Sunday, June 16, 2013

Remembering Fathers this Day

None of us are Fatherless.
We are here on this earth
Because someone fathered us.
We may have never met our father
We may have never really known our father
We may not have or have had the best relationship with our father
But we are forever connected
Through biology, history and this life
So for that
We can give thanks.
And there are fathers that find their way into our life
To guide us, protect us and nurture us
In ways that perhaps our own fathers could not.
THANK the heavens for them too.

I was out to dinner last night with a group of friends when the conversation turned to Father’s Day.  My dad has been dead for 25 years and since John and I never had children and his dad died when he was 10, I haven’t celebrated Father’s Day in several years so it isn’t even on the radar for me.  I would have forgotten it was Father’s Day today if it hadn’t been mentioned by friends commenting on their relationships with their dads. 

One shared that she had met her dad for the first time when she was 18 but her relationship is non-existent.  One shared that the death of her dad 7 years ago inspired her to live her passion as an artist, songwriting and singing.  She even has a song about the journey of watching him live as he died with a sense of surrender into the next life imparting all that he held in his heart upon her. 

Some of our personal stories around our relationship with our dads paint prettier pictures than others but for me, I always go to gratitude for my life made possible because of my dad.  No denying that he was mean and scared the piss out of me literally when he would look at me as if he were going to kill me.  We actually didn’t like each other.  This is a fact.  I would even dare to say that we hated each other.  But there was an undeniable bond and connection as father and daughter that was beyond our personalities and humanness that continues to tether us energetically.   I am the woman I am today because he was my dad and because I believe in the soul’s journey that invites people into our lives to create experiences; I take the good, the bad, the ugly and the fu$%ed up and hold it all in my heart this day, remembering it all led me here.

Remembering my father this day, I love him.  I do.  I give thanks for his life which made my life possible.  I give thanks for our sacred dance and can see the beauty even the most fu$%ed up moments.  How wondrous this is to live in awe and gratitude!  I invite you to give thanks for the father who made your life possible and for the fathers who found their way into your life to nurture, protect and guide you in ways that perhaps your own father couldn’t.

Below is an excerpt from my book:  Passing On Hope that gives a glimpse into my relationship with my own father. 

We All Love Each Other

“The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” —George Santayana

My dad had been in the hospital for six days when I walked into his room on that Saturday morning to find him sitting up with his feet over the side of the bed, his backside exposed from the opening in the hospital gown. My eyes flashed onto a black tarry substance next to him on the white blankets, which I soon realized was where he had lost control of his bowels. I wanted to run the other way, but just then, he turned and looked at me with his piercing hazel eyes as he said, “Old Dad’s a sick man.” He was so matter of fact, and his monotone voice didn’t disclose what his eyes said to me. He was afraid, and this made me afraid, too.

Not really knowing what to do or say, I told Dad that I would get help. I went into the hall to tell my siblings what was going on, and one of his friends went into the room to be with him while the nurse cleaned him up. We stood in the hallway looking to each other for answers that couldn’t be found. My sister Margee made a list of people who needed to be called and headed toward the pay phone in the vending area. Nurses were in and out of Dad’s room, not making eye contact with us for fear we might want something.

Finally, a nurse came out and said that they were moving him to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), giving us directions on how to get there. As the staff rolled him past us, one by one we told him, “I love you!” to which he responded in his usual gruff tone but with less force, “We all love each other!” That was the last time I heard his voice.

The prior Monday evening, my sister Angie had called to say Dad was sick. She and Mom were taking him to the hospital so the doctors could run some tests. I knew he was dying when I got that call. My certainty about it was one of those things that I could never explain and never told anyone because I knew they wouldn’t believe me.

Maybe it was the fact that Dad was never sick. He hated going to the doctors and detested hospitals even more, so for him to agree to go, he must be in bad shape. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t been sleeping, so he was up in the middle of the night when I was slipping in from a night out of partying. Maybe it was the fact that I had heard him throwing up in the bathroom just one month before, returning home abruptly from a Super Bowl party at a neighbor’s with his pants soiled and trying to cover the putrid smell of it all with disinfectant spray. Maybe it was the fact that just a few weeks before this, a couple of my friends had been brutally murdered, and I knew in a real way that death did happen.

There was no clear diagnosis by the doctors during Dad’s stay in the hospital. They had thought it was hepatitis a few days before he passed because he had become jaundice, and they instructed us to get vaccinated.

While administering our shots, our family physician asked my mom about my dad’s drinking, and I was shocked to hear my mom lie, denying that he ever had more than a few drinks after work. When she stepped out of the room, I told the truth to the doctor, letting him know how my dad had slowed down over the past five years, having a few beers or highballs in the evenings, but up until then, he had excessively drunk every day. The doctor didn’t want to believe me because he could feel the hostility in my voice and preferred the sweetness in my mom’s.

