We put my father’s ashes in the columbarium two days before my 35th birthday.
Dad would have laughed to see a small crowd of monks gathered around, saying prayers for him, commending his remains to their final rest until the Last Great Day.
I don’t know that he even believed in a Last Great Day. Like any Irish boy from Bayonne, he’d been raised Catholic. It didn’t stick. He was your typical free spirit—untethered and unmoored. He never went in much for obligation, never wanted to be tied down.
A week before he died, I got a text from his sister telling me he was fading. I was in Ireland, having led a knitting retreat for 20 women from all over the world. My dad was in Portland, dying of metastatic cancer so diffuse within him by the time they caught it that they couldn’t figure out where it started. Judy never called or texted. I knew it was important, so I called immediately.
My dad’s voice was breathy and heavy.
“Son, do you think Jesus forgives me?”
The question was so earnest and so plaintive it caught me completely off-guard. Never, not once, had my father ever spoken the name of Jesus to me. Not that we’d talked religion all that much. But I was a monk and a priest, so it’s not like the opportunity hadn’t been there. These last moments of his life brought him back to something very old. Or, maybe not back. Maybe there for the first time. I didn’t question the sincerity of his belief. I’m not that kind of monk or priest. I’m not that kind of son, either.
Really, the question broke my heart. Because I also heard him asking for my forgiveness for not having been in my life, not having loved me the way I wanted to be loved.
And also because I heard, for the first time, an innocence and an earnestness in my father’s voice. I saw him laid bare in that moment, become all need. Whatever resentment I had left toward my father melted with that question.
“I’m sure Jesus forgives you. And I’m sure he loves you. And I love you, and I forgive you.”
He said he’d see me on the other side.
I said “Goodbye.” And I meant it.
After the short prayers of commendation, we monks lined up to sprinkle holy water on the box containing my father’s ashes. I watched this line of fourteen men move forward, all in white. None of them had ever met him. They were doing this for me, and they were doing it because Jesus told them to bury the dead. They’d done so hundreds of times for men they had lived with fifty years and men they had never known. How I loved these men, and they me. I was closer to every single one of them than I had been to my father. I knew him hardly more than they.
And yet, that’s not entirely true. In some deep place within, I did know him. I do know him. I spent years working to forgive my father, to heal from the hurt of his absence, to build a life apart from that hurt. By the time he died I had forgiven him. I was free. But there was no apart. The hurt became the chapel at the center of my life, calling me to communion, to softness, to grace. It was necessary.
When my turn came to sprinkle the holy water, I put my hand to my lips and placed it on the top of the box with his ashes. For the space of a hand on a box, my heart was full of the kind of love a father might have for his son, expansive and unreasonable and free.
This story starts with love.
There was a lot of pain, too, years and years of it. And numbness, which is its own kind of pain. The pain pushed me and hollowed me. It probably hallowed me, too. But before the pain, there was love. And after the pain, there was more love, so much more than I would have thought possible. And though I couldn’t see it, there was also love during the pain.
It’s the love that remains with me. It’s the love that fills the hollow places.
When my dad was dying, I came across a picture that cracked me open. My dad is sitting in a hospital room, holding me. I’m wrapped in a white blanket, with faint blue stripes. My face is scrunched in sleep. My right arm tucks under my right cheek. My father’s right hand pulls me into his chest. It is so large against my tiny shoulder. His head tilts a little to the left, toward my sleeping head. His eyes cut to the camera, crinkled in a smile. His mouth turns up at the right. The smile is a gentle one, calm and quiet. There is so much love in his eyes he hums with it. He looks happy, and I look totally content.
When I find that picture, I know that my dad loved me at the beginning. Until that moment I had doubted. Because, if he had loved me, then how had it been so easy for him to vanish? Now I have proof.
I sit on the floor with that picture in my hand, and I cry. I cry because I’ve been wrong all these years to think I didn’t matter to this man. I cry because I’ve been wrong to think I didn’t love him, too. I cry to think how scared or numb or confused you’d have to be to turn away from the love you feel for your own son. And I cry for the relationship we have both lost, the impoverishment of both of our lives, to have let the sweetness of the love in that photograph fracture and decay.
I cry, too, because I see—finally, I see—that I am so much like him. Just as he walked away for no real, satisfying reason, so did I. I walked away from him. I walked away from myself. I walked away from our love for one another.
Miraculously, when I stopped walking away, when I finally turned around, he was there waiting for me.
How do you tell the story of someone you never knew? Someone whose blood beats in your ears nonetheless. Someone who loved you, who left, who was lost, perhaps most of all to himself?
My father was gone before I even remember. An absent presence and a present absence. The story I grew up with, the one I told even until a few years ago and sometimes return to still, is that my father was an alcoholic and a drug addict who left my mom and me when I was two.
Sometimes, I’d go into the specifics. My parents were married for four years, two before I was born and two after. I saw my dad off and on until I was seven. Then he disappeared for five or six years. No cards, no calls, no words. Then, when I was thirteen, he showed up again, living with his parents in New Jersey. Usually that’s where I stop.
