Lessons in Loving While My Father Was Dying

08/16/2010 04:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Jason Mannino Executive Recruiter, Career Coach, Cultural Enthusiast

My grandmother's funeral, fifteen years ago, was the last time I saw my father. Two weeks ago I was standing in front of him face to face. It wasn't the visit I had hoped for. He departed his body 3 days earlier, and I was in attendance at his funeral. As I looked at my dad's lifeless body I said goodbye in my mind as a deep sense of love, gratitude, and amazement, mixed with the grief that comes from not wanting to let go, swept over me.

The gratitude and amazement were directly related to the journey of resolution and healing I began with my father nine months before his death. Last November I heeded the call to heal and resolve what had essentially been thirty years of an estranged relationship. Thirty years ago my mom and dad split up. The catalyst was a torrid affair he chose not to end. So, my mother changed the locks and put his stuff on the porch. It was a terrifying time. My dad's business went bankrupt and my mother was left with very little resources to take care of me and my two brothers. I did have some interaction with my father, which always felt strained and cold. The truth is, he and his wife embarrassed me. I internalized all of the judgments my mother had passed, who largely remained embittered and cynical about the situation until she died in 2003. They were uneducated, lacked any sort of style, class, were essentially socially inept, and of course, my father was a "no good_____," you fill in the blank.

Regardless, ten years ago, while living in San Francisco, I began the process of healing my relationship with my dad. At that time standing in a bar in the Castro with beer in hand, and loud dance music in which you had to strain to have a conversation a friend asked, "WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR FATHER LIKE?!" My response, "I DON'T HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH MY FATHER!" In that moment something shifted. I immediately realized that I did indeed have a relationship with my father. I realized in that moment that not only was "I don't have a relationship with my father," the description of my "relationship" with my father, but that I had the option of choosing the relationship that I desired.

I began the process of reconnecting with my father and began choosing to forgive. Six months earlier my father learned from an uninvited source that me and my twin brother are gay. My father wasn't happy with this discovery and at one point on a birthday had the audacity to suggest that I consider "homo-reparative" therapy. I said to my dad, "Dad, it's my birthday. We can end this conversation now and never speak again, or you can wish me a happy birthday." He wished me a happy birthday. Our relationship continued strained, with a phone call every few months at most. After my mother died in 2003 I decided, again, that I would attempt to repair my relationship with my only living parent, and continued infrequent, superficial, yet cordial phone calls.

Nine months ago I realized that my movement towards resolution over those years was a process of going through the motions, in which I had not let go of all my old judgments and misinterpretations. I had yet to fully embraced my father in my heart. There was more work to do. So, my intention embarking upon this journey nine months ago was to resolve the past and learn to love my father.

I had no idea last November when I made the call with this intention that he had just been diagnosed with liver cancer. You might say my timing was uncanny. I executed a full on action plan to heal my relationship with him and nurture him from afar. It included daily prayers, and visualizations in alignment with my desired outcome. It included weekly calls and e-mails keeping him abreast of what was happening in my life. It included doing deep emotional work to resolve all of the old judgments and beliefs that I had bought into many years ago.

At moments I found myself feeling resentful. I resented that I was finally moving into a more loving relationship with my dad at a time when every conversation we had was about the latest trip to his oncologist, the latest diagnosis on whether or not this cancer battle would be won, and the recent helacious, treatment side effects. I found myself asking, "When do I get to have a father? Why am I the one doing the nurturing here?" An answer came quickly, and I realized I was being given an opportunity to act in alignment with the level of emotional and spiritual maturity I had realized since my mother's death six years earlier. I was being given an opportunity to fully reside in self-loving and understand that in order to effectively nurture another I must deeply nurture myself.

My dad opted for a year-long oral chemotherapy treatment that had killer side effects. One month ago he was rushed back to the hospital to discover the cancer spread to his lungs. The doctors made it clear, "There is nothing more we could do." When these words landed on my ears from my brother's mouth 3000k miles away my body leaped into survival mode. My heart began racing and sweat began to ooze from my pores. I thought to myself, "Who makes these decisions?" "There is nothing more we can do." I had heard these words six years prior when my mother died and we were forced to make the choice to remove her life support. I began asking, "What do you mean? How can this be? This isn't right! This is wrong! He is a young man (69)! What do you mean there is nothing more we can do? He just has to die?!? This can't be!" I am not sure exactly who I thought I was being in that moment, suggesting that I had the power to say what could and couldn't be in regards to my dad's death. I realized quickly that this was my ego's grand attempt at control. It also dawned on me that in my experience of death it is this initial loss of ego control that is perhaps the greatest cause of the pain that is experienced upon losing a loved one. I have learned from some of my greatest teachers that suffering is actually the sum of pain times resistance (suffering=pain x resistance). In this context it is the ego's resistance to letting go of control rather than accepting the painful circumstance that yields suffering.

My dad on the other hand was a fine example of ease and grace as he went through this experience. Less than two weeks after being sent home with the message, "There is nothing more we can do," he expired his body. I am faithful that although he could have easily been around for another 6 months or more that he and spirit conspired to ease his suffering and the suffering of his loved ones by "checking out," before his cancer reared an even uglier head.

My dad lived a humble existence. For many years I judged the fact that he never made a lot of money and left my mother to support herself and 3 kids. I didn't know at that time that all of the events of my past were brought into my reality to teach lessons that were meant uniquely for me. I am grateful for the lessons I have received through my father's willingness to play his role perfectly in my life. Some of the lessons include turning inward to know the boundless love that exists for me inside. When I realized the loving that resides within me I then realized that it is not possible for a parent to not love a child. The simple act of conception itself is a divine act made of loving. In this realization, for what felt like the first time, in my heart I embraced My Father.

After fifteen years I decided I would go see him. Prior to my trip a colleague asked, "When you visit, what would you like him to say to you?" Through tears I answered, "I want him to say, 'I am proud of you.'" I thought I would make it while he was still living. Alas, that was not what spirit had in store for me. However, after my last conversation with him, while he was still in the hospital, he was fairly coherent, and asked, "What are you up to?" I shared some significant accomplishments with him that were going on at the time. He responded, "I am proud of you." That was the last conversation I had with my father alive.

Please share you comments - how has your experience of going through the dying process with someone expanded your consciousness or brought you into expanded loving.

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