My father is dying.
Stage IV lung cancer, for which he isn’t seeking treatment. I know all that from his sister, Judy, who called me during our long retreat in January. My phone began to buzz around 11.15 in the morning, not long before Eucharist. The day had already been a beautiful one—bright sunshine, deep quiet, prayer that was robust and gentle and full of love. I felt happy.
When I saw that Judy was calling, I knew immediately something was wrong. She and I hadn’t talked for a couple of years, not from animosity, but because we weren’t close and don’t feel we should pretend to be. I chose not to break the quiet spell of the morning and to call Judy back after lunch. I honestly thought my father was probably dead, and that Judy was calling to tell me. I’d been waiting more and more impatiently for that news for the eleven years since I’d last seen my father.
When Judy and I connected after lunch, she told me about the cancer and that Dad wasn’t expected to live out the year. She told me that she wasn’t sure I would care, but that she thought I should know. At first I was offended by her agnosticism. Of course I care. He’s my father, and I’m a good person. But perhaps her statement was more of an invitation than a rebuke. Do I care, really? This man, who has arguably brought more pain to my life than any other person—what do his life and his death mean to me?
My father was gone before I even remember. An absent presence and a present absence. I don’t think my mother ever really loved him. Thirty years or so after their wedding day, when they’d been divorced ten times as long as they were married, as we sat in an old bar looking out at the main street of Rhinebeck, I asked her why she’d married my father. “I didn’t think anyone else would ever ask.”
She knew while walking down the aisle that she was making a mistake. She went through with the whole thing because it was paid for and everyone was watching and her parents expected her to. At any rate, she and my father divorced shortly after I was born. I hated my father with the kind of hatred reserved only for those you crave.
From the stories I’ve heard from his own family, my father was never responsible. He’s certainly been a heavy drinker and drug user as long as I’ve known him. After my parents divorced, my father saw me regularly for a few years. By the time my memory kicks in, I was about five. At that time, he was living in the country in East Texas, in what could only be called a shack. He had custody of me every other weekend and for two weeks in the summer, though he often didn’t show up for those visits. My mother tells me I was devastated, and I believe I was.
I’m sometimes surprised by how much the body remembers that the mind forgets. One day during my last year of seminary, I was sitting in the chapel balcony for the Gospel Choir concert. A friend sat down next to me, smelling of cigarettes, beer, and sweat. I was transported instantly back to my father’s brown Camaro and our long rides out to the country.
He’d pick me up in that beat-up car that still had a James Dean cool to it, and we’d drive through dry, flat Dallas with the windows rolled down until we reached the Industrial District. I thought the whole world was brown and dusty, topped with the vast blue of the Texas sky, and hot, always hot. That Camaro didn’t have air conditioning, and as I sat in the chapel next to my friend, I could almost feel the tender skin of my child thighs pulling at the pebbled leather seats, cracked in places with the foam spilling out, my thighs sticky with sweat, irritated and red. All of my early memories of my father are like that one: totally enfleshed, held tight in the pores of my skin.
We’d drive down Industrial, past the jail. My mother’s family always joked that my dad called the jail “Loose Dirt,” which was the way his New Jersey accent made “Lou Sterrit” sound. Even then, I knew this joke revealed my father’s intimacy with that place. We usually stopped at the Thrifty Nickle, a strip club nestled among the bonds houses where his girlfriend Donna worked as a waitress. My dad would sit on a black bar stool, and I’d sit next to him, twirling around.
Mostly, I remember smoke clouding the room the way the fog will sometimes settle on the meadow at the monastery where I now live, obscuring the land with a kind of mysterious beauty like the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead. I remember, too, the feel of the life savers in my hand—my dad always bought me a roll of them—and the similar weight and shape of the few quarters he’d give me to keep myself amused. I usually secreted myself away in the wooden phone booths and called my grandmother.
I remember, too, the long rides out of Dallas. East Texas is a land of flat fields and swaying grasses. Today I’m sure I’d find the landscape beautiful, its limitlessness the essence of freedom. Then I hated it, like I hated my father. It was always, always hot. I seemed to be covered in sweat from the time my dad picked me up to the time he dropped me off back home. I’d spend the entire visit counting the endless minutes until I could return to the regulated, air-conditioned life of my mother’s apartment.
Those rides from Dallas to the country seemed interminable, though they may have been no more than an hour or two. Still, I thought we must be driving all the way to Louisiana or Arkansas. In my memory it was always sunny, as, indeed, it generally was in Texas. The sky was enormous and blue, the landscape brown and gold, reflecting the huge, hot sun. It’s a landscape full of possibility, and yet, at the time, it was, to me, a prison, and the cab of that pickup truck (or earlier the Camaro) my cell.
