I was baking cookies when my aunt called to say that my dad had died.
She had to repeat herself twice. And the shock of it all was so much that I burned my arm on the oven rack, forgetting to use the oven mitts. I still have the scar along the inside of my forearm. It was Christmas time, and our household was in the midst of Gingerbread House Party preparations. People were coming and this wasn’t supposed to be happening now.
I had been calling my dad for over a week, becoming more and more pissed at him for not returning my calls. It turns out he was dead all that time I had been calling. All that time I had been assuming that once again he was completely self-absorbed, he had been dead.
Our very last conversation had been an argument. Me trying to get him to listen while he remained consistently and maddeningly himself, blathering on in his manic way about this and that, occasionally stopping the speech to patronize me. He was not getting it, he could not get it. We were locked in the familiar dance we always did, me winding myself more and more up, him telling me I was just like my old man, laughing at my upset. Tighter and tighter I would wind until I exploded.
But that last time we talked, something snapped in my solar plexus and I deeply understood that this was the last time I would be this angry with him. I knew that what I was seeking in him was never ever going to come.
I’m sometimes surprised by how much of our relationship still remains unresolved in my heart.
Not that there can ever be a set time-frame to this process…it’s just surprising to realize that there’s still so much unfinished business. Funny how it pokes itself up and says hello dear heart, it’s time to do a little work here.
I spent Father’s Day sorting through some of my dad’s papers. I had one final box to go, it had been sitting in my closet all this time. Most of the stuff was toss-toss-toss. All but the last three things in that box: His death certificate, his estate tax return, and the medical examiner’s autopsy report.
I once had thrown these papers into a box unopened because I just could not go there.
And here they were again.
One of my truths around his death is that I got stuck cleaning up the terrible mess he left.
His home was a complete and utter nightmare, a hovel (and I do mean that). It was shocking to see how he was actually living. I felt responsible for getting his house on the market and selling it. It’s what you do, right? When you’re the only child, you take care of it all on your own, right? The de-hoveling process, the extensive cleaning, and the extensive repairs cost more than $40,000. That was money my dad didn’t have but it was also money I didn’t have and yet, that seemed to not matter. Then there were the legal bills I paid so I could close his estate and the funeral expenses I paid so I could receive his ashes.
I was so angry, I felt so completely used up and discarded.
I thought often of my mother during that time and what it must have been like when he left her with a mountain of bills and a new baby on the way…I felt so burdened by what was left for me. And for some reason, I also felt protective of him. I didn’t want anyone to know about his hovel or the money. It all felt very heavy and I still feel that heaviness in my heart. It arrives again–fresh and hot–when someone treats me without regard, or takes my friendship for granted. It comes to me when I sit with other daughters in sessions who have similar experiences with family members. It comes when I sit with the parents who are searching to rekindle a relationship with their kid who wants nothing to do with them.
It’s pretty hard to deny that there is work to be done when all around you, you can see are the bones of this thing.
And so, there I was on Father’s Day with all these papers in my lap, consciously choosing to look at all of it and breathe right along with my anger and my disappointment. There was also a lot of love and compassion for the little boy he was, who probably had his own experiences and his own stories, you know?
How strange to read an autopsy report about your father.
This complex man I hardly knew but so desperately sought.
Every part of him had been inspected, measured and weighed. Assessed and analyzed.
Yes, that sounds like my dad, I said to myself as I read along…the tattoos and long hair, the clipped fingernails and the bandaged fingers from god-knows-what…and still, so much was missing from that report.
And it’s painful.
Sitting here typing, I still feel the little girl in me and her story of unloveableness. The little kid who had to believe his absence from her life was about her own badness because knowing he was broken just wasn’t an option.
All my life, my mom had been putting her story about my dad into me, her own version of being abandoned only reinforced the story that I was not enough to make him stay.
And yet, I can only imagine what it must have been like for him to abandon his pregnant wife days before their only child was to be born. I can only imagine what it was like for him to carry that around with him in his little black bag throughout his life, added to all the stuff I will never even know about which already made his burden heavy.
Such a heaviness the three of us carried while each of us longed to be loved and cherished by each other at the same time.
I started drawing the day I found out my dad died.
I had been studying The Tibetan Book of the Dead and was particularly fascinated by the sand mandalas the Buddhist monks create and so I decided to create a mandala for my dad. I didn’t have sand but I had crayons, crayola markers and construction paper back from when the kids were little. I began to trace circles onto the paper and quickly found the process soothing to all the waiting-for-more-news stuff that happens when someone dies.
I drew in the spaces all of the things he loved. His garden, his pets, his study of herbal remedies, his relationship with God. It’s only just now that I see I never placed myself into that mandala.
Sometimes when clients come to the house, they point to his picture and ask if he was a guru.
( they don’t know it’s my dad )
He taught me how to look within and address the darkness that’s there. How to choose to love myself and overcome the story that I am unwanted and not welcome. How to have boundaries and ride inside my own cockpit. How to understand and have compassion for strange and wounded birds. How to be yourself no matter what, no matter the consequences, no apologies.
Yes, he was a guru to me and I loved him.
He was one of the bravest and most courageous men I know. And I know like heck he’d be all choked up right now, reading this.
It takes guts (and balls) to walk out and then decades later walk back in and attempt to show up and address the mess. He did his best to do just that after my mother died. Was it perfect? No. But he was present and he was trying. And I will always love him for that. Even if he drove me crazy, even if he sometimes would not shut up, even if it never really seemed like he could handle listening to me talk for very long.
I know it’s been a few days already since Father’s Day, but still, I wanted to encourage those of you feeling something similar right now:
Whatever you are feeling about your dad and whatever the Father’s Day energy brings up for you, welcome it all and still choose to look with kindness and compassion. Have appreciation and wonder but leave nothing out. No apologies, no BS shame or guilt, please, just look at it all. And then do your best to remember that person you call Father was on a journey too. And even though you might not understand, that person you call Father was living his life from a first-person perspective. He lived at the center of his own mandala–just like you are now.
And even though there might be some upsets still completely unresolved, it’s still true that one sliver of the story is never ALL of the story. No matter what.
May we look with the heart-eyes of kindness and love but also honor the mixture of sadness and disappointment and upset we may be feeling. You don’t have to pretend things are as they aren’t, but you can choose to allow the fullness too. It wasn’t all bad and it wasn’t all good.
There are sweet parts too, so many sweet parts. True story, I did a short stint at Westminister Christian school out in California, grades K-2, and every time I saw a picture of the J-man, I thought it was my dad. They had the same look and I kinda love how it always brought me comfort.
May we remember that our dads were on a journey too.
They lived their lives from a first person perspective, just like us.
They were ill-equipped for much of what happened in their own lives, just like us.
They were people on a journey, just like us.
They were born to parents who were also ill-equipped and were missing certain tools, just like us. No, it doesn’t excuse anything that happened to us on their watch… and yet, it does help to explain some of it.
And still, there were specialties they had, which no other did. Maybe it was their smile or the hum they hummed or the little flourishes as they poured the pancake batter. I adored the way my dad called me Sugar.
They were so very loved, just like us.
Perfect? No. Loveable? Yes.
Can we learn to hold the fullness of it all, instead of just the tiny sliver? I vote yes.
Here’s to us and here’s to our dads and this wild and crazy journey we’re all on…we’re gonna need some bigger balls!