My father who art in heaven, pt 2

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.

my father who art in heaven – part 1

My father, Howard Oxenberg, passed away 2 years ago, on June 25, 2010, a month short of his 91st b’day.  This is a chronicle of the last 6 months of his life. He was one of the most challenging people that I have ever met. He was a great teacher, in retrospect, but his methods were definitely adversarial, not warm and fuzzy. I resented him for making it so hard to love him. My whole life, I longed for closeness with him, I longed for the key to open his heart. I felt a deep sadness that this seemed unlikely. After all, he was the first one to tell me that you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. To make matters worse, he now suffered from dementia and severe paranoia, so the idea that I would be able to connect with him in any meaningful way, seemed absolutely hopeless.

Dad had always been an enigma to me – and if you asked his 5 children to describe him – even the ones who he insisted weren’t his (even though they were!) – each would have painted a completely different picture. The information he told each of his children never matched, and it was always interesting to compare data – if we ever got the chance – because often that information was so inflammatory that it had a tendency to polarize all of us against each other. Dad could be Machiavellian!

In January 2010, I started to split my time between California and Florida. My father’s condition was deteriorating and my younger sister Ashley was at a loss. She asked for my help. I had him admitted to a hospital after he had a dangerous seizure. I discovered that he was being treated by different doctors for various conditions and none of the physicians had any idea what the other ones were prescribing – so as a result, he was taking a dangerous cocktail of medicines. Viagra being at the top of the list. Dad! Honestly! I had to give the urologist a serious scolding for even contemplating giving him any more! This was Dad’s personality, he was very secretive and didn’t like the left hand knowing what the right hand was doing.

While he was under observation of the hospital, I got a call from a very concerned physician who felt that my father was suffering from severe grandiosity. “Apparently, your father believes that he was married to a princess?”

“Well, actually, that is accurate.”

“And that he knew the Queen of England and most of the members of the European Royal families?”

“Hmm, actually, he is telling the truth about that as well.”

“And that one of his children is a Kennedy?”

“Hmm, well there was a rumor about that.” I decided not to elaborate. (I’ll save that story for when my mother gives me the green light!) The doctor probably thought that our entire family was suffering from delusions of grandeur!

The following day, Dad had a severe outburst and became violent. He was admitted to a mental institution.

The upside of being sent to “a cuckoo’s nest” – as Dad called it- was that he was finally diagnosed, at 90 years old, with bi-polar disorder. I had my suspicions for over a decade that his volatility might be more than mere eccentricity –  it was bittersweet to have confirmation. I could only imagine how much he must have suffered his whole life with an undiagnosed mental illness.

The symptoms of bi-polar symptoms and dementia can be very similar. The doctors prescribed medication for him – finally the right ones – and the experience reminded me of that film Awakenings. This was the first time that I could truthfully say that I was grateful for pharmaceuticals, because whatever they put him on, it allowed my father’s authentic personality to emerge. After a lifetime of struggle and confusion, I finally had the father I had always dreamed of. This new dad, who I like to remember as my real Dad, might have been the sweetest man I have ever met in my life. He was kind and patient and loving, and he communicated with a level of self-awareness I never thought possible. The belligerent, repetitive rants had been replaced with introspective conversations about his newly identified alter ego, whom he aptly named, “Mr. Bi-polar.”

I went to visit him in the lockdown unit, and found him dressed in a neon-orange polar fleece jacket with lime green pants. This was Lily Pulitzer on steroids! Had Dad gone color-blind now that he could see beneath the surface?! The color combination was startling – most especially because he had always prided himself on his style, and for appearing on various best-dressed lists!

