On Sunday mornings, I cross the narrow road that weaves through our community of town homes. I walk up a slightly steep hill, met on the other side with the sights, sounds, and smells that coalesce into a deep feeling of peace. At the bottom of that hill is about an acre of land, upon which sits a small unassuming building that was erected in 1809. Its' simplicity is perfect; one can almost see the weathered hands of local people as they built it brick by brick. A small cemetery of a hundred or so grave markers are spread in the grass in front of the building, most with dates so worn they are now almost unrecognizable. This "Friends Meeting Place" has always drawn my interest. Just 40 to 50 years ago a vast apple and peach orchard stretched out around this lone place, one of many farmlands and orchards that dotted this town in South Jersey when it was settled many years ago. I've lived in this community for 15 years now, a single mom raising 2 sons, now 26 and 21, respectively. As a work in progress, I have slowly learned to remain open to challenges and changes. I experience daily the joy of genuine connection with others. I've slowly let go of outcomes and as the poet Robert Burns coined "The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry." Indeed
About a year ago, I woke on a Sunday and decided I was going to find out what these "Friends" do. On the fence post that faces the main road on the front end of the property is a simple sign: "All Welcome." From that time to this, I have been so glad that I made that decision. Each Sunday, about four or five of us show up at 10 a.m. Sometimes it's three, sometimes it's six. For me personally, it is 45 minutes of complete peace. It is not a rousing religious service, or a series of learned or memorized rituals. It smells like the earth, and sounds like stillness. In that stillness, I find great peace, most times. There are times when it is hard to "gather myself", to bring myself into the presence of that stillness to listen to that little voice within myself that either brings answers or begs questions. So it was with great surprise Sunday when my silence brought forth an unexpected gift: a feeling of gratitude for life and an honest thank you to my father.
He took his last breath at the age of 68, dying at home from lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. That last breath signaled an end to a life that was complex, riddled with tragedy, and would eventually impact all of us in ways great and small. He himself was one of 10 siblings. His mother, orphaned at a young age, married his father -- the only child of a woman that never married -- or interacted with -- my father's father. They had 10 children and my father's recollection of his father was primarily the fear that his father evoked in him. A heavy drinker, he would often become violent. Eventually this would land him in jail for a year. What happened next would mark another deep trauma for my Dad. When his father came back to the family, my father was told to go outside and tell his father "you cannot come back here". A few days later, his father shot himself, ending a short life and leaving behind 10 children and a wife. My father was 12 or 13, and never graduated elementary school. He and his brothers sold newspapers, collected coal, doing whatever they could to help their mother and younger siblings. He enlisted at 18 and served in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II as a tail gunner of a B29. He was part of a crew that flew numerous successful missions in the Pacific Theater fighting against fierce Japanese fighter pilots. I had the opportunity to go to Maguire Air Force base years ago. I saw the B29, and I saw the place where the tail gunner was positioned. I was filled with respect and admiration and pride that my father had done this: but how? How did he get the courage to do that?
He married my mother (after a few dates and two years of constant letter writing) and went to work. That generation did that: returned to the U.S., went to work, and started families. A seemingly simple process, this was not the generation that dealt with trauma, mental illness, or addiction. He spent most of his adult life as a maintenance mechanic, an outspoken union man (and as he proudly told us, shop steward). He was a blue collar worker to his core. He drove cars with no heat, and my mom didn't get a clothes dryer until I was about 10. These things bothered him: so he worked 16 hour days whenever he could. Between his (lost) childhood and the War, I now see a set-up for what Dr. Wayne Dyer refers to as "Hurt people hurt people".
He became alcoholic, the tip of a mountain of conflict. His traumas and hurts regurgitated themselves directly into all of our lives. Suffice it to say that I gained experience in a different kind of war, and was marred by unseen but deeply painful scars. All of my siblings were deeply affected by these circumstances. We are today a living example of the power of love. All ten of us have grown up, and between us, have given birth to 21 amazing young adults. These young adults have brought 6 of their own children into the world. Collectively and without prejudice, I must say that we are one of the most amazing families I have ever seen. Smart, articulate, empathic, insightful, responsible, and fiercely loving are words that immediately come to mind.
But that childhood brought me to dark places again and again. I've struggled with addiction, clinical depression, with trauma. A period of 20 years enlightened by recovery from addiction at the age of 25 enabled me to marry, have two sons, enjoy hard work in a career I loved and buy our first home, and then our second. My best laid plans, however, went awry. A bad decision to take pain medication for serious injuries sustained in 1998 was made in 2002; it became a 6 year progression of deeper addiction (both physical and mental) to the medication, and a relentless sense of guilt and shame. In 2008, just 9 months after the death of my mom, I got honest with my friends and family and re-entered active recovery from addiction. I often say that my mom gave birth to me twice.
As I sat in that space for 45 minutes Sunday many memories began to surface, but it was not me I was thinking of: it was him. I did not enter that time of quiet reflection and meditation with the intent to call forth Father's Day. But there it was. I've forgiven my dad many times. I wrote to him when he was dying, saying what I could not tell him during my visits in person (including that there was a 3 a.m. incident when my older son was about a year old and teething: all he could do was cry and cry. I rocked him, I sung to him, I held him close. And I thought: I bet my dad this for me, too). I remembered his hard work, both for our country, for his siblings, and then, for his 10 children. I remembered that, at the age of 65, he could still take a broom stick and standing completely still, jump it. He was agile, and he was doggedly determined. In my heart of hearts, I know he was profoundly sorry for his actions. And I know that the power of forgiveness is in its' dichotomy: as I forgive, I am forgiven. A space is opened in my spirit where love can replace hurt and hate. I loved my father. I have lived long enough to make my own mistakes, to hurt those I love. I left the Friends gathering Sunday with a feeling of love; I was lighter. I have a relationship with my children's dad today that is nothing short of miraculous. We laugh, we talk, love our sons unconditionally and with unabashed pride. Would I be the person I am today had I not been born to my family, through my father, to the life I live? No. To my Dad I say: thank you for that. I forgive you. I wish you peace.