Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fortunate Son

Sometimes when people ask me what my plans are for the future, I tell people I'm getting myself ready to die. This was maybe the last lesson I learned from my father.  It doesn’t make me think about death.  It makes me think about life.   I'm getting ready to die every moment.  Of course I don't know when or how I'm going to die, only that it’s waiting to happen, and that's very different from the way my father died.  Because he knew.

My father died from leukemia in November of 2008.  He died right on time.  He was doomed.  

Doomed is a very special way of dying, if you manage it right.  It takes a lot of the fear out it.  The doctors tell you when.  The doctors tell you how. All you have to do is decide if you want to fight it out or not.  And if you decide to accept it and go with it,  the people around you who love you - they know too.  They know how much time you've got together.  That changes them too.

Nobody wants to hear this stuff, but I'm going to die.  You're going  to die.  Buddha died.  Jesus died.  There's nothing special about us, we're all going to die and that's the only thing you know for sure about your future. And this can be a very powerful spiritual thing, to know - with evidence - how much time you've got.

  No hope and no fear.  Every day becomes precious.  Everything you do with the people you love takes on a new meaning.  When the doctors told my father he would die sometime around November, he had a big going away party and invited all his friends.  He dressed up in a suit and danced with my sister Laura and he made a video of it.  Because Laura was getting married next year and he knew he wasn't going to be there in person to dance with the bride.  We played that at her wedding.  Now that, to me, is a really interesting way of thinking.  That is keeping a very cool head in the face of life.

Over the years we had become estranged from each other.  I think this happens to parents and their grown up children a lot.  My way of life in the past was so weird and  different it was impossible for him to relate to me and I didn't know how to relate to him.  Having a grandchild gave us a reason to visit and in those last years we began to rediscover each other again.  We had reinvented ourselves in each other's eyes as interesting people. 

He became sick with cancer for the first time in 2008 and went into a coma during the treatment.  When he came back from the coma he resumed the chemotherapy and after a few months of pain and sickness was pronounced cancer free.  He was healthy for several years and then in 2008 the cancer came back hard.  The doctors and the insurance were willing to treat him, but everybody was sure he probably wouldn't survive the treatment.  He was doomed.  No matter what.

He decided for no treatment; let the cancer run its course.  They said he'd be gone by thanksgiving.

For most of us, our own death, is not a reality, even though it's the only thing we know for sure is waiting down the road for us.  As we get older it begins to get real when the people we love start dropping away one by one.  Dad was in a uniquely graceful situation such as very few people get to have.  Because - He was doomed.  He knew he was going to die.  He even knew pretty much when.  And the people around him, they knew too.  

I knew that the next time I visited him would be my last.  I would be seeing him for the last time.  Usually you never know when you're seeing someone for the last time, you only find out after the fact.  But I knew.   So I had to try to pick out the right day to say goodbye to my father for the last time.  How do you do that?
  
We were both liberal democrats.  My father was a Latino man who had experienced discrimination in his life.  This was the election year when America might have its first black president, a great turning point in our history.  So I decided I would come the 2nd of November and we would see the election night in together.

We spent that afternoon smoking cigars, he smoked them, I tried hard but couldn't quite get it.  We talked about light things.  Old friends came over and drank wine and talked politics with him. It was like any other day, nothing special at all.  The evening got quiet, we ate dinner and soon the house settled into its little family routines.

This was an old house, built decades ago in a time when conversation was the main entertainment and people talked face to face.  We sat in the old parlor room, a room designed for conversation and thinking.  We discussed some of the Great Questions, including death and soon things just got quiet. He sat and smoked. I saw this red leather binder on a little table and asked about it.

He says "Oh that.  Your Uncle Tony left that behind.  Crap.  Now we got to mail it back."

"What is it?"

"Old Photo album." He handed it to me.

So I looked at it.  It was incredible.  These were all the old ancestral photos going back generations.  I had never seen these pictures.  My great, great grandfather Hoseco.  My Grandfather, aunts and uncles when they were just little kids.  There was a picture of my grandmother, a Cherokee Indian woman who I'd never met, sitting in the ruins of a ghost town with my dad about 5 years old, sitting on her knee.  She would die a year after that picture had been taken and he'd grow up without a mother.  

My doomed father, sat with me, his son and went over the old photos one by one telling me the stories of my ancestors.  My aunt Florence as a child, taken in a group photo, she had her arm in a cast and you could tell she was all cut up.  She'd been in a car wreck a couple of weeks before the picture was taken which had killed both her parents, and her in the back seat all she got was a broken arm.  But her parents were killed right in front of her.  My grandfather, this big tough looking Mexican with Oshkosh bib overalls and these big engineer boots.  

Each photo. Each soul.  Each death.  Each story.

Finally it was late and time to go down and watch the election progress.  We stayed up until ten, and watched our first black president sail into office.  We were cleaning up loose ends.  A black president was something he had wanted to see.  And he had wanted to see me.