I don’t tell them about the time my freshman year in college when I met my dad and his sister at a motel near the Newark Airport so we could gather for a family reunion. About how he arrived hours later than he should have, wasted and barely able to walk. About taking him downstairs, his arm draped around my back, so that he could smoke outside the lobby. About his telling me, as he cried on my shoulder, in a slurry of sentiment, that I was the best thing he’d ever done in his life. About the acrid pit in my stomach, the bile in my throat, as I bit back my words. He couldn’t claim me, and so really he had nothing at all.
I don’t tell them how mostly I was shut down, for years. I felt nothing at all and told the story of my father like I might describe an article I read in the paper. I don’t tell them about the loneliness, the fear that twisted my gut, when I could no longer stay shut down.
I don’t tell them about the hopeful year when he got sober—finally—having lived on the beach for months before a halfway house program finally convinced him to try sobriety.
I don’t mention the way his eyes looked that year: clear, awake, happy. About going with him to a nearby pub the weekend of my college graduation or about his telling me, when he ordered a beer, and I said “I thought you don’t drink anymore,” that he’d gotten his problem under control.
I don’t tell them about the way I learned to forgive him after years of hard searching. About going to visit him, nine months before he died, and feeling such love I didn’t know I could feel toward this man I had hated and craved my whole life. How I didn’t need to contradict him when he said he’d had a good life, even as I thought “how is this a life?” How I stopped caring whether he was actually an alcoholic or just some guy who couldn’t be there for his kid. How it stopped mattering why he did or didn’t do what he did or didn’t do. How he became simply Jack again, simply Dad.
Instead, for years, I reflected the cool self-possession that was both innate and cultivated. When I told anyone about my father, the good or the bad, I did so in a clear voice, no cracks. I mostly still do. I have learned to feel things deeply, and even to express that emotion. But I’m still learning tenderness, softness, ease. I’m still learning that this love- and light-filled life is mine.
That it will all still be there when I open my eyes.
My body remembers.
One day during my last year of seminary, I’m sitting in the chapel balcony for the Gospel Choir concert. Steph sits down next to me, smelling of cigarettes, beer, and sweat and I am back in my father’s brown Camaro on a long ride 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 sit in the chapel next to my friend, I can 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 laughed at the way my dad’s New Jersey accent made the name of the jail sound like “Loose Dirt” rather than “Lou Sterrit.” Even as a kid, I knew this laughter belied my father’s familiarity with that place. On those drives out of town, we often stopped at the Thrifty Nickle, a strip club nestled among the bonds houses. My dad would sit on a black bar stool, and I’d sit next to him, twirling around. I don’t remember what he ordered or what he did while at the bar. In fact, no matter how hard I try, I can’t even see his face.
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 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’d secret myself away in the wooden phone booths with sliding doors and call 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, its 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 were probably only 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 various shades of 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 also aware that his assertion that he was drinking Pepsi meant that it was beer.
I learned doublespeak early, and 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. For years my father was a presence marking 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.
You would be excused for thinking my father was squatting in the house he lived in. For all I know, he may have been. I never asked him about it.
The place was a run-down, one-bedroom house out in 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 no phone booth or pool table: dark, smoky, full of booze and drunks, smelling of sweat.
I only have polaroid memories of that house. Sitting in the kitchen at one of those tables they have in diners, coloring Darkwing Duck’s cloak purple in a book that Donna, my father’s fourth wife, had bought me at the drug store. Lying on the hard, bare floor of the wood-paneled living room pulling the heads off of my Batman, Robin, and He-Man action figures and trying to switch them so that Robin’s body had He-Man’s head. Clouds of smoke obscuring the chestnut brown of the floors, a bottle of Wild Turkey half-gone on the kitchen table.
During those 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. 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 a 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 with my father. I would come home, skin pink and mottled with insect bites, a kind of all-over rash, the burn of my longing and hatred for my father brightening on my body.
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 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 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 to me 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. 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 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 didn’t bend to cultivation or control. Their names became a language to conjure with.
I lost this language. Or, to put it more accurately, I set it aside. Perhaps even that’s not fair. For all their freedom and spaciousness, their simple and embodied companionship, those walks with my father nurtured 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 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 flat nonchalance I was learning to adopt.
When I became a monk, I rediscovered the woods and the flowers and the lick of the sun on my skin. I now love the outdoors as much as my father did. I imagine this love for the natural world grew from the seed of those walks with my father. It lay dormant for years until the right conditions of light and warmth and spaciousness allowed its tender young stem to emerge. It sometimes strikes me as unaccountably sad that the tangled skein of my love for my father kept me away from the woods and the fields for as long as it did. Then again, maybe that seed was the kind that needed fire to crack its husk and let the tiny leaves unfurl.
