So, let’s just get this out of the way. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death nine years ago. So, I’m feeling all the feels. He died just a couple months shy of what would have been his 79th birthday, and likewise just a couple months shy of the birth of my youngest son, Nathan. I’ve always described them as ships passing in the night.
As warm and loving and kind and perpetually self-sacrificial as he could be, he was very enmeshed of course in my mother’s emotional field, ever her enabler. I’ve often lamented his awareness of my mother’s abuse and the daily trauma she inflicted, really on everyone, and that his response was not to actually “rescue” me, especially as a young child, by removing me from the situation, sadly through divorce. Instead, his response was to daily “lay down his life” by trying to shield me from as much of her abuse as he could. Of course, this was not a terribly effectual strategy in terms of reducing harm.
It did, however, make him pretty saintly in my eyes as a child. He was, after all, warm and loving to me (when my mother would allow such expression), and he tried to protect me, in his own ill-advised way. It made him look like a rescuer, of course, and it constantly motivated me to in turn try to rescue him by constantly monitoring my mother’s emotional status and doing whatever I could to prevent the next angry outburst. I’ve been rescuing ever since.
Hurt People, Hurt People, Sometimes by “Rescuing”
Of course, in his case I actually did have a couple of opportunities to actually “rescue” him. I should mention that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the “middle class” here in the U.S. I should also mention that my story is pretty complicated; there’s just a whole lot of trauma. I guess I should back up and give you the extremely abbreviated version. My dad had three much older kids through his first wife, Mary Lou, who died. So my youngest sibling is 17 years older than I am. He married my mom not years, not months, but a few short weeks after Mary Lou died. Though she had been sick for a while before she died, it’s not believed that there was an affair or anything like that. More likely, to speak in the trauma language I might use now, my dad was “in the back of his brain” when he married my mom- grieving, lonely, etc. It’s also true that my mom had been so very traumatized in her childhood and lived in the back of her brain all her life to such an extent that she pressured him- “If you love me, you won’t wait to marry me.” I probably digress at this point, but needless to say my childhood was…complex.
So the first time I “rescued” my dad was around the time I started seminary twenty years ago. I mentioned above that I didn’t exactly grow up right in the middle of the U.S. middle class, which meant that most of my growing up years, from about the age of 12 or so on, I lived in a trailer park. My parents had owned a home, but largely through “back of the brain” financial decisions driven by my mom, they went through bankruptcy and lost it. Anyway, they had a friend that helped them get a single-wide mobile home, and that’s where we lived from that point on. Again, there’s a whole lot that happened between getting that trailer and where we pick up the story twenty years ago, but by that time (twenty years ago) my mom had died and every single one of my three older siblings had gone through trauma of their own and had moved in with my dad in that trailer. My same age niece was there too, and her twin boys. So my niece and her twin boys had the largest bedroom in the trailer, two of my siblings had two other (very small) bedrooms, one sibling slept on the couch, and my dad had a small bed in the living room. And you know what? My dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. No doubt he saw himself as something of a “rescuer” too. He needed to be needed, no doubt, and defended their situation by describing the financial disaster that would happen if any one of them tried to move out or extricate themselves from the mutual aid they participated in.
Jesus Followers Strive for Being Inter-dependent, not Independent or Co-dependent.
So there’s a real tension here. The norm around the world and through much of human history is for multiple generations to live under one roof and support one another. It’s only the myth of the “American dream” and capitalism that glorifies single family homes as the ideal that all should aspire to, judging anyone a failure at “adulting” if they don’t “make it” in this way. As a Jesus follower, I reject this. Mutuality is to be encouraged; community is good. As members of the household of God, we look forward to living in our father’s house together, where there are many rooms, (not “mansions”). Likewise, when you live as a community under one roof, the work that is required to build and maintain healthy relationships is the hard work of growing up that many of us never get to, especially in the U.S. This is true whether your household is made up of members of your family of origin or is instead made up of brothers and sisters in the family of God (sometimes the two categories overlap, I know). Kirsten and I have tried our hands at “intentional community” with others not from our families of origin a few times, and each time we learned just how much we still have to learn, how much growing up we have yet to do. That too is another story. I suppose the crux of the matter is whether or not your household and the mutuality it represents is one in which there are healthy relationships or not. Inter-dependency, especially with Jesus at the center of it, is to be encouraged. Co-dependency is not.
