{My Father is Dead} A Remembrance on Father’s Day

“I will not leave you orphaned… I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left–feeling abandoned, bereft… I’m leaving you well and whole.” — John 14

My father is dead
but he is alive in my head.
He haunts me.
I often wish I could kill him 
off for good, then I remember how much
I miss him.

My father is alive. In my heart and in my head.  And in the quick stream of my soul,
where pain rushes, he lives.  The deep scars of his voice,
the disappointed echo in the canyons of my mind
is strong.
I just want to be well and whole, I cry.

My father is dead
but he is alive in my head.
And on those days when every child needs a father, I cling
to an image of him smiling
at me, he is
enjoying
a brief moment of respite from the demons
that terrorized him.
(And us.)

My father is dead, but still he bullies
(me.)  I think,
he never meant to hurt anyone.
I think,
he’s watching me, from afar.
I hope he’s happy with me (now, finally.)

My father is dead, but he’s alive
every day that I go on strong, loving, powerful, a remnant
of him. Memories fade.
Forgetting is sometimes good.
But he left us so much more that we must remember.

My father is alive
in me.

MELODY

Other things I have written about my father.

(I am) Under Construction: I Believe in the God who keeps time and has a long view that I cannot comprehend

daughter & dad

I am grieving my father’s absence today.

I miss him terribly. (This is true, even while it is also true that I was afraid of him all my life.)  He was my father and I loved him.  He was wise and could be gentle and kind.

Yesterday while reflecting on where I have come from, I realized that my perceptions of what I see as my “successful” years are a direct result of my Dad’s view of the world and his active presence in my life.

The way he viewed one’s personal value was that it comes directly from one’s significant contribution to the world, the “great” things you would do for God. 

This has messed me up.

I went to work for my Dad soon after college.  I wanted to be near him, to come to know the man who others seemed to revere so highly.  As a child, I missed out on a lot of time with my father because of he was constantly working and frequently traveled.  I thought that this was a way to be close to him.

Those years working for him at InterVarsity and on Urbana conventions were full, busy and challenging.  I learned a lot of good things:  the value of being a hard worker, of doing things excellently, of receiving correction, of trying things even when not an expert (basically taking risks!), and the value of pursing your passions.

I also learned some things about myself — one is good, that I loved hard work.

But I also came to believe that work could fill the empty spaces in my soul – places of loneliness, need for relevance and love, and the insidious fear of being a failure.

All of my life it was those people who served others, who worked hard, who accomplished many things, who were pioneers in their ideas and accomplishments, who challenged the status quo, who took risks, who “made a difference” – those were the people admired by my father! 

And that is what I learned to do and believe mattered most.

Growing up the things that were okay to sacrifice were family, friendship, and knowing and accountable relationships.   I even saw that it was okay to not live up to the great character qualities aspired to in Scripture, if you meant well or asked forgiveness afterward.  Growing up in a missionary family it was made clear to us that you should be willing to work for less, less money as missionaries and nothing in terms of payment for my mother, who worked for the mission but received no monetary compensation.  And we learned that God would always provide.  We lacked for nothing materially growing up.

Dad was driven to do many “important things” and I admired him for this, even as I missed having a daddy in my life.   It is only as an adult that I accepted the power and impact of being driven on one’s priorities, relationships and family for the worse.

When I left work to be at-home, I had become my father — driven, passionate, crazy busy and “weary from well-doing,” as well as lonely and constantly fearing failure.  No matter what I accomplished, I was unsatisfied and rarely felt good about it or myself.   It just made sense to leave, if I was that unhappy at work.  We had three children in diapers and a budding teenager, my stepdaughter, at home. When I quit I was a mess and didn’t know it!

I am now grateful to have learned, after more than ten years at-home, that there is more to life than what you do but even now, even yesterday the devilish ideas return saying that I am nothing without what I am doing, and it better be something significant!  Accomplishments are heady things and degrees boost the ego, but they do not offer one the solid, sweet confidence that comes from knowing who you are in the Lord – beloved, fully known and loved.  I thought that my father would love me more if I was able to do more!  He had spent his whole life driven by this need as well.

This was what I knew “You are loved, more lovable, when you are doing important things.”

