This painting is by Sheila Dunn. It is of my parents on Christmas day, many years before I was born.
Somebody named Winfield Townley Scott said "I think people know, even when they know little about poetry or care less, that a poet serves Truth. Truth is an unpredictable, a dangerous thing; avoided by most people. A poet is a rebuke, a higher and more responsible consciousness in our midst. He is, while alive, more alive than most people."
Of the long list of things that I loved about my father, most of all I loved that he felt his emotions so deeply. Unlike so many sleepers navigating though life on some auto-pilot pathway, he had the tremendous courage to feel.
I also loved that he had me convinced well into my late teens that Sting was Gordan Lightfoot's god given name, or that when he toured he would collect electronic hotel room keys to bring back for me, writing over them in sharpies to create a deck of cards. They were a little stiff when you tried to shuffle them, though.
He brought us the tiny shampoos and conditioners too, a precursor to my now strict environmentalist dont-let-anything-go-to-waste ways. He called them itty-bittys. I loved that he played Norwegian wood and Ragpicker's Dream every Christmas. In fact, I loved HIS love for the Beatles in general. When I was sorting through his computer last week I must have found a hundred photos of Paul McCartney in his photo library. As if they were good friends.
I am forever grateful that he bought me my first guitar, taught me my first chords, and then proceeded to beg me not to become a musician--exactly the fuel a teenage musician needs.
It's important to consider, however, that death doesn't suddenly transform an imperfect person into a perfect one. In fact, without considering my father's flaws, he isn't the man that we loved. But death does give us the pause we need to understand the complete person, flaws and all.
I found myself on a greyhound a couple of weeks ago. There was a lot of traffic so it was slow going, but we were moving forward, red tail lights glowing in the night. Rap music bled out of headphones somewhere, and I was chomping on a half a pound of carrots, thinking about Christmas two years ago -- the last time I saw Dad. My boyfriend and I had been living at my parent's cabin all of November, hand-making gifts: Journals, hats, a little book that when you flipped the pages, showed a video of my 2 year old nephew high-fiving my brother. Meanwhile, dad had been working out in his wood shop in New Hampshire, carving wooden kitchen utensils for everyone. The days moved forward. I crocheted faster, trying to finish up the last stitches on a hat I was making for cold New England winters. I imagine Dad must have rushed the last few finishing touches on one of the pizza peels before packing up his suitcase, putting on his tweed coat, and heading for the crowded, wreath bearing Logan International Airport. He flew west while we cut down the pine tree and circled it with little white lights. We put the star on top while Dad's plane moved forward in the sky.
We're always moving forward. We make a choice and it propels us into the future. We can't see what we've affected because it's like a comet tail behind us. And there are billions of us making choices every minute--so the world is chalk full of comet tails, and shooting stars, and airplane trails. And they're chaotically shooting in different directions, ruthlessly interacting with each other. Every minute we produce more choices based on those intersections, so the comet tails sprout branches. This is how we fill the time, the days, the years...compound this with the basic principal that what people do--the choice they make that sparks the comet into motion--is hardly ever a true reflection of what they feel, or what they want.
Christmas eve arrived and the presents were wrapped, the food prepared, and when the door opened there dad was, and he was drunk. The situation unfolded like an explosion of comets, or the black hole that ate Christmas.
Sometimes a person is so difficult, we come to an impasse with them. The choices they're making are intersecting lives left and right, and you can't make an inch of progress arguing with them either. What you don't know is it isn't just you and them in this room. You're in a traffic jam.
You can only see the bumper in front of you, this difficult person blocking your way. And maybe you can see a little sliver of the bumper in front of them, a grandparent perhaps, but not much else. In reality, there are invisible factors that file on for miles and miles of glowing red tail lights...Eventually the universe will allow you to lay eyes on the accident that caused such an injury, and you're taught empathy. Your eyes point: That's somebody's brother, somebody's husband, somebody's son! Inch by inch, you pass the pain and gawk. Now you understand.
That Christmas my father had recently lost his father. He was mourning. I could have received him with love as opposed to disgust. But my pride and me had it all sorted out, and we stopped talking to him all together instead.
The next time that I saw him was in the intensive care unit at Exeter hospital, after my mother called the police and asked them to stop by his house. She hadn't heard from him in a few days and was concerned. In fact, the same police officer that found my grandfather's body three years ago, in the very same house, found my father unconscious on the floor.
Once we arrived, he did regain consciousness. We spent several days together that way.
He had been breathing well despite the infection in his lungs--they were measuring what percentage of breaths he was taking without assistance. The day shift nurse, a sweet baby-faced girl not too much older than I am, told me if he continued to breath so well they could take him off the ventilator. He couldn't speak with it in but he was nodding yes and no to any question posed. The whole family thought he was certain to live, and two of my siblings returned to Colorado to start school.