After slurping down some revolting synthetic hospital concoctions, he brought me over to a very elderly lady who lay in a gurney, “I’d like you to meet one of the most beautiful people I have ever met. This is real beauty – from the inside!” The lady smiled a toothless grin. I stifled tears. If you knew my father, you would know that this was a miracle. My father hated everything about old age and most of all the way old people looked. He would never even consider dating a woman half his age. In fact, he had only married women who were 26 years old (5 times- the last wife was 51 years his junior!) – regardless of how old he was – I was stunned. He now had the ability to recognize inner beauty – he could SEE – truly see. This ability was something that had eluded him his entire life. He continued, excited, “You’re not going to believe it! We went to the same high school in Brooklyn! What are the chances? A billion to one!” I had to admit, it was an extraordinary coincidence, for them to reunite in a nut house in Florida!

From the onset of the dementia, my father’s daily mantra had been, “Get me out of here! I want to go home!” – regardless of where he was, he was plagued by a perpetual restlessness. The truth was, that his desire to constantly flee was a metaphor for his inner condition. He wasn’t at home either in his mind or his failing body, and he could no longer find access to the person that had been his ‘home’, his safe haven – his whole life. He had become a stranger to himself.

But it wasn’t so simple to get him out of the mental hospital. Now, that he was a ward of the state, the hospital had the right to keep him locked up until they deemed he was well enough to be released. Of course, Dad wanted to go home. But Dad had evicted all the nurses we had hired for him and his home was not habitable. The house was infested with rats and mold. In fact, I had discovered a rats’ nest inside the couch in his living room. (I shudder thinking about that couch!) That was the couch that my family and I spent hours sitting on, over several decades, a captive audience for Dad’s endless rants that we dared not interrupt.

Apparently, Dad knew about the rats, because when I confronted him with this news, he told me that did not want to have the rats removed – he said they were his friends!

Those rodents had been surviving on a rich diet of pistachio nuts, which Dad always left in a bowl on the coffee table – didn’t he ever wonder who kept emptying bowl after bowl of nuts? I found thousands of shells inside the rotten upholstery of his furniture!

The institution would only discharge him was if he was admitted to a facility with fulltime care. This could prove to be a problem, because most nursing homes wanted well-behaved inmates, not ones with mental illnesses with Dad’s oppositional history. After a nail-biting interview, Dad charmed his way into the only 5-star nursing home in Palm Beach!

When we drove up to the Inn at La Posada, Dad exclaimed, “This place is a masterpiece!” We marveled and pointed out that the street was in fact called, Masterpiece Way! For the first few days, he was a model patient. He was so grateful to be out the nuthouse!

Unfortunately, this good behavior did not last. The problem was that Dad soon forgot that he had ever been locked up in a mental home! He soon became belligerent again and refused to take the medication that had allowed him a semblance of short-lived normalcy. He was back to his old ways.

The nursing home admitted him on one condition – that we hire a fulltime aide/bodyguard to watch him 24/7. Even so, he managed to trick his aide, in 2 daring Bonnie and Clyde getaways – which cost the bewildered aide his job. I got frantic calls from the facility – he had been kidnapped. The police had to be dispatched. Dad had gone through his address book and called random people to help him escape. He said he was being held against his will and had bribed them with the lure of a $1million reward to rescue him. We pleaded with the facility to let him stay but they warned us that he needed to be locked back up in an institution. He was too big of a risk.

It was hard to explain to my concerned children that people kept stealing Grandpa Howard!

(to be continued)

The institution would only discharge him was if he was admitted to a facility with fulltime care. This could prove to be a problem, because most nursing homes wanted well-behaved inmates, not ones with mental illnesses with Dad’s oppositional history. After a nail-biting interview, Dad charmed the only 5-star nursing home in Palm Beach!

When we drove up to the Inn at La Posada, Dad exclaimed, “This place is a masterpiece!” We marveled and pointed out that the street was in fact called, Masterpiece Way! For the first few days, he was a model patient. He was so grateful to be out the nuthouse! Unfortunately, this good behavior did not last. The problem was that Dad soon forgot that he had ever been locked up in a mental home! He soon became belligerent again and refused to take the medication that had allowed him a semblance of short-lived normalcy. He was back to his old ways.

