My dad also taught me how to smile for photos

This musing is part of a longer piece called “Waking Up“. I’ve separated it out into its own blog post for the simple reason that this was one of the most profound active meditations I’ve ever done. While my father is dead and there are no more chances for new memories, I think this exercise has incredible benefits for all of our relationships… living and beyond.

As I listened to a monk from India talk about the path of spirituality and ‘righting relationships, especially the relationships with mother and father’, I was struck with the desire to recall 108 (a sacred number in the east) distinct memories of my dad. He died in 2002 and I long ago realized that my path to self-discovery goes through my understanding of our relationship. Even though he has ‘shed this mortal coil’, our relationship is in very much in the present.

I had a mala (prayer beads counting 108) with me so I started quietly tick off memories while the group listened to the monk. I had a few rules for myself:

  1. The memories had to be specific to my father; they could not be memories of gatherings in which my father played a part. They were memories of the two of us.
  2. The memories could not be from pictures alone. Pictures allow us to remember events that might have otherwise faded in the mind. If the picture was of a memory that was poignant, though, it would count.

I got to somewhere in the 60s and found myself stuck. 60-someodd memories of my dad? Really? Is that the best I can do?

Your Focus Needs More Focus

The next morning I sat down and made myself write until I could count 108 memories; it took about two hours. I included phone calls (the time he called me in Dublin to say that our golden retriever Nikita had died, talking to him on the phone on my wedding day since the leukemia made him too sick to attend) and memories of him after his death (speaking at his funeral as the ‘family representative’, going to his workplace to get his belonging, carrying his remains from the crematorium to the car and putting him in the footwell of the back seat… the first and only time I’ve ever carried my father). I reached 108 and I started to see some patterns emerge.

  1. A lot of memories centered around sickness and death.
  2. I could not recall times independent of arriving or leaving when he gave me a hug or told me he loved me. I could not recall much physical affection at all.
  3. A lot of memories were around conversations, exchanges of ideas, and lessons (turn off the light when you leave the room, use hot water for dishes).

Death, disease, sickness… seeing behind a veil of perceived control.

Emotional guardedness, intellectualization, and a general sense of distance… all traits I’ve exhibited in my romantic, interpersonal, and professional relationships. This meditation helped me see where I learned to be controlled, calm, and always a little physically/emotionally removed in social situations. It also made me realize that I don’t hug people enough.

I say without hesitation that my dad was a wonderful man, a great father, and ultimately successful at his primary goal in life: to be a good dad and husband. One of his favorite sayings was, ‘You don’t mess with my wife, my dogs, my kids, or my truck.” My brother and I could therefore console ourselves with the knowledge that at least we beat out the truck.

Codicil/Addendum/Afterthought

I spoke with my mother yesterday after she’d read this piece and she reiterated how much love my father had for ‘his boys’. I told her that I knew this and reminded her that she was often the interpreter for that love. She would explain my father’s behavior to us as a way to describe how he was showing love. For example: my father hated wearing suits and ties but donned one for a few of my ‘big life rites of passage’ like graduating from college or going to Japan. During these events, my mother would pull me aside several times and say, ‘You’re father is SO proud of you. He never wears a suit!”

I also stressed to her and to my step-dad (whom I am so very grateful for) that these realizations about my relationship with my dad are completely without judgement. I honor his memory while also learning from it. What am I learning? To be a complete human being who is living presently and not from a set of encoded role-model examples from the past. It is the examined life that is worth living and a simple active meditation like this one–which I plan to do with other significant relationships in my life–is a great way to see yourself as you really are: a living, reflective embodiment of your relationships, past, present, and future.

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