About 20 years ago, I had a sort of vision, that at my father’s deathbed, our whole relationship would make sense and that he would reveal himself at a soul level. Even though I had dismissed this as wishful thinking at the time, I could see how that was now happening.
Dad had been on the verge of being expelled from his nursing home for his shenanigans, and then, in a strange twist of fate, his physical health took a turn for the worse. His heart almost expired and my younger sister and I, who were co-guardians, had to opt to install a pacemaker. After that, he began making frequent trips to the hospital. He became combative – again – refusing to take his meds, and lost a dramatic amount of weight. The facility decided that he was too frail to be discharged. Instead, we prepared to call in hospice care.
My eldest daughter, India, made our reservations, and without realizing it, ironically chose Father’s Day for us to fly to see him in Palm Beach. She had been the only one of my children who hadn’t seen him in his latest incarnation as ‘cute, fuzzy Grandpa’.
Although Dad was born Jewish, he had told me that he had never practiced Judaism, or any other religion, for that matter, that he considered all religions hocus pocus. Dad used to say, “I believe in the God of Love!” – but I had a sneaky suspicion that there was more to the story of his faith then met the eye.
The Chaplain from hospice called me to discuss the denomination of Dad’s last rites. I wasn’t sure what we should do. Following a hunch, I asked him to say the ‘Shema’ to Dad – which is the most traditional Hebrew prayer – just to see Dad’s reaction. Sure enough, the Chaplain said that Dad knew the prayer and had said it with him. After 90 years, he still knew it perfectly! After hearing that, I made an executive decision to give him a Jewish send off. But when I tried to say to Shema with him over the phone, he still pretended he didn’t know what I was saying. He was maddening!
India and I showed up to the nursing home early Monday morning. Dad’s paranoia was back, full force. The nurse warned me that he had been afraid that I was coming to kill him. As soon as I walked in room, he whispered conspiratorially to me, that his aide was the one trying to kill him.
soothed him, “Dad, your aide, Lowell (actually Lowell was the aide who had been fired, after Dad had managed to slip by him and had been willingly abducted – twice – from the nursing home by greedy kidnappers – but Dad called all the subsequent aides Lowell) is actually an undercover policeman that I hired to protect you!” That seemed to calm him for a moment.
My heart sank, I had told India that she would get to see the “new Dad”, but he was gone. Managing my father’s mood swings was exhausting and took Herculean patience. I sat with him, quietly, resorting to my meditation skills, and waited, hoping for his ranting to subside.
Suddenly, he grabbed my arm, “I know what’s happening to me – I know that I’m dying and I’m afraid! Please hold me in your arms, don’t leave me a for a minute – promise me!”
I was stunned, “Of course, I promise!” Oh, my god, he knows he’s dying. In spite of the dementia, somehow he knew.
For the remainder of the day, he repeated this pattern, showering my daughter and me with love, between bouts of paranoia. It was as if he was making up for lost time, trying to heal as much as possible with us before he slipped into oblivion. He kept telling us how beautiful we were and special. “No two people have touched my heart like both of you!” He told us to treasure every day, and reminded us how blessed we were. “You don’t know how lucky you both are.” Over and over again. And we shed a lifetime of tears together.
My father was terrified of dying. I stroked his head; trying to soothe him, “Don’t be afraid, you are going to experience more love than you could ever imagine. His response – classic Dad, “It’s easy for you to say! You’re not the one who is dying!” He had a point.
On Tuesday morning, when we returned to his room, he was lying still in his bed. His face looked eerily translucent and radiated light. He looked decades younger. The room felt thick with spirit. It was almost intoxicating. Dad never spoke again, he was only able to shake or nod his head. Sporadically, he would reach with his hand and try to call out towards someone or something that I could not see. I chose to believe that he was seeing angels and dead loved ones who had come to accompany him on his journey back home.
I scrambled to call family members to let them know he was on his way out. I dialed my mother on Skype, (Mom was wife #2) holding the computer up, close to his face, so that they could say goodbye to each other. She told him that she had a dream recently, where he had come to her as a beautiful, radiant 16-year old boy. She had seen his true beauty; she had seen his radiant soul. He smiled.
The following day, I brought him a picture of his mother, and I asked him if he was ready to forgive her. He shook his head.