It was in November, 02, that I got the call that my dad was sick – he’d been having what they thought were TIAs, losing the ability to speak in mid sentence.  Through some connections, my parents always had connections, Dad got in quickly to see a brain specialist who made the diagnosis of cancer.  It was tumors in his brain.

The first of December found us in Colorado, with brain surgery on.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the only time, in the months that he was sick, that Dad would allow a conversation about his possible death.  He could sometimes be a pragmatic man.  Going into surgery held risks and a conversation needed to occur with his children just in case something went wrong.  

I wish I had known that this was the only time he would allow such a conversation.  I still have so many questions, things that remain unspoken, proper goodbyes, … 

But that was his way … He lived absolutes and when he came out of surgery alive, he believed that God would heal him and more importantly that he would return to work.  “God still had plans for him, things Dad was to do.  It was unacceptable, lacking faith to be quite honest, to talk of his possible death.”

And so he and I went to tea.  It was a conversation that changed my life.  For the first time, I knew I could say whatever needed saying.  I was admittedly terrified!  He could be volatile and capricious.  And later, in a conversation with my sister he proved how much so.  This was partly due to the tumors changing him but he was erratic and mean many times over the years, which made it hard to trust in the benevolent moments.

At great personal risk, I told my father how his actions throughout my life had hurt me — his anger, his raging, his criticism, his absence had injured me. And this was his reply.  Yes, regret and he sought my immediate forgiveness.  (It was a transaction for him, forgiveness.  One asks.  One receives.  End of story.)

But he also said something that struck me as strange , a non sequitur, which I have reflected on many times since. It was new information.  He said, “I didn’t know how to be a parent.  I felt incompetent.  But I was good at doing work …  accomplished, affirmed and admired. And so that’s what I did, I worked. “

Yes, I felt that growing up.  Both that being a parent was not his priority though I didn’t know why.  And that what you do was a way to feel good about yourself.  And I also did that for many years and when work became untenable, even the accomplishments weren’t enough, would not fill the hole in my heart and made me feel like there was continuously more I need to do.  Have.  Accomplish.  Take on.  Achieve.   And so I quit.

I was unprepared for the full stop! Of all of a sudden, not being significant in the world’s eyes.  And what I had done in the past was irrelevant.  

And it wasn’t that being a parent was too hard but rather that I didn’t believe in its value.  In many ways still don’t.  I mean intellectually I do know the value of parenting, but I cannot seem to convince my heart and soul.

This is the root of my discomfort with being at home.  My depression came on very soon after.   I wasn’t happy but not because of being at-home, or being a mother, or even because I no longer had “a job” to make me feel important or worthwhile.

I had never been that happy.  I was only now coming to a place of acknowledging that reality.

I had a very good friend and mentor years ago, Pete Hammond, that wrote this wisdom:

“Being a sinner means having the terrible ability to misuse every good thing!  That ability to misuse includes relationships, possessions, passions and pleasures, citizenship privileges and rights, freedoms, work and jobs, family, etc.  Thanks be to God that Christ offered to help us break this terrible pattern on the cross.” – Pete Hammond, Re:Learning Family.

The good news is that though I am broken and lost, I have hope.  Paul progressed in his transformation, he said,

“Christ died for our sins … I am the least of all the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle. … But, by the grace of God, I am what I am, and this grace toward me has not been in vain.”

“I know that nothing good dwells within me… Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me?… Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“I, too, had reason for confidence in the flesh (religion, ethnicity, family, profession, temperament, citizenship) … but I have come to regard these as loss… and regard them as rubbish… I want to know Christ.” 

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the greatest.  For that reason I received mercy…making me an example … To God be the glory for ever and ever!”

Transformation seems to take time.  I have to trust in God who keeps time and has a long view that I cannot know, comprehend, but I can believe in.  Looking at Paul, he was also growing in his understanding of himself from being a dangerous pre-Christian to becoming a mature and humble leader.  Paul changed.  In his life, I find hope!   He was being changed, he was “under construction” and when he said “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”(In 1 Cor. 4:16, 11:11 and Phil 3:17, 4:9) I understand what he meant!  Not that he was perfect, but that Christ was still transforming him.

I long for a day when I will have arrived to full maturity and not have days like yesterday when I sink into depression.

I pray for the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in life.

For serenity and healing, I pray.  And I believe that Christ is still transforming me.

Amen.

