Dying With Dad

by Jessica Graham

Part One

My meditation practice has helped me with all kinds of things. I don’t lose my keys as often. I don’t have meaningless sex with strangers. I don’t wake up with bits of teeth in my mouth from grinding them. My sisters enjoy my company. I usually don’t eat foods that make me feel sick, even if they taste really good. There is an endless list, but if I had to name the top benefit so far, it would be my relationship with my dad and my experience with his death.

The day my father called and told me he had cancer, I screamed at him. I’m not even sure what I said. Looking back, it seems like I was in a huge storm of angry thoughts, feelings, and words. An emotional blackout.

My father was quite drunk when he said the words “I have cancer” to me that first time. This was nothing new: my dad was an alcoholic. He had been drunk or high for most of his life. By the time I was fourteen, he had gotten three DUIs, had been in rehab, and had done fourteen days in the slammer. He had also come to all of my plays and recitals drunk, spent holidays and birthdays drunk, and on many occasions had taken my sisters and I on some pretty wild car rides.

wingman

In my early teens, I became his wingman. We had a great time. We waited in line overnight for Grateful Dead tickets, went to music festivals, took road trips, looked up at the night sky and talked about aliens and alternate universes, had parties and got high and made funny faces at each other. Aside from the obviously messed-up dynamic, we shared a very deep connection. We’d always say we had ESP with each other.

By the time I hit my twenties, I recognized how inappropriate and dysfunctional our relationship was, and I started to break away. It was a difficult time; my dad was losing his favorite drinking buddy, and I was realizing that I’d never really had a father. In my mid-twenties, he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. While he was in treatment for that, he stopped drinking, gained some weight, got new teeth, and started taking a genuine interest in my life. Once he got a clean bill of health, however, everything went downhill again. My disappointment was huge. It took me right back to being twelve when he fell off the wagon after several months of sobriety. Ouch. Soon after that I moved to Los Angeles, putting 3000 miles between us. By then, I was carrying so much sadness and anger that I was unable to feel much compassion when he called  to tell me he had cancer.

The first few years of my dad’s cancer were tough for both of us. I was convinced that I could do or say the right thing to save him. I tried everything, and nothing worked. The doctors told him that if he quit drinking and smoking, he would most likely beat it, but that was not an option for my dad. He drank and smoked until the end. When he could no longer swallow, he put beer into his feeding tube. You have to hand it to him—the man was dedicated. He was determined to stay asleep.

I, on the other hand, was in the process of waking up.  I was in therapy, active in recovery groups, and starting to dip my toes into meditation. But it wasn’t until I began a daily practice that things really began to change.

Prior to that, I had a very hard time being around my father. I really wanted to make the most of what time we had, but whenever I went back east to visit, within thirty minutes of being with him, I’d be entering that blackout. My body would lock up and my mind would fill with panicked static. I’d yell at him, dumping my pain and frustration out on a man dying of cancer, who I desperately wanted to treat with love and care. I couldn’t help it. To keep this from happening, I tried limiting my visits to half-hour sessions. Soon I wasn’t talking to him at all. I stopped reaching out. I told people that I said my goodbyes and wasn’t going back until the funeral. My sisters cared for him without me and I went about my life in LA. It was heartbreaking. As flawed as he was, I loved him deeply; I just didn’t know how to let thoughts and feelings arise without acting on them. I had no equanimity.

After less than a year of meditating daily and one seven-day retreat, all this changed. I found that not only could I be around my father (who by that point looked like the walking dead), I felt energized instead of depleted after seeing him. The clarity and concentration that came from mindfulness fueled me and my capacity for equanimity increased. I brought the practice into life.

I became a big support for my father.  I was able to love and accept him just as he was. I stopped trying to change him or the situation, and instead opened up to what was. I began to view my emotional states as impermanent.  The story about what kind of father he was started to fall away. The words and images became fluid. The anger was a wave of heat and contraction. The sadness was heaviness in the chest and around the eyes. When I took the experience apart in that way, there was no emotional blackout. I didn’t find myself saying and doing things I later regretted.

In the winter of 2009, my mother and my stepfather invited my dad to die at their house. I left California and moved in for a few months to help care for him. That spring I spent every day with him, and was with him when he took his last breath.

Helping my dad die was by far the most amazing and transformative time of my life. I know that without meditation, I never would have been available for the experience. I’m not saying that meditation took away the hurt and disappointments of my relationship with my dad. But it did change the way I see and experience the hurt and disappointment. I stopped suffering and became capable of being the daughter I wanted to be.

Read the the full Dying with Dad Series

 

 

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4 Responses to “Dying With Dad”

  1. rick p
    July 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    thank you Jess.

    I am having a similar experience with my dad. He and I were drug buddies with ESP and I had to get out from under his shadow to grow. Before he was diagnosed with cancer, I came to accept that he wouldn’t change. Over time that left me in a similar place of open-mindedness. I loved him the way he was/is. The remarkable thing is, that in the face of that acceptance, we started talking about a different way of living. He asked me. And now he is in remission, is running support groups for people with addicted kids and is in love with the idea of service to his community. It freaks me out a little that the man, who I was so angry at for so long, is changing. This is challenging me to go deeper into my practice – to take greater responsibility for being awake, and to place less certainty in how it will all play out. That feels pretty good.

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  2. don
    July 25, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    This is very beautiful. This is one of the most honest things I have heard or read in a long time.

  3. yemio
    January 29, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    Thank you so much Jessica for sharing your thoughts and experiences about your time with your dad. I found this very moving, very touching and very inspiring. It has made a great impression on me. I wish you all the best in your continuing discoveries of awareness and mindfulness and look forward to reading you in the future.

  4. Megan
    October 1, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

    Wow, I should not have read this at work! Totally tearing up at my desk. What a wonderful and moving description of your experience with meditation and how it allowed you to be the daughter you wanted. I’ll keep this in mind when dealing with my alcoholic father from now on! I related a lot, thank you for sharing this.

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