In the morning I got my suitcase zipped and loaded up and ready to leave.  Lavonne was waiting in the family van in the alley to drive me off to the airport.  She waited over there as Dad and me said our last and final goodbyes.

My last conversation in this world with my father, started over the kind of dumb stuff guys talk about.   What time my plane arrives and gas mileage and stuff.   Then it wavered into that awkward space in conversation when no one knows quite what to say next, even though the moment is waiting.

He put his arms around me.  Which he never did before.  He told me that he loved me.  Which he never did before.  He said I was a good son.  I put my arms around him.  I said he was a good father.
But.  This was really a lie, you see.  We knew that.
  
I had not been a good son. I was a big disappointment to him in so many ways, and there are so many ways a son can disappoint a father.  He had been a very good father, but that was later.  To somebody else.  After he had learned from his experiences with us.  How do you say goodbye to somebody like that for the last time?

In that moment, when two men are seeing each other for the last time, father and son, who are important to each other, and they’ve got all this difficult history between them -  you just let it go.  All of it.  You forgive the past.  You accept each other exactly as you are in that moment.  Without asking anything else from each other anymore.  Unconditionally.  That's how you say goodbye for the last time.

A few weeks later on a Sunday morning I got the phone call.  Lavonne was crying.  Dad had passed away about an hour ago.  He had been sitting on the sofa reading the Sunday color comics from the Minneapolis Tribune, when suddenly his eyes closed, he said something no one understood and he just went over.  Lavonne took him in her arms, my sister Laura called to Annie who rushed downstairs and they embraced him.  He went away in the arms of the women who loved him.  


6 comments:

  1. Let it go.

    That's what forgiveness is all about. It doesn't erase the past, or the hurt, or even the evil. But it sets you free to float away into a new place, emotionally and spiritually. Maybe into death, or maybe into a new life.

    Hugs.

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    1. Maybe death. Maybe new life. Maybe they're the same. I wonder what Heaven is. I don;t believe for a second its some sheltered plsce where people go around being virtuous. That would drive everybody crazy. I like to think its a place where we would be free and unbounded. that would be my heaven.

      Garce

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  2. As your story shows. Garce, there are times when mutual forgiveness is the best and most important thing people can do. Those who don't have the chance or make the chance to do that (or worse, don't take that chance if it's available) may or may not feel a burden of guilt, but they've missed something of great value.

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    1. I think they've missed freedom. I think the people we forgive most often don't care if we forgive them or not. But it liberates us.

      Garce

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  3. Of course you're right, Garce. Forgiveness means nothing to those we think wronged us, because usually they don't even remember doing the act that we held that grudge for so long about. But it eats at you like a cancer, from within, sapping the joy from your life as you contemplate how to get revenge for something from someone who is unaware of anything wrong.

    My mother and her sisters were masters at holding grudges--they nurtured their anger and resentment like prized orchids, making sure they were always fresh in their minds. And why? I'm not really sure. I've tried really hard to break that pattern in my own life. Of the 10 kids in Mom's family, there is only 1 left, and when I call her, since she's almost 90, she's always thrilled to hear from me. But inevitably, she works the conversation around to how much she disliked my mom, what a cold, self-centered woman my mom was. Since that's not the woman I remember, I change the subject.

    Because even with all of her faults, my mom was a loving, nurturing woman, who made me feel like the sun didn't shine in the morning until I got us, since it shone out of my butt for her. Anything I did was spectacular, just because I did it. And still craving her approval, I worked very hard to get my first romance novel published in time to hand it to her, with a dedication to her in the front. But by that time, dementia had robbed her of the ability to read, and she didn't really even comprehend that I'd written the book. I was crushed. She slowly devolved into a tiny, frightened old woman, who smiled at everyone, and asked me who that handsome guy in the picture was, when it was a photo from her wedding, and she and Dad were married, unhappily so, for over 50 years. Sigh...

    So I never got to really tell Mom goodbye. With Dad, who was always unapproachable, and extremely judgmental about what a whore his daughter was, much to his shame, I had some moments while he was bed-ridden, where we looked through his old photos and he told me stories of his life before me or Mom. And when he took his last breath, I was there at his side, holding his hand, crying as his old tape player played Gershwin's, "Someone to Watch Over Me."

    I miss them both, for different reasons. Him, I wish I could talk to one more time, for the Scottish accent that always made me laugh at his stories. Her, for the hugs that let me know that the rest of the world could get fucked, because my mother loved me and no one else mattered.

    I hope that my kids will miss me when I'm gone. All we can do is share love with each other, in hopes of being remembered. And darn you, Garce, once again one of your posts has me crying. Thanks. No really, thanks. Having deep feelings reminds us that we're alive. And I'm grateful for your gift of words that speaks to that part of someone else that evokes memories and feelings.

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  4. Garce, this is an incredibly moving post. It's the sort of thing where I don't want to pull it apart with any specific comments. I'm just glad to have read it.

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