A year into my time at the monastery I am sitting on a bench in the little cloister, gazing at the ancient white oak at the heart of our buildings. My thoughts turn to my father. For a moment I feel a familiar self-pity colored at the edges with resentment. I have never had a father to teach me about poetry, or the beauty of creation, or the challenges and joys of loving and being loved. Even if I were to have my own son one day, I won’t have a father to teach me how to father. I sit there feeling sorry for myself. And then, as feelings do, this one spreads and thins and opens onto a new vista. I actually know a great deal about fathering. I have had to be my own father. I have taught myself to love poetry. I’ve wandered on my own into a love of growing things. I have discovered for myself the joy of dirty hands and tired legs, of loving and being loved. I know something of my power and of the world’s feast.
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. My father told me, nine months before he died, that the only thing he regretted in his life was that he wasn’t there for me. I would once have said the same thing. Now, though, I feel no regret at all. In his fuller absence, I feel only gratitude for the man that he was. His absence pushed itself through my life like a river abrading the shore. I don’t know what the landscape of my life would look like without it. My life—my astonishing life—is as much cracked, sun-baked skin as it is the cool shade of the woods, and that has everything to do with who my father was, and with who he wasn’t.
There’s a strand of Sufi mysticism that tells an unusual story about Iblis, whom we call Lucifer in the Christian tradition. God created humankind. Then he called all of the angels together and commanded them to bow down and worship his creation. Iblis refused to bow to this creature of dust. So God banished Iblis to realms of hell.
The mainstream interpretation is the one you know: Iblis rebelled against God, and God threw him down. Some of the Sufis, though, claim that Iblis saw a test in God’s commandment. Iblis refused to worship anything or anyone but God alone. Because of this steadfastness and insight, God trusted Iblis with a task no other could perform: to bear the terrible light of the darkness. What looks to us like betrayal may actually be redemption upside down.
Embedded in the Greek text of the New Testament is a similar strand about Judas. The word John uses to describe Judas’ betrayal of Jesus translates more literally to “hand over.” You could as easily say that Judas “handed over” Jesus as that he betrayed Jesus. This betrayal was a—perhaps even the—necessary step for Jesus’ redemptive work on the Cross and in the tomb. Judas’ handing over of Jesus to death was also a handing over to life.
When you start to look for them, these strands of paradox are woven throughout the Christian tradition. Take, for instance, the harrowing of hell, in which, after his death, Jesus is said to descend to hell to free the righteous souls. From then on, hell has become hallowed ground, for Jesus himself has walked there.
Or consider the medieval iconographic tradition of the Church emerging from the wound in Jesus’ side. His wound becomes the womb through which the Christian community is born. Then, too, we have the litany of images the Orthodox employ for the Cross. My favorite of these is the Cross as the Tree of Life and Golgotha as the center of Eden.
This is the beauty and the horror of the Cross: that agony and death should be a handing over to life. It’s an understanding that can only be comprehended in the heart, never in the mind. For like any trauma, the Cross and the tomb do not make sense. Life should not come from death. And yet, we know that the leaves decomposing in the woods make the richest soil. Why should we marvel to find this pattern structuring the inner world as well?
Light craves darkness. The one cannot exist without the other. They twine and twin and give each other depth and meaning and form. They require one another, as life requires death and joy sorrow.
I don’t say this for an easy answer. In fact, it’s the hardest answer I’ve ever posited or ever will. I don’t praise the hurt of childhood, but no longer do I rage against it, either. As much as the love, it has made me who I am. It, too, has sped the decay that has fed the soil of my heart. It has softened the stone of my life, smoothed the sharp edges down. It has shaded me from a sun that could burn me up.
Then, too, the pain has given way to joy. Joy is a shy thing. It can only be seen on the slant, out of the corner of your eye. Looked at straight on, it evaporates.
When she read an early draft of this piece, a friend told me that the sections about my childhood ached with pain. They were so visceral. But the parts about the joy I’ve found my way to were quieter and less embodied. I know what she means.
How do you convey the sweet ease of a charleyhorse released or the rapture at having a giant field full of light just outside your windows, so big and so bright you sometimes gasp for air? How do you tell about the delight of a series of ordinary days, punctured by bells and song and the hum of silence? How do I say that I am so happy here that I forget to be happy, that this miracle of a life is so fully mine that even gratitude seems a disservice?
The pain has mostly ebbed away. My life doesn’t throb or ache anymore, or not much of the time. It is so blessedly, quietly ordinary. Even the longing, which remains and likely always will, has become companionable and easy. For a kid who moved apartments every two years, whose ambition and emotional asphyxiation pushed him out of his mother’s home at fourteen to seek a life in the big, big world, this ordinary ease is what freedom looks like. Monastic simplicity, the splay of light through the maple outside my windows, the gentle and persistent flow of season into season—these are a resurrection unimagined and unimaginable to me.
I sometimes think that my 16-year-old self would look at who I am today and think I settled. That I gave up all my ambitions of changing the world and my dreams of how big life could be. He would be right. I have settled in all the glory and the dust of that word. I have softened and am softening. I have learned and am learning to love, to breathe more deeply, to be at rest, to trust.
