I got the telephone call from my brother this morning letting me know that the inevitable had happened, the spiritual being known as my father had left this lifetime. He had finally surrendered to a long struggle with what used to be known as old age. These days they call it lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, strokes, Alzheimer’s, circulatory failure, and numerous others. My father was the toughest man I have ever known.
Being tough is good for many things. The New York Times referred to him as a “legendary trial lawyer;” as well he was. He was a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1945. He was a survivor of 90 years of trials and tribulations, victory and loss, 55 years of marriage, four sons who became lawyers and a doctor, nearly 60 years of teaching Sunday School, the depression, World War II, and the leaps and bounds of the Twentieth Century. When I recollect all that he lived through and witnessed, the term “rode hard and put up wet” comes to mind.
When he was born in 1925 in Sampson County, North Carolina, life was much simpler. There were few telephones and fewer automobiles. My father went to school on a horse. His father was a lawyer and judge and often was paid with chickens, produce and other foodstuffs. My father worked on his grandfather’s plantation picking cucumbers and training mules. It boggles the mind to consider the difference in the world he came to and the one he left.
My relationship with my father was like two bull elephants in a china shop. He loved me; of that I am certain. He also had great plans for me and he used every Jedi mind trick in the book to make me submit to his desires for my life. As he told me one time he wanted me to have his life without his mistakes. As Buddha said “we are not our parents’ children and we are not our children’s parents”. We each had to find our own path and be happy there. I inherited his toughness; I have endured many things as well. At the end, not too long ago, he blessed me with the words every child wants to hear from the father, “I am proud of you.” If you have the chance, tell your parents and your children “I am proud of you.”
Freud said that boys couldn’t become men until their father dies. I don’t agree with that, but there is a certain expansion that happens for men when their father dies. I don’t know if it is the same for women, but I can understand that when the father dies, men have to step up and assume that role for themselves (if they haven’t already). It all depends on what I call the father/son power shift. When we are born, historically young children perceive fathers as the masculine authority in their lives (It will be interesting to see how gay marriages will effect that dynamic). During the maturation of the child, there should be a shift to where the child and the father are equal in power, and then at some point the child will take over the authority role. If the father never relinquishes that role, it happens when the father dies. So depending on family dynamics, the passing of the father can be anticlimactic or hugely liberating.
For me, my father suffered through years of physical challenges and was in constant pain. At least he is not suffering anymore. It is poignant that as the nursing staff tucked him into bed, he finally left. He is finally at rest, a rest he so richly deserves. The United States Military Academy has a tradition that when a graduate passes on, they take the ring and melt it down to make new rings for future cadets. I happen to believe that happens to us as well. We leave this life to return if we so choose. I would prefer that there be no need for future cadets, but this is the world of our making. So it is comforting in some way to know that his legacy will live, on the finger of some future cadet. His legacy will certainly live on in my three brothers and me.
It goes without saying that the true gift of his passing is the knowledge that life is fleeting and we should enjoy every moment of it. As I meditated this morning I was truly grateful for each breath I was taking. As we get caught up in the melodramas of day-to-day life, sometimes we forget how lucky we are to be alive. It certainly will be on my mind as long as I live. So give someone a hug today for no reason and know how special life is.
Goodbye Dad. I am proud of you.