The premature loss of my mother has been one of the defining events of my life. When she was diagnosed with the cancer that would claim her life she was one year younger than I am at this writing and the three years she lived after that were difficult for everyone, mostly for her. I’m not special in this way. Lots of people lose parents and other loved ones before their times in painful circumstances. There’s something profound about a premature loss. Besides the still-lingering sadness I have and the loss of her presence in my world, there are aspects of life with her I was counting on but will not know, the loss of which I still grieve over. Just a few years earlier we had somewhat completed that transition from parent / individuating child to really good friends. I enjoyed her company and conversation. I always felt close to her, but we were close in a new way and I was looking forward to a rest-of-my-life experience of that closeness.
My father and I had not been that close and there had been some bumpy episodes and years. We did have our moments though. He is an attorney and was an adjunct professor of Business Law at CSU Fullerton when I was working on my undergraduate minor in business shortly after I had begun living on my own. I took his class, which was required, suspecting that it might be against university policy to take a class when one’s father is the professor, but I took it anyway. It met one evening each week and we almost always went out afterwards for coffee. I was trying to understand him, to move our relationship to a different, better place, although I could not have articulated that at the time. I just knew I enjoyed getting to know him this way. Taking the class gave me an appreciation and respect for what he knew and his point of view. Those evenings out made me feel proud that he was my father, that I had him to myself. I had not felt that way, desirous of him, since I was young. As I said, it had been bumpy.
I cannot imagine two people being more different than we are in almost every way. We have different diet and fitness preferences, different tastes in music, film and television (which I do not watch at all), clothes, politics, religion, books, communication styles and temperament. We are just as different as two people could be. It’s not just that we have different tastes, it’s that we truly are vastly different. I use a Mac, he uses an old PC. I see his mannerisms and expressions in myself sometimes, but that’s about it. I’m sure this made it hard for him to understand me when I was young and I don’t mind saying that he still exasperates me as an adult.
The father-son relationship holds a powerful place in our culture. Whether it is Abraham intending to sacrifice Isaac, Oedipus killing his father Laius, or the contemporary story of Luke Skywalker trying to reclaim his father, Darth Vader, from the dark side in Star Wars, this relationship holds inherent seeds of conflict, most often a natural by-product of the separation and individuation process and the struggles toward independence and intimacy. [i]
There’s quite a bit of research that deals with the work adult men and their fathers have before them. I feel I have always had an intuitive sense that there was a day of reckoning coming when I would have to confront my own issues with my father. Perhaps it was the premature loss of my mother and the realization that I have one parent left, my own growing sense of mortality, or something else. Whatever the motivation, that time arrived in earnest in the summer of 2008. I had just moved to Virginia to teach at James Madison University, but I was still spending a number of months each year in California. An unexpected event that summer required that I ask my father if I could stay with him and his wife at his house for a number of weeks while I taught summer school at CSU Fullerton. It was uncomfortable to have to ask but I didn’t have a choice and they graciously welcomed me. Since then I’ve been staying with him each time I come out and this has given us both an incredible opportunity. We are in close quarters for extended periods of time multiple times each year.
I understand that our time together is short even in the best case. There is not going to be a resolution to every problem and misunderstanding we’ve had. If there is a final destination of this process for me, it was captured in a list of twenty-five dreams I wrote down for myself a few years ago. These are not goals necessarily, just dreams. Two of the twenty-five relate to my father; “Say goodbye to my father with fullness & peace,” and, “Leave those I love with the knowledge they were loved and that their love was received.” If there is a destination for me, it is this. These two dreams guide my intentions towards my father.
Sometime I may write about the specifics of what this whole thing has been like for me. Maybe I’ll ask him about it too. We haven’t spoken about this explicitly. He doesn’t know that I have these designs. Losing my mother early has informed my relationship with my father. On the surface, we all know that we should tell those we love that we love them while we still have the chance, that we should do the things we want to do with them while we can, share the things we want to share. I knew my mother was dying and I did my very best to love her in every way I knew how to do. In the 17 years since she’s been gone it has been the things that I didn’t know to do that bother me, and thankfully I can still do something about that with my father. I can channel what I wish I had done with her to what I can still do with him, for his sake, for our sake and for my sake after he’s gone too. With that in mind, I would like to outline four ways that has shown up for me with him, four choices I have made to let him know he was loved and that his loved was received and to be able to say goodbye with fullness and peace when that time comes.
First, I have taken stock of our relationship over the years and have tried to find a comfortable equilibrium for what is possible and desirable in terms of any reconciliation and resolution. These were obstacles for me in getting to love, fullness and peace. We all have our own unique work to do within the contexts of our own relationships. Only we can prescribe that for ourselves.
The lion’s share of my work on our relationship has been internal. I have had to study him and our difficult dynamic. I have had to be very patient, deliberate about understanding him and the ways I have misunderstood him, to see the ways he thinks and to uncover the ways he expresses his love, to put what I have perceived as his weaknesses or the ways he has not been perfect into some perspective. I have had to do so with no expectation of receiving anything back, that it will be reciprocated or that anything will change in his behavior and attitude towards me. The insights I have gained from all of that have brought some healing and salve, as understanding always does, without obligating him to do anything. It has allowed me to cover him and forgive him, not in the sense of pardoning him for anything he has done wrong, but in “al-‘Afuw,” erasing even any sense of wrong, as the winds erase all traces, all tracks in the desert sand. Remarkably or not, this work has changed at least my perception of his behavior and attitude towards me.