It is all so ordinary, and it is all I want.
Claire and I were sitting on an empty downtown 1 train, sliding back and forth in the orange bucket seats. It was October of our first semester at Union Seminary. We were still getting to know one another, but I had already come to love her Donatello curls and the blunt way she posed her questions and observations. “So, what about your father? You never talk about him.” Subtext (though with Claire there was little subtext): there must be a story.
I was used to this question. Inevitably new friends asked about my father. His absence from my conversation, as from my life, was conspicuous. When the questions finally came, I’d say, voice flat with disinterest, that my father was an alcoholic and drug addict who wasn’t around much when I was kid and who still had no place in my life. These facts didn’t bother me, my tone asserted. I was fine.
Usually, when I told the story of my father, the emotional distance I felt was real, and in that sense, true. Even on the rare occasion when someone would say, “that must have hurt,” or “aren’t you angry?” I would say that I felt nothing at all toward my father. It’s hard to care about someone who was never around. I wasn’t lying. I truly felt nothing when I told the story of my father, not even numb. Just nothing at all. Until Claire asked.
By the time I started seminary, the stony composure I had acquired over the course of my childhood and adolescence had begun to soften. The dragon long asleep was waking up, and I was starting to feel again. When Claire asked about my father, I still went through the story with ease. But I also felt an unfamiliar tightening in my gut. The sensation was oddly pleasurable.
That fall, I began taking long walks in Riverside Park with Meredith, a commuter from Brooklyn in our first-year class at Union. Along with Rob, Lindsey, Claire, and Erica, Meredith would become my family while in seminary. On those walks, we talked about theology, family, and food. We daydreamed about sharing an apartment and a dog whom we’d name Abednego. Our gentle, almost aimless wandering down the spacious paths of Riverside Park that autumn were an invitation to an inner life. Maybe I could unfold in that gentle space. As the clear, bright light of fall softened to an orange glow through the maple trees, I found myself warmed and softened, too.
Meredith shared her own stories of family, her complex relationships with her parents, her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, and her conversion to Christianity. Her openness welcomed my own. Meredith is the first person with whom I shared the details of my relationship with my father.
I told her about the time during my sophomore year of college when I met my father and his sister in New Jersey for a family reunion. I described the cool shadows of the hotel room where I waited for them to arrive. I told her of the creases in my aunt’s sun-browned face and of the confused waiting for my father, who had taken a later flight, to arrive. When I got to the part where he stumbled off the hotel bus as drunk and high as I’ve ever seen anyone, I didn’t hide my anger or my shame. I let the sadness fill my voice and the tears slide down my cheeks as I remembered his slurred words: “You’re the only thing I have to be proud of, son.” And I let the rage rumble in my response: “He can’t claim anything good about me.”
As we walked, I also shared the single experience I had of my father sober.
During my junior year of college my aunt Judy called me. She and her husband Brian had built a house near Boca Raton when they retired. My father had moved to be near them and his mother, who lived with them. I hadn’t talked to my dad in months. Judy said she had some good news: my dad was sober.
A few months earlier, his drinking had gotten so bad that he wasn’t able to pay his rent. He had lost his apartment and was living on the beach. Judy saw him every once in a while, even gave him money, though he told her he was going to buy beer with it. During this time, he got to know a few folks who worked at a nearby half-way house for recovering alcoholics. They kept asking him if he was ready to give up drinking. When he was, they would take him in, help him through recovery, offer him job training, and teach him how to manage his finances. For months he told them no. One day he said yes.
Judy was calling to ask if I’d come down for a visit during spring break. “He’s a completely different person,” she told me. “You won’t recognize him.” She added, “I think it’s important for you to see him. You can actually have a relationship with him now.” I agreed. We found a plane ticket, and I went down to Florida.
Judy was right. The man I met was not my father. He was present and alive. His eyes had lost their far-off, glassy look. I understood how the friends of the Gerasene demoniac must have felt to see him clothed and in his right mind. The change was so good.
I also knew that the man before me was a stranger. The clarity and strength of his voice and eyes belonged to someone I had never met. Hope rose in my throat like bile as we sat by the water, beginning a relationship twenty years late. I softened toward my father during that visit. Some of the tender-heartedness I had known as a child began to return. My father wasn’t the only one exorcised in his sobriety. I was being returned to myself, too.
I told Meredith about the next time I saw my father. It was the weekend I graduated college. Yale, of course, had to spread the event over three days. All my family were there. Things felt both claustrophobic and hectic. My dad and I wanted some time alone, so we walked to a pub around the corner from my house. It never occurred to me we were going to a bar. The pub had great Belgian frites. I thought my dad would like to try them. I ordered the frites. My dad ordered a beer.
I was five years old again. Desperation reddened my cheeks, and disappointment flattened my voice. I said, “I thought you didn’t drink anymore.”
“Oh, I’m over all that now. I can have a beer from time to time.”
