10/31/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

On the Day of the Dead, How I Finally Learned to Pray for the Soul of My Difficult, Alcoholic Father

It seems fitting that both my father's and my birthday falls near those autumnal festivals that celebrate the dead. There is the Celtic Samhain, the Catholic All Soul's Day, the Mexican Day of the Dead and, more popularly, Halloween. At their root, these traditions all stem from the belief that, at this time, the souls of the other world draw nearer to the living. Candles are lit, prayers are said, and food and flowers are brought to grave sites.

Fitting, therefore, because it was only through Joe Carroll's death and dying that I was finally able to draw close to the man I'd long ago fled. Before that, the idea of honoring my father after he'd departed this world would have seemed unimaginable. Light a candle for the raging patriarch who'd ruled over my family like a petty dictator? Ha! Despite my years of spiritual study, I would have scoffed. How do you pay respect to the memory of a father who terrorized his family with long nights of drinking; who stumbled around the house, mumbling beneath his breath, filling the corners with wraiths of cigarette smoke and the haunted musings of his troubled mind? How do you say a prayer for the man who kept his children in a constant state of fear, wondering if he would even live to see the sun rise or, at the worst of times, if even they would live to see another day?

And yet, despite my father's drunken, darker side, there were sides to him that could fill my daughter's heart with love. A handsome blue-eyed Irish charmer, Joe could whistle like Frank Sinatra sang, warbling "Moon River" with such pathos he could bring tears to the eyes of his listeners. There was also Adventuresome TWA Joe. Once a week, this father sobered up, donned his crisp uniform and headed out the door to fly the world's skies. TWA Joe entranced us with stories of the moon and stars, and of distant lands. And then there was Farmer Joe, who worked our Missouri land like a magician, raising golden wheat from the ground, and growing alfalfa so sweet it perfumed the air. Farmer Joe broke and taught us each how to ride our own horses, how to herd and feed cattle, and how to read the sky for storms.

These different sides of my father -- one life-giving, the other death-daring -- were almost impossible to put together. And so, ashamed as I often am to admit, the only emotion I'd imagined feeling upon his death was relief. For my difficult, alcoholic father, I'd always believed, there would be no peaceful departure from this earth. Maybe a lonely death by the side of the road, or alone in his house.

And yet, in what would be one of the strangest twists of fate of my life, when the day came and my father lay dying, the unexpected happened: His soul woke up. Aided by a remarkable team of hospice aides, Joe reached out to the family he'd alienated, calling me, and the rest of his estranged loved ones, to his side. Reluctantly, warily, I came. Through long days and nights sitting by his bedside, Joe shared memories; spoke regretfully of hurts he'd caused; and even ventured with me to the brink of the afterlife, where together we stared into the abyss of death.

By no means did my father die a perfect man. He never apologized for his drinking, and even smoked and downed sips of vodka until he couldn't swallow anymore. Nor was it easy. After the life he'd led, Joe's troubled conscience was a constant companion to his dying. For a man of his lights, however, Joe did his honest best. Sometimes, to ease his fear, I'd read aloud to him from sacred texts. But the words only stirred grief. "I wish I'd spent more time learning about the things you have," he said awkwardly one night. But when the moment finally came, and Joe took his last breath, something in him felt freed, and put right.

The process that began with my father's dying continued after his death. Questions arose that would not go away: Why had my father been the way he was? Why had the bad overtaken the good, turning him into such a bedeviled figure?

Seeking answers, I stepped into Joe's shoes and set out to experience his youth and the events that had shaped him. Tunneling into the lost and buried parts of my father's life, I stumbled upon a remarkable American story: His hardscrabble past in Depression-era Altoona, and the Pennsylvania Railroad; World War II and his flights for the Air Transport Command over the jungles of Brazil; Argentina and his romantic encounter with my mother; TWA and Missouri in the 1950s and the 200-acre farm where he raised his four children; Mexico, and, finally, Corpus Christi, Texas, where he died. Interwoven with the history of his time were the tragedies Joe suffered along the way, from the abrupt death of his father to his emotional abandonment by his mother and adoption by a foster family, as well as the traumas of love, poverty and war.

Forgiveness is often considered the spiritual goal of those who've suffered at the hands of a difficult person. But for me, forgiveness has always seemed best bestowed by a power greater than my human self. Instead, the insight that came from putting my father's life into historical perspective, as well as reassembling the pieces of his life into a pattern, is what finally helped resurrect my love and make sense of him. Indeed no religious mystery proved harder to grasp, and brought more enlightenment in its wake, than that of understanding the suffering of the regular Joe who happened to be my father.

The transformation this exploration wrought showed up in my dreams, where Joe appeared re-invigorated with new life, and as the supportive father I'd always longed for. Psychologists might say my "father complex" had been healed. Spiritually, others might say Joe's soul, and our relationship, had evolved. Perhaps both are true. Whatever the case, this Day of the Dead I will light a candle for my father. My heart at peace, I will say a prayer for his once troubled, whistling soul, and wish him well on his continued journey.

Pythia Peay is completing the memoir of her father, "American Icarus: My Father's Life, Death and the American Myth."