It is with sadness that I write about my dad’s passing eight days ago. He succumbed to pneumonia after being in ICU for five days. He died less than two and a half years after my mom died of pancreatic cancer, which isn’t unusual for couples who love each other greatly. As difficult as it is to lose my dad, for many reasons (that I will share in a separate post), I feel it was his time, and that certainty brings me peace.
We had his calling hours and memorial service yesterday at his church – the culmination of a week of tremendous activity. There were many meetings and lots of work involved in creating a video slideshow for the church events and working around numerous, unprecedented technical glitches that arose. I went through boxes of my parents’ photos to assemble photo collages to display in large frames on easels. Wrote a eulogy. Found a new, loving home for his cat. Visited with my two adult children and nine-month-old granddaughter, who traveled from out-of-town.
In other words, I attended to the usual tasks that fall on the closest relatives immediately after someone dies. But I also did something not so common in our culture: On Tuesday, I drove to Bennington, Vermont to be present for my dad’s cremation, as I did when my mom passed away. And that might sound morbid, but it wasn’t. It was transcendent.
I was not with my dad when he passed away. I couldn’t make it to the hospital in time but was able to say goodbye to him over the phone. I told him that I love him and thanked him for being such a great dad. I encouraged him to let go and assured him that everything is going to be fine. We are going to be fine, and so is he, for he is about to go on a wondrous journey. I told him I’m so happy for him because he will soon be with my mom, his beloved wife of 50 years. His last words to me were: I love you, too.
I couldn’t be there when he died, but I was able to show up for his cremation, which felt like another part of the process to witness with love, light, and presence.
When my mom died, I pushed her cardboard coffin into the crematory retort and then retreated to my car to meditate for a while before walking around Bennington for a few hours until her cremains were ready to be picked up. But with my dad, it was different. The funeral director invited me to come and go as I pleased. He left the crematory door unlocked and placed a chair next to the retort for me, along with two bottles of water.
I sat next to the crematory retort for an hour and a half meditating on my relationship with my dad. I remembered good times and reflected on all the ways in which he expressed his love. The small but meaningful gestures, such as vacuuming my car, filling my gas tank, and taking us out for dinner. And larger gestures, such as when he helped me out financially when I needed an implant for my front tooth and when I was getting divorced. How he and my mom made it possible for me to attend the private college I felt so drawn to, without having to take on much student debt. The family vacations that usually involved amusement parks, such as Disney World. How he always had my back and conducted himself in such a kind and dignified manner, which made me proud to call him my dad.
I also visualized any sadness, grudges, regrets, and human weaknesses and impurities burning away until only love and light remained. Until only spirit remained, released from any human shortcomings – his or my own. That included any negative feelings or resentments I harbored because, at the personality level, my dad and I were so different, and I challenged and disappointed him in many ways. He was a traditionalist with a worldview that was much more conservative and black-and-white than my own, and through the years I came to accept that rather than try to change him or get him to understand my worldview and choices. For instance, when I got married, I wouldn’t let my dad give me away because I did not consider myself an object to be transferred from one man to another. I’m sure that all the explaining in the world couldn’t help him understand that because, with my dad, you didn’t question tradition. You just followed it. So I let all that burn away until only love and forgiveness (for him and for myself) remained.
I sat there and told him everything I wasn’t able to express when he was alive. Sometimes we don’t recognize the different ways in which people express love in the best way they know how. We might not realize that the questions and comments that seem so judgmental on the surface arise from a spirit of deep love and concern. Our communications pass through our human filters and so often get misinterpreted. And we build walls to protect our fragile egos. And we build histories, stories, and communication patterns that are often so hard to rise above. And we don’t say what is in our heart because the patterns are so entrenched. That’s what I got in touch with in the crematory and allowed to burn away. I bathed all that in love, and it transformed into nothing but love.
I recalled the scared look in my dad’s eyes during the last few days of his life because he sensed something was different this time. How he absolutely refused to engage in a conversation I initiated about hospice care, and it felt like just another example of him rejecting what I had to offer based on my knowledge, experience, values, and sincere caring. How I couldn’t be there when he died because I had needed some distance from a situation that arose, in order to maintain my strength and sanity. How I felt I could support him better from a distance that last day of his life, not knowing it would be his last day. I let all that burn away until only love, forgiveness, and an appreciative sense of humor remained.
I essentially composed his eulogy (which I will share in a separate post) while sitting in the crematory. The tears I cried were mostly tears of appreciation and gratitude for all the ways in which he expressed his love and continued to love and care for me, despite our differences. I appreciated what a steadfast provider he was for our family and for having such a stable, secure childhood. I appreciated the ways in which his traditional worldview was challenged to the core by some curveballs life threw his way and how he responded with love every single time. I appreciated how much he and my mom loved each other.
As my dad’s body burned in the crematory retort next to me, I reflected on all the ways in which he expressed love for us, acknowledged our relationship and humanness, and honored the spirit that unites us. The spirit of love and kindness. It was a powerful process, though not one that many in our culture choose to experience or even realize is possible. By the time I left the crematorium, I felt so light and filled with love and light and appreciation for my father. I felt his light shining so brightly.
Lyrics from India Arie’s song, “I Am Light” came to mind:
I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside…I am light.
I am not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain…I am light.
I am not the color of my eyes, I am not the skin on the outside…My soul inside is all light.
While waiting to hear that my dad’s cremains were ready to be picked up, I drove around and decided to take a walk before dark. I ended up in Old Bennington and couldn’t resist parking near an old church with an adjacent cemetery. It seemed like a perfect place to walk with my camera.
Not knowing anything about the history or looking for anything in particular, my intuition led me through the cemetery, and I came upon poet Robert Frost’s grave.
How perfect, I thought, for that day I took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.
There are many cultures in which funeral rituals, including cremation, are not performed by professionals out of sight of grieving family and friends. The image of open cremations on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India comes to mind. Families gathered around the funeral pyre watching the body burn, coming to terms with mortality and relationships. What do we gain by keeping the care of our dead at arm’s length? What do we lose?
Being present for my dad’s cremation was such a positive, healing experience for me. I wish it were more commonplace in our culture…even as I see my dad in my mind, bristling and shaking his head, wondering how on earth I could think that way. Knowing he’ll never be able to understand me but loving me just the same.
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