I repressed the urge to say, “That’s not how this works.” Instead, I maintained a stubborn and stony silence for the rest of the visit. I savored the awkwardness of that hour, fitting punishment, I thought, for both of us: him for betraying my trust, and me for allowing hope to soften my defenses.
My father had broken my heart all over again. When he called the next month, I had returned to the tombs. It was his birthday, around 9pm. The night had just descended, the sunset still faintly glowing behind the gothic outline of Sterling Library. I picked up the phone, already wary.
“You didn’t call me on Father’s Day,” he said.
I bit back a caustic reply. “No, I’m sorry.”
I could hear the booze on his voice, the fluid elision of his words, my own speech clipped. I burned with anger as I hung up.
I told Meredith this story shortly after having talked to my father. It was only the third or fourth conversation we’d had in the three years since I’d graduated college. He had called to tell me he was moving to Oregon to live near his younger sister Beth. He’d been living with friends in New Jersey for the last year or two, and he hoped we might see one another before he left. By the time I forced myself to listen to his voice mail, ten days later, he was already on the West Coast. I was relieved.
My father remained the center of a past I was trying to leave behind. For years, when anyone asked me what my father did for a living, I said he was a painter. In my Ivy League environs, it usually took a few questions to clarify that my father was not a portraitist. He was a blue-collar worker, the kind of man with weathered hands and a Bayonne accent many of my classmates had hired to renovate their homes.
I loved the incongruity of these exchanges. My lack of pedigree embarrassed me, but I also saw in the surprise on my classmates’ faces a mark of my success in passing as part of the ruling class. I was also aware that my working-class background underscored my merit in succeeding at Choate and Yale. Still, I knew deep within, that I would never truly belong in that world. I would always feel I was playing a role.
My freshman year a guy named Keith showed me just how fixed my mask had become. Keith, who had been flirting with me for a month, was calling me “money bags Owen” behind my back. I wasn’t attracted to this guy, but I was flattered by his attention. I could only laugh when I saw the joke was on him. He’d been after me for my money, but I was as poor as he was. Probably poorer.
By the time I shared these experiences with Meredith, I’d been engaged in prayer, meditation, and therapy for five years. That work laid the foundation that allowed me to risk the intimacy I developed with Meredith and my other seminary friends.
My phone begins to buzz around 11.15 in the morning, not long before Eucharist. The day has already been a beautiful one—bright sunshine, deep quiet, prayer that was robust and gentle and full of love. I feel happy.
When I see that Judy is calling, I know something is wrong. She and I hadn’t talked for a couple of years. Not from animosity. We just aren’t close and don’t feel we should pretend to be. I choose not to break the quiet spell of the morning. I’ll call Judy back after lunch. I honestly think my father is probably dead. I’ve been waiting more and more impatiently for that news for eleven years. Since the last time I saw my father.
We had talked on the phone a handful of times over those years. But the last time we saw one another was at my college graduation. The weekend when he ordered that beer and told me he had his problem under control.
When I moved to New York, I decided that I wouldn’t talk to him again until I could ask him the question that had burned in me for a long time. “Why weren’t you around?” I’d been living in New York for three years when I finally called. There was nothing special about that afternoon. My roommates were out, and I paced back and forth between my tiny bedroom and our tiny living room as the phone rang.
We made small talk for a few minutes before the line went silent. I took a deep breath.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”
“Why weren’t you around when I was kid?”
He took a long pause. I let out my breath slowly.
“I really 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. All that build up, and there was no reason, no meaning. He simply 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. I had built this house of speculation on sand. All the longing and the hurt, all the numbness—they weren’t for no reason, but neither did they arise in relationship to my father’s motivations. He had no motivations, at least none that he could articulate.
For some, the understanding of the meaninglessness of their suffering would bring their world crashing down. Instead, I felt free. I realized then that, whatever my father may have done or not done, my life was my own. I had both the responsibility and the freedom to live it as I wanted to. In that sense, the hurt and the longing were not meaningless. They were the winds that shaped and buffeted the canyon of my life.
After that, I felt untethered from my father. We talked a few more times over the ensuing years. I called to tell him I was going to enter the monastery. He was nonplussed. “You always did do your own thing,” he said. He joked that he’d once been my father; soon he’d be my brother; and when I was a priest, he’d be my son. I heard, “Go. Be yourself.” We called once or twice during my first year in the monastery, mostly daydreaming about plans to visit that we’d never follow through on. Then the calls stopped.
I called Judy back after lunch. She told me about the cancer. It was stage IV. Dad wasn’t expected to live out the year. She said she wasn’t sure I would care, but that she thought I should know.
At first, I was offended. Of course I would care. He’s my father. I’m a good person. A monk and a priest. I’m a professional carer. But why would I care, I wondered? A stranger looking in from outside would have no evidence that my father and I cared for one another. I hardly talked about him. I never called him. He never called me or sent a card.
As I sat with Judy’s question over the next few days, it began to seem more like 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? What will I choose to make of them?
There was 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. I cried for the man he was and the man he had never been. I cried for myself, too.
