Liberal Quakerism, Part 5—Jesus and I, Part 3

April 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

The third experience of Jesus followed my father’s death.

My father suffered from pretty severe dementia for the last couple of years of his life. Our relationship had been quite difficult at times, because of my opposition to the war in Vietnam and my extreme hippy lifestyle. At one point he told me that, if I refused military service and went to jail, as I had told him I would do if I had to, he would tell his friends I was dead. He disowned me, telling me never to contact him again. He opened up a little bit again when my older son was conceived.

One evening during a conference at Powell House, New York Yearly Meeting’s conference center, while talking about this with some Friends in the parlor, one Friend, Leanna Goerlich, said, “You know, he has only hurt you so much because he loves you so much.” On the surface, it was a cliche. But it was profound pastoral ministry. I suddenly understood:

My father was a pious if not very reflective evangelical Christian. He knew I was going to hell. And he knew, because of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, I suspect, that he was going to rest in the bosom of Abraham, but he would be able to see me in my eternal suffering. This hurt him so much that he could hardly stand to be around me or, especially, to be reminded of my inevitable fate by my long hair, sloppy clothes, and the details of my lifestyle, so he cut me off.

That evening, I changed inside. No longer did I feel compelled to tell him about my life, or make him accept who I was, or strive for the intimacy with him that I so desperately wanted. I accepted his terms—small talk, nothing substantive or personal, not much time together. From then on, we got along pretty well. We actively enjoyed each other’s company.

When he got sick, I think he was quite surprised that I stepped up, and he was very grateful. And even when he could no longer remember what he was trying to say halfway through a sentence, he could still crack jokes and say, “Thank you,” and “I love you.” We became quite close, tough we could barely have a normal conversation.

Until the last day of his life. I realized afterwards that on that day, for the first time, he did not know who I was. His blank stares, his feeble attempts to escape, his terse, unwilling answers to my attempts at conversation—these were natural responses to a stranger hanging around and trying to engage him. And I suspect he knew that something else was going on, but couldn’t figure out what.

Finally, he broke free from me but he made a wrong turn in his wheelchair while going through the dining room and ended up in a blind alley against the wall, trapped between two tables. Back and forth, back and forth, he tried to find his way out, while my heart broke watching him and feeling abandoned all over again. After a while, he got turned around and, without looking at me, made his way out into the common room.

I talked to the head of the shift but she had not noticed anything new. Then a nurse pulled him over to give him his medication. Then he wheeled off a few feet and stared at the wall.

My grief overwhelmed me. I wanted to go over and try again to engage him, but I couldn’t. I decided to leave, but I couldn’t go over to him. I walked to the corridor and turned; he was still staring off. I didn’t say goodbye. He died that evening. I had not said goodbye.

Later that night, after the phone call, I drowned in grief, and regret, and guilt, and misery. I was brought so low.

Then suddenly, he came to me. He was the serious father I had known so well in life, but peaceful. And he thanked me. He blessed me. He forgave me. He released me from my regret and guilt. And I thanked him, and returned his love.

All this took a while, and it was overwhelming. My poor, wise wife let me be, though I was rocking and groaning and crying out; but I was smiling and even laughing. I was ecstatic, immeasurably sad and grateful.

Then Jesus came. He came with light. To take my dad home. As my dad had always wanted. (He had made my mom mad more than once when I was a kid saying that, like Paul, he was ready to go any time, to get out of this miserable world.) Well, now he was going, with his  Savior.

That took a while, too. Maybe 10 minutes? 20? Slowly, stately, they receded into that light together. Jesus paid me some attention; mostly he was enfolding my dad in his love. I shook and shook and wept and cried out.

Thank you, Jesus.

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§ 3 Responses to Liberal Quakerism, Part 5—Jesus and I, Part 3

  • Steve Bradley says:

    Steven –
    I too had a father who was deeply vexed by my opposition to Vietnam, and even more vexed by my deferment; he had served in WW2, and was proud of it. I understood how he was affected by my position — much as I always knew he loved me; he never did anything to hurt me in any way. But one weekend when I was visiting, he grabbed up The Boston Globe and jabbed his finger at the box on the bottom of the front page that enumerated the number of Americans who had died in Vietnam in the previous week. He glared at me with an expression I had never seen before, and said: “One of these guys died in your place!!” I was shocked and asked him if he was saying he wished I had been killed in Vietnam…….and very suddenly he said no, that wasn’r what he meant at all, and looked away. I think that was our last converstaion about Vietnam.

    • Father-son stuff is often really intense, anyway, isn’t it. But I think for our generation, for those of us who grew up in the sixties when so many things were changing, and for a generation of fathers raised to raise kids through control . . . Your story is really powerful and shows how conflicted our fathers really were. I, for one, thought things were really straightforward at the time: my dad was wrong and I was right. But as much as he hated my unwillingness to serve as he had, I cannot help but think he also was secretly relieved that I didn’t have to.

      My mom had died just two years before I graduated from college and entered the draft pool, and he was still utterly bereft. I only got out because of a medical deferment for asthma that my family doctor had said wasn’t bad enough to get me deferred and who had said he wouldn’t lie about it. Then he did. He listed all my visits to get his letter as treatment in hospital and all my phone calls as treatment in the office. I think he decided that Dale had lost a wife and he didn’t want him to lose a son, as well. So he lied, after all. I have only just now as I write this thought about how much Doctor Costabile must have agonized himself over his decision. How much that evil war cost us!

  • Indeed. Thank you, Jesus.

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