My 90-year-old dad is in hospice care. He stopped eating. He says he doesn’t remember how to chew. The IV drip administers hydration, nutrition, and morphine for his chronic pain. No one knows how long he has. No one knows how long any of us has. It’s just that with him the problem is a little more apparent.
My dad no longer bothers with the distinction between the dreaming and waking state. He often describes incidents that could have only happened in dreams. Actual events in his immediate surroundings no longer interest him. He’s slipping into a spirit world. Who my father was is mostly gone. Alzheimer’s took care of that.
Whoever we are, whatever a human being is – bits and pieces of consciousness and a few pounds of flesh – is never just one thing. We are a gathering of light, a swarm of bees, a cloud of vapor. Gradually the light fades, the bees fly away one by one, and the vapor vanishes leaving only a dry and empty clarity as silent as a windless day in the desert. Left behind are the traces of a thousand moments – and never once in the middle of any of them did we recognize their significance – moments that drew us together in communion. For an instant we shared one pair of eyes, one pair of ears, one mind. These are the marks we bear and carry forward with us until the end of our days. These are the stones of our gratitude with which we build our lives.
I’m grateful I had a father who loved me, and who was kind, and who worked hard day in and day out, year after year, and who showed by his constancy and presence that he loved, honored, and respected each of us. That is all a child needs to thrive. He gave us that.
I’m grateful I had a father who was simple in his needs. He never wanted or needed a lot of things. He liked simple food. He took pleasure in the everyday world, as it came to him, through the grace of God, and through the endless creativity of his loving wife and the home she made for all of us with her hands and with her heart.
I’m grateful that I had a father who loved the road. We three boys were forever shaped by his love of open spaces, of forests and deserts and distant places. Visiting national parks and camping out under the stars and swimming in rivers and hearing the wind through the pines and campfires and cold mountain mornings and the promise of the next bend in the road – these were the memories he gave us.
I’m grateful that I had a father who loved music. He showed us that music wasn’t something fancy, it is just something everyday and normal. The way he sat down at the piano and let the fun and joy bubble out of his fingers and fill the house with song. He could read music but rarely bothered, preferring to bang it out by ear. He hated rock and roll, yet unwittingly personified it. He showed us that music was just another way to give of yourself, to share love without words, to be present with family and loved ones, and to bring the inner world into alignment with the outer world by bringing beauty to life in the here and now.
I’m grateful that I had a father who loved books and ideas. I loved the way he always thought things through, and let there be time for reflection and contemplation. His curiosity about everything made him a life-long learner. Without effort, out of the depths of his own nature, he modeled for us the philosophic life, the love of wisdom, and the willingness to live inside questions and let answers come in their own time.
I’m grateful that I had a father for whom the line between spirituality and everyday life was blurred. I’m grateful that he never imposed his views on us and instead allowed truth to well up through the cracks of our own lives. He honored our individuality and authenticity by letting us follow paths and voices he could not see or hear. Underneath it all, he trusted that truth finds everyone in their own terms, because it is in everyone, and takes the shape of their own yearnings and realizations. This lesson shapes me and my work to this day perhaps more than any other.
I’m grateful that I had a father who understood the power of silence. His gentle temperament and quiet spirit is a powerful presence in my life to this day, and for all the days of my life. And I’m getting older. My dad has lived long enough to see all of his sons grow old, even me, his baby boy. That is a great blessing. And beneath the confusion and sadness of these long, last years, I still see in his eyes a quiet knowing that no matter what is happening, it’s alright, it’s okay, and a gracious acceptance is the last gift we give to ourselves in the face of great loss.
I’m grateful that I had a father who was courageous enough to leave war-torn Europe and come to America. I have no parallels in my own life of the tremendous willingness, faith, and decisiveness that my mom and dad exhibited by leaving behind family, home, and homeland to sail across the ocean and start over in a new world. It is of course one of the watershed moments in our family story, and we three boys are Americans because of it. His courage, faith and willingness will always inspire me.
And I’m grateful for the way he showed me how to make peace with the sadness of the world. He never talked about it, but when depression fell on him like coastal fog he simply picked up and kept moving, keeping his promises, finding solace in the actions of daily life, and staying present in the simplicity of the moment. I will always see him standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes after every meal, everyday, without fail, even though he will never again stand at that kitchen sink. I still see him standing in the garage at the workbench repairing a lamp or framing a picture, even though he will never again stand at that workbench. I still see him raking leaves out on the lawn under a soft Ventura sun, even though someone else is raking those leaves now. And I still see him sitting on the patio typing long letters home to Holland on his red portable Olivetti typewriter, even though the keys have fallen silent.
Beneath the heartache there is a quiet stillness, a sacred presence, an eternal flame, a light that never wavers no matter how fleeting these frail and fragile lives are. We all arise and we all fade, leaving the world to a new wave of younger people who will never really know us or see the things we saw. They will see the world through their own eyes and in their own terms, a world we no longer recognize. And when they finally grow old they too will realize that none of us owns any of this – it is all borrowed. Everything we touch will be taken away from us. Even the people we loved were never ours to possess. It is all a gift, a glorious gift, and the only sane response is profound joy and gratitude that we ever got to touch any of it. That is how I feel in the emptiness between the waves of sadness – a profound joy and gratitude that this deeply humble and beautiful man was my dad.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterhbolland), or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org