I recall one drive in particular. I don’t know how old I was. I was sitting next to my dad in the pickup, the windows rolled down, gliding along some long, straight road. My dad had a plastic travel mug in his hand from which he took occasional sips. He looked over at me and said, “Son, if we get pulled over by the cops, this is Pepsi in my cup. Remember that.” I just nodded and said, “okay,” not sure why I needed to know he was drinking Pepsi, and simultaneously aware that his having to tell me he was drinking Pepsi meant that it was beer.
Much of our relationship had the quality of that conversation: a seemingly inconsequential lie that, once spoken, highlighted the deeper, unplumbed truths below its surface. Even now I sense my father as a presence that marks a terrible absence. We did once get pulled over on our way to or from his house. I don’t know what the reason was. I do remember I had to fight the urge to tell the police officer standing at my father’s window not to worry—my dad’s cup was full of Pepsi, not beer.
There is no time now for lies, no matter how inconsequential. Not that there ever really was. When I hung up the phone with Judy, I sat down in one of the large armchairs in my office and cried. I cried for the man who was dying, for the man he was and the man he had never been. And I cried for myself, too.
I have long made peace—to the degree that one ever does—with the fact that my father was not the man I needed or wanted him to be. His death changes none of that. But it does mean that, at least as far as this mortal life goes, he will soon be beyond change. All possibility that I could have had a father who loved and supported me will die when Jack Bonner takes his last breath. And all the boys and men I could have been will also die. And I will be alone in a more profound way. And I will be free.
In that January phone call with Judy, she told me that the whole family is planning to visit my father for his birthday in June. She encouraged me to come, if not then, then sometime. I knew immediately that I will not join my family at my father’s bedside, that I don’t want to be there with all these people who know and love a different man than I do. Which is to say, with all these people who have a relationship with a man who, for all our biological and genetic ties, remains a stranger.
I do know that I need to see him one last time, that I need to say goodbye, and I forgive you. I do forgive him. A spiritual director once told me that forgiveness is no longer wishing the past were any different than the way it is. Despite the corner of my heart that does long for a different father, a different childhood, a different me, I choose to live from the place of forgiveness and acceptance. I choose to celebrate the person I have become and the life that I have, not in spite of my father’s absence from my life, but including, and in some ways—through the mysterious and serpentine wandering of God’s providence—through that absence.
One of the last times I talked to my father, about six years ago now, I finally asked him the question that had burned in me for a long time: “why weren’t you around?” It was the question I’d spent three years in Al-Anon preparing to ask him, the question I knew I couldn’t go on any longer without asking.
“I don’t know,” he said.
It was that simple. It wasn’t that he couldn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I had done something, or hadn’t done something. I had spent twenty years fearing the answer to this question, wondering why this man who was supposed to be my father hadn’t even tried to have a relationship with me. And he didn’t know.
In that moment, the whole edifice of my fixation on my father and his absence, all the drama and the emotional urgency of it crumbled. And I realized that, whatever my father may have done or not done, my life was my own, and I had both the responsibility and the freedom to live it as I wanted to.
And now I have another question: will I tell my father I love him? Do I love him? Like my father six years ago, I don’t know.
There were some good times with my father, some important times that have only come to flower in my adulthood. My life with my mother was so clean, so urban, so orderly. My father was none of those things, and I needed the chaos, the space, the embodiedness of my father and his life. I still do.
My father lived in a run-down, one-bedroom house out in the middle-of-nowhere Texas countryside. It must have had electricity, because I remember a refrigerator, and I’m sure it had running water, because the toilet worked, but that was the extent of its luxuries. The exterior of the house was a dry, grey wood, spotted here and there with chips of white paint, like a memory of snow before the earth warmed. Inside, the house was not unlike the Thrifty Nickle, though with fewer patrons and no phone booth or pool table: dark, smoky, full of booze and drunks, smelling of sweat.
During my childhood visits in the Texas countryside, my father and I spent a lot of time outdoors. He loved to fish, and we’d often spend an afternoon sitting quietly in a boat on a large brown lake. He’d hang a six-pack of Budweiser over the side of the boat to shade the cans from the broiling sun. My father was a creature of the sun, drinking it in, his skin growing browner and redder by the day, pebbled like fine leather. I don’t know that he even cared much about the fish. He’d close his eyes and lean against the back of the boat, a hermit in the silence of his cave.
These fishing trips were a special kind of torture for me. I hated the sun as much as my father loved it. My skin was pale milky blue, soft and delicate. It seemed no matter how much sun-screen I put on, I burned. I could feel the sweat beading on the oily surface of my sun-screened face and the mosquitos’ sharp bite in the tender flesh of my ankles. It was as if my body were allergic to those times. I would come home, skin pink and mottled with insect bites, a kind of all-over rash, the incarnation of my longing and hatred for my father.
