FATHER AS ANCESTOR
Essay and photographs by Bill Scheffel © 24-May: 2011
Column detail. Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene, Vézelay, France.
I'm writing about my father. I'm writing for the first anniversary of his death. August second is over two months from now but I want to be prepared. Though death comes without warning the anniversary of death comes with plenty of lead-time. Why should I wait until the last minute to write? I might not be able to find the words then, whereas now I feel I have some. I want to explore my father as father (horizontal time?) and as ancestor (vertical?).
I'm recalling a time last November in Vézelay, France. It was a moment in the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene, when I offered a votive candle to the memory of my father (I also offered one for my mother). I recognized I could never show my father this church, never show him a photograph of it, never have him know I was here. For a moment the sadness was acute. But the atmosphere in the room was thinking in vertical time. Suddenly, I felt my father approaching me from the "future," like an aircraft that had circled the earth and was now appearing on the horizon.
Just as the border, say, between the United States and Mexico divides the countries, it is also where they touch. Vertical time divides the past from the future. Father in the past, ancestor from the future - I inhabit their division and they meet within me. My skin touches them both. They write to me with the invisible ink of their thought.
My father last lived in an Alzheimer's facility and died in his room. I didn't have the ringer to my cell phone on. The staff finally reached me through e-mail. I got in my car and reached The Balfour in twenty minutes, probably two hours after my father died. I arrived in his room a blank, unable to find myself, much less be of help to him (as my Buddhist training said I might). The room was empty and I was unable to stay for even an hour.
The next day we brought my father to my house in a pine box. We set him in the living room, next to the white orchid. I laid a Cambodian silk across the lower half of the casket - the top half was open, revealing my father's head and chest. He wore a blue shirt. When the mortuary men left I played Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto. The room was full and I felt we could remain like this indefinitely.
The three days passed slowly and quickly. My son arrived from Portland and there were now three generations in the room. At night he slept near the corpse. Friends of mine who knew my father visited, spent a long time looking at him. My father rested on dry ice. He shrunk some, but his skin became more transparent, there was a beauty. His jaw was firm, an offering of Scotch sat on the pine plank above his heart. The three days could not go on forever, but there were some of the best my father and I ever had.
Column detail, Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene.
On the third day after my father's death, my son and a handful of my friends joined me and we performed the Sukavati (Buddhist funeral ceremony) together, enacted yet another event my father never could have dreamed would happen. The next day a few of us took my father to the mortuary. My son kept my father's eyeglasses and I kept the diamond ring he wore on his right hand. We performed another small ceremony (speaking, laughing, crying) before my father and his pine box were inserted into the furnace. We saw the fire begin. I picked up his ashes a few days later.
Six-weeks after the cremation I left Boulder and traveled in a strange zigzag, dictated by hunches and people who came into my life. Perhaps it was not until this February, seven months after my father died, that I began to come apart at the seams. It happened in Paris. One day I felt awful, like I'd been emotionally poisoned. Like something was attacking me (or I was attacking myself). It didn't seem like grief. And what is "grief"? It's clear what grief is when you're missing someone horribly or simply crying. But grief must happen at a cellular level, the molecules of ourselves adjusting to the severe transformation of going from having a parent to being homeless (for example). An inner and savage initiation before the ancestor arrives from the future.
Soon after my father died I experienced an unexpected phenomena that has never left me: that he was now in complete agreement with me. It was as if his life was a tennis match in which we were opponents. The match was video-taped and now he could watch it (as memory) while simultaneously seeing me for who I was now, as if the match had never been played. Since now there was nothing to argue about - and knowing that our intentions toward each had always been good - he was in complete agreement with me.
To say my father (as ancestor) is "in agreement with me" is to say he encourages me toward the tasks I have chosen to fulfill. These tasks, in part, are endeavors or potentials he could not complete (or even failed at) and, in another part, have nothing to do with him. He is completely detached and one-hundred percent encouraging. My job, as "the living" is to release rage (and other emotions) and avoid succumbing to guilt. To wipe the sweat from my face and leave it on the towel. To put aside botched shots. To walk alone with my ancestor behind me. To face his arrival.
Grave. Vézelay, France.
Hospice bereavement literature has lists of the emotions, physical sensations and behaviors one might encounter after the death of a loved one. Two diagrams show differing shotgun blasts: one from close range (the sudden, accidental death of a child, say, or a wife) the other from considerable distance (news a friend one hadn't seen in a decade had died). In the first, the pellets are so clumped together one might say, "I feel like I've been shot in the gut." In the second, only a couple of pellets have even hit the target, and none of them centrally. The effect may hardly be noticed (or felt).
"Grief" is not an emotion (or verb), it cannot be defined (as a noun), nor easily recognized (as a known object). Grief is a journey, a cluster of intangible relationships moving through an expanding space. Split in half by horizontal time, the initiation of grief narrows the seeming place we occupy between the past and the future. Our non-existence becomes thinner, less able to be hidden (from ourselves). As I became thinner I tried to spread out, as if I could ooze backward in time and attach myself to something. I wasn't just missing my father - or even missing him at all at times - but exploring the lost forms: house, dishes, clothes, books (I got rid of almost everything). I encountered split-second decisions of hope that these things still did exist (like a pigeon thinking gravel is a poppy seed).
Taken as a whole, and unavoidably taken alone, the journey is quite beautiful - if one has the resources to make sense of it, to embrace it: community, meditation-prayer, art, dralas (not necessary in that order)? If there does arrive that grace or creative blessing.
This morning it occurred to me the shotgun metaphor also works for the last two-plus years of my father's life, the stages of losing control. As if prior to my mother's death - twenty-seven months before his own - my father was still "in control" of his life (in the ways we typically feel we are). When she died, it was as if the shell was detonated and - in extremely slow motion - the pellets emerged (the elements of his control) and the empty casing (his body) spun end over end, finally coming to rest on the ground (then cremated).
Final events, Bill Scheffel (I have the same name as my father): moved from his apartment to "independent living" (Villas Atrium), then to "assisted living" (Shawnee Gardens), finally a "memory care facility" (The Balfour). He began to cancel his own rent checks. He stopped taking all his medications (claimed he hadn't taken them for years). I disconnected the battery cables in his automobile. His knees weakened but his handshake became stronger. His name was taped to his eyeglasses. He remembered no ones name. Was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Sometimes thought I was his brother. Had no idea when he last saw me. Was considered "a gentlemen" wherever he lived (Villas, Shawnee, Balfour). Had friends in a way he never had before. Had no idea he had these friends. Didn't necessarily know where he was at any given time or that Obama was president. Flirted. Ate everything on his plate. Fell often. Always excited to see me. Always sad when I left. Misplaced his wristwatch. Lost his wallet. Could barely stand up. Shook hands hard. Knees gave out, back mangled, poked at his food, moments of panic. Died alone in his room after dinner.
Dogen said we each have all the provisions we need for this lifetime. My father was afraid of being alone yet endured tremendous aloneness - and was nearly deaf - for the last years of his life. Until he could no longer make his bed - or even know it was his bed - he made it well, with the same military precision he brought to writing a check, to everything. He loved his car and bathed it in Armor All. In those final two-plus years he came into the lives of countless people - including my own - as an agent of dignity with a devastating handshake. Many brain cells left him yet the accuracy of his sarcasm remained as intact as Nolan Ryan's fastball. His affection for the world may have finally resided in his sardonic, self-effacing complaints, his uncannily durable insistence that the glass was half-empty. That his pessimism and my optimism are in complete agreement is a small miracle.
William S. Scheffel, October 12th, 1921 - August 2nd, 2010.