And in my humble opinion, co-dependency was the web that held the relationships together in that trailer of my youth full of seven people twenty years ago. And it was taking a toll on my dad’s health. He didn’t know it yet, but he was dying when we asked him to come live with us as I started seminary. He did, and my first year of seminary was marked by two major surgeries that my dad endured and months of being bedridden in our seminary apartment in between. I was, of course, the only seminarian living on campus with my wife…and father. His health improved, and he quickly moved back to the trailer in TX, having spent less than two years with us. I wonder, of course, was this “rescue” necessary? Who knows? He said later that he had already made a doctor’s appointment in Texas (where he lived and where I grew up) when we intervened. I don’t know if he would have gotten all the medical care he needed there. I don’t know if his living situation would have been conducive to the recovery he needed.
Jesus is Our Only Real Rescuer, but Following Him Doesn’t Mean Sitting on the Sidelines, Keeping Our Hands Clean.
What I do know is that he lived more than a decade longer than he would have if nothing had happened. And I know that after that decade passed, his living situation in that trailer, with all those people, was not a good or dignified one in which to finally die. When his health began to take another turn for the worse again in 2010, I took time off from work and drove down to TX with my oldest son, Sam, then about 6. This is what I found:
Now, please hear me when I say that I don’t offer the above voyeuristically, as some sort of poverty porn. This is part of the story I’m telling, part of my story. Perhaps by seeing the pictures you can see what compelled me to act. You might argue with how we acted, but love compelled some sort of movement, again. A decade prior we asked my dad to come live with us to get the medical care he needed. This time around, we later learned, he was already well on his way to dying again and past the point of a cross country move himself. So, we moved back to TX for about a year-and-a-half to be with him and find him a more dignified way and space in which to die. That’s another long story, but in the end we were able to help move everyone, all seven of them, out of the trailer and into a rental house. My dad still didn’t exactly wind up with a bedroom, but did have a small room in which eventually a hospice bed could be placed, and in which he died on this date in 2011.
His death took longer than expected. We moved early in 2010, expecting it would come soon. It took, obviously, more than a year, and the last few months were rough. There was a stint in a palliative care unit and talk of institutional hospice before home hospice was settled on. My siblings weren’t hearing the same information I was from the doctors. I made it my business to be very informed, and so when the hospice conversation began, my siblings weren’t on board. They accused me of trying to kill him. There was a brief relational cutoff then, but it was probably less than a week before they finally heard and understood what I already knew, that the end was (relatively) near. They apologized, but the damage was done. Even then, his actual death process was still slow. By the end he was leaking fluid out of his vessels and had swelled up, unrecognizable. I can’t remember the last conversation we actually had in which he responded. Finally, the day came and I got “the call.” He waited for me, and I was able to be there as he breathed his last, along with my siblings of course. His was the second death I had witnessed; there has since been another.
Even writing about it now and trying to remember the sequence of events and how I felt, it’s all a jumble. I know grieving takes time and is never “done.” Like so many things, it’s not terribly linear. Today, I’m feeling it.
As I’ve said, though, my dad was a complicated guy, as was our relationship. Part of the complication was just how loving he could be. He was known as a “friend to children and animals.” My dad made a ton of mistakes and enabled the trauma that I’m haunted by every day now. I’m making my own mistakes now, no doubt. But love wins, doesn’t it? Look at the pictures below, taken from our time together in that year + before he died. It’s love I see in them. The love of Christ that knits the universe together has a long arc, and this is how I want to remember my dad, full of that love, and sharing it as best he could.