When Richard died I wasn’t prepared. All I remember at first was missing him beyond words. And that time I called him from the black payphone at the ranger’s station the summer of 67. That was thirty years before his death and I remembered it like yesterday. “I really need to come home, I almost drowned,” I said.
He listened, then silence, then he told me he loved me, and “if you can find the courage to stay for the next five weeks,” he predicted, “you’ll get over being homesick.”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“What ever you decide, I’ll be proud of you.”
Turns out he was right. And because of my father’s words I stayed till the end and eventually came to see how that decision made all the difference in my life.
By the time I was seventeen my life had been a series of big changes. A confluence of grief and confusion. Moving from one place to another mostly on the cusp of some clobbering loss: my friend being hit by a train; parents’ divorce; the death of my stepfather and my grandfather; and the loss of a girl from Mexico I thought I would marry.
Through it all still I looked back on those seconds or minutes, being held under by the current at the base of the waterfall, on the brink of death when I first recall experiencing a strange fluidity of time. A transcendental, otherworldly experience, marked by memories sweet and surreal of my early childhood. The kind that offered meaning to my life, as real as gasping for air having been released from the currant to return to the world I still didn’t understand. It was then I began to appreciate how fragile life was, like mine and for each organism. But in nature I saw how life itself was relentless, perseverant and adaptive. That same force of energy inside each of us animating our bodies and our minds.
After my dad had died he would appear to me in dreams. We conversed as we had when he was alive. Conversations that took place as we stared across the ocean, or up the Intracoastal Waterway from the dock in Boynton Beach where his vintage 1920s houseboat was moored. Where, when I was six, the older Stewart kid threw me down the stairway to the master state room and said I had slipped. My dad took me to the hospital to have my head stitched, encouraging me to be brave. We went for ice cream after and I knew he believed my story. It was no accident. The Stewarts never came around after that.
Life as I remembered it from about five to seven was glorious. Whether flying in his plane, boating or fishing, his presence so big it somehow always made me feel bigger. How I reveled in our adventures and quieter moments. How I loved when he would tell us stories and pray with us before bed.
After my parents split we moved to Illinois when I was seven. Maybe my emotional connection to my father across great physical distance helped me find hope savoring better times; antecedent to my adult relationship with God? I learned to replay memories of times with him over and over, at times living in them, escaping difficult chapters of present reality. I didn’t know what to call them then, day dreams my mother and various teachers would say, which made sense, though I came to appreciate these moments as something more—somehow transcendent.
Who among us wouldn’t revive our best of memories if only for a brief moment to relive feelings of total acceptance (real or interpreted) marked in our brains by sounds and smells, brilliant sunrises and sunsets, or great storms coruscating along the darkened skyline? And those unexplainable flashes of clarity drawn beneath cobalt skies that merged across endless horizons.
Twenty years after Richard passed, one Saturday morning, shuffling through family room shelves, I stumble across a small book with a disintegrating black and grey jacket. I open yellowed pages surprised to find a hand written inscription: R.T. Jebb – Yale University - 1951. It was my father’s hand writing and the book was “The Four Quartets” by T. S. Elliot. His text from a literature class I presumed. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable. My memories didn’t require redemption—they were my redemption. But who had redeemed them if not me?
How this treasure fell into my hands I wasn’t sure, I had no recollection. But the remarkable thing, there in the margins, my father’s notes in the tiniest, neatest, cursive I had ever seen. A window that miraculously opened into another quadrant of his soul, just as I began the most lucrative and violent episodes of my thirty plus year career selling trailer parks all across the country. And there would be other signs and wonders. Times I relived the past when it healed the present.
In his memoire, Telling Secrets, Fredrick Buechner describes the mechanics of a certain type of miracle I believed had similarly occurred in me. He described a process that happened when, The unalterable past was in some extraordinary way altered. How did it work? Was this available to everyone? I wasn’t sure, but like Buechner, something extraordinary happened because of prayers acting on memories of bad choices. Metaphysical moments that fill us with both wonder and doubt at the same time. Buechner went on to say: Maybe the most sacred function of memory is just that: to render the distinction between past, present, and future ultimately meaningless; to enable us at some level of our being to inhabit that same eternity which it is said that God himself inhabits. Was I still alive somewhere in the past? I didn’t know, but the past was still alive in me.
Christian Wiman, in his book My Bright Abyss also spoke on the matter of time, saying that we must step out of time imaginatively to live in it actually. We must consider the past and the future to bring meaning to the present. And if this is the case, he goes on …then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?
Richard’s last day was haunting. My old man lay so still in the bed I’m afraid to look and couldn't look away. I saw myself in him. A mummified leather body, unearthed in the desert, spotted skin tightly wrapped around a scull. Deep sockets blindly staring out past eyelids perhaps at some mysterious vision of what most of us hoped for, what I believed.
Gathering myself beside those shriveled limbs spattered with melanin ink blot Rorschach on crumpled parchment hadn’t been easy. His breathing shallow, barley holding on to life in a sea of opium mist, sleeping to awaken into another world I thought which reminded of Herbert’s novel Dune when father and son look out over the sea and Duke Leto Atreides says to his son Paul: The sleeper must awaken, memorializing their preparation to relocate House Atreides from ecotopian Caladan to the desert planet, Arrakas; Paul’s succession to the throne; Prophesying his transparent transcendent transformation to Shai-Hulud.
Or even staring through the failing flesh at the gathering of adult children ready to mourn—morning already he was gone.
At the funeral, friends told of his spiritual transformation. How he had been a Bible study leader at the retirement home. My brother Mike the evangelist spoke about last chances to find God which made almost everyone uncomfortable. I read Corinthians 13 and spoke on the way of love, something I knew little about.
My father’s life in a worldly sense was all wrong, fractured by the cruelty of expectations, and the disease of a troubled mind. The hollow victories of his achievements at times was overshadowed by his insanity: numerous hospitalizations, diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, shock therapy, alcoholism.
The insanity of wealthy ancestors was overshadowed by those who found wisdom in humility and kindness. That was just it. This life, taken independently from the metaphysical mysteries that lay ahead was in a way mostly dead. And if we didn’t speak into the lives of others with selfless concern—with love—then weren’t all the great mysteries of the universe rendered meaningless?
Jesus’ sermon from the Korazim Plateau was all about love in the end, using our power to touch lives, to lift each other, to care how we made each other feel. Not focused on what we might gain; or the appeasement of our fears.
My father had found this truth despite his handicaps and shortcomings. His life exemplified beauty in imperfection. What he left behind was a lesson on finding wisdom in humility and the power of love. In my beginning is my end.
Cover image by Marian Kroell.