February 9, 2009

Another Time of Grief

“I wasn’t there that morning when my father passed away I didn’t get to tell him all the things I had to say...in the living years.”

If you’re looking for thunder and lightning, try the archive or come back another day. I have some things to work through. Friends and family may be interested, and casual readers may still get something out of my experiences. Uncle Bob is sad lately.
My father died two days ago (February 7, 2009). If he could have lasted another two months, he would have been 86. He went quietly in his sleep in a home in Michigan, and I am in New York. Naturally, I felt sadness. This cowboy has no shame in admitting that he wept.

My oldest brother died on December 21, 2008. Before that, my mother died in November of 2003. And before that, my father’s brother died in March, 2000 (while I was going through my divorce). No wonder I don’t like winter... My parents were both reasonably sound of mind for that funeral. I learned things about my uncle, and realized that I missed out on a really great guy. At least my surviving brother is in good health, so it's reasonable to hope he'll stick around.

However, this grieving process has helped me learn some things about myself and my relationship with my father. We had an awkward and somewhat strained relationship. Part of the reason for that was his job. He was a pastor from 1951 until he retired in 1985. (Retired? He kept active for a few years in Florida after that.) In his church system, relocation was expected and frequent. I lived in five different towns and cities before I moved out on my own, so I did not have deep roots. Also, he had a hectic schedule with meetings, hospital calls, counseling, preparing for and doing the actual preaching, weddings, funerals and everything else that goes with it. So, the usual father-son things that are typical did not happen much with us.

I always felt like I let him down. Not so much in the way of my character and integrity, but that I was not a “success” in life. But he did not say that to me at all, and wanted me to be happy. Still, he had high hopes for what I would become...

He had his inner demons, but that was kept locked away inside him for the most part. It was not until very late in his life that we learned of some conditions that could have been medicated. And my own suspicion is that he had adult ADD. I saw the Alzheimer's and dementia forming years before they were full blown. Later on, Parkinson’s Disease was added to the mix. The last time I saw him (I think it was three years ago, damn the distance and financial difficulties that kept me away for so long), he did not know me at all.

Part of my grieving was from an awareness of my own failings; I did not feel like I was a good son, and was judgmental about his weaknesses. No, I was not abused per se, but his parenting skills were lacking. Perhaps that was because he was human. At any rate, some harsh words were said. I had said and done things to hurt him as well. Perhaps that is because I have human tendencies myself.

My father was always reminding me not to “shame the family”. I remember him going to the jail to talk to someone who shared our last name and talking to the guy to try to straighten him out! There were a few times that I had made some bad choices and fully expected to be disowned. He surprised me by putting those things aside and we went on with life. (And if you think I’m going to be so transparent as to tell you what those were, fuggedaboudit!) But I will add that I expected him to be very upset when my then-wife and I left his denomination and became Baptist. Not a ripple. If that’s where we felt we needed to be, that was fine with him. But I don’t think he’d approve of my lack of church-going now.
I have to point out that he hated it when I would put myself down.

He tried to teach me right from wrong (and succeeded for the most part) so that I was able to know the choices that I was making. Also, he believed in his duties as a pastor. No, he did not always like his job, though. One church, which shall remain nameless, gave him ulcers so severely that he almost died. His doctor wanted him to sue that church, and offered to sign papers! Also, I remember him bluntly saying in another one, “You're a bitchy church.” Hey, maybe his influence is one reason that I can be so direct.

Having pastored so many churches for so many years, he made many friends (so many hours spent talking and playing cards). In fact, he had friends that were clergy of different faiths as well. Many of these friends kept in contact over the years, even after his moving from town to town, and eventually to Florida. Perhaps I envy that, because I’ve had friendships that died out after we parted ways. I’m thinking of a line in a song by Boston: “You’ll forget about me after I’ve been gone...”

One of the greatest benefits that I had from his pastorate was the “ministerial exchange” to Loughton (suburb of London), England. They were in our house for six weeks, we were in theirs. Truly amazing. One drawback for me was that it was in 1975, and my depression (which would not be diagnosed for several years yet) was making my behavior rather quirky and morose. Even so, it was a great time and remains one of the best experiences of our lives. The shorter return trip in about 1980 was also great!

Something that really saddens me is that he did not know my development and where I am now. I think he would laugh that I'm listening to music that he would like, from Sinatra, Big Bands, bluegrass and more (plus stuff he would really loathe). Although he said he was a Republican, I feel that he was “moderate”, and it was not discussed much at home; my interest and Conservative development happened much later. But he did know that my theology was much more conservative than his liberal theology, and we had a few brief discussions on that. He was in Florida when I was teaching creation science in Michigan churches; he wanted me to become a pastor and would have liked to see some of that happening, such as it was.
It’s kind of funny, he also thought I should consider going into journalism. Hey, Dad, does Weblog writing count? At least I can write what I want, here.

My father would also appreciate how I’ve learned to see the bigger picture, and try to see where someone is coming from. I’d like to think that I’m being much less judgmental now. He had different experiences, teachings and so forth, and I have my own. Distance, resentment, mental illnesses, my late intellectual development, his own changes all add up somehow.

So anyway. Thoughts are still spinning in my head, and I’m still discovering what I can learn through all of this. But a conversation yesterday with someone who had a strained relationship with her father revealed something to me: He’s at peace, so is she, and there’s nothing to gain by holding onto unpleasant thoughts, memories and imaginations. I need to apply that to my own life. Not only forgive him, but forgive myself as well. After all, it’s done and he’d want me to be happy.

It may be difficult, but if you’ve read this far, I hope that things I’ve learned will help someone else. I've learned about communication, seeing someone else's perspective, forgiving them, forgiving myself, and I don't know what all, yet. But I think I "may just be OK". And, Dad? At ease, Sailor!

One last thought. There's a grand reunion going on. (Oh, Lord, just set myself off again...) A wife had been waiting for her husband of many decades on this earth. Their mentally retarded son is there, now perfect. The husband and father has now joined them. The holiday commonly called Easter, where Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the defeat of death, is coming. There's an even more grand celebration coming

Before I go relax and watch a cowboy movie, I’d like to close with a song. Mike and the Mechanics did something that touched me years ago. Now I realize just how close to home it actually hits:

The Living Years

Every generation
Blames the one before

And all of their frustrations

Come beating on your door

I know that I’m a prisoner

To all my father held so dear

I know that I’m a hostage

To all his hopes and fears

I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper

Filled with imperfect thought

Stilted conversations

I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it,

He says its perfect sense

You just can’t get agreement

In this present tense

We all talk a different language

Talking in defence

Say it loud, say it clear

You can listen as well as you hear

Its too late when we die

To admit we don’t see eye to eye

So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past

We only sacrifice the future;

Its the bitterness that lasts

So don’t yield to the fortunes

You sometimes see as fate

It may have a new perspective

On a different day

And if you don’t give up,
and don’t give in
You may just be OK

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear

Its too late when we die

To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my father passed away

I didn’t get to tell him

All the things I had to say

I think I caught his spirit

Later that same year

I’m sure I heard his echo

In my baby’s new born tears

I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Say it loud, say it clear

You can listen as well as you hear

Its too late when we die

To admit we don’t see eye to eye

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