Tagged: Father

No Way to Say Goodbye

Christie and Dad, circa 1983
My father and I, circa 1983. That's Mr. Bear in the background.

This Spring marks a decade since I last saw my father. We didn’t speak and he didn’t actually acknowledge my presence, but I know he saw me in the courtroom because his public defender requested that the judge have me removed as a potential witness. The judge denied this request, and I stayed to watch the rest of my father’s arraignment. If you’re curious why my father was in court, watch this video, or read this article.

I don’t actually recall when my father and I last spoke. To the best of my recollection, it was sometime in 2000. We had on-again off-again communication while I was in college, but at some point I decided that a continued relationship with him was just not a healthy thing for me and distanced myself quite a bit.

Last night one of my brothers called and told me he’d just found out that our father had a heart attack the week prior, had been in the hospital for a few days and was now released. My brother didn’t have any specific information about our father’s condition other than that he had collapse while running errands and had woken up in the hospital.

It’s very difficult for me to imagine my father collapsing and being in the hospital. Logically and factually, it’s not surprising that had had a heart attack. We’re talking about a man who has seen a doctor a handful of times in his life (that I know about), smoked for decades, ate a very unhealthful diet and did amphetamines. In many ways, I’m surprised he hasn’t had more significant health issues. However, my mental and emotional memory of him is dominated by a single image: lean, mean, angry and muscular, albeit with a slight lilt from a bad back. It’s just weird to think of him as being old and frail and in ill health. But that seems to be where we are headed.

Aging is a normal process, of course, but it’s unsettling when it’s happening to a parent and even more strange when it happens to a parent with whom you’re estranged. I find myself wondering if I’m going to get to say my final goodbyes, or if I will simply hear about his passing sometime after it happens. Should I attempt to make a kind of peace with him, or with myself about him, sooner rather than later? The answers to these questions seem unknowable.

 

Inside of Grief is Great Love

During a recent discussion with my Zen cohort, someone mentioned that inside of grief is great love. I had never thought about grief in this way before. I had always thought of it in strictly negative terms and not as originating from positive emotion.

I’ve worked a lot with grief. There are ways in which I grieve the childhood that I wasn’t allowed to have. There are ways in which I grieve the relationship with my father that I once had (or thought I had) but no longer do. It’s this loss that I’ve been thinking about a lot of late.

The reason I’ve been thinking a lot about my father is because this week I’m receiving the Five Grace Precepts from my teachers. There’s a part during the ceremony where you are supposed to honor your parents by bowing to them. If your parents are in attendance, you bow in front of them. If your parents are not present, you turn and bow in their direction. The idea behind this is not to demonstrate some kind of subservience to your parents, but to honor their contribution to your life. After all, regardless of how you choose to judge this contribution, your parents enabled you to have life in the first place. My mother will be in attendance, so I will be able to bow to her. However, my father, who is still living, will not be in attendance. I have struggled with whether or not to bow in his direction.

My father has been estranged from our family for some time now. This estrangement, in a way, is a good thing. My father is not a healthy person. He was abusive to both my mother and my siblings throughout my childhood. In my early twenties he went to prison after a felony conviction. The last time I saw him was during his arraignment hearing (it’s a strange thing to see your father in shackles and an orange jumper). He’s since been released and I’ve thought about contacting him several times. I miss having a dad. I’ve missed having a dad since I was 13 when I realized my father was mentally unwell and unable to carry on normal, healthy relationships. From what little information I have about how my father is doing today, there’s little to indicate that anything has really changed about his disposition or ability to have healthy interactions with people. So I choose to remain disconnected from him.

Nevertheless, he’s still my father. For better or worse, I would not be the person that I am today without his contribution to my life. It’s true that I’ve endured a lot of heartache and have hard to work very diligently to heal the damage that he directly contributed to during my childhood. I do not absolve him of responsibility for these actions. But I do forgive him. My father is a deeply damaged individual. He did the things to me, my siblings and mother that he did because of pain and suffering that was inflicted upon him by his own caretakers. For whatever reason, he didn’t have the wherewithal to stop the cycle of abuse with himself, so he perpetuated this abuse upon his own children and wife. This is sad, unfortunate and certainly inexcusable. But it is human. What I wish for my father is to find some relief for his suffering, in whatever way that is possible. For him, it may only come with death.

