. These things were alien to me.
My sister arrived; she started taking down the pictures throughout the house, as well as mementos that said “dad was here.” Things started being sifted through, moved around, discarded, or appropriated. We took it slow, measured, thoughtful to some extent. Each of us took a room and the day went quickly. What to keep? What to discard? What should we do with x? What did it mean to us? What did it mean to him? It was a mental shell game, trying to find meaning in things.
I was staying, one more night, because we had the cats to think about and, well, more things to do. I wondered if my father was still “around” and I sat quietly on the couch that night, thinking of what he might think about what we were doing. There’s a sense that I wanted him to care; honestly, though, I don’t think he did. I think he had already moved on.
The next morning, as the walls were bare and the items started being packed up, the house felt plain. It felt as if it was a just-built tract home, the remnants of my father’s life were peeling away and little remained. I thought about what a life is, and what we leave behind. As creative beings, when our house is emptied, what will be left of us? For my father, it was us children. There were no photos, writings, books, paintings, or other “works” to say, “here’s my view of this earth,” or “here’s what I want to impart to the world.” My father was not a creative man in the arts but he did have a way with metal, steel, and gadgets. He loved to work with his hands at mechanical things. Doyle just recently said, “your father had a way with tools.” Sometimes it takes a different set of eyes to assess those close to you; I had never thought of my father in that way but yes, it was true.
All of this, of course, made me reflect on my own legacy. What was I leaving behind? How will history judge me? Or will it even bother? I do think there is a drive inside of each human being to create and in that creation, we enhance humanity. It may be a gift of art, or a gift of tool use, or the children we bear, or the material we bequeath. Is any of it better or worse than anything else? Probably not. What my father left behind was not art, not material things. He left a legacy of “can do,” of trying a variety of things and not being stuck in a rut or a hole. His walls might have been “Navaho White,” but his heart was as colorful as his ideas.
It’s hard not to judge your loved ones by your own standards and I have to say that perhaps for a good deal of my life, I did judge my father by my standards. It was wrong to do so, and hey, dad, I’m sorry that I did that. I should have celebrated who you are and what you were doing, and what you wanted to do. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree because I knew my father did the same thing with me. In the end, I will remember sitting quietly with him while we talked about old TCM movies and big band music and the Marx Brothers. Dad loved Hallmark Christmas movies and angels. Judgements, be damned.
All that is left now is the material hubbub that comes with closing out a life. These are the things that matter little and yet occupy so much time. I’ll take some time, look at old pictures, and perhaps create space in my own mind for the life that was my father, and help keep him colorful in heart and spirit. His birthday is coming up, on August 15th. I think I’ll make dad’s favorite, apple pie, and raise a cup of coffee (he didn’t drink!) in his honor. For those of you on the journey with me, feel free to do the same. And send pictures of your apple pie. Dad would have liked that. He would have laughed.
Dad’s Journey has ended now except inside of us. I hope you stay with me on mine and let’s share this life together.