Things I Learned from My Father's Dying
In my father's time of dying, I learned some things that therapy never taught me.
My father's cancer diagnosis came in the Spring of his sixty-ninth year. No one expected it. He seemed healthy as a horse. He didn't smoke or drink, and he exercised daily.
His cancer was untreatable. He had, we expected, maybe six months to live.
My dad was a Baptist preacher, with a sweet and loving heart, whose temper and anxiety often matched his sweetness. He had very definite ideas about how people should be. None of his three sons could live within Dad's notions of proper behavior. Our "misbehavior" made Dad anxious and angry. He had the weight of God's Holy Will behind his notions about us, he thought, and he was not reticent to offer censorship and punishment where we strayed from the path.
The particulars of my relationship with Dad are not especially original. Garden variety authoritarian father/headstrong son sorts of things. The intensity may have been off the charts a bit, what with God on Dad's side. A couple of times Dad decided I was possessed by demons, as when I left the Baptist church and became a Unitarian during college. When my first marriage ended in divorce, Dad and I did not speak for five years. Eventually we found a sliver of common ground, where we genuinely enjoyed each other, but we both spent a lot of time on tiptoe when we were together.
As you may imagine, my conflicts with Dad caused vicious self-loathing. Therapy helped me immeasurably. Learning to live on the assumption that I need not submit to Dad's judgments helped me stop hating elements of myself that fit badly into Dad's scheme of values.
Before Dad's cancer diagnosis, I would have sworn that I had achieved "separation and individuation." You know, the recognition that Dad and I are separate people, so that his opinions should carry little weight for my decisions. My life is mine, his was his. I would have sworn I was past wanting his approval. In my father's time of dying, I learned that we were not so separate as I thought. Paradoxically, I also learned that he was more separate from me than I had considered. Most important, I found myself facing the fact that our approval of each other mattered a great deal.
Facing the prospect of his passing, I found myself achingly aware that I had no idea of his true opinion of me. I had placed his views of me off limits in our conversations for years. So carefully had I guarded my "boundaries" that he could scarcely have known who I am.
Facing my father's death, I found that knowing his appraisal of me mattered, after all. I wanted his approval. I wanted him to recognize my life's journey as worthy.
At first, I thought that was strange. Was this residual pathology raising its ugly head?
I don't think so. Half my genes are his, and he raised me. Whether in nature or nurture, Dad was central to my life. How can you know who you are, if you do not know how the most important people in your life feel about you?
More important, though, I loved my father. You cannot care deeply about someone and not care how they feel about you. You only care less by loving less. "Autonomous" easily becomes hard-hearted. Dad lived thirteen months after his diagnosis. I became more open, and I think he softened. I think that, to a great extent, he gave up judging who I ought to be and appreciated who I am. I got a good many answers to my questions, and they were okay.
Wondering whether our deeper reconciliation was an artifact of his dying troubled me. I found some peace by giving up the habit of taking Dad's attitude toward me personally.
As my father was dying, I realized that much of what I found most difficult about him was, in fact, inherent in the meaning of his life. It was not really about me. It was not even about his "issues." It was about the integrity of his life.
You see, even as I realized I am not so separate from him as I thought, I realized he was more separate from me than I had considered. At its foundations, my father's life could not possibly have been about me at all. His life choices predated my existence.
Once I began thinking about my father's life in its own terms, I realized that he was a glorious success. On balance, he was a sweet and kind man, and a man of strength. In the time of his dying, literally thousands of people came forward to thank him for his influence on their lives. Once I stopped thinking about my father principally in my own terms, once I saw his life in the terms by which he had lived it, respecting his life was not hard.
As I contemplated my father's life, I realized that a person's life is not primarily about fulfilling his child's needs. Like most every parent, my father came to his fundamental values before I even existed; I could not possibly have been a formative concern when he was making the late-adolescent and early-adult decisions that set him on his life's journey. Like every parent, he had come to his values and purposes long before I was born.
Moreover, his decision to be a father followed from his understanding of his own purposes in life. My existence was a function of my father's values-his values were not a consequence of my existence. Deciding to become a parent does not entail overthrowing the very values that led you to become one. That is, you have kids because of who you understand yourself to be, what kind of family you want to create, and how you think your values imply parenthood. Your values shape whether you have kids and how you raise them. Having kids does not veto your longstanding, more deeply formative values.
And at a practical level, my dad, like all dads, had responsibility for me only, say, eighteen of his seventy years, and during those eighteen years he had many, many responsibilities to which I was irrelevant. I could hardly expect to be the primary point of his time on Earth.
A person's life reaches far beyond his children, and how he fulfills or fails to fulfill a child's needs must be evaluated within the whole picture. Should my father have had no purposes or commitments that detracted from my personal happiness? Should some therapist's notions of my "needs" have been the standard of truth for my father, trumping his deeper, more comprehensive concerns? The evidence seems very clear that he lived a good and valuable life, by the very values that my various therapists and I agree caused me problems. Yet I cannot imagine a coherent argument that his values and achievements were unworthy.
As you may imagine, I found this deeply unsettling. If I were to give my father the same respect I wanted him to give me, I had to admit that he had lived an extraordinarily admirable life. I had to admit that I was but one part of that life. The concerns and commitments within which he lived his admirable life shaped his dealings with me. I had to admit that my father's apparent "deficiencies" in fatherhood, as my therapists parsed them, were part and parcel of his altogether respectable person. None of this was easy to face.
Contrary to therapeutic dogma, not everything can be resolved. Some conflicts are simply real, and nothing can make them go away. It is simply true that my father was a good man, with worthy values, that sometimes, in some particulars, caused me pain. And it is simply true that, under the egocentric perspective of therapy, I had for many years grossly misunderstood and misjudged my father. That caused him pain he did not, by any mature moral reckoning, deserve. I will always regret that, and do my best not to cause the people who seek my counsel the same grief.
I wish my father and I had not differed so profoundly in our understandings of life. I wish we had been able to enjoy, not just respect, more of each other. I wish we had possessed more common ground. I wish those things because, in the final analysis, I am not so separate and individual.
I cannot escape, and no longer wish to escape, the fact that I am my father's son. That, as much as anything else in the world, defines my life.
I can only own my patrimony by having the decency to respect my father's life as a life, as a whole, as a worthy journey through the world. I am the son of a very good man, whose heartfelt values did not always make me the happiest camper.
Dealing with the truth about my father and me, finally, is not a psychological issue but a moral one. In the moral light of truthfulness about my father's life, love covers a multitude of sins. Within love for my father, I can respect the very conflicts that caused me pain-for I know them as functions of his altogether respectable person. I can only hope, when I'm done, to have done as well at life.