Sunday, June 19, 2011
What my Father Taught Me
Three and a half years ago my father was in a hospital undergoing a grueling cycle blood tests, poking and prodding, infections, antibiotic treatments, recovery, more poking and prodding, reinfection, and more tests. He weaved in and out of consciousness and once even called out for his brother who had died some twenty years earlier. His personality would quickly disappear and then suddenly return again. He had fragmented into pieces, some of which I recognized, most of which I did not.
In just three weeks he dropped to ninety pounds, just half his regular body weight. The man I used to blame for the bulk of my personality flaws was rapidly regressing to a vulnerable, childlike state. I was suddenly caring for him in ways I never thought I would--feeding him, helping a nurse give him a sponge bath, holding him up when he cried and could no longer stand on his own, and eventually giving him regular doses of liquid morphine during his last few days to help alleviate what I imagine was excruciating pain.
Very late that last night, his breathing pattern had changed significantly, which we knew from the hospice literature meant that he was about to leave us. He’d been completely unconscious for the previous two days, and while his body had functioned in a mechanical sense, there was little to no sign of life underneath it all. He was there but he wasn’t there. For the previous two days his breathing had the perfunctory quality of a respirator machine. He was still my father yet it felt as if my “real” father had already left and his body just had to catch up, like he and his body were slightly out of sync.
Being there by his side as he took his last few breaths was one of the most important things I’ve ever done. He co-created me and was there just after I was born, and I got to be there with him just as he was ready to die. He raised me and taught me how to ride a bike and wash a car and how to make my work environment as comfortable as possible so I could work more efficiently. He taught me things he hadn’t intended to teach me, like how to be patient (as he often was not) and the importance of not jumping to conclusions too quickly (as he often did).
The process of caring for my father transformed my selfish, habitual anger towards him into a desire to alleviate his suffering and make him as comfortable as possible. In just a few days I’d managed to accomplish what many years of therapy could not--I was able to forgive him for all of those things I’d spent years blaming him for and resenting and whining about. All of the blame and anger I’d attributed to his inadequate parenting quickly unraveled when I revisited it from this very different perspective.
I used to blame my father for my inability to be fully intimate with other people and through his death I learned how to cut through that. Whenever I sense some sort of block between me and someone else, whenever I feel anger or hostility or insecurity in relation to other people, I bring to mind an image of that person as an infant and an image of them at the moment of their death. All of the stuff that happens in between shouldn’t be confused with the underlying reality that binds us all together.
Most of us have very complicated relationships with our parents and I’m not claiming that their influence and behavior towards us during our formative years doesn’t have any sort of impact. Of course it does. I am saying that what we do with the circumstances and conditions of our lives is our choice, regardless of who or what contributed to their creation. All we can do is to work with whatever we’re given and wherever we are at any given moment. We can choose not to let those things fester and turn into sources of self-pity and blame, or we can use those same things as an excuse to engage in destructive behavior and to build walls around our hearts.
It’s up to us.
To use our wounds as some sort of protective armor is to be fearful and weak. It’s when we recognize the transformative ability of our pain and those feelings of loss that we’re being courageous enough to step outside of ourselves and our inner psycho-dramas long enough to be of service to someone else.
In the end my father left me with a huge gift: the realization that this life of ours is temporary, tenuous, and precious. There is something there before we are born and something there after we die, and we’d be wise to spend at least a portion of our lives getting acquainted with what that is.