I had long made peace, to the degree that you ever do, with the fact that my father was not the man I wanted him to be. His death would change none of that. But it would mean that, at least as far as this life goes, he would soon be beyond change. Any possibility that I could have had a father who loved and supported me would die when Jack Bonner took his last breath. All the boys I could have been would also die. I would be alone in a more profound way. And I would be free.
In that January phone call with Judy, she told me that the whole family was planning to visit my father for his birthday in June. She encouraged me to come. If not then, then sometime. I knew that I would not join my family at my father’s bedside. I didn’t want to be there with all these people who knew and loved a different man than I did. Then, too, I think I knew without articulating it to myself that I wanted something more intimate with my father. I wanted to be there without distraction or filter.
I knew that I needed to see him one last time. I needed to say goodbye and I forgive you. 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 still longs for a different father, a different childhood, a different me, I have chosen to forgive my father. I have chosen 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 providence—through that absence.
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. I needed the chaos, the space, the fleshiness of my father and his life. I still do.
Whatever else can be said of me, I have allowed others to claim me. And I am learning to allow myself to be found. Some of us must learn to stand still in one place, to belong to others, with all the limitations and the responsibility that belonging calls forth. How else do we ever learn what love can mean? I had learned that, was learning that, from my father, too. He had not claimed me, nor given me much encouragement to claim him. In his absence, I reached out and found a universe of friends to give myself to.
Now I had another question: would I tell my father I love him? Did I love him?
If love is the freedom to allow myself to be claimed, then perhaps I could choose to love my father. Perhaps I could 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 can freely lay down my life in love, even when it breaks my heart. Perhaps, in the end, it wasn’t so much a question of whether I loved my father, as it was whether or not I chose to belong to him and to allow him to belong to me.
The week before Holy Week, I flew to Portland, Oregon to see my dad. It was the first time we had seen one another in eleven years. The timing was intentional. I would fly out the Tuesday before Holy Week and return that Saturday, just in time for the Passion. I wondered if I’d be in the midst of my own passion. I also imagined that, whatever my experience with my father, I’d want the time of retreat and the intensity of the Holy Week liturgies to help me make sense of my life and my father’s.
I didn’t think much about the trip until two weeks before I left. Shortly before I left, though, I began to have strange experiences. I was feeling tender. Flayed. Certainties began to waiver. I found it increasingly difficult to identify my father as an alcoholic. Not because I didn’t think that he was addicted to alcohol. But because that didn’t seem to matter anymore. Even to call him an alcoholic was to charge, try, and convict him, which began to seem rather absurd. And if it was absurd to call him an alcoholic, then it was even more laughable to talk of forgiveness. What was there to forgive? And who was I to do it?
I lived from two places in those weeks. The one was the same place I’d always lived. There I knew that my father was addicted to alcohol and drugs. I knew that he hadn’t been around when I was a kid. That his absence and addiction had affected me in many ways. That was the place where I’d gone to therapy, spiritual direction, and Al-Anon. There I had prayed and read and written. There I had genuinely forgiven my father and was moving toward healing.
The second place was foreign. It seemed realer than real. There, all the naming of my pain, the effort to work through it and heal it was unnecessary. In this foreign place, I didn’t know the first thing about life. Certainly not enough to be able to diagnose my father. Comfortable labels lost their meaning and took on a cruel and self-righteous edge. I knew all the same details as in my waking life: my father’s absence; my own pain; the healing process. But they all meant something different.
Meant is perhaps the wrong word. Held up against the horizon of this new landscape, these facts and processes were so many lines of a complex symphony. Some were darker and more melancholy, some brighter and poignant. But they were all beautiful. They all added depth and color to the whole.
Miraculously—for what else can you call something lovely that shouldn’t be yet is—I knew, not that I had forgiven my father, but that there was nothing to forgive, at least not in any ultimate sense. I knew that God had held the entirety of my life, was holding it still, as God was holding the strands of my father’s life. It wasn’t for me to name my father’s reality, much less to condemn or judge it. It wasn’t even for me to name my own reality, as much as it was for me to allow that reality to emerge. I was seeing, perhaps for the first time, with the eyes of love.
I was aware of this new state as I boarded the flights for Oregon. I was different, and I wondered how long the feeling would last and where its boundaries lay. I experimented and tried to extend the feeling of acceptance and love toward others in my life. I couldn’t do it. There were real limitations to the ability to trust that all is already well in my other relationships. There was something essential in my father’s dying. If he were going to live for ten more years, maybe I wouldn’t be able to see him with love. Maybe I would still be caught in the judgement, as I still was with my brothers sometimes or with friends or my mother.
Then again, maybe I simply needed all the freedom and space I could get with my father. Maybe that focus took up the bandwidth of my open-heartedness, for now, at least.
