hitting bone – a search for love and compassion
May 25, 2013 § 1 Comment
To My Readers
Following Shalimar, a memoir about my mother, many readers asked me about my father. Whenever I attempted to write about my Dad, I struggled with the emotional architectural dig associated with disquieting memories concerning him. In the process of this particular writing, I realized that what I thought was the truth about our relationship was not grounded in its foundation. My selected memories resided more in the world of ‘magical thinking:’ what I wished to be fact. I had not hit bone — some thing raw, authentic, yet undisputed in its origin, and undeniable in its marrow. I persevered to bring an honest accounting of my experiences with my father, which uncovered a singular truth that haunted me my whole life — and still does.
This narrative also contains new images that are, in part, an homage to Georgia O’Keefe. I believe she captured the bones and marrow of her subjects, revealing an unequivocal truth of being. They are interspersed throughout this writing but are not directly related to it. View them as meditative pauses. They are here in honor of all fathers and daughters who traversed through the seasons of their hearts and, of course, for you, my readers, friends, and patrons.
The heart, as does nature, lives through seasons of change. It was that way for my father and me. I believed he never really wanted me when at the tender age of ten for the first time, but certainly not the last, he uttered the words I wish you had never been born.
Sixty years later, as I approach the age of seventy, I finally discerned the veracity of my father’s existence: the role he played, and did not play, in my life and in the life of others. He was not a demonstrative man yet he had a sentimental side, which he rarely allowed to shine through. Though he supported my childhood creative endeavors with financial help, paying for dance and acting classes, costumes, and such, he understood little about my young aspirations. In his defense though, there was no framework in his life experience to understand my particular childhood uniqueness. We attempted through many years to bond, but these efforts were, for the most part, awkward and filled with misdirected anger and pain.
My father was not around much when my brother and I were children for he worked two jobs to provide for our family. He was a fireman in Cleveland, Ohio, which required evening shifts several nights a week, and he drove a Brinks armored truck on his days off. Dad was a dedicated, hard-working man.
My mother was a homemaker. And as previously shared in Shalimar, she was a seriously neurotic, deeply depressed woman. My parents developed a chasm between them that lasted their respective lifetimes. The reason for this division, told to me by my mother, was that when she discovered she was pregnant with me in 1943, my father asked her to abort. Though my parents believed the abortion was successful, for a fetus was expunged, to their great surprise they discovered a few months later that I remained in my mother’s womb. Had she survived, I would have had a twin sister.
Ten years later my father angrily spat those cruel words I wish you had never been born. I sat crying in the middle of our yellow and white linoleum kitchen floor, his words striking me like a stinging arrow. I was a child caught in the mutual hatred between my father and mother — and, a palpable reminder of what they did not want. I believed my father’s harsh words were said for me to absorb as absolute.
My mother had fertile ground upon which to build an arsenal of reasons to maintain her intense disdain of my father: he was mean and harsh, stingy, quick-tempered, absent, humorless, unloving, a man to be feared. Sadly, he was also a racist and anti-Semite.
In great contrast with those behaviors, it was my father who always came to my bedside to cool my forehead after childhood nightmares. He had a sixth sense too about my epileptic seizures. As I emerged from an episode, he was already in my bedroom massaging my left arm and leg, which were in painful spasms. When I was a young adult woman of twenty living in New York City, I had a serious automobile accident. It was my father once again who drove all night from Ohio to keep vigil at my hospital bed.
My view of my father and his actions were greatly filtered through my mother’s eyes. He was, therefore, diminished in my mind and heart, not only because my mother monsterized him, but also because he truly was a difficult, unyielding man most of the time.
Thirty-Third Street, New York City, 1964
Dad made an impromptu visit to New York one early October, a few months following my twenty-first birthday. He said he wanted to ‘see the sites.’ So, we wandered to the usual tourist haunts and he was especially interested in the United Nations. After a long morning of walking in cold, misty weather, we stopped for lunch at a pub on Thirty-Third Street just off Fifth Avenue. We finished our meal and walked out into a light rain with the last of the gold and sienna leaves floating down from the City’s sidewalk trees. Every fiber of my being said it was time. This was the moment to ask about my birth and so I did. Is it true that you and mother tried to abort me? His face and eyes, clearly expressing a range of emotions from sorrow to anger, and then incredulity, revealed the truth at last. I knew then that we, together, had hit bone: even the marrow. He asked me how I knew. I told him that mother informed me of this on the day of my birthday that past August. His initial response was That bitch! This was something you were never supposed to know, or needed to know. His eyes filled with tears, trickling out of their corners and down his cheeks. In a raspy, choked voice he uttered I am so sorry you have learned this. He said nothing more. He did nothing more. He simply turned and walked slowly down the street in the rain as I stood there stunned and confused. I felt like an emotional see-saw, wanting to forgive him, hate him, love him. I did not move for what seemed a long time as my hair, soaked from the rain, clung to my head and neck. Black mascara stained my face, but not from tears.
