Today is my father’s birthday. I have no idea how old he would be now, in his eighties, I guess. I’m not even sure how long he has been gone. Time stopped for us the moment he died. He will never age to me and the grief is nearly as raw as the day I got the phone call of his passing. Dad would think this was a perfect day. Though I tend to associate him with raw, rainy days in autumn, today is nearly deer season and there is a layer of what he would call “tracking snow” on the ground. He’d be out in it, looking to see where the deer were bedding down and where they went when they woke up.
I look at the two deer in my back yard right now, begging for their morning handful of candy corn and wonder what he would think about me inviting two, nearly grown deer into my laundry room to warm up. What would he say as the little buck tried to polish his nubby antler buds on the back of my jeans?
I would like to think he’d be proud of me and of what I do. Sometimes I think that he knows I am replacing some of the numbers of the animals he so enjoyed hunting and bringing to the table.
Since today is his birthday, I decided to add this tribute to the blog. It was written several years ago, long before I ever dreamed I would become a practicing Buddhist. At the time, I believed in heaven and hell and all that falls between. Now, I’m not really sure what comes next. I am only positive that there is no hell waiting, that we do not make ourselves. I like to think that maybe heaven is just the place we go to rest before we come back again And have another go at life. Maybe we wait for the people we loved; maybe we come back to them in another form. I hope so; I’d like to meet my dad again.
The greatest gift my father gave me was how peaceful death can be. He was a bit of a son-of-a-bitch in his life. An alcoholic, a man full of fears and a man frustrated somehow, with his lot in life. But beneath this exterior was a heart of gold. He took care of his friends, he loved his family, adored his wife (I used to love the way he looked at her when they were all dressed up and ready to go out). The gold may have been a bit tarnished, especially at the end, but we knew it was there.
He lost his mother, a week or so before he died, his sister was in her own dying process from pancreatic cancer. Grandma was a good old fashioned, God fearing woman. Perhaps a little too much fear of the maker, she so long to meet. She died afraid, struggling to hold on to that last breath of life. They were in the same nursing home, so dad was told of her passing quickly. He didn’t say much, in fact, he didn’t say much for several days. The funeral was held without him and when we stopped to see him afterwards, he just didn’t seem to be there. It was Dad in the bed, but Dad wasn’t there.
A few days later my sister called me and said, “You need to come see this”
Dad was awake. Not only was he awake, but he was talking and joking and being pleasant to everyone. I really did need to see that! When I got to the home (a two hour drive) he was sitting in a patch of sunshine in the hall. (Dad rarely left his room) As the nurses and attendants came by he would speak to them and smile. We noticed that some walked away with tears in their eyes. They knew the same thing we instinctively knew. Dad was dying.
He told my sister that he had talked to grandma. She gently reminded him that she was dead and he responded with “I know that!, but I’ had a long talk with her, and everything is ok. The only thing that matters is what you feel in the end. Everything else is in the past, it’s now that’s important”
Later that day, he sat with my brother and told him that he was looking at two huge white birds, at least six foot tall and a lake that was all misty and he wished he could see it clearer. All my brother saw was two support pillars and a gravel rooftop. I think Dad saw Angels, come to guide his way to the misty lake that would soon be clear and sparkling.
The next day, I returned with my little family, so the boys could say goodbye. Dad was tired, he talked a while about Levi’s football and whether James would be sit his deer stand, since he wouldn’t be there for opening day. He looked at me and asked, “Is there anything you need?”
The man had no money, few possessions, nothing really to give, but what he had always given me…his love. That was all I needed, all I wanted, all I miss. I told him that he had given me everything I could ever need. I thanked him for being Dad. What I couldn’t tell him was that he was giving me the best gift of all. No fear. All our lives, he taught us to be afraid of cars and strangers, of new experiences and risks. Being a fearful man in general, he tried to keep us from the world so we would be safe. I’m glad I didn’t listen very well. What I was hearing now, was what was important. Don’t be afraid of death. It’s just another stage and no one is going to judge you and bring up everything from your past. You simply fill your heart with love and let go.
My brother was there and was concerned that we were wearing Dad out as he seemed to be dozing off. I told him we were staying, what better way for him to fall asleep that listening to his children’s voices, chatting back and forth about normal everyday things, not death and dying. After a while, Dad was asleep and we needed to get back home, I had surgery booked for early the next morning. I kissed him on the forehead and said “I love you Dad”. It was the last time I saw him.
The next day, I called to see how he was before I went into surgery. My sister said he was back into the coma like state, but was stable. I told her I’d be back down the next day. I called periodically throughout the day as I lay on the couch recovering. Each time the answer was the same. “Stable, but unresponsive”
His sister Shirley was there and she was begging him not to die. I think of that poor woman, she had just lost her mother, was losing her brother and would be gone within two months, herself. She was terrified. I was hoping that somehow, she could see the peace and know what he now knew. She didn’t and the nurse came in and suggested that my aunt go get some dinner and give dad a rest. They left and my sister leaned over and whispered in his ear. “It’s ok Dad, she’s gone. You can go now.
And he did. He filled his heart with love and….let go.
MY FATHER’S HEAVEN
My father died on a beautiful June afternoon. He passed quietly, in the nursing home he had resided in since being diagnosed with colon cancer, almost two years before. It was a sad ending for such a strong man who loved the outdoors. He should have died in the woods trailing a downed buck or hunting for pheasants with his favorite dog. It would have seemed more natural for him to drown in a trout stream or tumble down a ravine. But such is not life. He died smelling antiseptic and that evening’s meat loaf instead of the clean air of the Michigan woods.
