My father was a difficult man – hard working all his life and hard drinking for much of my youth. We were estranged for many years, until his cancer diagnosis.
With the urging of my sister, I went home. He was in his seventies, me in my forties. Greeting me at the door, he asked, “Why have you come?” I answered, “Because you’re dying.” He let me in, and we began to navigate through a lifetime of hurt.
Anger flared as we negotiated, at times father and son, other times, man-to-man. Disappointments and disapproval were tempered as we moved toward forgiveness. The ever-present television distracted us and mom played conciliator.
He had sold cattle at the Chicago Stockyards. When the Yards relocated, my family stayed behind and he began over in his forties. He finally got work as a janitor. He never spoke about this job; his identity and stories were from the Stock Yards or the Second World War. My father often reminisced about his time in France as an Army Warrant Officer. He told me how difficult it was to accept my opposition to the Vietnam War.
“Almost as hard as when I found out about your personal life.” He never did say the word “gay” or “homosexual,” but after so many friends began to die from AIDS, he wanted me to know he was sorry, “Everybody shouldn’t die so young… at least wait until you get to be my age.”
At his wake, men and women regaled me with stories I’d never heard, gleefully describing what fun he was. My memories were clouded by his tormented Irish temper.
His skin seemed softer and less weather-beaten than I remembered. As a child, I loved playing with his wiry hair and furrowed brow. Dressed in his herringbone sports jacket with a new shirt and tie, he held an American flag. I cried as I kissed him goodbye.
Some weeks after the funeral, I dreamt we were called back to witness his “last breath.” There he was in that herringbone jacket. A wave went through his body, and he exhaled, rising into the air and slowly turning over; floating back, his clothing was discarded, and his body lost all volume and shape, eventually disappearing.
I awoke, bewildered but at peace. I realized it was 49 days after his real death. Remembering that Tibetans Buddhists believe one enters the “bardo” state for up to seven weeks, I smiled and thought, “He’s free now… he’s gone on.”