My father was 76 when he died on April 26, 1994. He was surrounded by strangers on the psychiatric ward of a veterans’ hospital when he passed away. I have a haunting photo of him during his last days. (Even if I could find the photo that I’ve misplaced, it’s not how I would want my father to be remembered.)
I was the only one in my family who could have visited him at that point, but I didn’t feel it would be appropriate. As a responsible daughter who could see no other options, I was the one who had to initiate an involuntary placement in the hospital with an order of protection. He was threatening to kill my mother before he planned to commit suicide. He would hold a loaded gun and point it at her. My mother, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was terrified he would kill her. My younger brother was threatening to kill my father to protect her.
So the responsibility fell to me. Someone needed to intervene in a reasonable and compassionate way. My father’s threats needed to be taken seriously. I had survived his physical and emotional abuse during my childhood and witnessed his violent emotional instability and attempted suicide.
Paradoxically, though, I came to understand his emotional volatility. His bipolar disorder and the deep insecurities he carried given the traumas he experienced during his own childhood made his life so difficult.
His years as a Marine during the Korean Conflict added new dimensions to his trauma. I remember times when he cried but couldn’t give voice to the experiences that brought him so much pain.
I had forgiven him decades before I had to act to protect my family, perhaps because I had educational opportunities that he never had. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that I had embraced my mother’s Ojibwe culture as I eschewed the cold, dour nature of my father’s Anglo-American heritage. He could rarely bait me any more with racist, angry tirades. I had learned how to respond with gentle humor. “Well, Dad, this is an enlightening conversation,” I would say as I smiled. “I think I’ll go see how Mother is doing.”
As I think of him today, I am grateful for the many things I learned from him. Most importantly, I learned how to understand someone who was suffering with compassion and forgiveness. That’s what I remember on this father’s day, along with sadness for people whose suffering may not be healed during this lifetime. I hope his death brought him peace and I hope that wherever he may be he knows that I am grateful to him for doing the best he could with what he was given in life.
My Anglo-American grandfather lived in a goathouse
Perhaps it was my father’s father’s way of resisting classism
flipping the bird to his gated-community neighbors
The descendant of the youngest son of British aristocracy
who emigrated to make his own way because of primogeniture
My grandfather became a master plumber for NYC highrises
but built his own home without working indoor toilets
The hand-pump in the kitchen the only indoor source of water
It’s where his oldest son lived with his family
easy targets of derision from the privileged classes nextdoor
He preferred his two story shack out back
with goats in the basement and scores of canaries flying free upstairs
His wealthy neighbors offered him fortunes to sell his farm
But my grandfather steadfastly refused
Sometimes I wonder if he stayed there just to spite them
Despite the foul smell emanating from of his goathouse
and his dour, unwelcoming and cold demeanor
I respected his eccentric, independent spirit
Recently, I have been contemplating two recurring childhood dreams. They seemed to presage the bookends of my life choices. The first was always the dark one. The second was always light. I remember waking with deep foreboding from the first, and with a strange sense of joy and aloofness from the second.
In the first dream, I would awaken within a nightmare to find myself on a screened porch. It was the dead of night. Despite the darkness, I could see darker shadows pacing and sense the fearsome monsters growling and salivating just outside the screen. I couldn’t escape into the house, and I dare not open the screen door. I knew that the monsters could easily rip through the screen, but oddly, that never happened. Still, I was filled with immobilizing terror.
Then, I would suddenly awaken in the “real word” nestled in my bed. I pretended to be asleep as I lay there terrified with my heart racing, listening to the wooden steps and floorboards creak as if someone were coming ever nearer. Sometimes I would muster the courage to peek through a single squinted myopic eye only to see shadowy amorphous shapes surrounding me. Those hazy apparitions did nothing to calm my fears.
Thankfully, I would soon fall asleep again and another dream would follow. In the light of the dawn, I found myself standing on the top step of the stairway that led to my second-story bedroom in my childhood home. It would take courage to believe, but I suspected that if I really concentrated, I would be able to take flight. I raised my arms and lifted gently into the air, glided down the stairwell, through the open front door and into the world around me.