I had been recommended, the week before, a poet by the name of Dylan Thomas. I sat by my father's bedside reading Thomas' words about the cycles of life and death, the great unity of the universe.
I didn't want Dad to be alone ever. When he lifted his heavy lids I did not want him to see the face of a stranger, baby faced or not. I'd rub his belly, his knees, his feet, caress his face, behind his ears. He was so brave. The nurses asked him if he wanted pain medication every hour, and knowing it compromised his consciousness, he shook his head no despite certain discomfort. The ventilator tube made his mouth very dry and the nurse taught me how to moisten it, carefully around the breathing tube, with a little sponge on a stick. It was an effective drink of water. I continued to sing to him, read him poetry, told him about my little farm in Colorado--which he'd never seen. I read him a Dylan Thomas poem, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light..." to which he responded by lifting his torso and both arms in the air, as if with a great herculean roar and intent to lift the world off it's axis.
When I was a child my parents had a California king sized bed fashioned out of lodge pole pines. It was big enough to sleep a family, and it did. Every time a child was born (in that bed) they were also welcomed in that bed. And when we got too old for such things, well, we just waited until the middle of the night and then, one at a time, crawled in. Dawn would arrive and six heads of messy hair would be poking out of the down comforter, the largest and greyest of the heads snoring exactly like a papa bear should. That was the odd thing about the nights we spent together at the hospital. With the ventilator in, he couldn't snore. Strange that you can miss a thing as simple as a snore.
Hurricane Irene hit New Hampshire in the form of a heavy rain, the power surged and the life support mechanisms were momentarily interrupted. He lost a lot of blood frozen inside the dialysis machine. The nurses panicked. They had a backup generator at the hospital that failed to prevent the hiccup. What could anyone have done? It was the way of the world.
And a turning point for him.
He skin grew more yellow and bruises bloomed on his limbs. Repeatedly he would lift one tired hand and tug at that breathing tube, asking with his eyes for it's removal. The nurse told me that they would have to restrain his hands. I held them instead. I pulled the chair next to his bed and slept beside him. I'd wake up and see his eyes open at the same time as mine. "Maybe we're sharing the same dream," I said. I'd place my head on his chest and we'd breath together. Breath together with the medical ventilator. He breathed to live. I breathed to calm my weeping. His hands, as I held them, took the texture of bubble gum that has been chewed too long and disintegrates. I could, and can still, picture exactly what his fingers look like forming a D chord on the guitar. or a C chord, or a G chord, or any chord for that matter.
I have been taught empathy. Empathy is the one thing you can never have enough of. Empathy is the parent of love. And when you learn the value of love, it turns out that everything else in the world can not add up to equate it. Love is more expensive and fragile than anger, than greed, grief, or especially, pride.
The tragedy of my father's death was not in the complete unexpected nature of it, or in his mere 61 years, though those things make for a terrible sorrow as well. And the tragedy isn't in the finality of it, it's in the uncertainty, the ambiguity of it. When you shoot an old dog to put it out of it's misery--still a common practice on ranches here in the southwest--it's true the dog was going to die anyway. But it is also true that you killed the dog. That's unsettling for me. Recognizing that his organs would not recover, and asking him to be removed from life support was the most difficult pass I have ever traversed.
My oldest sister couldn't come cross country to be by our father's bedside. She doesn't own a cell phone, or drive a working car, much less be able to afford the plane ticket. But she looked out her kitchen window and watched a dying mule struggling in the field the day my father passed, and she prayed for its relief. She didn't need a phone call or a text message or a telegram to make that prayer.
In fact, the universe prepares us all in strange ways. Serendipity delivered me Dylan Thomas, God gave Suzi the dying mule, and some prophetic powers moved my mother to put in a random call to the police station. I'll never totally understand any of it, though I have the tools I need to move through it. "Dark is a way, and light is a place," Dylan Thomas writes. "But dark is a long way."
And the tragedy of my father's life was not in the traffic jam of broken hearts I told you about, it was not in a series of unfortunate circumstances that the world rained upon him, but in the inner conflict between his desperate desire to find happiness and his own inability to make choices that would lead to that happiness. It isn't just the plight of my father, but of humanity.
Tragedy lives too often exclusively inside the man, while the world is buoyantly, boisterously, relentlessly continuing it's routines.
Rumi said: "The day is outside, living and dying." And like so many things that live and die--the dawn, the dusk, the seasons, my father has gone on to join that cyclical rhythm that dominates all of existence.
He was a loving parent, an outstanding musician, and--in the sense of how deeply he felt his emotions, however low the depth of his sorrows and high the crest of his joys, and how courageously he served truth, however dangerous and unpredictable that it is--he was a poet.
And I believe that while he was alive,
he was much more alive
than most people.