Aging, Legacies and more Time with our Family

my parents did as well as they could

I often wonder if I am too hard on the memory of my father.  As the years go by the memories fade good and bad ones.   A couple of things happened this weekend that made me think of my father.  He died in his early sixties.  He should have had another thirty years.

92-year old Billy Graham was interviewed recently.   He has come to the time of his life when he spends a lot of time alone, requiring the care of others.  I suppose that stage of things makes one reflective.

When asked to give advice to those who are aging he said “Accept itAnd thank God every day for the gift of that day.”

I do dread getting old.  And yet I have this idea that I will just sort of live on in perpetuity with my body and mind falling apart.  I have joked that I want to be euthanized to save everyone the misery of my madness gone out of control.

My father wouldn’t accept that he was sick or was going to die, so much so that he refused to talk about when he was gone.   Even when he was diagnosed with brain tumors in regions of his brain that would leave him without speech and would impact his ability to sort out emotion.  And yet as he slowly left us, his body breaking down from the chemotherapy and his mind  slowly slipping away from us, he became meaner. And more confused about reality.  And eventually he couldn’t form words.  One or two here and there in the week that he died were like small gifts to those who received them.

His very last words to me, when I told him I loved him, were “I love you more.”

When he was still cognizant and before the surgery he did to his credit want to clear the air. Those last conversations differed for each of us daughters.  In mine, I spoke more than he did.  Fearful, I told him his anger and disappointment with me over the years had shaped my life.  He listened and accepted.  He spoke the words of apology.  It would have been miraculous and life changing had he not then gone on to spend an hour with my sister berating and criticizing her for how she managed money.  He wanted some money my parents had loaned her.

I felt responsible for that.  My conversation had been unexpectedly positive and though a lifetime of experiences told her not to she trusted him and met with him.  He crushed her as he had each of us so many times over the years.

That’s what he left us.  He left no letters for us.  He left without any parting advice or even the last word.  Ironically, the man who always had the last word in life refused to believe he was going to die.  He was going to get back out there to continue God’s work.  He believed he had time.

When asked of his regrets Graham said “he would spend more time at home with his family, study more and preach less.”  Wow! I think every MK and PK alive today longs to hear those words from their parents.  He wished he had spent more time with his family.  My dad prayed for healing to get back out there, not a few more months of life so that he could treasure his family and say his goodbyes.  He wanted to get back out there and reach our world for Christ. (At that time it was his work in China.)

Graham continued:

“God has a reason for keeping us here (even if we don’t always understand it), and we need to recover the Bible’s understanding of life and longevity as gifts from God—and therefore as something good. Several times the Bible mentions people who died “at a good old age”—an interesting phrase (emphasis added). So part of my advice is to learn to be content, and that only comes as we accept each day as a gift from God and commit it into his hands. Paul’s words are true at every stage of life, but especially as we grow older: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).

I miss my dad.  He was never content.  And I’ve concluded that he had to die for the rest of us to live.  I know those are harsh thoughts.  Do I really believe that God “took him” or did his life finally just end?  I will never know and it doesn’t really matter does it?  What I do know is the result of his death.  I could not break free from the chains of my experiences with him and my mother.  I did not have the strength or the knowledge of how to do that.   In the end, he left and I became free.

Could I have experienced the growth of the last eight years with him still alive?  Not so quickly.  Or intentionally.  Or in the same way.  He was such a force.  He was IRON in my life, but as iron sharpens iron, iron on something weak shapes it in the ways it wants.

So why so much talk of legacy and more time and regrets?  Because it is a bittersweet thing to lose a parent when they were a coercive fury in your life.  Choking.  Compelling.  And yet all that you knew of love.

Yeah, it’s mixed up.

MH

PK: Preacher’s Kid and MK: Missionary’s Kid

Good Dad, Bad Dad (A poem I wrote in 2004)

it’s 4:59 am, and you disintegrated slowly [A Poem]

Daddy, I miss you. I really do!  I try not to,
because I think I am still mad at you.
I’ve got a nice fat file at the UW Department of Psychiatry to prove it.

I glanced at the back of the room and saw you
sitting there.  With your grin,
how I lived to see that grin of pleasure.
It made the whole world feel r i g h t.
A belly laugh, so unexpected.
As if you were filled
with nothing but pleasure,
oh how I loved your laugh.
There is still so much goodness in you Dad
To be remembered — Passion.  Faith.  Hope.
I glanced over and saw you sitting there.

