Gathered with my family for my father’s funeral, I suddenly became the evil twin. The clock was ticking for me to compose a eulogy for a man I dearly loved—a man who grew kinder and more loving the older he grew, a man who faced death with an impressive degree of courage and even humor. Just a few months before, the two of us had what my father declared a “magnificent visit.”
It was not a magnificence based on his “getting better” as we usually think of it in our culture, since all that moored him to life was giving way, strength, breath, appetite. My older sister, who took charge of his care, checked in early one morning to see what might appeal for dinner. “It’s like falling out of an airplane and being asked what you want for dinner on the way down…ah, but she means well, I’m very lucky.”
Amazingly, his love of life and of the people he loved never did give way. Seeing how things were going, I summoned all my courage and talked about what might happen after he died, sharing my own near death experience, my own certainty that he wouldn’t be alone in the dark when he left his failing old body, that he would be met and carried forward by a force of love and light. “You can’t screw up dying, I promise,” I told him. “You will be in good hands and you will wonder why you were ever afraid.”
And then after he did die, while going around with my twin brother and older sister on various sad errands, this anger! After his wife Joy was diagnosed with cancer, C.S. Lewis marveled that this seemingly huge and terrifying diagnosis turned out not to be solid at all, but a succession of hours and moments containing “all manner of ups and downs.” He found out that grief is also not fixed but changeable, containing a continuum of states, even moments of wild joy. Life is not static, not fixed, and neither are we. It is important to remember this.
My father always told me to go with the flow, to “roll with the punches” of life. This is very wise advice, and not just for boxers. At one point, I flared up seemingly over the most petty and unbecoming of things: my father’s generosity in his will to his grandchildren. It was as if some deep pocket of unhealed hurt and bitterness burst open and up surged memories of my early adult years in New York, tough times full of terrible apartments, struggling to be someone in my father’s eyes, a writer of all the ridiculous and impractical things.
Rather than judging, repressing, or otherwise hurrying past these painful feelings, I decided to accept, and hold them. Anger opened into a deeper sorrow. It turned out that I was still harboring a wish to prove myself to my father—and decades after that time passed. It turned out that in New York long ago, I was just a little bit like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”: I wanted to be a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I was afraid I was in my father’s eyes.
“Forgiveness is an aspect of the workings of love,” psychologist Robert Karen writes in The Forgiving Self. This includes self forgiveness, which is crucial if we are to reconnect with others. “Forgiveness has many faces and proceeds by degrees. Each opening toward the other person [or towards ourselves], however miniscule, however incomplete when measured against the ideal, is important and may even be immense in its own way….Contrary to the saintly view, anger is not anathema to forgiveness. It can coexist with it. It can be its harbinger.” Anger can liberate the warmth of love.
Forgiveness of ourselves and others is a continuum, a moving process, in every sense moving. It is a force of liberation, allowing us to reconnect with others and with the world, but this can occur only as we learn to reconnect with ourselves. The price of this reconnection, Karan advises, is the willingness to mourn the losses and disappointments of childhood—and this includes allowing ourselves to see through the unconscious beliefs we come up with to make sense of our pain.
I never had to prove myself to my father, and his love was granted once and for all, long before I moved to New York. As this particular little bubble of belief to rose from the murky depths and burst in the light of awareness, I felt a fresh burst of love and compassion for my father and also for myself. It isn’t easy being human. Back in New York and at Parabola, I am helping pull together “Spirit in the World.” It is dawning on me that our culture could use a new kind of superhero. Her super power would be tiny, the ability to make the smallest possible inner movements towards herself and others—to be for the deeper truth, to give attention to (someone last time wisely observed that forgiveness is “for and give”) –to look without turning away.
8 thoughts on “For Giving”
Your blog brought back memories of a very dear friends passing a few years ago. She’d been in my life since I was 9 years old and was mother, sister, best friend,to me. As we say here “she knew me better than I knew myself”.
I spent the last weekend before she died with her and I’m aways grateful that I got the opportunity to thank her for being with me for over 30 years and to wish her a safe journey and to listen to what she had to say about our friendship/relationship.
We both knew the fat lady was going to sing and heart breaking and all as it was there was joy in being able to speak openly about life and her imminent death.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry on the journey home and the during the year afterwards many days all I was able to do was put one foot in front of the other until the day came that I could accept she wasn’t here in person but her spirit lives on.
We still travel together and when I make a dogs dinner of living I can hear her say ” ach Fiona” and I forgive myself my latest trespass and journey on…..!
This is beautiful, Fiona. Thank you. And this is how it is, our loved ones travel on with us. It hasn’t even been a month, and I can feel/hear my father’s counsel about the latest dog’s dinner (great expression). T
It was many years after my father died when my almost all of my anger towards him dissipated – almost all at once, when I came to see him as a complete person, shaped by the tragedies of the Depression and WWII. I came to see that the person he outwardly was was not neccisarily the person he HAD to be, and that any inconsistencies in his actions towards his children had NOTHING to do with his love for us.
As far as needing heroes, I wonder if, in this mass media culture, we don’t actually need to embark on the inner Hero Quest and begin to become our own heroes, starting with the permission to self-love? Because how can we expect unconditional, obvious love from our families if we can’t be heroic enough to admit that there is something inside worth loving – I think that that’s a harder one for some than we might admit to.
Thank you, Lewis. This really resonates with what I was trying to get at–we can be heroes in a moment, in our inner life, without donning a cape and costume, without anyone ever knowing.
Foremost, my condolences. Second, gratitude. For you (and your blog circle) bring many important truths to light. Including, not a petty consideration: how one bequeaths. It can be done as an act of benevolence or, in ignorance it can be something less. A valuable conversation each of us must have with ourselves first: how we want our own last imprint to be felt in the hearts of others once we are gone. May your father’s last imprint have been for only beauty and goodness and may it last infinity. The eulogy I wrote for my father unexpectedly (and years later) became the last chapter of my first book. May you also find that place of honor to share your father’s eulogy if it is appropriate for you, here or in a future book.
Giselle M. Massi
Thank you for this beautiful blessing (that is what it felt like). I am finding my perception of what my father bequeathed changing as the days go by. What we leave behind, our karmic imprint, is a really interesting subject, isn’t it? I will check out the book with your eulogy of your father.
It is strange that small movements of attention and compassion are so rare.
The small things, awareness of people’s feelings, kind words, gestures, which are in front of me and possible get missed in the rush to do big important things.
Can I let myself take the time to be in this moment, to feel its reality and fleetingness?
What you right is so important, Bruce. Why is it so hard to remember?