After Dad died, our family requested an autopsy to confirm the cause of death. I sighed in relief when my family and I were informed the day of the viewing that it was stomach cancer that had spread to the liver. I wouldn’t have to explain cirrhosis of the liver to my friends and to strangers who might ask.

Just two days before Dad died, my mom and I were alone with him in the hospital room. He explained how he didn’t like the pain medicine because he was flying around the room all night long wanting to come down but couldn’t. He asked me to get the white cotton blanket from the shelf and cover his feet. I turned to do what he had asked, smiling at my mom in disbelief that he was actually cold and asking for my help instead of hers. He thought that I was rolling my eyes, making fun of him. I wasn’t beyond doing that, but it wasn’t the case this time. But Dad flipped out, raging on me, “Forget it! Don’t do me any favors, kid. Get out and go home.”

I burst into tears trying to right whatever wrong thinking was running through his head. My purse and coat were on the hook behind the door, so I grabbed them and ran out. Earlier that day in the gift shop, I had found a little porcelain teddy bear that I gave him holding a sign that said, “I love you!” Had he forgotten it already? The bear was a symbol of him when he was gentle, which he could be, and the note was true at the time.

At that moment I left his room, I hated him. I hated him in a way that you can only hate someone who you desperately want to love and have it reciprocated. I hated that he made me feel like shit when I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Life with him was a losing battle for me. It didn’t matter what I did because I was damned if I did something wrong and damned if I didn’t. I left and headed to see my friends. I wanted to get drunk and forget about him.

While in the ICU waiting area, we got to take turns seeing Dad in pairs every couple of hours. My sister Angie was overdue with her son Chad, and we were filling out my student loan paperwork because it had to be postmarked that day. Just then a nun with nothing better to do than harass us approached our family, saying curtly that there were too many people in the waiting area and some of us would have to leave.

We knew nuns from our Catholic school days, and we mostly didn’t like them, so Angie made up for every word we had to choke back during grade school, letting this nun have a piece of her mind. No wonder I never wanted anything to do with religion. This nun, who to me represented religion, went out of her way to be cruel to our family during a traumatic time, which gave me yet another reason for not attending Mass. She sat at a desk until her time volunteering was up, glaring at us as if we were troublesome boys and girls in her classroom.

We waited three hours between visits with Dad, and only two of us were permitted in for up to 15 minutes. We decided to share the time, going in for a few minutes and allowing the others in for a few minutes, extending the time as much as possible.

His brothers Jas, Jeke, and Bill came to see him, as did his sisters My and Tosey. It was the first time that I had ever thought of them as his brothers and sisters in the same way that I had brothers and sisters. My initial resentment for their requesting time with Dad later turned to empathy for them as I thought about the eight of us and how devastated I would be if it were one of my siblings. Dad’s siblings ranged in age from 50 to 65, yet they were no different from us ranging from 19 to 34. It didn’t matter that they were older; the pain of their experience was as real as ours. The brother that they played football with, walked to school with, got into trouble with, and buried their parents with was slipping away quickly, and there was nothing they could do except bid him farewell.

There was a tube down Dad’s throat for reasons unclear to me, but what I do remember as if it were yesterday was his mouthing “Coke” to us with a scowl on his face as if he were going to kick some ass if he didn’t get some. When I asked the nurse if I could get a Coke for him, she gave me a cup filled with ice chips and said to place them with a Q-tip on his tongue. He couldn’t get enough of them. He was like a ravenous baby swallowing pureed food spoon-fed to him and immediately opening his mouth for more.

Dad couldn’t speak, but his eyes shouted the fear that was trapped within him. He could hear us, but I didn’t know what to say to soothe him, so I mostly made small talk in the kindest voice I could muster about who was waiting to see him and who had called to check on him. The lack of information from the doctors about what was going on with him and his inability to speak must have driven him crazy as he laid there completely vulnerable.

Being 19 years old, I was conflicted about my relationship with my dad, teetering between love and hate sometimes day to day and sometimes hour to hour. The fact that the last words he would say were “we all love each other” comforted me and gave me a nice story to tell at the funeral home. I also got to tell about my mom assisting him in his passing after he had slipped into coma.

The first time I walked into his room after he was comatose, I thought he was dead. His once expressive eyes—eyes that could make me wet my pants when he was spitting-nails mad over what seemed like nothing to me—eyes that could make me feel like he actually wanted me as his daughter when he was drunk and melancholy, picking me up to dance at wedding receptions—were now covered with gauze pads and white surgical tape. It reminded me of the war movies that I had watched with him on Sundays before and after church where prisoners would be blindfolded and shot by a firing squad while still puffing on a cigarette, which was their last request. When I asked about Dad’s gauze pads, the nurse explained that his eyes were open and had to be covered due to his inability to blink, which could cause abrasions. This seemed like complete crap to me since he was going to die, and I resented that I had to see my dad like this.