“Dad, honestly, not even on your deathbed?”
I wondered what that woman had done to him. He had always told us that he hated her, but had never said why. He was SO secretive!
I felt so sad for him. “Dad, whatever she did to you must have been terrible. I am so sorry.” Not wanting to make the same mistake, I asked him for his forgiveness, and I, in turn, forgave him.
I asked him to be my bridge to heaven, my connection to the other side. “We could work together as a team!”
I sang the Shema to him in Hebrew – I am a terrible singer, but somehow, it didn’t sound so bad. I had been inspired to study Judaism and Kabala for the past 2 years – now I understood why – it was probably to help my father transition.
I called in a Cantor to sing the traditional prayers and then I asked her to sing him some Jewish wedding songs. Dad seemed to come back to life and looked like he was trying to sing along. She told me that it was rather unconventional to sing wedding songs during someone’s penultimate hours, but I insisted – That would have been Dad’s sense of humor – he wouldn’t have wanted a gloomy send off! Besides, his imminent transition was a marriage of sorts – that of his soul reuniting with its Source.
Truthfully, Dad was married practically his entire life, until the last couple of years, when he had discovered that his 5th wife, 51 years his junior, had a terrible gambling habit, so he divorced her!
Finally, on Friday night, at 10:15pm, Dad left his body. The last time I saw him alive, I leant over instinctively, and whispered the Shema twice in his left ear – I don’t know what made me do that, but, later, I found out that this is exactly what you are supposed to do, right before someone of the Jewish faith dies.
My one regret is that I wasn’t in the room with him when he took his last breath. When I saw his lifeless body, I felt a surge of grief sweep through me that I thought would split me in half. It felt like a part of me was gone.
I held vigil until they came to take his body away, with my hand on his left arm, feeling the warmth slowly leave his body.
I wondered what his journey here on earth might have been about, what his deeper purpose might have been? Maybe he had come to earth to collect and contain as much darkness as humanly possible – or maybe more – which is why he went so crazy – so as to take it with him to be transmuted and redeemed back into the light of Source.
Maybe he was willing to sacrifice all his relationships in order to provide this service to humanity – like a giant dredger. (Only 1 other of his 5 children showed up to say goodbye).
Slowly, the memory of my father as a tyrant dissolved. I could barely even remember his challenging personality.
In this new light, I was able to honor his heroic struggle.
On Monday morning, I went out to sea with members of my family.
I held his ashes in my lap. They were still warm. I was surprised at how heavy they were.
Dad’s last wishes were to be cremated and for his ashes to be scattered into the ocean. Apparently, it was the ocean in South Hampton he wanted, not Palm Beach, oops! – I just hope the current took him up there.
As I lead the others in The Lord’s Prayer, the words took on a whole new meaning and felt so intimate, “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…” I could feel him. He had kept his promise. He was my anchor to the other side. He was my bridge to heaven.
I felt, and still feel, a visceral connection to his soul. It felt as strong and tangible as an umbilical cord extending from my solar plexus up towards heaven.
As the boat turned back to shore, India noticed that Dad’s ashes formed a huge turquoise circle, literally 12 feet in diameter, in the dark water. Fish started jumping everywhere. It looked like a giant heavenly portal.
After Dad died, I received an email from my older half-sister. She recalled Dad reuniting with the family in Brooklyn each year, to celebrate the High Holy Days. So, he had practiced Judaism after all for the 1st 40 years of his life! But why had he renounced it all? I discovered the answer when I was cleaning his house. I found a folder with old newspaper clippings and read an incendiary article about his divorce with his 1st wife. It had been a traumatic time in Dad’s life, and he had lost custody of his children. Then I understood what might have happened. I could hear his voice, “Any God that would allow my children to be taken from me, is no God of mine.” And he closed a chapter of his life. Then he married my mother, who was European royalty, and created a brand new persona.
Finally, after wrestling with a lifetime of demons, my father is finally at peace. And I feel so blessed. I feel a depth of connection to his soul that is profound and meaningful. Somehow, I have been able to nurture the brief encounter with my ‘real’ father. I have held the loving healthy aspect of him in my heart, and allowed it to permeate the entire memory of our lifetime together.
I have a loving father, and he is in heaven.