I was not there as he passed. . I heard no meaningful last words. There was no death bed legacy passed on to me. My brother simply called and told me on the phone. “Dad is dead”, that was it, so mater of fact and finial. There was no funeral, no casket, only an urn on a table in my sister’s home. There was a memorial gathering, but no words were said, no tributes offered. I was not present when the urn was laid in the ground. I didn’t even know the exact location till years afterwards. Psychologists would say that I lacked closure. I only knew that I lacked my father.
The first summer was so hard. It seemed like I could just pick up the phone and ring him, but he would not be there. I felt as though I should still get in the car and make my monthly visit as I had for over a year. I kept noticing things with the family or garden or animals and think “I’ll have to tell Daddy about this”, but there was Daddy to tell. I just could not grasp that I would never see my father again.
One day, for some reason or another that I don’t remember now, was particularly hard. Maybe it was because it was autumn and autumn was Dad’s favorite time of year. September and October were bird and squirrel season and November was the Holy Grail of hunting …Deer Season. Deer season was as big as Christmas around our house. I think Dad only endured the rest of the year because he must, just in order to get to fall. This day was one of those perfect fall days. The air was clean and the sky clear. There was a promise of frost in the air and the leaves were in full color. Trying to take advantage of the last of the nice days, I was out in the garden taking care of things before the coming frost. Instead of picking tomatoes though, I was sitting in the middle of the garden, missing dad.
I heard a raucous noise over head. There above me, was a Bald Eagle being chased and harassed by the crow I had raised the year before. Crows don’t like any raptors, even if they are our national symbol. This particular crow took it as his sworn duty to give chase to any raptor that dared to enter his air space. I watched him worry the huge brown and white bird by repeatedly diving at and in front of it. They worked their way down towards the millpond and disappeared from sight. I decided to take a break from my reverie and investigate.
Crow reappeared and nonchalantly landed on the fence rail on the property line. I nearly turned back, thinking the events were over, but Crow kept clacking his beak and chattering at me so I kept going. Just as I got to the fence and climbed over, he flew to the other side and landed somewhere in the woods. It was so beautiful, that I decided to sit by the water for awhile.
It was late afternoon and the sun was low. There were dark clouds to the south and the golden light illuminated the tops of the brilliantly colored trees in high relief. The bright gold poplars, the crimson maples and the acidic brown oaks were all reflected in the dark mirror of the water. There was a light mist drifting around the edges of the millpond and everything looked soft and surreal.
Looking across the water I noticed that the eagle had landed in the top of a tall dead elm. As I watched he took off and glided down to where he was just skimming the surface of the water. He extended his talons and gracefully scooped up a silvery fish. He carried it to a snag extending from the shore, not 20 feet away from me. The majestic bird raised his shining white head and leveled his gaze at me as if appraising me as a threat. We held each other’s eyes for a moment, then he blinked and lowered his head to consume his fish.
There was a loud caw from across the pond and I looked up to see crow flapping from bush to shrub. A large red doe and her fawn had come to where the stream became pond to drink. Crow hopped about on the ground in front of the half-grown fawn as if inviting it to play. After a few passes by Crow, the fawn gave chase and I watched them play a wilderness version of tag while the doe stood in a bright patch of sunlight just at the edge of the mist that was forming near the shoreline.
There was a rustling in the grass at my feet and I looked down as a fat cottontail hopped in front of me and sat to wash his face. There seemed to be birds singing in every tree, the air smelled of grass and fresh loam and honey. Tiny insects hovered in the air and appeared like glowing specks of light as the sun reflected off their wings. There was not a breath of wind and I no longer felt the autumn chill. I simply sat in absolute awe of my surroundings.
I have never in my life experienced a moment that was so filled with peace and beauty and love. I wanted to hold my breath in attempt to stop time and preserve that moment. It was then that I realized what I was seeing. This was a gift from my father. He was allowing me a glimpse of his heaven. The instant I came to this realization, I felt as though he was there with his arms around me. I knew, at last that he was indeed laid to rest and totally at peace. More importantly, I knew that this life was not the end. I have no doubt that there is indeed a heaven and that for us at least, animals will be a major part of paradise.
All the tears I had refused to cry came pouring out while I sat in the grass. All the bitterness and sorrow flooded the ground. I emptied myself of the intense emotion of his passing and moved on to a new level of grief. I still missed him so much it hurt to breathe, but I knew that it would gradually get better and I would feel whole again. Soon the memories of my father would be tempered with laughter and joy and life would go on.
I have no idea how long I was at the water’s edge. It was nearly dark when I raised my head off my knees. . Every thing was gone but the ebony crow. He seemed to sense my melancholy mood and walked up close to me. He fixed me with one black eye and tilted his head quizzically as if to ask “Are you done yet?” Taking his lead, I got up, dusted off the seat of my pants and took one last look at my surroundings. No golden light, no ethereal mist, no birds singing in the trees and the eagle no longer in sight. It was cold and damp and I wanted to go home. Crow flew above me as I walked back to the house and my by now, hungry family. Just as I opened the back door, he cawed from the distance and I could swear he said, “You are not alone.”