Second, I know I have to get as much of the information related to processes, recipes or any of the other important “ways they do things” I need or want from him. I cannot believe that I have no way of getting my mother’s recipe for spaghetti sauce, meatballs (our own mothers’ meatballs are always the best, aren’t they?), or any number of my favorite dishes she used to make. They’re gone forever.
Third, there is no substitute for time spent together. I believe this is true in all my important relationships. So much of the bonding between people happens in the mundane day-to-day routines. For me, that means taking trips across the country to be with him during my school breaks, sometimes doing nothing much more for two weeks than sitting in the same room together, each of us on his own computer playing games, web-browsing or sitting with him in front of Fox News shaking my head while he watches. Often it is helping with things that are tougher for him to do hopefully with grace, preserving his dignity and taking the initiative to look for ways to be helpful. We have fun too. We go out to eat, visit friends, go shopping, run errands. He flew to my daughter’s wedding in June. Time is really all we have. Do not fall prey to the myth that quality time makes up for the amount of time spent together. It is up to us to decide how that looks in practice based on how high a priority we have made this in our lives.
The fourth is a synthesis of the last two. There are two ways my father and I are alike. We both love sushi and we both suffer from hereditary nerve deafness and wear hearing aids as a result (an inconvenient condition for a musician). When I’m with him we try to go for sushi at least once a week. Those lunches are not always profound and sometimes they’re downright irritating for any number of reasons. Last week’s was different. He was in a mood to reminisce and recall. He often wants to look back, to try to make sense of events in his life, to feel it has been a good and full life, that we had a lot of fun and laughter as a family, that there was love abundant, to come to terms with sorrows and sufferings. It’s important to him that he recite the full harvest of his life, that I listen, that I hear this. It’s important to me that I listen, that I hear this.
Our stories bring meaning to our lives and help us know who we are. Many societies and cultures know this and practice and cultivate the fabulous art of storytelling. In a one-hour lunch with my dad, I learned all of the following things, and wrote them all down as soon as I got home.
I learned that my grandfather built his house in Flippin, Arkansas for about $40, 000 with the help of friends in his town, most of whom were in their 60s at the time. The house he was in before that, the house I had visited once as a teenager and where I learned to water-ski, had belonged to his wife when they met. My grandfather and his wife loved to fish together. It’s what brought them together after he had been widowed. He particularly liked catfish. Along with potatoes and other vegetables, he grew his own marijuana in the garden.
I learned a number of things about how my parents came to terms with my mother’s illness and impending death. They cried together as the terminal realization sunk in. My mother had gone to see a counselor to talk about quality-of-life and end-of-life issues. My father had asked my mother if she would ever forgive him for all his mistakes. She answered, “I don’t know.” That threw my dad for a loop. It stuck with him for years. He ended up contacting my mother’s counselor to ask about it years later. The counselor told him that my mother had loved him totally and completely and that there was nothing to it.
I learned that her chemotherapy had taken a toll on her kidneys and that had become an issue for decisions regarding ongoing treatment. Her doctor had told them that he would not authorize dialysis to allow her to continue treatment, which made my father angry. He felt it should have been the patient’s choice, not a matter of economics, as he suspected was the case. I had always assumed they had not come to terms with death, that they were in denial, but my father assured me this was not the case. He felt she should fight as long as she wanted to fight. He told me about the moment that she finally said, “Let’s get on with it” at the end. She was ready.
I got all of this in rich detail in a one-hour lunch at a sushi bar. My lesson from all this is that there is a great deal of stuff we would want to know but don’t even know to ask about. It’s important to me to get my family’s stories, to learn my history, their history, our history, as much as I can, and then to make a record of it somehow if I need to. Otherwise, like the meatballs, they’re gone forever, and these are much more important than meatballs. There are some things I would like to know specifically, but there are many more things I don’t even know that I don’t know. I can’t learn everything of course, but I can learn quite a bit simply by asking questions, by listening, by exploring the dynamics, the nuance and richness, how they felt about things, how they came to make certain decisions, all in the course of casual dialogue and conversation. My father has always been willing to share. I consider it my responsibility to set up a non-judgmental and safe environment conducive to openness. Ask open questions and listen. You used to be very good at this as a child. “Then what happened?”
Nothing can offset the loss of a parent. I expect to mourn when my father dies and I hope that’s still quite a number of years off. I do expect to let him know that he was loved and that his love was received and to say goodbye to him with fullness and peace. It’s all a stew of intense, competing and different feelings, one of life’s many absurdities. How can I mourn and feel a sense of loss, not completely fulfilled or resolved in the relationship, and still say goodbye with fullness and peace? Perhaps I will only know that I have come to realize those two dreams more or less, in mourning. But there’s no dress rehearsal as they say, and time is all we have.
I welcome your own thoughts in the Comments below. How have you undertaken loving your parents as you and they both age? What has been important for you and what has been successful?
[i] Katz, Shawn H. “Healing the Father-Son Relationship: A Qualitative Inquiry into Adult Reconciliation.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 42, no.3 (2002): 13-52.