The nurses told us the end was near, so we gathered around Dad praying the Rosary, as we had done together as children at bedtime, kneeling around my dad’s twin bed in my parents’ room. The nurse instructed my mom to tell him it was okay to pass. My mom bravely spoke what was in her heart, “Mike, you have been a good husband, and you have been a good dad and a good provider. You have given a good fight, but it’s okay to let go now. We’ll miss you, but we’ll be okay.” She broke down as his heart monitor rapidly counted down to zero and showed nothing but a line across as the steady beep now stretched out to an annoying pitch. Holding his hand, she laid her head on his chest and kissed him goodbye.

My dad has been dead almost half of my life at this point, and I now believe his last words, “We all love each other,” were not only nice but true. Our love as a family was skewed, but we did what we knew how to do.

A product of his times and immigrant parents, my dad believed that his love was shown to the family by working hard and providing a roof over our heads and food on the table, which he always did. The one thing I do remember above all else is that he wasn’t afraid of work and did whatever it took to pay the bills.

When he lost his job delivering Stroh’s beer in Indianapolis where his route sales determined his paycheck, he was making more money than he had ever made. He then took a job making a fraction of his previous salary working as a janitor at a Catholic high school where my cousins attended and made fun of him along with the other students. He would come home talking about the smart asses and saying how he’d like to ring their necks. I wanted to, too.

For years, I hated that school and my cousins for my dad. My hate would avenge my dad’s humiliation, or so I thought. Reflection and time in the adult world led me to see the truth behind these deep emotions. I was ashamed over my dad cleaning toilets and pushing a dust mop around the school like the men I refrained from making fun of but couldn’t bear to make eye contact with at my high school. As a teenager who had no respect for an honest day’s work, I thought janitors must be doing time in purgatory while still here on earth.

For extra money, Dad would clean up after wedding receptions in the high school cafeteria for $50. One time I went with him because there was a promise of $10 for me. However, I never asked to help again after scrubbing puke mixed with stale beer off the floor. I would have rather delivered my Spotlight route of 600 papers, which paid $6 each week, or worked bingo down at St. Catherine’s, where I’d average $16 after choking in second-hand smoke with no ventilation for three hours while I served hot ham and cheese, hamburgers, and hotdogs.

The last few years of Dad’s life, he worked as a bailiff for Judge Charles Wiles, who was a friend of a friend. He had never worked a desk job. He had always believed that work where you used only your mind wasn’t real work. He was used to extreme physical labor, so he chopped wood when he arrived home in order to sleep at night.

Saying “I love you” and hugging and kissing were introduced to my family by my sister in-law Jeanne when I was a baby, so I don’t remember not speaking these words or showing affection toward my family. No matter how I felt on a given day about my parents and no matter how my parents felt about me, I always went downstairs and kissed them goodnight and said, “I love you,” as they sat in their matching gold vinyl recliners. This ritual always made me feel better and comforted me when I silently mumbled those scary words we kids were forced to utter in bedtime prayer, “If I shall die before I awake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Like me, Dad, fearing that he would never awaken, may have found comfort in his final words, “We all love each other.” He may have wanted us to feel better knowing that he indeed loved us the best he could with what he knew.

As our family continues to heal the wounds from the past and learn what love is and what it isn’t, I am encouraged that the next generation will grow deeper in their understanding of love. It is my hope that they will have clarity through our example. I want them to see how amazingly harmonious life can be when we accept our differences wholeheartedly, choosing to love each other where we are instead of where we think the others should be. I also want them to see how chaotic and miserable life can be when we fail to accept each other, fighting to be right and bullying each other verbally and silently.

My love for my dad has grown because I have grown since his passing. I don’t agree with everything he did, as I am certain he didn’t agree with all of my choices, but these are now faint details from a lifetime ago. I focus on the person I am today and know that my dad played a part in teaching me perseverance to endure the storms of life and teaching me strength to honor who I am as I journey forward each day.

I have come to understand that love starts within each of us as a resilient seed that enters the world with us. It must be tended to like a precious garden full of delicate treasures, needing constant attention so it can blossom miraculously. Love polishes us, removing whatever tarnished us in the past. Our job is to let love in and allow it to dissolve the pain. We must learn to love ourselves. We can’t give or receive what we don’t know.

I no longer label my family as dysfunctional because I see us as quite the opposite—a family united moving through this world together the best way we know how at this time. I can honestly say that we all love each other. Our love is sometimes imperfect when we say the wrong things, and sometimes it’s gentle when we offer complete understanding. It can be abrasive when we jump up on the pulpit preaching hell-fire and damnation with our judgments, and it can be beautiful beyond compare when the connection is felt that comes from the heavens. Regardless, love remains a constant in our lives.

Meditation: What does love mean to you? How do you show it to yourself and to others? When do you feel it? What does it feel like?

Action: Imagine what it would feel like to love yourself under all circumstances. Imagine your family loving each other whether they agree or not. Imagine a world where we all love each other no matter where we live, no matter how we look, and no matter what we believe. Create the love that you have imagined.

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