NOTE: This post first appeared on the Windtree Press blog on June 28, 2022. I’m sharing it here for my fans who don’t subscribe to the Windtree Press blog. In light of so much loss this year, I wanted to share the role my father played in my life for understanding death, grief, and most of all purpose.
There is a lot of research about the importance of supportive fathers in the raising of children. The primary ones are:
- Adding another dimension to social competence and peer relationships
- Providing children with learning materials/concepts that are different from mothers
- Helping to advance language skills
- Positive contact with a father or father figure helps to regulate emotions better than children with no father-figure
Of course other caregivers can also serve those functions. Family structure is less important than having loving caregivers meeting children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs.
I am fortunate that I had a wonderful, supportive, caring father. In my family structure, my father was the one who was most like me. My mother was a 100% nuturing soul and filled with unconditional love, no matter what I did. My father was the one who had very clear guidelines on what was right and what was wrong, and how to differentiate the two when faced with an impossible choice. I needed guidelines. I wanted the ability to make decisions in the moment. He was the one who studied politics and religion–not formally but kept up with both.
My father was not highly educated. He did graduate high school. He was raised by his grandmother in the Catholic church. My father’s highest hope was to become a priest. He was an alter boy from an early age and had every intention of entering the seminary. However, his grandmother did not want that as he was her only support. She intervened with the priest at the local church to stop him from entering the seminary. No one knows what she did or said, but Dad knew it was her who stopped everything.
Before graduating from high school, he did many jobs from being a Western Union telegraph delivery boy, riding his bicycle from home to home in Mountain Home, Idaho and sometimes working on local farms and ranches. He eventually went to work for Western Union full time and quickly became a manager of a local office in Oregon. That is where he met my mother who was his secretary. They married in Corvallis, where I now live, and moved with Western Union to southern California soon after. Only a year later I was born.
Teaching By Example
Reading the newspaper everyday was a part of my father’s ritual. My mother wasn’t interested in following the news. Though my father did talk to her about it, she always smiled and listened but wasn’t really interested. Where my father looked to the outer world for answers and understanding, my mother was most interested in the immediate world and social machinations of the extended family. She focused on today and right now in the small world. My father dreamed of understanding and making a difference in the larger world.
Somewhere around age eight, I started reading the newspaper as well. Throughout my childhood and into my teens, I valued the time after dinner where I could talk to him about the days events both nationally and in my immediate world. I wanted to understand why certain politicians wanted one thing while others wanted the opposite. As I grew up during the civil rights movement, we often spent time talking about why people were judged by the color of their skin instead of the nature of their character. He knew it was important for me to have the words and the understanding to fight against injustice, because so many people in my neighborhood were treated unfairly. Though eight more children were born, I was the only one who was interested in those discussions. Everyone else was more like my mother–family focused, day-to-day focused.
Because my father had wanted to be a priest, he also remained steeped in the Bible and questions of the spirit and God’s purpose. Even though he left the Catholic Church after changes from Vatican 2, he was very involved in the local Methodist Church. Often serving as a lay preacher when the primary pastor was away. As I grew older and was able to understand a more nuanced picture of my father’s faith, I also questioned mine and began to form my own belief system. He taught me that re-examining one’s faith is an important part of growth, to never fear the doubt or the question. To wrestle with it is what is important. If I don’t know why I believe something and believe it deeply, it will not be there for me when I most need it.
Testing Faith and Purpose
I was a child who needed to believe that I had some agency over what happened to me in the world. I was never able to, and still today cannot, accept that there is nothing I can do to change the future. I cannot accept that my lot in life is preplanned by God and that my only response is acceptance.
I was ten when my faith was questioned multiple times. During that one year my four-year-old cousin died from leukemia. Then my five-year-old brother died after a long illness and multiple surgeries on his heart. Finally, as if to proclaim no one was safe, President Kennedy was also assassinated that year. It seemed the entire world was in mourning. I was certainly lost and didn’t know how to even ask the questions as to why this was happening and why God didn’t intervene. In my mind, people died if they were very old or if they were bad and therefore punished by God. But my cousin, my brother, the President were all good people.
