Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fido vs. Dad (RIP)

OK, so my friend's father is dying. In hospice care in Ohio. And he's planning to go out and be with him until he dies.

"I've wished him dead so many times," my friend told me, "and now that it's going to happen I am torn up inside in more ways than I can count."

It wasn't just a teen-age rebellion that took him away from his father--it was a life-long thing. They never seemed to connect. A stern, cold man and his son. As my friend describes his father to me--as he has over many years--it has become obvious to me that his father was a classic, text book Narcissistic personality. Their relationship--tepid at best and bordering on psychologically abusive at worst--has always been problematic. But my friend didn't cut his father off, as some may have, he visited a couple of times a year every year. He spent time with his father--painful though it was in so many ways. He gave it the old college try. And it never worked. Never. My friend's sister had a more compatible father/daughter relationship, but even she saw how troubled the relationship between her father and brother was.

My response to his 'wished he were dead...torn up inside' confession prompted me to say, without really thinking, "It's much easier when a pet dies...."

I thought I'd gone too far too fast but my friend looked at me and said, "you know, it really is...."

Take me for example. I had an almost idyllic childhood. An only child with two doting parents. Never anything like my friend and his father. Oh, when I came home for Christmas in 1970 with long hair and a beard, my father greeted me at the door and then wandered off in the snow to weep. And he certainly drove me crazy from time to time. My mother was the tough one, but we seemed to get along even in hard times. I was at my mom's bedside when she died and had left my father in hospital, driven home in 10 minutes and walked in the house to a ringing phone to tell me he had died.

But relationships with human beings are always fraught with mixed emotions and unspoken things and things left undone. The last time I saw my father alive I said, "I'm going home now, Dad". He was in a later stage of dementia but that last conversation was as lucid as we'd had in two year. He replied, "I am too." Had a parishioner said that, I would have sat back down and knew what it meant. But not my father. And I've spent decades regretting that I didn't sit back down and be there with him as he went through that mysterious door to whatever comes next.

But Fido, that's different. Our relationships with pets--dogs and cats and even Guinea pigs and birds in my life--are devoid of the drama and complexity of human relationships. When a pet dies, the pain is intense and pure. It is like a scalpel slicing cleanly through our hearts. When people die--especially our parents--it's like trying to cut open your heart with a butter knife.

The circumstances have taken a butter knife to my friend's innards. It's not pretty and not clean. Decades of complexity have been funneled down to what will be a single moment, a single death.

I'm a priest. I've seen what dead does to people more than anyone should have to. I've seen more people die than anyone not in a medical profession. I watched the kaleidoscope of emotions flash across the family's faces. I know how inscrutable the pangs of death are.

I am probably a good person to have with you when someone dies since I just lay low and don't say anything. I'll hold your hand as long as you want. I'll listen to whatever--whatever--you need to say and share and I'll be present to what every you need to feel. But I won't say anything. I'll just hug you and let you cry and talk.

If your pet dies, I have lots to say. The death of a pet is universally similar, I think. The death of a human being holds individual pain/guilt/regret/confusion that none of us can truly share with each other or ever understand.

Who was it that said, "Happy families are mostly happy in the same way. Sad families have their own unique sadness." Some Russian and I didn't get the quote accurate.

The same could be said of death. When a pet dies, we all know how it feels. When a parent dies, the whole gamut of feelings is up for grabs.

So it goes.

(I'll be in San Francisco for a week and won't be able to blog since I don't have a laptop. And, for those of you of a proper age, "I will wear some flowers in my hair..." I said that to a colleague who is in her late 20's/early 30's and said, "But you aren't old enough to remember the song...." She replied, "I know it from the Forrest Gump soundtrack...." Imagine that.)

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.