Today would be my father’s 77th birthday. Each year on this day I celebrate what he loved in life – so this year it his favorite comfort food and shopping. I think of my dad often – especially during the time he was very sick. This was a time of huge growth and learning for me. In honor of this day, I would like to share a turning point during his illness that put me on a path that I never expected.
There are moments in a life that seem so small, yet have a huge impact on our life trajectory. For me one of these turning points has been a focus of reflection for many months as I explore where my life has taken me and where I hope to go. What follows is one of these moments.
It was Thanksgiving, 1997, and I was coming home for the holiday to be with my family. This Thanksgiving was the first one after I had graduated with my undergraduate degree. I was still living in the same town as my college - working for a restaurant as a prep and line cook and living with a boyfriend that I had been with for a little over a year. Monday through Friday I came home smelling like grease to our small, overpriced apartment. Working in a restaurant was a profession I picked up due to one of my brothers saying, “working in a restaurant was a skill I could take anywhere.” It seemed like a good idea at the time, I don’t know if I had dreams of moving far away, but at least I had a skill that would offer me the chance to live in any city. However, I didn't move far, unlike many of my friends who started a new life after college, I used the skill to stay in my college town, close to family and friends. In reality, I was in Oxford because I had naïve dreams of spending forever with my boyfriend, and the reality that I couldn’t move too far away from my dad who was sick again with cancer.
The last time I had seen my family was at my brother’s wedding, two months before. We were not one hundred percent certain that my dad’s cancer was back, but we knew something wasn’t right in September. And here it was November, and my boyfriend was driving me home. I had severe anxiety while driving, and often depended on him to drive me home to my family. As I came into the house, my father was sitting at the table in white pajamas with blue stripes, a newly grown beard talking with my brother. I was unprepared for what I saw. I was prepared for him being sick again - there were signs, but I was not prepared for the change I walked into that day.
My dad had begun treatment again - and he had just come home from a test - which on that day also meant a dose of atavan. He sat at the table, thin, sick-looking, and drugged. He was eating cheerios out of the bowl with his hands talking to my brother. My father didn't eat cheerios with his hands. Ever. Dad looked up and smiled - a drugged, happy to see my daughter smile - said something that also was a bit drugged...and I freaked. I kissed him hello, said hi to my brother and marched upstairs to my parents' bedroom to call my boyfriend to come and get me.
In a quiet, anxiety filled yell, I was telling him that I was not going to stay here and that he needed to pick me up. My boyfriend said No. Probably not out of complete altruistic reasons, but because we were living two different relationships. Pissed, I hung up the phone and sat on my parents' bed and cried. The truth was, I was scared of my dad. Not of anything he could do to me - but scared of my dad, the sick person. I had never seen anything like him before. I had seen my grandmother with dementia live with the sickness and was there for her death...but dad looked different. Sitting there in his striped pj's, full beard - that far away stare - he looked like a picture of Auschwitz prisoners. I didn't know how to engage him - he was no longer my father - as I had known him - the relentless perfectionist, detail oriented, stoic, intellectual father. He was a child - eating cheerios...with his hands.
As I sat on dad’s side of the bed and cried, something happened. Somewhere inside me, some wisdom bubbled up. As I reflect now, I can see that in that moment, I vowed to myself that I would not be afraid of him, that I would never be afraid of a sick person again. My 22 year old self had that wisdom...I have no idea how - but I did. I went downstairs - consciously - trying the best I could to be with my family. At least I wasn’t leaving. That was a start.
After my visit, I turned to what I knew to get me through this time - reading. I found Bernie Siegal and I read every book he had at the time and some meditation/visualization tapes for people who are sick. I desperately wanted to learn how to communicate with my dad and to see things from his perspective. From Siegal, I learned what sickness and healing meant from the patient’s perspective and from the doctors' perspectives that were caring for their patients. During this time, I also turned to yoga to keep my body moving while I struggled with the depression and grief I had about losing my father. While this was one of the one of the darkest times in my life, it propelled me on a path of healing, for myself and others, which I could never imagine.
I look back on Thanksgiving 1997 as a turning point. I have no idea what inside me had the wisdom to look for the way of connection and comfort instead of permanently running from what scared me. I am certainly not the most courageous person I know, and there are many times when I have turned away from fear. But not that night. Here was a moment that while I was many years from being a healer and comfortable with that path - I turned towards my father's humanity and therefore turned towards my own. Would I trade anything to not have learned this lesson and still have my father here…that is a no brainer. Do I wish I had known energy healing when he was sick…absolutely. But that was not the path…and the path that is before me continues to unfold…and I hope it remains a path of healing, learning, and service. Happy birthday Dad.
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