So I have decided that I will bow to my father during this week’s ceremony. I will honor his contribution to my life.

In my heart, I think I knew from the beginning that I would choose to bow to my father. What, then, was the source of aversion and consternation I felt around this decision? I think it was that bowing to my absent father would acknowledge his absence and acknowledge how deeply I feel and grieve this absence. When I was younger, I thought that my sense of loss and grief would simply go away with time. But it hasn’t. In some ways it grows more acute. As I approach the time of starting my own family, I am saddened that my children will not get to know their grandfather. They won’t get to work in the print shop that I worked at as a child, they won’t get to work on projects with him. With each home improvement project, I have the urge to call my father up and ask for advice. Sometimes I just want to tell him about my latest accomplishment and I can’t. And it hurts.

So when I heard that inside of grief is great love, I immediately thought of my father. I am able to have grief for my father because I have a great love for him. And that’s okay. I have struggled with this notion over time. Love was not a word that was used in our family while I was growing up. I’m not sure that my father in capable of actually loving anybody. I think I internalized this ambivalence. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s natural for children to love their parents. It’s what children do. It’s okay that I love my father even though he’s not part of my life and probably never will be again. It’s okay to love a parent who is deeply flawed and has done terrible things. Honoring that love doesn’t diminish any of the struggles that I endured as a child. In fact, I think it honors them.

And so I no longer look at my grief as this terrible burden. Rather, it’s the counter part to love. The ante we pay to experience love.

The Evening News

I’m very thankful to not be a famous person. I’m able to move about with relative anonymity. The messy details of my personal life, with all its mistakes and wonders are private and I’m able to share them by choice. I can’t imagine the kind of pressure it creates for those who do not have this choice.

There is a notable exception to this, however. It’s the news coverage of my father’s murder-for-hire plot, his subsequent arrest and resulting prison sentence. News of his arrest appeared in the local Sacramento newspaper and the evening news. Some months later, after his sentencing, the evening news in the Bay Area, where I was living at the time, did an extended story, complete with undercover video footage that I hadn’t previously known even existed.

When I first found out about the story I was very angry. I felt violated. Here they were broadcasting footage of our family’s shop (part of the undercover footage; my father had conversations with the under cover “hitman” there). Once my initial anger subsided I realized that they were trying to make a decent point: that crimes of the sort my father committed (solicitation of murder) do not carry a strong enough penalty in California. So I was left with just a strangeness and an uneasiness. I haven’t watched the video in a while. I used to watch it when I would find myself missing or otherwise thinking about my father. It’s actually the most recent thing I have connecting me to him, as strange as that sounds. I can’t recall the last conversation we had. It was probably some time in 2000, at the latest. I did go to his arraignment, but we did not speak. It is so very odd to see your father in an orange prison jumpber and shakles.

Last week it came to my attenion that the local evening news in Sacramento had run another story about my father. It’s shorter than the previous news segment, but nevertheless unnerved me in the same way. I can’t quite figure out why such a piece of information is news worthy. Over the years I’ve tried to distance myself (both figuratively and litterally) from the chaos and violence that my father brought upon me and the rest of my family. But yet I can’t escape it entirely, because at any time some tv news station might decide to do another story on it. Or I’ll have a flashback. Or a memory will resurface. Or someone will issue a turn of phase in a stern voice and it will remind me of my father, and of being a frightened child.

When I watched the most recent news clip, I found myself asking the same set of “why” and “how” questions. How could my parent do something so wicked, so contrary to life as to want my other parent murdered? Why does a tv news reported get an opportunity to speak to my father when I do not? The list goes on and on.

What I’m realizing it that I’m never going to know the answers to those questions. They are unanserable. And in actually, I’m asking those questions as a way to re-invent the past, to change what cannot be changed. Asking those questions keeps me out of the present moment.

So wait I’m going to from now on when those questions start spinning around in my head is sit and focus on my body. I’ll concentrate on how it’s feeling in the present moment. I’ll follow my breath. I’ll notice any spots of tension. I’ll notice what kinds of feelings come up. And I’ll stop trying to answer those unanswerable questions.