It’s my dad’s birthday today. I’m celebrating this man even though he won’t be blowing out any candles today. He was thoroughly enjoying an outdoor dinner five years ago … and just after he exclaimed“This is great!” … he was gone. His enthusiasm aptly reflected his new found intention to live such ‘a radiant life’. And he was really beginning to do so, but it certainly wasn’t always that way. His metamorphosis took the most unexpected path. In fact, it was nothing short of a miracle.
Although it’s a cultural faux pas to speak ill of the dead, my dad was a tough man to love for the first 70 to 75 years. Turbulent might be the best word to describe him. He was a really deep thinker and felt most comfortable in the cerebral, cognitive, and intellectual domain. He was very well read and absolutely brilliant, but he had some really, really, really sharp edges. In the blink of an unexpectant eye, his pent-up emotions could erupt viciously and bite right through you … yes, very turbulent.
At times, it was tempting to think him cold and hardhearted … except that he was so incredibly tender, loving and nurturing when it came to his pets. He would do anything for them! So much so that when push came to shove one year and he had to choose between spending time with me or leaving his dog behind … I lost. Truth. But we won’t get into the dismal details of that Thanksgiving occasion right now.
I inherited his propensity for living in my head and spent the first 30+ years of my life stuffing my own emotions too. It worked pretty well to avoid uncomfortable feelings, but it seems you can only stuff so much before the body says no more. I ended up in the office of an Internal Specialist. He had barely introduced himself and was still shaking my hand when he nonchalantly asked, “Did you have a happy childhood?”
What?? I was completely blindsided! This was not the line of questioning I was expecting while seated stiffly on the four foot gurney covered with the paper sheet. I flushed bright crimson with embarrassment when I spontaneously started crying. He compassionately apologized for sparking my upset, but added that he was collecting mounting evidence to suggest that people with gastrointestinal issues have unresolved emotional wounds. His own informal research was confirming his suspicion that “the gut is the barometer of the soul”. Hmmm …
He ordered all the necessary tests, but in the same breath, asked if I’d be open to seeking some counseling. Yes. Yes I would. And, just as the good doctor had suspected, the tests confirmed that physically, I was just fine. That was the good news. The bad news was that I was booked with a counsellor and was going to have to move out of my head and into my heart.
And so began the best excavation of my life. The hardest … but the best. I didn’t have a clue what to do with all of the emotion that was percolating up inside of me, so as part of my own healing process, I put it on paper. I wrote a long letter to my dad … calling a spade a spade … fastidiously acknowledging all the parts of my pain that were connected to him. I had no plans to send to him that tear stained letter … but in a moment of blind
instinct, courage faith … I did.
I never received a direct response from him, but very shortly thereafter, I got a frantic call from my step-mother. An ambulance was en-route the hospital … with my father in it. Apparently, she and my dad had been talking about my ‘letter’ over lunch and right there and then, he had a heart attack. A heart attack! Had my letter inspired a heart attack?? I felt entirely sick.
As I sped to the hospital, I was fully intent on apologizing … determined to retract my ‘truth’ in favor of his well being … fully intent on re-burying the pain between us. I was beyond stunned to find my internist standing at the nursing station. What on earth was my internist doing in the ER room?? By some strange coincidence (or perhaps by divine design?), he was the ‘on call’ doctor and had just examined my father. He pointed back to my father and incredulously inquired: “Is that YOUR dad?” My heart was heaving with regret that spilled more tears down my cheeks as I solemnly nodded and explained what had happened.
He re-aimed his pointed finger straight at me. I inhaled deeply – emotionally bracing myself – but he blindsided me again! Instead of blaming me for causing my father’s plight, he looked me square in the eyes and said: “Don’t you let him off the hook.”
What?? I trembled at the thought. How on earth did he know what I was thinking? He shook his head and very kindly but firmly repeated himself. “Don’t you let him off the hook.” My heart was pounding out of my chest. My mind was reeling … did I dare to heed his directive?