I had packed as light and tight as I could. One backpack with a few shirts, toothbrush, fleece, and jacket. I was only staying for three days, and all I knew of Portland was that it rained a lot and was full of hipsters. I wasn’t disappointed on either front. I pulled up to the guesthouse I’d rented for the weekend. It was tidy, small, and modern. Most of all it was private and quiet. I’d looked for a kind of hermitage, because I thought I might need a place of restful quiet after days with my dad. I wanted to be as prepared as I could. I had no idea what I was stepping into. I’d never done this before. This seeing my father for what I knew was the last time.
I called my dad. We agreed I’d come over in a couple of hours. I wanted a shower and a nap. Instead, I left the bungalow and walked five minutes to the nearest large street. I was too antsy for sleep. Portland, or at least the neighborhood in which I was staying, was charming. Low craftsman houses in cool blues or cheerful yellows, surrounded by exuberant gardens, the hakon grasses tumbling over low walls. The tulips had started, earlier than at home. Though, it was a bit warmer here, too. I even spotted a few shy roses. These plants calmed me, a taste of the familiar in a foreign place.
The main street calmed me, too. It was a hipster heaven. Like any good millennial, I loved my single-origin cold brew coffee and my absurdly specific restaurants. The few blocks showed me a taco place, a dosa restaurant, a wine bar, three or four coffee shops, yoga studios, tattoo parlors. Everyone I passed on the street looked like some version of Timothée Chalamet or Saoirse Ronan, whatever their age.
I stopped in a beer shop. The guy behind the counter looked at me, made his assessment, and said “If you’re looking for Coors or Bud, you’ll have to try the gas station down the street. We only have craft beer here.” I had to laugh. I have never in my life passed for the kind of guy who buys Coors or Bud. What was it about the way I looked that said “this straight dude wants cheap beer”? Maybe this land of hipster fairytale exposed my similarities with my dad, who was exactly the sort of guy who would have bought Coors or Bud. Maybe it was the fleece or the hiking boots or the weariness. I’ve always enjoyed defying expectations, so I chose the peanut butter porter the guy said went well with donuts.
My dad lived in government housing for the poor and sick. His building was next to the hospital, about ten minutes’ drive from the spacious neighborhood where I was staying. I was used to New York driving. Everyone in Portland was so well behaved. No one cut me off. They drove the speed limit, slower actually. They let you in. It unnerved me.
I parked on a side street and gathered my courage. Stepping out of the car, I took a deep breath. There was nothing for it but to walk to the front of the building.
My dad was out front waiting for me. Judy had warned me he used a scooter now. He was like some squat old racecar driver. I’d forgotten how big he smiled. How much of the world he took in with it. He was a bit heavier than he used to be, and more drawn, too. His cheeks were full and soft. They hung like an old person’s. A bushy white mustache covered his upper lip. His skin still had the pebbled brown look I remembered, red at the edges. He was missing his bottom row of teeth.
I bent down to hug him. He told me how happy he was to see me. I realized I felt the same way. His younger sister, Beth, was there, too. She looked ancient. Small and stooped, she walked with a walker. Her hair was black at the roots, flowing out to burgundy. It matched her nails. She rasped out a greeting. She and my father both smelled of cigarettes.
We went up to my dad’s apartment. On the way, we stopped five or six times so my dad could introduce me to his friends in the building. Every one of them told me how much the whole neighborhood loved him. And every one of them also told me he’d been talking about my visit for months.
I tried to hide my shock at my dad’s apartment. It was messy, small, and filled with the fug of cigarettes. He had an aide, a friend of his named Brandy, who came by to bring him food and help him clean up. My first thought was that I would never want to live in a place like that. I felt the old need to hold myself apart from him and his home. He loved the apartment, though, and told me so. He loved the people in the building. Loved the neighborhood, loved the city.
We tried at conversation. I told him about the monastery, about my flight, about the bungalow I’d rented for my visit. He said I could’ve stayed on his sofa. I told him that I was used to having my own space. It was hard enough to see him living in that apartment. I needed the break of going to someplace clean and serene. Plus, I wasn’t used to all that cigarette smoke. I was already feeling closed in.
Our conversation drifted to his cancer. The doctors had initially diagnosed him with lung cancer. But now they weren’t so sure. The cancer ran all through his body, so that now they didn’t know where it had begun. I heard the end. He wasn’t so sure. He’d been reading about some extract that was supposed to cure cancer. It was only $40 online, so he’d ordered himself some. Then he quieted.
“You know, I’m ready, though. I’ve had a great life.”
My first thought was, “Really?” I’d have hated to live the life he had.
“My only regret is that I wish I’d been in your life more.”
“I wish so, too. I think we both missed out.” We nodded at one another, and that was it.
We didn’t have a big reconciliation talk, didn’t rehearse his regrets or mine. We acknowledged that we wished things had been different. I think we both knew that it was too late now. We weren’t going to shift into different versions of ourselves, even in that moment. It was enough to be together as we were.
I surprised myself by not moving further into myself. I didn’t withdraw from his apartment, didn’t pull back from his claim to have had a good life. I witnessed them, and I watched myself witnessing. I didn’t feel the need to comfort him with platitudes. Nor did I need to judge him. Maybe he had had exactly the life he wanted to have. If it wasn’t the life for me, then so what? I could chart my own path.
