My father died over a week ago. I hadn’t seen him in forty years.
He’d been institutionalized for schizophrenia in a time when electric shock was the biggest means of treatment, further damaging his brain & making it impossible for him go beyond the borders of his assisted living facility.
Before he was “placed” in their care, he’d become prone to violent & uncontrollable outbursts. My mother, then 21, packed me up in the night & hightailed it away from my father & his hot-headed but chilly Cuban family- who’d blamed my mother for his “condition,” still seething that he’d gone & married a white girl & not one of his own.
She never spoke of him, & when I’d ask, she’d shrug her shoulders & sigh. She knew nothing, she’d say.
After some serious inquiry that involved private detectives, I found out his family still lived in the house that he grew up in, & he’d been in the same facility for decades. I was angry at my mother for withholding information that I thought should have rightfully been mine. The power of sharing our story was never recognized, quietly dismissed or ignored.
But when his family cancelled in a phone call as I neared Miami for the visit I’d anticipated for almost 40 years, I began to get a glimmer of why my mother walked away & never looked back.
“My parents have decided it will make his condition worse,” his sister explained.
I would not hear from them again despite my efforts, though on occasion I’d get odd texts & random, archaic Facebook messages or posts from his sister. When she finally reached out with some clarity- it was to tell me my father was gone.
Hadn’t he always been? Why, then, was I so sad?
I think, because, on many levels, I have always been sad. I’ve carried an undertone of grief in my bones, the marrow made up of all that’s been missing.
Through the years, I’ve managed to turn it inside out, to make myself see all that is possible. I distinctly remember waking as an eight year old, telling myself to pick something to be happy about, something to look forward to, something to make the day ahead bright, kind, tolerable. If there was nothing- & often, there was nothing-I invented something.
I learned to believe in dreams. I learned to lean headlong into all that my heart desired. I let my heart be my true north, my inner compass that led me through life.
It has served me well in many ways.
But the truth is, ignoring the parts that ache don’t make them go away. They live on & become ghosts that haunt us, especially when we are most vulnerable. & lately, I’ve been so very vulnerable.
I also believe that when we are at our most vulnerable, growth occurs at warp speed. (check out Brene Brown in this awesome TED Talk for more on that)! & warp speed growth can be a jolt to those bones at first, until the matter that makes them settles into an shape that holds us up without flinching.
Into a form where we stand strong, true & open to what is & what will be.
The past vanishing, the ghosts moving on to their final resting grounds.
Every moment is an opportunity to show up for what IS. The past cannot define us, even if it does shape our behaviors, our patterns of thought.
It is up to us to shake it off, be new. To use what brought us here as a vehicle towards the expression of who we now are.
We write them down, dance them out, sing them, photograph them, paint them, pour them into the bread we make daily. We bring them to the table when we gather over meals, over tea, over time.
For what is a story if there is no one out there to witness? The power of sharing our stories lies not only in the storyteller, but in those who take the time to commune with it.
But sometimes, we sit with our stories for long periods of time. Until we are ready to share them, if ever at all. There is much power in process, too. Sometimes it is all we need, & the story can be let go of. We move on to other stories.
I have been working on a story for more than ten years. I come & go with it, but I cannot let it go. I struggle with it because it touches that deep grief in me, because on some levels I am asking for it to help me answer questions that might not have any answers. It is a process that may never be complete until I see it become a tangible thing that I can hold in my hand & know others hold in theirs, too, giving it life beyond my storytelling, giving it witness.
Below is a chapter from my novel, ONE HUNDRED FIRES. I wrote this before knowing my father passed away.
THE LOST TOOTH
What do you remember about him? Orion asks me as the horses slowly plod along. We’ve been silent with each other for some time now, my questions about his mother pressing him over his edge. How alike we were, he and I. And now, him pushing me towards my own edges, my wanting to disappear so I did not have to remember.
Truth was, I could scarcely remember—I’d resorted to making him up as I went along. My father had become more of a story of sorts—The great fisherman who could go it alone and still come back with more catch than any crew on the big boats that now docked along the harbor. Yellowfin tuna, Mahi-mahi, black grouper— catching the biggest and the best-tasting fish so that restaurants reaped the edible benefits of his know-how and good fortune. This was all true, of course, told to me through the memories of the people that knew him before my mother and I moved away to New York, before they sent him away to Cuba. In fact, I hardly remembered anything about my father, knowing only that I had loved him.
I remember that he loved me a great deal, I said.
Then why did he let you and your mother leave? Orion asked, with trepidation.
My mother said it was because she no longer recognized him. That he’d changed. That he’d grown violent. Once, he took me out to sea, as he’d often done before. To fish. And he started talking to the sky as if the sky was talking back.
