When My Dad Died
I was there when he died.
I had been at my parents’ house a lot of the week, keeping watch with my mom, administering morphine to my dad, trying to keep him comfortable. He couldn’t communicate what he needed, couldn’t speak at all, or even acknowledge our presence at the end. I was there all Sunday morning with them, went home for five minutes, and in the short time that I was gone, he died.
I think maybe he was playing a final joke on me. Or doing things his own way. Or saving that moment for a special time between just him and my mom. Likely, all three.
My dad is one of my closest friends. I say is and not was because I don’t think he actually went anywhere. His body for sure was empty of him, but his spirit, his energy, his person…he’s still “there”. I still keep in touch with him. He shows up in my dreams and meditations sometimes. He lives in my memories triggered by the smell of oil, clay, a very specific bar soap, and shop dust.
I’m a middle kid. Maybe a bit naughty, headstrong for sure, curious to the max. My dad was my intellectual sparring partner, equally curious, and pretty open. We would talk about books, theology, spirituality, sex, relationships, death. There really wasn’t much that was off-limits. We were kindred spirits. I remember as a college kid when our relationship turned from a daddy-daughter thing into a friendship. There was a really beautiful openness that made it easy to talk about typically embarrassing things that wouldn’t normally fit in a conversation between a dad and his daughter.
When he died, I lost not only my dad but one of my best friends. And for a while, I thought he died disappointed in me.
For the last several years, I have been testing the waters of my beliefs. The same beliefs he and my mom had treasured in their own lives and found ways to incorporate into my and my siblings’ lives. I tested, adjusted, and replaced. I didn’t land anywhere in particular because I was still processing and changing. Many of our conversations over the months leading up to his death were about the Big Questions: Did I believe in God? What did I think about the Bible? How about Jesus? Each time I answered with a deeper layer question or an I don’t know, I felt like I had let him down. My siblings had long ago left the conservative religion of our youth so my departure felt like a massive betrayal, like I was the last evidence that they had done something right in the faith department. At least I was still going to church, reading my Bible, teaching my kids from a Christian perspective, praying, and attending bible studies.
Until I wasn’t, and it seemed to really crush my dad. Leading up to his death I wasn’t only mourning his physical decline, but I mourned the loss of our easy friendship. I missed going deep with him. I missed sparring. I missed being on the same team.
Why I didn’t just “fake it” until after he died? Why couldn’t I just keep things to myself? Why couldn’t I just re-believe? Why couldn’t I get back into the religious waters and tread water? Why couldn’t I go to bible study and try harder, pray more and focus on the evidence that what I had believed was the right thing to believe? Because there’s no coming back from that type of transformation. It’s like telling a baby to get back in the womb. Sure, it’s safe and comfortable there, but it is literally impossible to reverse the labor, final push and first breath.
Being honest when the stakes felt so high changed me. Telling the truth, living in integrity, and not letting shame quiet me have been transformative.
We are not stagnant beings. We are constantly growing, changing, and learning, but we can stifle our personal evolution because change can be so terribly uncomfortable. Authentic living is so damn scary because it seemingly threatens one of the core mechanisms of our survival: belonging. Living in integrity means our lives probably will need to change. After living under the shoulds of others, the plans they have for our lives, the behaviors and choices that fit into their views of what life is supposed to be like, it’s no wonder that there is resistance when we start telling the truth. Especially if the truth means something scary for others like quitting a stable job, moving somewhere new, or ending a relationship. Our brains do not like change, but when the pain of staying the same finally is less bearable than the pain of changing, we are finally ready to rock our worlds and turn them upside down.
“Contemplating integrity as a way of life is like deciding to leave your homeland and become a citizen of a new country: it involves a major identity.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity.
I wish my dad had lived long enough for me to learn how to navigate changes in our relationship and write the next chapter together. Wherever he is now, I think he sees the big picture and knows that everything is okay. Truthfully, I don’t know what it was like for him to navigate that change in our relationship, and can only go off what my perception was, but the last thing he was able to say to me before he could no longer speak was I love you and I had no reason to doubt him.
Love you too, Dad.