Sunday, July 31, 2011
This entry isn’t about mindfulness. It’s a little bit of the story of how I got there. As always, my intention is that everyone who reads this will find some benefit. But today, I am also writing directly to my lovely friend, who has just experienced a very difficult loss.
When I was fifteen, my father became very ill, at times gravely so. At the time, his illness was a mystery. Much later, we learned that he had been suffering from the effects of biological warfare that was waged on both sides in the Pacific Theatre of World War Two. His illness became a backdrop to my coming of age. At the same time that I began to taste all of the exciting, joyful and terrible things of adulthood, I watched my father gradually recede from life.
He fought his illness with valor, suffered horribly. By the spring of 1975, shortly after my 18th birthday, he was getting better, and we were preparing for him to come home. My parents were estranged at that time, so his home coming would have been to a solitary home of his own. But we were exhilarated nonetheless that he had turned a corner and my parents, I think, were negotiating some kind of peace. I don’t’ know for sure. My parents didn’t talk about it. What I did know was that my dad was coming home.
One sunny day in June, I went to visit him at the hospital. When I got there, he was sitting on the edge of the bed. At previous visits, he had been laying flat, lifeless almost, barely aware of me being there, unable to speak. This day seemed like a miracle, like something stolen from destiny. He was smiling, laughing with me, his old self.
He talked about a simpler life, about giving up his career in Accounting and making jewelry, which he loved to do. He had been reading Henry David Thoreau, and he recommended it to me, holding up a paperback book to show me. Collected works.
In my childhood, my father never said good bye to me. Whenever we parted he always said “see you later.” This day, I hugged him and turned to leave. I was at the doorway when he called to me, and I turned. I had never seen my father cry. When I turned he was looking right into me, and his eyes were brimming. And he said to me,
The next day, I was alone at home. My mother was at the hospital, with him. I spent the morning by the river, which was only a few feet from our house. Mid-afternoon, I had come in to make something to eat, and the phone rang. It was a nurse at the hospital.
“I’m sorry to tell you,” she said, and then I was on my knees. At 18, I had never experienced an emotion so intense it literally felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach. Oddly, the intensity of the feeling was only half of the experience. The other half was fear, fear that if this feeling kept going, I might not survive it. Somehow I drove forty miles to the hospital and picked up my mother. The only detail I really remember about that day is walking down a long, long hallway to meet my mother. I remember white tiles on the floor, and white lights in the ceiling, passing me in rhythm. I remember blossoms on the plum trees outside that were so brilliantly pink, they seemed un-natural. I remember feeling insulted by their vibrancy.
My father had an intensity, in work and play that was fun to be around, and also sometimes difficult. He carried horror from the war, and his feelings could be explosive at times, and scary. As I grew to adulthood while his life was ending, I began to see that soon I would experience my father as a person, not a parent. I began to see that we would finish. That we would process the hurt feelings and the disappointments that colored my child hood experience of him. We were just beginning to touch that when his life here ended so suddenly, on that sunny afternoon in June of 1975.
Had we gone forward, I’m sure I would have sat on a patio somewhere with my dad, drinking a beer and talking about work, and women, and plans, about despair and hope’s return. About all the things friends talk about. About past hurts, and about forgiveness.
I wasn’t finished with him when he left, and that seemed the cruelest part, in some ways. In the years to come I learned that life never stops, and so when someone leaves, we are never done with them, can’t be. But I also learned in those years that while death profoundly changes a person, it does not end a person. I learned that we don’t have to finish. We just continue.
Many times, I’ve walked with my father down a busy street, or on a wooded path. The process of finishing with my father was not taken from me. I have come to know him as a person, and he is a most remarkable man.
I have also forgiven him.
Once, years after he died, I met him in a wide, flat place where lots of people were passing by, obviously on their way to somewhere, busy. You may call it a vision if you like, but to me it seemed far more natural than that, just as if I had run into him on a street, coming out of a café, maybe, in our hometown of Beaverton, Oregon. Perfectly mundane.
He was his old self, thin, medium height, jet black hair. When he saw me, his face lit up with that smile I remember from my little-boy days. And in the next instant, he was perplexed. How did you get here, he said. And I knew I had stumbled into a place that, while not forbidden, was not an easy place to get to. I told him I didn’t know, but he didn’t seem to care. We talked and laughed, not as father and son, but as old friends who have seen the world together, many, many times.
Then he smiled that engaging, famous smile at me, and he said, “Bob, I’m so sorry, but I have to go.” And then he was gone.
But he wasn’t.
Two months later, in September of that same year, I started my freshman year of college, paid for partly by a benefit my father had earned by fighting in the Great War. I was still stumbling through the days, grieving him, but I started college because I knew what he would have said:
“Do what’s in front of you.”
For five years I was immersed in studying and traveling. I thought about my dad often. The grief mellowed and took up a residence in my Self that added a dimension to me. In a very different form from that day in 1975, I can still touch it. As a man of fifty, death is now familiar to me. Always, it’s the same. A gut-punch that brings me to my knees, then a mellowing, then a deepening, and finally a new relationship with the one who left. The one who, it turns out, didn’t really go anywhere.
In 1989, I was a technical writer, just past thirty, working for a dental company. I had fallen into a life that was not very meaningful, a life that was leaving me wanting. One day, wandering in a used a bookstore, I saw a copy of Henry David Thoreau, collected works. Oddly, it was the very same edition my father had held up to me that day in his hospital room, the last time I saw him alive. Same cover, same thin pages, thin as gossamer. I paid two dollars for it, took it home, put it on a shelf.
Weeks later, I dove in, and barely came up for food and air until I had turned the last page. Thoreau led to Emerson, of course. And then there was Steven Levine, Ram Dass, and the simple, insistent D.T. Suzuki. One day, at the dental company, before my shift started at 8am, I sat on a picnic table outside my office. I sat, simply, put my attention on the sensation of my breath as it touched the very edge of my nose, coming in and going out.
I did it again that night. And my life began to transform. Now, so much later, I’m lost again, and in such terrible pain. But last week, I sat by the river, and watched the breath go in and come out, and I began to change again.
And in my mind’s eye, I saw my father sitting on the edge of a hospital bed, holding up a simple paperback book, thick, with gossamer pages. And him saying to me,
“Have you ever read any of this?”