What was he saying? asked Orion, wide-eyed.
I don’t remember. Orion turned his gaze back to the road, reins in hand, horses plodding forward. I was lying. I did remember. This one thing I clearly remembered and would give anything to forget. Anything.
The day had been intensely hot. It was August, when the humidity is at its thickest and the sun scorches your skin in just minutes. He hadn’t slept in days; the bankers had taken our house and we’d moved in with my grandparents, the three of us huddled up into one room where he once slept as a child. The Depression took its toll on most everyone, and our family was no exception.
For three nights my father walked in circles around the small room, the floorboards creaking where he’d stop and lean heavy into one hip. As if he were thinking, plotting a way to escape the poverty that had fallen upon him. But there was something else, something about the police coming by several times, the hushed tones they spoke in so that I could not understand the whole story. Too young to understand, my grandmother had said. I don’t know which is worse; knowing the terrible truth of a thing or being ignorant of it and then fearful because you can’t understand.
My father shouted at the sky and then into the sea. He screamed things I will never understand about leaving things the way God made them, how money is the thing that might very well kill us all.
Look, look at that! He screamed, pointing down into the depths.
We were well past the reef line and though I was scared of what I might see, I leaned in over him and looked into the water.
But Papa, I said. I don’t see anything.
Look harder, he shouted.
He had never raised his voice to me before. I looked again, squinted my eyes in the blaring sun into the blue smooth seas. I saw nothing but the swirl of day when it meets the deep. Blue-black water with the glint of sun bouncing off the surface of it for miles on end.
Do you see it? Do you? He screamed.
No, I whispered. No, Papa, I don’t.
Look harder. We are not leaving here until you see it, he said sternly.
What is it, Papa. What? What?
By now I was crying, my hair matted like one of his nets across my face from hanging my head over the bow of the boat. The sweat of my nervousness dripping out of me.
We are not leaving until you tell me what it is, he said. Tell me you see it! Tell me! He ordered.
Yes, I replied, crying. I see it. I see it. Can we go home now?
I’d never seen my father act like this, was frightened by his lack of sense.
You think I’m crazy, too, don’t you! Don’t you! He snapped. Where is it! Show me.
He climbed over towards the bow of the boat, looked down into the depths.
There. It’s THERE! He hollered.
I scurried over to him, leaned my body over his shoulder to see what, if anything, he was seeing. He stood up suddenly, his head banging my chin so hard my jaw cracked. White jolts of pain seared through my mouth. The thick taste of blood damned up against my tongue. In it, a floating tooth, swimming, bobbing, the gum in shreds where it came free. I spit the mouthful of it out into the sea where he had pointed, watched the white of it sink in slow motion below the surface. That day, all had changed.
My father stared at the place where my tooth had dropped, his head hanging as if it too would fall out, drop down into the fathom below. I stayed silent while my father stared into the sea. My mouth thick with blood. My heart pounding, head reeling with shock and wonder over who this man I called my father was.
When the sun hit the horizon, I placed my hand on my father’s shoulder, gently shook him away from wherever it was that he had gone to. When he didn’t come to, I started the engine like I’d seen him do so many times before me. I eased the throttle into forward, and drove us home in the fading light, tied us to the dock, walked him home to my mother, who ushered him in to his mother’s house, and laid him in their bed, where he would stay until they ushered him away, and I would never see him again.
These are not things I told Orion. These were not things I had even let myself think about for years, if ever. To remember my father the way he’d been that day, to remember the tooth and the day I’d awaken with it in my hand sent shivers down my entire being. What was I headed towards? Better yet, who?
The days of my youth were measured against days when I’d been clueless and carefree, Uncle Berto bringing me up to Miami to learn how to capture the images that I chose to capture. The things I’d decided were worthy of placing for keeps. This memory, painful as it was, was not among them. And yet, here it was, resurfacing for me as Orion and I drove the road to Cienfuegos. To a man I was scarcely sure still existed.
I have not yet had the courage to go to the page & write more now that he is gone. But I will. Thank you for bearing witness to my stories, dear maestros. I hope that within it you might see a glimmer of how our pain can lead us through our process & into the beauty of our art-making, to a place where the pain fades away. How our chosen form can help take us there.
Next week I’ll start a series of posts about the form of yoga, how it can be a vehicle to carry our energy forward, to lift us to that safe, sacred untouchable space within. A place where we can stand strong, feel connected to the infinite source where all is truly possible.
A place where I don’t cry for a father I wish I had but grateful for the mother who gave me life. & the mother I now get to be.