Once airborne, I realized I could control my flight with thoughts, one moment close enough to people on the ground to touch them (although I never did) or higher than eagles in the sky, able to gaze from afar at the world below. It was both exhilarating and lonely. I knew I could never land and be part of the scene below, whether near or far, unless I was willing to lose the magic of being able to fly.
But it seemed odd. Even when I was close, no one seemed to be aware of my presence.
The second dream never fails to remind me of Tao wisdom.
“The Tao person, detached and wise embraces all as Tao.” (Dreher, 1990, the Tao of Inner Peace)
Deep sorrow continues to touch my life when I look at the world today, both up close and from afar, but so does great joy. I’m really not sure why I’m sharing this here, but I suspect many people do see me as somewhat aloof. Perhaps I am, but I do care deeply about others. I just don’t want to lose the magic of being able to rise above confining darkness and fear. I have only ever wanted to be able to share what I see with others and learn what they see in return.
I want to thank all of my blogging friends for the chance to continue learning –
to see the world through many other eyes.
to sample great wisdom and beauty that brings sadness, joy, and hopeful yearning
as we soar together in ethereal skies.
Chi miigwetch (Ojibwe “thank you very much”) and blessings to all.
Sometimes, in the fleeting moments of clarity, I’m frightened. I wonder, what is happening to me?
I feel like I’m losing my mind as the fog descends
A memory surfaces of a life that might have been.
My mother with the woman who wanted to adopt her, Lac du Flambeau, WI, 1923
If I had been adopted into a life of privilege by Mrs. Paterson,
into a world far away from the Chippewa reservation where I was born
instead of life as an unwanted child raised in abject poverty, forlorn, who would I have become?
My mother in front of her aunt’s house, Lac du Flambeau, WI, 1928
But that was not to be, thanks to the mother who abandoned me
Giving me to her sister to raise, to live as a servant for my aunt’s family
Note: These are beginning reflections about my mother’s life from the vantage point of what I imagine her thoughts were as Alzheimer’s Disease progressively interfered with her ability to do the simplest of things or communicate. It’s based on some of the things she said early on, and the sense I often had in her presence that she was still there somewhere inside.
Watching dragonflies that are almost as big as hummingbirds
glistening golden sunlight reflecting from their gossamer wings
as they flutter and float and zoom about
In awe of their beauty my grateful heart sings
And then an amazing thing happens
One flies up to me and gently kisses my hair
awakening a memory of a walk with my mother
when dragonflies circled about everywhere
The healing scent of sun-kissed pines, the whispering whir of dragonfly wings
Walking together down wooded paths where our ancestors once roamed
I think of your gentle joyful spirit as I remember these simple miraculous things
My mother died almost six years ago only a few miles away from the Ojibwe reservation home where she was born in 1921. We made this walk together thirty years before her death when she was recovering from an allergic reaction to a routine test that almost killed her. I remember her delight with the dragonflies that circled us, protecting us from the swarms of mosquitoes.
About the photograph: After I drafted this, a former student called. As I was sitting out on my back step talking to her, one of the dragonflies settled on the metal railing inches away from me. Ah, where is my camera at such moments! The dragonfly was gone by the time I returned camera in hand, darting teasingly nonstop forever out of camera range. But at least I was able to study the beautiful markings and find a photo on the internet.
This morning I thought of you, my once long ago Ojibwe lover Sometimes I wonder what could have been if we had met sooner before both promised to another
The way we laughed and loved perfectly balanced, your deep and hearty roar blended with my lilting song Colonialism molded us into reluctant wounded warriors, our joyfulness somehow seemed so wrong
Poignantly, I remember your beauty and deep pain, and the sense of responsibility you tried to drink away Yet the memory remains of how, together, our carefree laughter once lit up an Albuquerque restaurant on a long-ago, long-ago, long-ago day