No Regrets: Last Chance for a Father and Son352
No Regrets: Last Chance for a Father and Son352
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Last Chance for a Father and Son
By Barry Neil Kaufman, Kevin Bentley
H J Kramer and New World LibraryCopyright © 2003 Barry Neil Kaufman
All rights reserved.
My left hand cradled your head against the pillow. The fingers of my other hand created a soft cocoon around your arm, which lay limply on the blanket. I had been sitting cross-legged on the bed next to you for hours in that exact position. The room had become a cathedral where the lines between life and death blurred. I did not know whether you could still hear me, but I kept talking anyway.
"You're doing great, Pop. It's Bears. Rosie is here. She's doing fine. She loves you. Dad, you have the best wife. And in her eyes and our eyes, you're the best guy. We're here with you as you take this journey. It's okay now to let go. It's okay now to have your visit with God. Pop, we love you."
These words echoed in the quiet of the room. As I listened to my own voice, I felt love emanating from every cell in my body. I adored you. And I can hardly believe that I adored you. We had come such a long way together.
When did we first lose each other? Was it when I was fifteen and went, against your wishes, to visit my friends in Manhattan? Was it when I grew my hair long and sympathized with the antiwar and civil rights movements of the sixties, foolishly identifying you and Mom as the complacent and conservative middle class? Was it even earlier, when I hated you for letting me languish at military school for six additional months after I had begged you to let me come home? It took years, Pop, for me to finally understand and acknowledge that you had always done the best you could. Only as an adult did I realize how my unyielding rebelliousness must have confused you and challenged all the principles you lived by. Maybe it wasn't one particular event that strangled our relationship. Maybe it was an endless series of clashes, as I tramped awkwardly through my teens, searching unsuccessfully to make sense of myself and a world that appeared so unreasonable and unjust. I made you the symbol and the target of all my discontent.
Now, having fathered my own six children, I can easily recognize that I must have seemed like a child from hell for you. But I finally changed, Pop, as I know you did. It took us almost forty years to find our way back to each other. Forty years! A mayfly, born at dawn and gone by dusk, lives a whole life across the span of one glorious day. We had passed by each other for more than fourteen thousand of those glorious days without touching each other's hearts. We said our hellos, had our phone conversations, and sat together for many meals: you at your end of the table, I at mine, all without really connecting.
Your recollection of those years must have differed dramatically from mine. That's how it works, Pop. We each live in our own worlds, peering out from the non-neutral lens of our eyes. Ultimately, I had made peace with the belief that you would never really know me — that you didn't want to really know me. Then, what a surprise and an opportunity you gave to both of us over these past two very special years. How honored I felt and continue to feel! That you allowed me to hold your hand while you traveled this final road has been such an unexpected blessing.
In years past, you poked fun at the heart and soul of my work and lifestyle, often reacting with impatience and anger when I talked about workshops and seminars. "Too many of those 'why' questions!" you'd bellow, flipping your hand in the air as if to swat a fly.
It's okay, Pop — this was a bit of karmic retribution for my having given you such a hard time when you, the straight-talking man whose youth straddled the Great Depression, who had found your own sense of dignity and pride through providing housing and food for your family, had to put up with me, a self-absorbed and ungrateful teenager, poking fun at the safe haven you worked so diligently to maintain for all of us.
"I'm here, Pop. Right beside you. I will not leave you. You can count on me, on all of us. We all want the best for you. Rosie is doing fine. Bryn came to visit a few hours ago. You were sleeping, Pop, but she talked to you anyway — just like I'm talking to you now. She told you how you're her special grandpa; she so enjoys your gruff, understated affection toward her. She loves you and Rosie so much. But, Dad, I know you know that. We're all having the best time loving you. Are you in any pain? Just give me a sign if you are — squeeze my hand, nod your head. We want to make you as comfortable as possible."
I watched for a signal — any gesture, a fluttering from your closed eyelids. Hours had passed since you drifted back into yourself. I couldn't help but admire the dignity you showed. And then you nodded, ever so slightly, indicating pain. Kenny, who had returned with Denise and Jessica from the motel, noted your movement in the same moment I did. He and I glanced at each other and then looked down at the morphine pump that supplied you with pain medication every thirty minutes. For too long, Kenny and I had been brothers only in name, but right now the distance separating us evaporated as we moved in concert, focused on helping you.
