My Dad’s final gifts

10 07 2009

My Dad died last week.  And, in dying he has succeeded in getting me to do the one thing he always wanted me to do:  Slow down.

Slow down to experience his death fully…not as a project to be managed, but as a precious gift that, at last, opened the box of our relationship as father and son.

Talk about the universe throwing you an unexpected right hook (Dad was a former Golden Glove boxing champion…I couldn’t resist!).

You see, Dad and I weren’t close.

There wasn’t any animosity or anything.  And it wasn’t personal.  He wasn’t really close to anyone.  Eventually, we settled into a nice little routine where I had lunch with him at least once each time I went to Dallas.  We had the same conversation each time (weather, sports, family—always that order).  It may not have looked like a lot to the outside observer, but for us…it was enough.

Dad and I even were blessed with a great farewell lunch (though neither of us knew it at the time, at least I didn’t).  It was this past Thanksgiving.  Never being able to say he was proud of me, Dad DID say he was happy for my decision to become a writer.  He even said that “maybe someday, I’ll meet your friend” (that would be my husband).  I told him that I loved him.  As him.

After my sister called with the Hospice news, I sat down with that final memory and told myself that I’d take a day or two to sort through the other weaves of our 43-year journey together.   I quickly realized that there wasn’t much sorting to do.  To borrow a line from my old friend, Gerry, when it came to Dad and me, “there just wasn’t much ‘there’, there”.

At least that had always been the official version.

That night, I started crying… unexpectedly AND uncontrollably.

I went upstairs to the study and lit a candle for Dad.  And I cried. And cried.  More than I have ever cried in my entire life.

Eventually, I saw Dad.  He was covered in vines.

They were the vines life foists upon us.  Broken dreams.  False hopes.  Unfulfilled promises…that we had made to others, and they had made to us.

The vines were more alive than Dad…and they were weighing him down.  His face was at once both resigned and terrified.

“It’s ok Dad,” I said.  “Put down the vines,” I told him.  “They’re not clinging to you.  You’re clinging to them.”

I’ll never know if he did or didn’t.  But I do know what happened next.

Suddenly, I was in the house I grew up in.  On Lake Haven Street.  It was the holidays.  I was sitting next to the Christmas tree (artificial, of course, these were the 70’s!).  And I was waiting for Dad to come home and do the only thing Mom ever asked him to do with the tree:  hang the lights.  Now, when we were kids, my sister and I told ourselves we wanted him home because once the lights were up we could hang even MORE ornaments from their wires.  That night, as I sat crying in my house in Boston—so many years and lifetimes away from Lake Haven—I realized that, at least for me, we wanted him home so we could be a family.

And, then, I knew that was never meant to be.  At least not for me.  At least not for my family.

It was an illusion.  A vine that I had carried with me my whole life…just in case it ever came true.

And then, I saw the figure covered in vines again.  Only, this time, it wasn’t Dad.  It was me.

Turns out, when you reached below life’s surface to its true “hidden harmony”, as Heraclitus calls it, Dad and I were quite close, one and the same in many ways.  Unhappy with what we saw as our hand in life, we created illusions to fill perceived gaps.

Illusions around family, around friends, around work.  Around us.

And, the gift of Dad’s death was to show me that he wasn’t the only one who could drop those vines.  I could, too.

And so I did.

Now, if you haven’t done it, let me tell you:  the sound of shattering illusions is deafening, unsettling, terrifying….and freeing.

I slept full of gratitude that night…gratitude for my father.  It was the first time I had ever paired those words together.

As I drummed the following morning, I again saw Dad (this time sans-vines).  We were moving towards each other.  Neither of us had much shape at all.  At one point, our finger’s barely touched and, then, we kept moving…now past each other. Dad one way.  Me another.

4 hours later as I was making lunch, I felt a pain.  A release.   A feeling at once empty and full.

My sister texted me 5 minutes later to confirm what I knew.  Dad was dead.

That afternoon, the first wave of a completely new sensation washed over me.

Turns out that Dad’s gift of shattered illusions had been simply a stocking stuffer.

His real gift was what happens AFTER you shatter those illusions.   And that is the gift of peace.

Not the Hallmark version of peace where it’s always morning in America.  Nor the Southern or Yankee brand of peace where you just lock all those unpleasant feelings, things and people in life’s basement and “buck up”.

Nope.  The kind of peace that comes only AFTER you’ve dropped all illusions.  The peace that is synonymous with truth.  With life.  Not as it could have been or should be, but as it is.  Now.  This moment.

Wherever Dad is, I hope he’s riding wave after wave of infinitely beautiful, just plain fun, peace.

I know I am.   And, for that, this son is forever grateful to his father.

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6 responses

10 07 2009
Tif

Beautiful.

10 07 2009
Patty Pence

Will,

My God you’re a fantastic writer! This was a real treasure to discover. Can I get your permission, with all the proper credits, can I send this to a couple of friends? The one person I want to read this is Rik Emmett, or the former singer song writer and guitar player for the band Triumph. I’m on a paid site with him and he would really dig reading this. Do you remember Triumph? “I’m young, I’m wild and I’m free, got the Magic Power of the music in me…

Anyhow, would it be okay if I sent this to him?

Peace & Passion,
Patty

10 07 2009
jill

How interesting to lose a Dad and a Father within 6 months. You didn’t articulate your experience in those words, those are my son Andrew’s words that he once used to distinguish between his very close relationship to his stepfather (Dad) and his biological father (Father). And like you, Andrew has received the gifts and fullness of both relationships.

It’s lovely to connect to what I heard so often growing up, “loss is gain.”

Beautifully written, Will.

11 07 2009
Kevin

Just beautiful. Thanks for sharing. So many people I know had missing/absent fathers. I’m so blessed to have my dad as my friend and role model.

11 07 2009
Imsara

Dear Will..I read each word tenderly, trying to take it in slowly and absorb the energy of what you were saying. It made so much sense to me, at a core level. You managed to convey in a deep and eloquent way what many of us know deep down to be true–how those vines, like a kudzu vine, seem to have a life of their own and ultimately end up squeezing the very life out of what it seeks to support it.

My own father suffered from absence of connection. He could not seem to connect to or relate to people very well. He died with one shoe off and one shoe on, literally. Thank you for sharing your heart through your words. Please keep writing for this is truly one of your unique gifts. Maybe there are more stories about the family experience within you that would strike a deep chord in all of us, to think and to also inspire to do things differently.

Blessings to you, Will–Imsara I also want to share this with some selected friends..would that be okay?

13 07 2009
CT

I’m overwhelmed…our “final lunches” came at the same time…tonight I sat looking at photos of the very memories you described. I logged on to write and ask if you wanted some of the pictures I had of you/us/family from years ago, only to find this text…you were there for me four months ago…I wish I could be with you. Your skills of sharing thoughts is amazing. Thank you for doing so!

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