Sometime between the first and second of December last year my father died. It evidently happened without much fanfare. He was discovered by a cousin of his on the morning of the 2nd. I hear it was a heart attack, although I’m not sure who made that determination.
My brother and I are his only biological children, and we have a stepsister floating around somewhere in Iowa. Dad had been married and divorced twice and pretty much lost everything to alcoholism, including, I suspect, his life.
We hadn’t had any contact in quite a few years. The last time I saw him was before my daughter was born. Before he retired. Before my mother started to lose her memory. Before a lot of things.
At some point I knew it wasn’t healthy for me to have a relationship with my father. Conversations would only end in anger, frustration or sadness. He wanted to mend our past, but didn’t know how. He didn’t understand that the past was over, and that I wasn’t 10 years old anymore. He had lost my mother in 1981 because of his excessive drinking and at least one affair, and still longed for her. It was sad and unbearable for me to witness, especially since I had seen the wreckage of my mother’s life after their divorce.
The message from my brother came at a significant time. I was just finishing up the second half of my onsite mindfulness teacher training in the Spanish hills between Alicante and Valencia. Completion of my yearlong teacher training marked an important personal milestone; a milestone on a journey that began in 2014 when I fell into the deep, dark depths of post-partum depression. I had come through on the other side not only with a different perspective on life and my sanity, but a set of skills to begin a new career that means something to me.
We were about an hour from receiving our certificates, which had been a hard-won goal for all nine of the graduates. After eleven days of intense training and teaching, we were winding down, eager to start celebrating before taking leave of our quiet oasis early the next morning. We just finished a meditation, and were on a short break before reconvening for the evening activities.
My phone was by my side for one purpose only: to take photos. With our training behind us, we would have the opportunity to take pictures of our mountain retreat and the other participants, many whom we had met only eleven days before and now regarded as close friends. At any other point during my training, my phone would have been back in my room, silent. The meditation hall was not a place for our phones; the peacefulness of the hills was deeply moving, and we were respectful of it. The moon had come up over the mountains as we were meditating. It was full; majestically illuminating the landscape.
“Could you please call me?” my brother said on Whatsapp.
This stirred up a lot of thoughts and emotions. My mother has Alzheimer’s, I thought of her. My brother’s wife was three weeks from giving birth, I thought of her. My stepfather is my mother’s primary care taker, I thought of him. And after all of that went through my head, I was sure he was just touching base for a chat on what would have been my Saturday night in Berlin. I wasn’t even sure he knew I was in Spain.
“Hi”, I said. “How important is it? I am in Spain until late tomorrow finishing my teacher training.”
“Important”, he replied.
Luckily, one of the graduates was from the Midwest and had a phone capable of calling the United States without costing a fortune. Thank you, universe (and Karen).
“Our dad died”, he said. Or something like that. It was so out of left field. I specifically remember my vision blurring. Not from tears, but because I think it was such a surreal moment. I didn’t cry. I think my response was something like, “Holy shit”, but I don’t honestly remember. The rest of the conversation is not something I have much memory of.
Over the last four years, I have grown in ways that are extremely apparent to me. I have matured, I suppose (and at nearly 50, most would say it’s about time). I don’t have a lot of time for regret. I don’t have room in my life for gossip, putting others down, my hypercritical side (of both others and myself), or taking things as personally as I once did. I also know that a well of compassion has grown inside me.
I am learning how to be more compassionate, and it is not always easy. My mindfulness training has taught me that compassion is not something we are born with, we learn it. It’s not like our ability to digest food and breathe, which are automatic. We learn compassion for others from our parents and care takers as children. I don’t feel like I really “got” that lesson growing up. Maybe I was sick that day.
Now after much reading, training and meditation, when I am wronged in some way, I try not to look at the situation from JUST my side. Maybe there was a reason for their action that I’m not aware of. Maybe it wasn’t about me. Maybe it wasn’t intentional. As Don Henley once wrote in a song, “There are three sides to every story. There’s yours, mine and the cold hard truth.” I try not to hold on to my side of the story so hard. It’s not about being right as much as it used to be.
I hung up the phone. I hugged a few friends. I made some tea and walked outside into the moonlight. Looking up into the sky with my warm mug of tea in my hand, the evening breeze was cool against my face. My very first thought at that moment was, “He’s free”. And he is. He is free. My father is free from his alcoholism. He is free from the past that haunted him. He is free of the extra weight that kept him from ever getting his knee issues resolved. He is free of his demons, his depression, his pain. He is free.
So instead of the little girl inside me becoming sad or angry because she never had the father that she wanted (and now all hope of reconciliation had vanished with his passing), in that moment I could see past my pain and feel his. Instead of being angry that my father didn’t know me, my husband or my daughter in the ways that I wanted, I could see how his life must have been a struggle. Every day. The weight (literal and figurative) that held him down. How he was many times shameful and regretful when I would talk to him. How he was forever sorry for things that were in the past. How he just couldn’t let it go. He had built his own prison and I could see how it wasn’t entirely his fault (and even if it was, finding fault in someone that’s no longer breathing is the epitome of pointless). He was free.
I forgave him at that moment. I forgave myself for taking responsibility for some of his failures when I was a child. The thoughts many children of absent parents have. I blamed myself. I wasn’t loveable enough. He didn’t want to be sober because of me. I could see now very clearly that those thoughts were only thoughts in the overactive imagination of an insecure child.
I’m not an insecure child anymore. I have grown. I allowed my father’s drinking to poison much of my happiness growing up. Now I can see the truth, and without all I know and have experienced through mindfulness and meditation, I wouldn’t be able to. My old wounds can heal. I can feel whole and worthy. I guess we are both free. Rest in peace, dad.