Although the hospice nurse had advised us that you could have extra medication whenever you needed it, Rosie lobbied against it. For her, more morphine meant that comfort took precedence over healing, signaling that your death approached. Rosie wanted more time. The three decades you'd spent together suddenly seemed like an instant; she wanted more years, more months, and now more days and more hours with you. She grasped at any additional time she could get. Just having you there, Pop, asleep in bed, comforted her. For Rosie, that morphine machine represented the end of an amazing thirty-year love relationship. Each time I noticed you wincing with pain, I wanted to respect her yearning, but I wanted to help you as well.
I checked to see what Rosie was doing. She stared out the window, gazing at the valley and mountains beyond — a vista that had been a source of such pleasure for you over these past four weeks. I dipped my head as a covert signal to Kenny, who coughed loudly to mask the whining sound the pump made when I slid the manual control under the quilt and pressed the button. Rosie turned toward us, peered curiously into our faces, and then returned to her own reflections, continuing to stare out the window. Maybe on some level she knew what we had done.
Rosie had kept a constant vigil at the foot of your bed, like a warrior knight fighting the good fight on your behalf. I knew how much Rosie — your wife, lover, companion, best friend, and, more recently, health care advocate as well as caring nurse — had touched and inspired you with her love. I have always felt similarly about my relationship with Samahria (pronounced suh-MA-ree-ya), whose camaraderie and caring have blessed me all these years. Although I struggled against the walls of silence and judgment that prevailed in our family as I grew up, I always appreciated and wanted to emulate the way you treated Mom and then Rosie, treasuring them. You came off as a tough guy, a superman — but not with the women in your life. With them, you were so gentle and loving ... so fiercely protective and loyal.
I remember a case in point; I must have been about twelve years old. You had just finished dinner with Mom as I entered the kitchen doorway, unobserved. What I witnessed then stunned me, for you never really expressed affection physically, at least not toward me. You enforced a dress code in our home, requiring us to be fully dressed at all times, no walking around in undergarments. We never discussed human anatomy or talked openly about love or sex. And there you were, Pop, by the kitchen counter, standing behind Mom with an uncharacteristically mischievous smile on your face. You slipped your arms very gently around her, and then, to my surprise, you cupped her breasts in your hands and jiggled them. Then you both laughed. I didn't quite know what to do with what I had observed. I felt so lighthearted in that moment, watching you two play together. You appeared so much more approachable, more human. I liked you more at that moment than any other time previously. I liked your smile and your laugh. (I had hardly ever heard you laugh.) You and I, Pop, have talked so much about life, love, God, and death since you became sick, but I hadn't remembered this incident until right now. So, although I've expressed my gratitude to you many times over these past months and weeks, I never before thanked you for this one memory. Thank you, Dad.
The extra morphine began to have an impact. The muscles in your face relaxed. Every time I told you that you could let go, leave your body, and have your visit with God, Rosie eyed me defiantly. I could see her love, her confusion, and her panic. But she and I kept talking, Pop. Samahria had been taking walks with her every morning. Both she and Rosie claimed that they used the time to "solve the world's problems." I knew Samahria used the time to help her get ready for you to leave her. Remember last week, when you gave Rosie some bills to process, how you started to cry, telling her that she will have to learn to take care of herself and live alone without you? She tried to stop you from speaking, but we all heard your message. Somehow, I think you were staying with us a bit longer until you knew Rosie would be ready. She's been coming around, Pop. Really, she has.
The sun faded from the sky, bathing the room with a golden light. Although you had not been able to sit up for days, the huge Victorian windows that were set in stone over one hundred years ago brought the countryside close to your bed. I wanted you to have the best room in the house, Pop — so I gave you this one.
"Everyone's gone for the moment, Pop. Kenny took a walk with Denise. Jessica's on the phone, calling home. Samahria and Rosie went downstairs a few minutes ago to prepare some food for everyone. Those two have developed such a warm friendship since you both came to live here. All kinds of magic is happening right around you — and because of you.
"Your grandchildren are coming to see you. Tayo came home from football practice a few minutes ago, ready to eat everything in sight. I can't believe the enormity of his shoulders. At seventeen, he's a bull — but, deep down, very sweet and gentle. A lot like you, Pop — not a big talker and not quick to reveal his inner thoughts. Samahria and I keep encouraging him to share more. Sage will be coming home this weekend, after her last class at school tomorrow. She might drive from Boston with Raun; he wants to see you as well.
"I love having all the children home or at least as many as can be here. Funny, how they have all become young adults, yet they will always be my children. Do you see me that way, too, Pop? Even if I were a hundred years old, I would still be your child. And I would still call you 'Pop' or 'Dad.' I like those names. It's a bit of history. Our history is pretty muddled at times. But we're all finding our way in this family. And me, I'm still actively parenting my children as I care for you.