When my brother died I was deep in grief; so deep that I didn’t cry for two weeks. I didn’t cry when I was told about his death because everyone around me was hurting and I thought one person has to keep it together and so I tried to do everything I could to help. I didn’t cry during the viewing at the funeral home. My brother didn’t look dead. He looked like he was asleep. I didn’t cry at the service at the church. Actually, I don’t really remember it. I was probably numb.
I did refuse to go to the graveside internment. Even at age ten, there was no way I was going to stand by and watch his casket lowered to the ground and dirt put on it. Perhaps my subconscious knew that was way too final. I just knew I couldn’t go. Even though my mother and grandmother tried to cajole me, my father took my side and said I didn’t have to go. I could stay at the house.
When everyone returned from the graveside, our pastor asked to speak to me and make sure I was okay. I refused to leave my bedroom and told him to go away when he knocked on the door. But he didn’t listen to me. He came in and tried to talk to me. I curled into a fetal position with my back to him. He sat on the edge of the bed and spoke quietly, first saying a prayer and then trying to say things he thought might help.
At first it was a recognition of understanding how hard it is to lose someone we love, and how he knew I was grieving and that it was okay to be sad. I wasn’t in the mood to listen. I just wanted him gone. So I fought back with my questions. “Why would God take a five year old child who never even had a chance to do something wrong?” The pastor said the expected, so Jimmy didn’t have to be in pain anymore. Then I asked, “If God is all powerful, why didn’t he heal Jimmy?” The pastor said God needed him in heaven to play with all the other children who had died.
My ten year old anger, having built over the past couple weeks, began to surface with a vengeance and I saw an opening to go in for the kill. I asked: Why was God killing so many children that they needed playmates? Why do they need playmates if heaven is such a wonderful place to be? If God cared about all the people on earth, then he should save people like my brother so they can be an example of how to live life. I don’t remember all the questions, but I do remember not giving him a chance to talk. Instead I spewed one after the other until I couldn’t think of any more.
Rather than attempting to take on my tirade of questions, each with its own answer, he defaulted to, “We can’t know the mind of God but we have to trust that there is good reason and that your brother is in a happy place with lots of love around him.”
I was so angry that I shouted: “Well, I don’t believe in God and you are a liar!” He tried to reach for me (in hindsight probably to comfort me) but by that time my frustration and anger had taken over my body. When he touched my arm, I kicked out my legs and in the process kicked him in the teeth, dislodging one tooth so badly that he had a bloody mouth. I didn’t intend to hurt him. It was just a reaction–a physical reaction to try to make him go away.
Hearing my angry shout my parents rushed in to find the pastor holding a hankie to staunch the bleeding. Mom guided him out of the room to the bathroom and first aid. Dad asked what happened and I went on a tirade of how the pastor was a liar and I didn’t believe in God, and how could he let him into the house.
My father was not angry but he was stern, which was exactly what I needed in that moment. He said, “You are not the only one who is hurting. You are not the only one who misses Jimmy. But you cannot hurt someone else because you are hurting. Now gather yourself and go apologize.” Then he closed the door and left me alone.
I don’t remember how long I was in the bedroom I shared with two sisters. I knew that when I went into the living room to apologize, it wouldn’t be only the pastor there. My entire extended family of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, people from our church would all be waiting. All of them would know I had kicked the pastor in the face and made him bleed, maybe even lose a tooth.
But I did make my way there. I apologized and looked the pastor in the eye. I really did mean it. I really was sorry. The pastor said I was forgiven and that he would continue to pray for me and my family. Others said it was okay and they understood it was an accident. A lot of people were going to pray for me. Though I said nothing else, the truth was I didn’t want them to pray for me. I wanted them to give me good answers. When everyone had left, my father simply gathered me into his arms and I was finally able to cry it out. I don’t remember how long I cried. It was probably only 15 minutes, but it certainly felt like hours.
What Is One’s Purpose in Life and Death?
Later that evening, when everyone else had gone to bed, we again had one of those long talks. Instead of giving me the path of simple acceptance of God’s will, he talked about purpose. That death has a purpose for those left to grieve. That Jimmy’s purpose was to help doctors learn about his kind of heart defect so they could help other children in the future. The same with my young cousin who had died a month before with a type of leukemia. For the President of the United States, the purpose was to scare all those who turned a blind eye to hate and violence instead of trying to stop it. It was to scare people into realizing how hard it is to make decisions, talk to each other and compromise. When we don’t do that, we lose something very important–our freedom and our democracy. Death always has a purpose, and we need to find what it is and act for change.
