Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When my father died...

in 1970, I had been living in Denver for about five years. I had been married for four of those years to a man my parents weren't crazy about, but his background was so similar to mine that I think they must have figured it would work out okay. And it did, mostly, and we have a great son in common.

But it was the era in which many of us in the Silent and Boomer generations were blaming our upbringing for the angst we were experiencing as young adults, both individually and as a cohort distressed by the social conditions around us, angry about the war in Vietnam, marching, protesting, distrustful of anyone over thirty, at least temporarily.

I could look at my parents and see the roots of my troubles, I thought. My dad was too conservative theologically for me and I was afraid to talk to him about it for fear of losing his respect and love, so our relationship was strained. Both of us were afraid of the conversation and so we never had it, cloaking our differences by focusing on the family relationship, which we wanted to protect. I have no idea how it might actually have turned out but I had always been the Golden Girl in the family, the one dedicated to Christian Service, and I was afraid of disappointing him.

He had been afflicted with a chronically weak heart and much of my young life was spent in an effort to keep him alive with prayer. Moving to Denver, away from the worries of his medical conditions, was a relief because I didn't see his day-to-day struggles any more. My mother's letters didn't reveal much and we rarely phoned in those days of expensive long distance.

My husband and I began to attend UU churches and my beliefs changed even more as I was exposed to theology that made better sense to me than the Bible College theology of my upbringing.

And then the call came, on April 16, 1970. "Daddy died last night", said my mother calmly into the phone. He had been in the hospital for a few days with something I didn't understand, except that it might have been related to the stroke he'd had in November of the previous year, a medical crisis that pulled us back to Washington for a Christmas visit. Or it might have been stomach cancer. Nobody really knew. But he was dead.

It came as a tremendous shock in one way and a relief in another. I hadn't known how sick he was and I was angry that I hadn't known. I wasn't sure whose fault that was, my mother's or my own, and I wasn't too sure I wanted to know. And I was relieved because now I wouldn't ever have to have "the conversation". Or so I thought.

But the truth is that I have had that conversation with my dad over and over again in the past 38 years, every time I think about ministry, every time I sit in my lectionary group and listen to my colleagues' interpretations of the Bible, every time I think about whether he is/was disappointed in me.

I know that when he died he probably was worried sick about me and my heresy. I don't know how I would have spared him that, because "the conversation" probably wouldn't have eased his fears. But at least we wouldn't have been pretending it was all okay. And I would have learned earlier the salvation inherent in honesty.

The conversation with my dad has morphed over the years, from defensive posturing and making up reasons why he should change HIS mind, to patronizing tolerance of his views, to recognizing the blessings of Bible College faith as it is deeply embedded in my DNA, to wanting to be a bridge between his faith and mine.

Because, as I wrote a few days ago when I was bemoaning the methods of a fellow chaplain, I realized that I understand that passionate point of view, because my darling dad had it. As a chaplain, he'd probably have been the same way, hoping to offer salvation out of his love for God and not seeing how this might not really be serving the patient.

I tell you all this today because losing one's father is one of the hardest losses in life. I don't know if I'd do it differently now but I would like to think I'd try. And it all comes back to me right now because somebody I love very much has just lost her father suddenly and shockingly. I hope for her and for her family that the lessons of loss will become important and meaningful as they celebrate his life and learn to live without him.


ogre said...

One of the delights... and frustrations... of conversations with the dead is that they never quite come to a conclusion.

Chalicechick said...

I'm so sorry, Ms. Kitty.


LinguistFriend said...

It happens not only with those whom one has known directly, but also with fellow scholars and scientists, whom one may never have met, but whose minds and reasoning one comes to know intimately.
One's parents do always make a big difference. The hardest period for me was the five year stretch when my parents and parents in law, and younger brother died, plus a divorce. That was a plague period on the intimate census.

Joel Monka said...

This hit very hard for me. When my father died , I didn't even know he was in the hospital. And We had never had "the conversation", either. I still don't know how we ever could have had, though. My mother died of Alzhiemer's- she didn't know who I was, so the conversation was impossible with her, too. I've done the "writing a letter" thing, but it's not the same.

ms. kitty said...

No, you're so right, Joel, it's not the same. It's always a question in my mind too. Thanks for your thoughts.

And thanks to others for their contributions.

Mile High Pixie said...

Isn't that the strangest thing? Despite the fact that my dad's been gone nearly 12 years, I've had a thousand conversations--and arguments--with him since January 16, 1997. Confronting him for the way he treated my sister and me at times, but sometimes sharing something interesting that I'd learned.

I feel for those who lose someone in a hospital. My dad was murdered at work, on an unfinished golf course he was building, and on the one hand I weep for all the i-love-yous I never got to say, but on the other hand I'm thankful that there was zero pain on his part. That may be a small bit of grace in the whole thing.

ms. kitty said...

Like Ogre said, above, those conversations never end. They may change, but they don't end.

Thanks, Pixie.

Berrysmom said...

I never had "the conversation" with my mother, either. It wasn't the one about theology -- I think she couldn't have cared less. It was the one about how she let me down in the motherhood department, and what I would have liked from her instead, and why she did what she did.

She died about 20 years ago. I like to think that from her perspective now (whatever the heck that might be) she understands better than when she was alive. She is proud of me as a minister (though probably would have been horrified if she had lived to know it) and proud of me as a mother to my daughters.

Because death is such a mystery and we can't really know what happens (despite some people's arguing that they really do know -- they believe, but they don't know), my advice is to choose to believe what works for you, because you might be right.

Maybe your Dad is incredibly proud of you right now, Ms. Kitty. Maybe he sees things differently now. Who knows?