And so, I reached out to my dad, but did not retract my ‘truth’. Ultimately, he survived … both the heart attack and my heart-aching honesty. Ironically, by not retreating from that transparent space of truth, my dad gained an opportunity to apologize to me. And, it turned out that he was finally able to trash a different letter that I had written when I was 14ish (also calling a spade a spade). I had no plans to mail him that letter either, but I learned that without my knowledge, my mom had sent it to him. I found out that he had been carrying it around with him for almost four decades –in his wallet – so he could pull it out and beat himself up on a regular basis. I never knew …
We were learning a lot about each other and healing some things when he got prostate cancer. And the radiation treatments burned his intestinal track. He developed colitis. It was so downright shitty for him (please excuse the tactless pun). He was relegated to wearing a diaper and made countless trips to the toilet around the clock. Between the endless runs to the toilet during those sleepless nights, he distracted himself with a book I had loaned him called A Course in Miracles. It’s a deep and challenging text, but my dad was able to stick with it … and … things began to shift in a most miraculous way.
And so, for about the last five years of his life, he became the father I always longed to have. He lived his life ‘radiantly’ … in a profound state of grace that was both inspiring to experience and amazing to witness. His sharp edges were replaced with a loving energy that infused his words and landed joyfully in the heart of whomever he engaged with. He met each day with infinite love and gratitude. He ‘radiated’ this joyful spirit and offered unlimited love and acceptance wherever he went. It was entirely sublime … and … often seemed totally surreal. We even took a trip to Phoenix (leaving the dog behind) to a Celebrate Your Life Conference so we could hear some of our favorite writers and spiritual leaders in person! It was phenomenal to share that time together with him. All in all, I found myself in a perpetual state of awe and wonder often questioning “Where the heck did my dad go?”
When we celebrated his 80th birthday, I decided it would be nice for all of us to pay tribute to him and let him know how much his new found ‘radiance’ had touched all of our lives. When it was my turn to share, I read from the card I had written to him:
“So, Dad, I’m not sure where our story together began … but it seems that two very left-brained, intellectual souls made a commitment to stretch one another to a greater level of love … to help each other learn through the joys and sorrows, trials and tribulations of this ambiguous journey we’ve been on.
One of the things you and I have enjoyed the most is our conversations and discussions … deeply reflecting upon the words and thoughts of other people. I want to acknowledge how much our relationship has grown and flourished over the past few years and how grateful I have been for the times you have been there to support me.
You put no fences around my thinking and made no effort to direct my life for me. I always knew you would listen without judgement and stretch me to a new way of seeing things. You convinced me that whatever I could conceive of, and believe in, that I could achieve. I credit you with the resilient attitude I have developed over the years. I always knew I could re-gain my own strength by connecting with you.
And so, here we are … you are 80 and I am 50, and although there has been a lot of space in our togetherness over the years, we’ve made up for a lot of lost time. Somehow , we have found a semblance of peace in the chaos … some sense of meaning in the meaningless … and a deep sense of love and loyalty has emerged from all our painful stories of the past …
Here’s to many more years … I love you Dad.
I had no way of knowing that I was only going to get a few more months with him, but I’m sure glad we took that opportunity to share our sentiments with him. It seems that more often than not in life, we don’t make the effort to tell people how we feel about them while they are still alive to hear it. (One of the reasons for this blog.)
Ultimately, my dad fulfilled his intention of living a ‘radiant life’ … and … we were all witness to a real life miracle. I never would have believed the man I called dad for the first 75 years was the one I said good-bye to 5 years later.
A celestial benediction has been defined as ‘an invocation of a blessing’ and Longfellow contended that the trials and tribulations of our lives are really celestial benedictions in dark disguises sent not to try our souls but to enlarge them. I can see that now. We had no way of knowing that my ill health was actually the catalyst that would spark our reconnection. Who could have guessed that my internist was placed in my life to invoke my emotional healing instead of my physical well-being. We could never have predicted that my dad’s heart attack would spark his emotional transformation either! And, we certainly couldn’t see at the time that my Dad’s nocturnal ‘suffering’ was the ultimate celestial benediction! It turned out that his ‘radiation’ treatments really were the ultimate invocation to live a ‘radiant’ life! We had no way of knowing that all those trials were actually the blessings in dark disguises that would lead us to the most miraculous moments we had ever shared as father and daughter. We were truly witness to a miracle! It seems crystal clear in retrospect …
And so, I am writing this letter and intentionally sending it out to the ether because I want you to know Dad that I am so much better because of your presence in my life! And not just for those ‘radiant’ years. I can see so clearly now that our life-long relationship was truly a beautiful miracle in the making! I’m still unwrapping the blessings …
With a radiant glow in my heart, Karen
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