We did not speak for fourteen years after that incident. And in the following decades, our communications were infrequent and strained. These were fallow periods in which my father and I, unbeknownst to one another, respectively struggled to overcome the shapeless demons that plagued what I believed was a fundamental love for one another. These many seasons of my heart helped me to see beyond the crippling challenges of my birth, my tormented mother, and my parents’ mutual pain and guilt with which they lived. As I discovered what was important and authentic in my life, I found the courage to walk into my wound and embrace the inner universe of my heart. In so doing, I discovered not resentment or hate, but an unwavering love and compassion for the man whose life force gave me mine.
The Nursing Home, 2005
On a steaming July day in 2005 with a hurricane about to hit Florida, I received the call. My father was about to die. I made quick arrangements to fly into Ft. Lauderdale but was warned that the hurricane would most likely disrupt the flight schedules. We flew over the storm in torrential rain, yet I did arrive. I was expecting to visit my father in his bed hooked up to machines and tubes. This was not the case for he rallied during my travel time. He said this is not my time. And he was right.
Instead, my ninety-two year old father sat in a wheelchair with his left leg crossed over the right and his arms folded. He looked small. My stepmother stood close to him at the ready to help should he need it. They waited in a soft, earth-toned lobby of a nursing home. As I entered into this world of the aging, I registered little, seeing only my father’s blue eyes clouded with age yet retaining an intensity of spirit and purpose I had not seen before. Our eyes locked into one another’s and through them for a few suspended moments we had an immediate understanding, an unspoken communication: So, we have made the journey and through it all we accomplished what we needed to do. We did our best. We understand more. And, now we love. Then, spiraling back into the presence of others, I moved towards him with my arms outstretched. Like a great Samurai warrior wounded in his final battle, his honor refusing to give way to frailty, my father stood to greet me, bracing himself on trembling arms and hands and unsteady limbs. Simultaneously we said I love you. Twice. I was amazed at the nobility and courage of this act as I carefully embraced his fragile frame and kissed his cool cheek. I felt only bone for this once strapping 180-pound man who fought raging fires in Cleveland, Ohio, now weighed a mere 110 pounds. Proudly, he sat down as he stood moments before — shaking and unsteady but without anyone’s help.
Though his body was tired and worn from the battles of old age, his mind remained clear and his focus keen, like a great white wolf ever alert observing, listening, taking it all in — missing nothing and savoring everything.
As I sat next to him and took his hand, I noticed the gossamer-like skin covering his bones. We sat silently for a few minutes simply looking at one another. I noticed how long and slender his fingers were as his hands gracefully draped over the arms of his chair. These were the hands of an artist, or should have been, for they were exceedingly graceful. I never really looked closely at his hands before. I regretted not having my camera with me so I could photograph them. I did not know it then, but this would be the last time I saw him.
“Part of our task is to learn how our ancestors informed our lives” ~ Joan Halifax
My willingness to acknowledge my father’s genuine being, though painful at times, has been illuminating too — for wisdom is born amidst pain. I learned about steadfastness and faithfulness to one’s self — not only to others. My father knew who he was; what he could and could not do, or be. And, he accepted his role in life never asking for, or wanting, more.
My father was neither famous nor infamous. But, he paid attention to the small, humble acts of daily life and in so doing provided a lifetime of service to many people. He was dedicated in the support of his family under challenging and oftentimes painful circumstances. He gave of himself to all eight of his brothers, sisters, respective spouses, and mothers-in-law during their illnesses as most passed away over the many decades that he lived. He was a courageous man who walked into seething fires to rescue others, which he never spoke of — and for admitting a raw, heartbreaking truth to his daughter on a rainy October afternoon amidst the falling leaves on Thirty-Third Street in New York City.
I believe that my father and I ‘hit the bone’ of what our love really was — and it was one filled with challenge, stress, and very few soft, nurturing corners and edges. Yet, the cornerstone of our relationship, perhaps the truth of what exists in all human relationships, supported a deep-seated, inexplicable love and compassion.
Well Dad, Emerson wrote, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived…this is to have succeeded.” I am not certain that your life helped me to ‘breathe easier.’ It would be dishonest of me to say this was so. The gritty truth, the bone and marrow of our existence together, is that you did not want a child. And, yes, that still hurts. However, I do believe that once I entered your world, you loved me as best you could. I have come to understand and respect this restrained love. And through our struggles to accept and love one another on some fundamental level, I discovered something very valuable: a genuine, tender compassion for you. I prayed that you would be freed from the quick anger you wore on your face and in your heart, the pain of your internal world, and prejudices towards others whom you truly did not know, nor even tried to understand. I wept when you died and again during this writing, thinking how these negative forces within your soul may have caused the cancer that ultimately consumed you.
Ah, but you were my father. You gave me life. And, I loved you.
My father passed the following year very quickly as the cancer consumed him in less than two months. He was ninety-three years old.“If one carries his father on his left shoulder and his mother on his right shoulder until his bones were ground to powder by their weight as they bore through to the marrow … that person would still not have repaid the deep kindness of his parents.” ~ The Buddha