"We're taking turns, you and I. You held me when I came into the world; now I hold you as you leave it. Why does this feel so natural? It's just part of living. I can feel your grip on my hand tighten, Pop. I'm going to hold onto you tighter. Are you in pain?"
"No," you whisper.
"Are you comfortable?"
You nod your head affirmatively.
"Do you want to talk?"
You shake your head no.
"Do you hear me when I talk?"
You nod your head again.
"Do you like when I talk to you?"
Again you nod.
"I love you, Pop. Thank you for letting me help you. I feel so honored to be able to serve you in this way. I so enjoy getting to know you and have you get to know me. You have really opened your heart to me with such sweetness."
You increased your grip on my hand once again. One side of your mouth curled upward into a faint smile. My tears started to flow — not tears of sadness but of gratitude. I could see what an enormous effort it took for you to communicate. Your ability to engage bodily kept diminishing. I didn't want to disturb you even though I wanted you to feel our presence and our abiding love for you. I had done everything in my power over the past four weeks to help you have a good death — the best death.
* * *
For thirty years I have worked with individuals, couples, families, and groups, and during this time I have witnessed so many people living in anguish because of one difficult or traumatic event that haunts them from the past. With the encouragement of friends and therapists, many of these people have repeatedly revisited a particular painful experience and thereby relived their discomfort over and over again, sometimes decades after the actual event.
During a brainstorming meeting with the senior teaching staff at our learning center, I proposed a course entitled "A Single Act of Love" that would offer a contrasting possibility. In this program we would teach people how to take one powerful love-filled event in their lives, amplify it, and make it a wellspring of inspiration and good feelings for the rest of their lives. Indeed, if we magnified all the details, made them big enough in our thoughts and in our hearts, any single experience of love could overwhelm, and possibly obliterate, the space we normally allot for reliving distressing experiences from the past. The teaching staff appeared excited by this concept, but in truth, scarcely anyone registered for the workshop. It was a hard sell for people buried in memories, but I still treasured the idea.
Pop, I believe you and I have brought this idea to life. These two years together, and especially these recent weeks, have taken up all the space in my mind that I used to give to the abyss of heart separation that once characterized our relationship. I feel as though I have successfully backfilled a forty-year chasm with love.
Last Monday, you sat on the front porch with me, holding my hand and gazing at the meadows and mountains spread out before us. Way off to the right, some Option Institute program participants sat together, obviously engrossed in a passionate discussion. Off to the left, down at the bottom of the hill, several deer darted through the woods. You smiled as you watched them. But the most dazzling part of this scene was what we were doing as we sat in those chairs. There you were, almost eighty-six years old, holding hands with me, your fifty-four-year-old son, in a gesture as sweet and timeless as the Earth itself. You were my parent and yet, in some way, my child. One day my children will parent me in turn. On this day, you and I held hands as dear and cherished friends.
"Bears," you said, accenting the word with a theatrical flourish as you still struggled to make the nickname, which Samahria had given me thirty years ago, more commonplace on your lips. "What more could any man want than to be surrounded by so much love?" You tightened your grip on my hand. We looked into each other's eyes.
"I love you, Pop."
You smiled one of those soft smiles, rare in prior years but expressed so much more frequently during these past weeks. "I love you, too," you said.
A single experience of love, Dad — yet warm enough and powerful enough to fill any void and inspire appreciation for a lifetime. This will be my new vision, Pop, one I will remember forever. Everything that happened before in our relationship will be rendered insignificant by the magnificence of these unfolding hours. This is what I have been trying to teach myself, as well as others, most of my adult life: what happens in life is not nearly as significant as what we make up, or believe, about what happens. We are not in charge of many of the events or activities that occur around us, but we do fully control how we choose to see and experience those events and activities, as well as how we respond to them. Loss, or fulfillment? Moving away, or moving toward?
It's the game of "make-believe," Pop — making up beliefs. When you grimaced at me or shook your head with annoyance, which you did often when I was an adolescent, I made up the belief that you really didn't like me. When you yelled at me or hit me, I made up the belief that you probably didn't love me either; or if you did, that I had to get out of the way of your love. I never told you about these notions I made up inside, my "make-beliefs," nor did I ever ask you for verification of my assumptions. You and I passed each other like strangers speaking different languages, not only during my formative years but also throughout the decades that followed.
Excerpted from No Regrets by Barry Neil Kaufman, Kevin Bentley. Copyright © 2003 Barry Neil Kaufman. Excerpted by permission of H J Kramer and New World Library.
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