Later that night, after I’d washed the cigarettes out my hair, I folded myself into cool white sheets and thought back over the visit. I thought over my father’s life and what I’d thought I knew about it. I’d pictured him closed in with drink, angry, bitter, and alone. He was none of those things. There was still booze around. All through my afternoon visit, he’d sipped at some sweet looking red drink in a plastic thermos. The smoke in the room choked me. But there were plants all around, and a cat he said slept by him every night. He had friends, that was clear. Everyone we met smiled when they talked about him. He was dying, but he wasn’t alone. Not even close to it. Not such a terrible life, that.
The next afternoon, we met up with some of his friends at the tavern on the next block. Sloan’s was his favorite hangout. As he’d done at the Thrifty Nickle, as he’d probably done at bars for the last sixty years, he found his crew there. We sat down at a table with Beth and Brandy. Soon three more of my dad’s friends joined us. We were the most diverse group I’d seen in my two days.
Portland struck me as a fantasy place: a playground for rich, progressive hipsters playing at originality. Sloan’s was different. There I saw the only black people in my entire time in the city. There were trendy hipsters in aviators, fay men, and leathery old women. There were people who looked real, unfiltered and unposed. The comparison with the rest of the city was startling. It helped me to see that my dad was real, too. He was gritty and vibrant and, although he was dying, he was alive in a way that seemed to elude the rest of city.
Everyone in that bar knew and loved my father. They hugged him, kissed him on the cheek, told him how great it was to see him. They told me he talked about me all the time. That they were thrilled to finally meet the famous son. I was a celebrity.
They also told me that I looked just like him. That, too, was a revelation. I had always favored my mother. It’s what everyone said. It’s what I saw, too, when I looked in the mirror. One of my mom’s colleagues started calling my grandmother, my mother, and I the Russian nesting dolls, we looked so much alike. It had always been a point of pride for me.
The Owens were handsome. That dark, curly Welsh hair. Pale cheeks dusted with pink. Lively eyes. My father’s family, the Bonners, were short, squat, and balding. I’d been so happy not to look like them. Of course, the physical stood in for the intangible. I didn’t want to be like my father or his family in any way. I didn’t want their reticence to connect, didn’t want their casual ties to family, didn’t want their twenty-minute awkward phone calls.
My father’s friends, of course, meant it as a compliment. They meant that I had my father’s kind eyes, his broad smile, his generosity and easy camaraderie. Maybe they were right. Maybe they were able to see something in me I’d shut away years ago. Their seeing helped my own. Sitting around that table in Sloan’s, I stood outside of myself looking on. I saw my father, the center of this strange fellowship. I saw the love he had for these misfits and strays, saw their love for him, too. He was radiant. Maybe he’d always been. Maybe I lacked the eyes to see, rheumed as they’d been from my loss and my longing.
My father’s smile drew me into the group. I had never met these people. I’d never been to Portland, and I’d likely never be there again. And yet, somehow, in that tattered bar, I was the prodigal returned. My father had been waiting for me all along, arms flung wide. I let him catch me.
If trauma arises from an interruption in narrative and an inability to explain what should not have been, then grace does, too. This moment was a miracle. My heart opened wider than it had any right to. Given the life I had lived, the losses I had faced, the resentments that had plagued me, there was absolutely no reason at all I should have been in that bar. Even less reason that I should have turned out to be the prodigal, my father the one waiting for my return.
Light craves dark, requires it. But the darkness also draws out the light. The two border, and hold, and caress one another. The two, together, make the whole and the holy. So were my father and I in that moment, two stars holding the cosmos in their orbit. Two friends gazing in love at one another, knowing all, forgiving all, loving all. And then letting go.
The next day I said goodbye to my father. I drove to his apartment on my way to the airport. We took the last picture we’d have together. Looked in one another’s eyes for the last time. He held my hands in his and asked me and all the other monks to pray for him. He was so tender in that moment. Then he laughed and said, “I bet God’ll be surprised I got a whole group of monks to pray for me!” I laughed, too. The tears filled his eyes and ran down the soft lines of his face.
“I love you, son.”
“I love you, Dad. Goodbye.”
As I drove, I returned to that long ago moment, holding up my drunk father at a hotel in New Jersey. He’d told me then that I was the only thing in his life he had to be proud of. I’d been so angry. I’d thought he had no claim on me. He could take no credit for the way I turned out. Now I knew that I was wrong. My father could claim me, because I chose to let him. I chose to claim him, too. I chose to belong to him and to allow him to belong to me.
He is my inheritance, as much as my mother’s wit or my grandmother’s hospitality. I have my father’s kind eyes and his generous smile. I love the River and the trees and the flowers with his love. I gather community around me, just like he did. I have his heart. And in a turn I can only call miraculous, I chose, finally, to give him mine, too.
I gave him my heart.