108 Memories of My Father

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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9 Replies to “108 Memories of My Father”

    1. I feel like someone else wrote a book called about remembering one’s father. Maybe dreaming of his father? Who was that?

      That said, I do like your idea. I was thinking of a space where people could share pieces of their 108 memories. Like here!

  1. There’s been an interesting thread between my lovely sis-in-law Holly and I on the pseudo-connectivity site known as Facebook. I’ve copied it here since I think there is value in sharing.

    Holly: Mine would read like a horror story, think I’ll pass on this one!

    Steven: Holly, you hit the nail on the head… you can choose to either respond consciously to your past relationships (and you certainly don’t need to do this activity for that to happen) or you can unconsciously react. The choice is our’s to make but I do know that ignoring it won’t make it go away. In fact, my dad tried that approach.

    Holly: I don’t ignore it. I have more than come to terms with the cesspool that was my life. I have taken the “acknowledge and move along” tact.

    Steven: Huzzah to that! I guess I just realized that I personally am never really, truly, and completely ‘done’ with a relationship.

    Holly: Maybe you just haven’t had one that is damaging enough to feel like you truly need walk away and severe all ties; and that would be a good thing! But there are truly toxic relationships that MUST be left behind for the continued well-being of self, and when that kind of situation arises in your own life, you will find it is one of the most soul wrenching experiences. Be thankful that you’ve never had to endure the pain of cutting someone out of your life permanently.

  2. To which I reply…

    I have had to cut more than one truly toxic relationship from my life but I am eternally grateful that those relationships weren’t with my parents! My point here is not to relive anything, it is to be aware that we are never, truly, and completely done on an unconscious level. It is to take the darkness of that experience and hold it up to the light as often as we can (and to get help from others when the darkness is to heavy and black)–to tease out the lessons we didn’t even know we learned–so we can be truly free.

    My dad did the ‘walk away completely’ and I think it fair to say that he was something of an emotional cripple as a result. The strength comes from acknowledging the darkness–again not reliving or embracing or forgiving or anything like that.

    And, yes, there is no way for anyone to truly understand another’s suffering… especially when parents are involved. I make no claim to compare any of the finite experiences–positive and negative–I’ve had with anyone else’s experience. All I can do is speak to a truth that I see right now and hope that others can find their own truth in it. I also know that those who’ve had a more traumatic past can choose to be stronger as a result… or they can choose to be fractured forever.

    Interestingly enough, my next piece is going to be all about one such toxic relationship. How serendipitous as this conversations helps me a lot in the framing of it. Thanks!

  3. I was struck looking at the picture the “snapshot” of the women in your life at that moment. The different personalities … they all deeply cared for you (& Michael) but that was quite the group! It was good to stop for a moment and celebrate them and what they brought to our lives.
    xoxoxoxoxmom

  4. Hi there,

    I just started writing a blog about memories I have with my father in his final days, and life lessons he taught me along the way. I’m so grateful I found your post! I feel that blogging about my feelings and getting them out there is a good way to start the healing process. Thanks so much for the idea. I never thought about doing that but I really think it might help 🙂

    Much love,

    Sarah

    1. Thanks for sharing Sarah (and thereby leading me to your site). There is some powerful catharsis in the work we are doing and I hope it can serve as an inspiration for others. There are no more important relationships to ‘get to know better’ that those with our parents… especially the ones that are no longer ‘of this world’. I send you positive healing energy for your journey!

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