I want to remember you Dad, before I forget.
When the alarm tweeted at 4:59am,
and you disintegrated slowly,
as I woke and was left
full of longing; I am overwhelmed
by how much I miss you.

In life, I mostly felt your disappointment and my lack.
Perhaps it was your distractions, so important, God’s work
… coupled with a fear that you had.
You didn’t measure up

either.

Oh, in a crisis, if life was falling apart,
of course you were there
and would have honestly and truly,
if you could have, moved mountains to help.  But if not,
if life were NOT falling apart, you were busy doing the “Lord’s Work.”
This should have been okay, could have even been healthy,
if — the damage wasn’t already done.

I want to be lifted from the mire of that gloomy, infested death hole.
I want to be living not impulsively and with my FEAR overcoming EACH AND EVERY WORD.
Not assuming others only tolerate me.
Not speaking with a mute’s stutter.
Not breathing in constant fear.
Not stifling a scream.
I want to live healed, anointed.
I want to believe that you loved me
and are still hoping for me to have
the fullest,
the most joyful and gut-busting,

irrationally ecstatic, good LIFE.

You are no longer here.  And yet you linger in my dreams.
What are you dreaming
for me?

MH 12-9-2010

My father, Dan Harrison, died of brain cancer about eight years ago.  He joined my dream last night in a strange way.  Just sitting there, in the back of a room full of people.  As he often did.  He glanced up and I found myself saying to my sisters “Dad’s not gone.  He’s right over there.” Sometimes I do wonder if people linger in between this world and the next — hoping, wishing, praying even nudging.  I have no theology for this but I do wonder.

My father had a profound effect on me.  There are times when I believe that I did not truly begin living until he died.  At the least I experienced a new life after he died.  There are pages of this story here on my blog.  Many many poems and other thoughts, insights, lessons found here.  It is not completely a story of a broken person, because I found in a true way Christ’s love and that overcame all my sorrows.  I work for and pray for Shalom.

I needed [Too Late]

my parents did as well as they could

my parents did as well as they could

I NEEDED

I needed a father who would love me for who I am, not who I might be or who I might become.
I needed to be able to speak my mind, express myself, have opinions, and not feel I was your captive, imprisoned by you being right every time.
I needed a father who would not yell at me, at my sisters, at my mom.  All I can remember is constant bellowing, uproar, fear and pain.
I needed you and what you gave was distance, scowls, the expansive cloud of disappointment hung about us all the time.
Will I ever know why you were so angry?

I needed a mother who didn’t push people away; who wasn’t always afraid of him, of me, of living her life.
I had a mother who was dangerously sad. We all knew it. Because of it, I was always afraid, always tired, and scared of life.  If she couldn’t manage, how could I?  She’s still afraid, but at least, I know why.

I needed parents who knew how to laugh at themselves. I am slowly unlearning that legacy.  I need to be able to poke fun at myself.
It is so simple. So satisfyingly good to gaze at my imperfections and know it’s perfectly okay.

I needed a father who came home and wanted to be there; who gave hugs that didn’t feel off because they didn’t jive with constant anger, constant fear. Hot cold. Hot cold. The sting of our speculation.  If only you wouldn’t feel ‘rejected’  all the time.  If only you  understood that your deeds didn’t match your words.

I needed someone to watch me grow, with joy.
I needed you to remember me daily. If not every day, often enough to not let me get lost in books and fantasy, in forgetting, in weary striving for what’s unattainable, even impossible.
I needed you to help me on this journey of life.   I was falling down, over and over, stumbling, until I thought I couldn’t do anything right. Plunging into failure and living up to your disappointment with your life.

I needed a mother who would remember my birthday.
I needed a father who didn’t make me cry.
I needed.  I needed so much and when I allow myself to imagine how much I needed you, my heart feels full of gravel; my insides closing in. My heart is bursting with confusion, anguish; My heart is full of your unthinkable, backbreaking life.
It is something that I can’t put my full mind to, yet. Perhaps because I don’t want to discover that I needed so much from you and it is too late.  Too late for what I needed. Too late.

[Too
late
for
need.]

10/06/08 MHH