Dad admitted he got angry with God, too. He also said he didn’t really know if God could have chosen to heal my brother or my cousin, or saved the President. He said lots of things in life are not knowable. For example, he didn’t understand how we could go to the moon but there were very smart people who could understand that. He couldn’t understand why some people were so broken they hurt their own families, while others had very broken families but still love and supported each other. He said there are many things in life we will never understand and that trying to understand everything will drive you crazy.
The most important thing we have to understand is how to commit to our own purpose. Having a purpose is what makes life worth living and our death having a purpose. He had been a teenager during WWII. When he delivered those telegrams on his bicycle, it was often to announce a soldier being hurt, and sometimes their death. As God did not stop wars, he did believe the soldiers had fulfilled their purpose. They sacrificed for our freedom and the freedom of many countries overseas.
Dad explained that a part of Jimmy’s purpose was to show all of us how to be brave and caring even when we are hurting and very sick. That he was like an angel on earth for a brief period of time. His other purpose was to help doctor’s learn more about his illness, so they could help other children to live in the future. Today the type of heart condition my brother had (it was described to me as a hole in the heart) is now treatable. Though Dad was very sad, he was happy that Jimmy didn’t have to go through any more surgeries or treatment.
My Father’s Purpose Fulfilled
That incident and many more in my life were critical to my growth and understanding of the world. Though I do not believe there is a set plan that God follows and all decisions are made about life and death and intervention or not; I do believe that finding and understanding one’s purpose is the way to live a spiritual life. Without purpose there is no life. One is only being buffeted by the winds of change.
My father’s belief that death served a purpose as well, is what helped me to carry out his wishes seven years ago. His wish was not to die on mechanical life support where he couldn’t talk to anyone. He said his life would have no purpose in that moment. It would only cause continued pain for him and everyone else by lingering. He had always suffered from his own heart problems, developed when he got scarlet fever as a child resulting in rheumatic heart disease. After age seventy, he’d become progressively more ill and endured a lot of pain for a long time. A combination of diabetes, severe arthritis, and his ongoing heart disease had conspired to bring him down.
When he went into the hospital with double pneumonia, he was intubated and could not speak. I was away, at a writing retreat on the coast when my Mom called to tell me he was in the hospital. I drove for several hours to be there with him. When I came to visit later that day, he had written a shaky note to me reminding me of his wishes. He didn’t want to be intubated. He didn’t want to be in the hospital. He allowed it because my mother insisted he try. I visited every day. After a week he said enough. I asked him to hang on and give the medicine a chance. He wrote, even more shakily: 4 more days only. I agreed, If they couldn’t get him to a place to breathe without mechanical means in four more days, I promised to make sure his wishes were carried out.
On the fourth day I talked to the hospitalist about chances of recovery and reiterated his wishes. The hospitalist said if they stopped pumping out his lungs they would simply refill, baring a miracle he didn’t see recovery was possible. He’d come into the hospital far too late with his pneumonia. I showed him my father’s note. I asked that they make him comfortable, to remove the tube in his throat so he could speak. I didn’t want him to have any pain when they removed the life support. Though my father had made the decision earlier, I was the one who had to make it now. I was the one who had to explain Dad’s wishes to my mother and siblings. When the doctor came in to ask my father if this was what he wanted, and did he understand that he would die that day once it was removed, he nodded and I could see a great relief come over him.
It was the most soul-wrenching thing I have ever done. And still today I occasionally have dreams about it. In my dream I ask if I should have waited longer. If I had waited, would God have intervened to save him? I think we all wish for some supernatural intervention. But my father didn’t believe that would happen, and neither did I. Yet, there is something inside me that still wishes it were true.
At the time of my father’s illness, I had experienced much more death since my brother when I was ten. Another brother died at age 15 in a car accident. I was in college. Also, while in college, a learned the fate of several high school friends who had died in Vietnam. Other friends died from drug addictions when I was in my 30s and 40s. In my 50s, my uncle died of ALS two years before my father, lingering without the ability to walk or eat for a year before his death. Many innocent people have died from violence, including children. I’ve learned over and over that God does not intervene to save people from illness, grievous harm, or death no matter how good or saintly a life they might lead.