On afternoons when we weren’t fishing, we’d wander the woods and fields around his house. I liked these afternoons better than the fishing, mostly because of the sweet shade of the woods after the roasting sunshine of the field, but also because they were times when my dad and I talked. During these walks, we collected materials to make what we called “Indian walking sticks.” We’d each find a stick or branch large enough to use as a kind of staff. Then we’d gather snake skins, smooth stones, and wildflowers to attach to the stick. My father told me that the Native Americans created these walking sticks as a kind of totem that both reflected and guided the inner life. You had to rely on your intuition to decide what needed to be attached to the stick and what left on the ground where you found it. The walking sticks spoke of magic and inner knowing, and I loved them for that. They were also the one secret intimacy I had with my father that remained untainted by my hatred. I loved them more for that.
During these walks my father also taught me the names of the wildflowers that filled the field behind his house. There were Indian paintbrushes, lupines, bluebonnets, and a golden yellow flower whose name I no longer recall, all mixed in among the stalks of the flaxen prairie grass. In the city life I lived with my mother, my only exposure to flowers was in a florist’s shop or a pot. These flowers, I knew, were something entirely different. They were free. They wouldn’t bend to cultivation or control. Their names became a language to conjure with.
I lost this language for a time. Or, to put it more accurately, I put it aside. Perhaps even that phrasing is unfair. For all their freedom and spaciousness, all their simple and embodied companionship, those walks with my father contained within them the seed of chaos. It was as likely that I’d spend the day alone coloring at the dining table while my father slept off a hangover as it was that we’d wander the fields and woods. It was more likely that he’d skip picking me up from my mother’s house entirely, lost in the smoky fog of the Thrifty Nickle. The very unreliability of those walks consigned them, along with everything else having to do with my father, to the false nonchalance I was learning to adopt.
It’s one of the ironies of my life that only after a few years in a monastery have I been able to imagine having a son of my own. I now love the outdoors, possibly as much as my father did. The grand sweep of a mountain crest brings tears to my eyes, and the rough mosaic of bark on a red pine begs to be touched, known. Perhaps it’s only fancy, but I imagine that this love for the natural world grew out of a seed planted in those walks with my father. It lay dormant for years until the right conditions of light and warmth and spaciousness allowed its tender stem to emerge. I would so love to plant that seed in children of my own, to coax it into blossom at an earlier age than chance or grace made possible in my own life.
How much time has been lost. How much I have had to discover and learn for myself.
And yet, that’s not an entirely honest statement. What of Tom, Bud, Chet, Stephen, Andrew, Rob, Bernard, and all the other men who have loved, encouraged, and helped to form me? What of Erica, who taught me to love the cadence of an Elizabeth Bishop poem? Or Joseph, who showed me what tenderness looked like, as we washed the ebony crucifix in the church on Good Friday? What of Rob’s teasing and loving reminder that I’m not actually as young as I sometimes feel? Or Andrew’s telling me more firmly and gently than I’d ever experienced, “I love you”?
God has been good. I have known many fathers, many wonderful people who have taught me how to live this life with tenacity, fearlessness, and wonder. I have not been alone in it all, even as I have missed this one man, even as—I hate to admit—I miss him still.
It’s my father’s great loss that he never knew the boy I was and that he won’t know the man I’ve become and am becoming. And it’s my loss, too. It’s a part of “the seams of ore that are [my] sorrow,” as Christian Wiman writes. The seams that “burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and […] make joy the complete experience that it is. But they still burn.”
In my memory, my father will always be a feature of that East Texas landscape: sweat, sun, the stink of beer and cigarettes, and the tall, bending prairie grass. Like the Indian paintbrushes and lupines, he was free. But he was also unyoked from any responsibilities of fatherhood, and in that way he was and remains unmoored. What a lonely life he must have lived. Free, yes, but also unclaimed and unclaiming, outside the boundaries of relationship, and, therefore, without the belonging, the context, and the love that relationship provides.
Whatever else can be said of me, I have allowed others to claim me. And I am learning to allow myself to be found. Perhaps that’s the most basic and profound meaning of Jesus’ encouragement to lay down your life for your friends. Some of us have to learn to stand still, in one place, to belong to others, with all the limitations and all the responsibility that belonging calls forth. How else do we ever learn what love can mean?
I claimed earlier that when my father dies I will be free. It’s certainly true that when he dies the struggle of living within the paradox of presence and absence that is our relationship will be over. But is that really freedom? Is it not, more simply, ease?
And if love is the freedom to lay down my life, to allow myself to be claimed, known, found, then perhaps I choose to love my father. Perhaps I choose to allow him his claim on my life. Choose to allow him and his death to mean something to me, not because I owe it to him, but because I freely lay down my life in love, even when it breaks my heart. Perhaps, in the end, it isn’t so much a question of whether or not I love my father, as it is whether or not I choose to belong to him and to allow him to belong to me.
Perhaps the question is whether I choose to find myself in my father and him in me.
 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, page 19.