The nursing home admitted him on one condition – that we hire a fulltime aide/bodyguard to watch him 24/7. Even so, he managed to trick his aide, in 2 daring Bonnie and Clyde getaways – which cost the bewildered aide his job. I got frantic calls from the facility – he had been kidnapped. The police had to be dispatched. Dad had gone through his address book and called random people to help him escape. He said he was being held against his will and had bribed them with the lure of a $1million reward to rescue him. We pleaded with the facility to let him stay but they warned us that he needed to be locked back up in an institution. He was too big of a risk.

It was hard to explain to my concerned children that people kept stealing Grandpa Howard!

(to be continued)

Maya’s inoculation!

During a recent family meeting, I was listening to the grudges of 4 of my 5 children. They were upset by some of Maya’s more callous comments. It seems that none of my family are very thick skinned in the insult department – I explained to Maya that it was a good policy to think about what one was going to say before actually saying it. She cleverly countered with, “You always tell me to be honest?!”

“Maya, I do want you to be honest, but now that you are older, I am going to teach you about when honesty might not be such a virtue! Being kind is sometimes better than being honest”

She squinted her eyes and looked at me, very confused. “Be honest, but don’t be honest?”

“Maya, although I am never offended by what you say to me – other people, who maybe might not love you as much as I do – or who might not know that you love them, the way that I do – may be hurt by the things that you say!”

“How I am supposed to know when to tell the truth or when to lie?!”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say – that NOT telling someone something that could be mean or hurtful – is lying! Figuring out the effects of your words, and weighing which is the better choice – to blurt it or to zip it – that process is called discernment.”

She made an exasperated sound and rolled her eyes. Mom’s big words!

This was her first foray into the complicated world of contradiction, but I figured it was time to introduce her to the subtle nuance of mature behavior.

I turned to the rest of the family.

“Girls, this is not saying that I condone Maya for saying hurtful things, but I would like to tell you how her honesty has actually strengthened me, by helping me develop a thicker skin. Learning not to take things personally can give you a lot of freedom in the world. It can be quite limiting to have a thin skin. The world can sometimes be cruel and critical, and where better to practice learning how not to take things personally – than from those closest to you! At least you know that Maya really loves you, underneath it all – which may not be always the case with others. In a sense, Maya is inoculating you!

I am offering you an opportunity to change your perspective – to look for the gift and the teaching from this situation.”

Now all the girls rolled their eyes. I continued, undeterred, with my premise.

“Do you remember when Maya was 4 and she ran upstairs one morning to ask me if I was going to die, and I said, NO! Why?, and she said, ‘cause you look so old?”

They all nodded, because I took great pleasure retelling this story. I thought of that moment as a sort of rite of passage for me. It was the moment that I realized that nothing Maya (or any of my children, for that matter) could ever say, would ever bother me or upset me. In fact, it was the opposite. I was delighted by their view of me, however unflattering! It didn’t matter what they said to me, it was impossible for me to take offense.

And, I wondered why? Why do I respond so differently with my children?

Perhaps it is because I love them unconditionally, and so everything they say is filtered through that love, bathed in that love. I can feel that undercurrent of love at all times, permeating every interaction, in a way that I have not been able to achieve, to the same degree, with the rest of the world.

With them, I could feel the love between the lines.

I had a history of taking offense at mean comments and at criticism from others, and had been, like the rest of my family – fairly thin-skinned. The decades of being in the public eye and at the mercy of the fickle press had not cured me from being hurt by other peoples’ opinions of me – even though I might have understood intellectually that it was only their opinion, and had more to do themselves than with me – it still felt bad.

Only my beautiful children, especially Maya, had been successful in freeing me from the slings and arrows of perceived putdowns.

If I could now translate what I had mastered with my children, to all of my relationships – through a filter of deep love for all humanity, I would be free! This is my goal.

“What other people think of me is none of my business!”Anonymous