The doctor removed the tube in his throat so he could speak. The first fifteen minutes were grueling as he struggled to speak after being intubated for nearly two weeks. But then he was able to find his voice. Dad had about two hours with oxygen in his nose still providing him some breathing relief. He had time to say his goodbyes to each of us, one-by-one, as he wanted. After speaking with my mom, he slowly became more tired. He said he was sleepy and closed his eyes. He did not speak again. I knew he was alive only because his heart was beating and I could see his heart rate and breath on the now silent monitor. He didn’t move again after closing his eyes. I held his hand until he died. I only knew he was gone because the monitor no longer registered any numbers. There was no death rattle. There was no flinch of pain. It was quiet and easy, and on his terms.
In that moment, my purpose was to free my father from his earthly body and be witness to all he had meant to me. For myself, being present at his death taught me that death doesn’t have to be scary or horrific. It can be peaceful. We are fortunate to live in a time when one can decide in advance what kind of life support they want or don’t want and for how long.
Living My Purpose
We all have a purpose in life, often more than one. Some people discover a very public purpose early, such as advocacy for a cause or a calling to a specific profession, and they follow it every day until their death. Other people may have several jobs or professions, but they live every day with an overriding spiritual purpose or a way of living that provides them guidance with every decision, every interaction in their life–whether on the job, with their family, or with strangers. It is those who don’t know what their purpose is, or don’t have a moral compass for their daily interactions, who are lost, who are fearful, and move through life without understanding.
Thanks to my father and our many years of thoughtful discussion and honest interaction, I have always had a purpose and a spiritual moral compass. Through a variety of jobs, from babysitting to fast food, and counseling to teaching, my purpose has been to treat each person with dignity no matter their education, their economic situation, their abilities, their race or culture. I am no better than any one of them.
I cannot claim to have perfectly followed my purpose at all times. I still have that girl inside me who cares deeply and wants answers. That same girl still doesn’t stand for platitudes and doesn’t believe there is an easy way out. Sometimes I still exhibit that anger that caused me to kick my pastor in the teeth. I haven’t bloodied anyone since then, but I am sure I have hurt some feelings when I’ve felt I didn’t have a way out and said things that were hurtful.
The final thing my father taught me is that we are loved, even when we appear to fail. But the measure of self is how we pick ourself up and keep trying anyway. He was never able to become a Catholic priest, but during my childhood after he left the Catholic church, he was a well-respected lay minister for the Methodist church we joined. He was fired from a job when he turned in someone in upper management for defrauding the company. The man was convicted and fired, but so was my father. Instead of railing against the injustice meted to him, he wondered if there was a way he didn’t see for handling it better. He always felt there was something wrong with him, his actual DNA, because so many of his children were born with learning disabilities–as if his genes defined him and his children. But he kept trying with them. He never abandoned them. He still hoped for and reinforced the best of them. For doing that, they have found a way in the world to have purpose, to have jobs, to live the best life they can.
Part of the reason I write fiction is to reflect how people I know have forged their own purpose in very challenging times. I have a very large and diverse extended family that numbers in the many hundreds. Every one of them have survived a lot of challenges. Some have fared better than others. Some have happy, fulfilled lives in spite of very rough starts. Others struggle with their life, from addictions to mental health, but they keep trying. One of the reasons I am now starting to write Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction is to share those stories with a younger generation. I’m sure if I had questions at the age of ten, that many others today do as well. Maybe some of them aren’t blessed with the type of father I had–someone who is not afraid to answer the tough questions or to admit they don’t know and provide a way to learn more.
I know that my extended family’s struggles are reflected in many lives of children and young adults today. There are hundreds more stories to share. Hundreds more stories of perseverance, love, and overcoming a challenge while living one’s purpose.
Thanks, Dad, for serving as a caring, loving, father to the very end. You were my rock. I could always count on you to be there in failure as well as in celebration. You taught me how to live life, give back, and keep moving forward even when it kept knocking you down.
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