About/for my dad

Since today is Father’s Day, I want to take some time to reflect on my dad, and try to start giving voice to some ideas and pain and anger that have been simmering in my mind.

My dad died this past winter after a shitty and long battle with cancer (he was a life-long smoker). He was 67. Now I know this might seem like a particularly loaded way of bringing politics down to the level of personal (and thus emotional), but here’s the thing. I’ve been doing a lot reading lately. Of books, of blogs, of zines, magazines, chapbooks, of vision statements and organizing principles of self-described radical organizations and people… I’ve also been doing a lot of listening. And struggling to find the language to pull these ideas and feelings out of my head/heart, thoughts about identities and experiences. Critiques of which ones are validated/politicized and which ones aren’t, and which others aren’t even considered as possibilities for political analysis. And I’ve been struggling to even speak because, who knows? Maybe I haven’t considered enough. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I haven’t been as thoughtful as I think I have. Maybe I haven’t searched hard enough.

(There are some people who need to learn to step aside and be quiet and there are others who need to learn to find their voice, to not be afraid.) 

Back to my dad. I didn’t have the greatest relationship with him while I was growing up. He’d come from a very fundamentally religious family and despite his efforts not to, ended up recreating the same culture of authority, punishment, and shame he’d experienced in his family.  Fortunately he was also quiet, stubborn, stoic, and tended to keep to himself, so the overtly oppressive qualities usually only came out when my sister and/or I were in trouble. Now it’s true that we were in trouble a lot, but it’s also true that we had many good moments as a family.  I feel very lucky that some of my happiest memories are of shared family moments – swimming on the Mississippi River, playing cards in our basement, watching the Muppets, traveling to Nashville (my dad had a thing for country music).

What I don’t feel so lucky about is that we were poor in matters of heart, money, and resources.

I remember, about seven years ago, reading bell hook’s book All About Love. The book made me so angry. Who was she to tell me what love is and isn’t, I thought.  It took me two years to recognize that my anger was total self-defense. Against the truth that despite what I believe were my parents good intentions, the values I was raised with were completely antithetical to love. Authority, punishment, shame… Sure we had some fun times, but ours was not a family of love as I’ve come to think of it, in part thanks to hooks’ thinking. 

Five years ago, shortly after I read All About Love, my dad’s fight with cancer began. It started in his lungs and kidneys, later spread to his brain, and then his shoulder, pelvis, and eventually his bones. My dad and his illness, treatments, and sometimes fights to get treatment (he was uninsured) occupied our small family until he died this past November. My mom was his full-time caretaker, which began as cooking for him and getting him to his appointments and eventually including cleaning his dentures, changing his bedpan, and getting up multiple times a night to scratch his back (a side effect of painkillers his painkillers was that they made him itchy). For most of it, she also did this while working a crappy full-time job.

During my dad’s recovery from brain surgery, though, my mom was laid off. At risk of sounding overly dramatic, this was pretty much the story of our (family) life.  

(I do realize that lately my posts have been turning into more “Debbie Downer” than “Minneosta Nice”.) 

Back to the idea of love. The upside to my dad’s long and at times agonizing (for all of us) battle with cancer was that I was handed an opportunity to reconcile, make amends, replace the remaining bitterness and anger with love, forgiveness, and compassion. It was difficult work (and I’m grateful to friends, mentors, and those who’ve gone before me for assistance/guidance), and to be honest, work that didn’t come full-circle until I returned home to see my dad shortly before he died. The last time I’d seen him was a year prior, and though he was very thin and walked with a cane, he was still my dad as I knew and remembered him. I’d walked farther down my path of love and forgiveness, but I still felt traces of anger. 

This last time, however, I walked into their home to see him lying in a hospital bed in my parents’ living room. He was tiny, frail, ribs poking out, lucid but already in some other dimension.  He was infant-like, his head covered with light fuzz, and he’d lost fine motor control over his movements. All the work, reading, meditating, talking, listening I’d done couldn’t have prepared me for seeing him like this. But neither could I have been prepared for the feeling of total love and compassion that washed over me. The only thing in the world I cared about during that last week with him was making him as comfortable and feel as loved and cared for as possible. Although I know he was extremely uncomfortable, I wanted desperately for our time together to continue, so I could love him more, hold his hand longer, tell him again that I love him, and hear him mumble it back, sweetly. It was both the most painful and the most beautiful and transformative thing I’ve ever experienced. 

On his final morning of consciousness, as I sat next to his bed, he asked me, “Days or hours?” I asked him to explain. He said, “Do you think I have days or hours left?” I said, “I think you have days left. How much time do you want?”  

“Years,” he replied. Shortly after, though, he said, “This has been a long struggle, and I can’t fight anymore.”  

He stared out the window for a few minutes, then asked, “Where do you think I’ll go after this?”  

I was stunned. I didn’t have the language of spirit, the faith, the knowledge of how to respond in a way that would sound loving and comforting but also true to what was really in my head/heart. “I don’t really don’t know,” I said, “but I believe it will be a better place than here.” 

Shortly after this, he fell into a coma, where he remained for another three days until he died, his eyes and face looking up toward the sky, a look of calm washed over them. 

And now.

Six months have passed. 

The presence of his absence barrages me with emotions, feelings, reactions. Some of them are positive, like the feelings of liberation – freedom from his sometimes oppressive nature, and freedom from feeling like the lives of my mom, sister, and me had in many senses been on hold for the five years of his illness. His death has opened up a space that I didn’t even realize would be there until after he was gone – my mom, sister, niece, and I all relate to each other differently now.

Then there are the moments of the deepest, most comforting psychic connection I’ve felt. Like when I listen to his favorite version of Amazing Grace, or when I listen to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, the Carter Family, and all the other old country and southern gospel music that deeply moved him. And since my accordion learning coincided with a long-awaited love between my dad and me, when I play my accordion now, it’s almost as though I feel his energy running up and down my spine. I’ve never felt anything like it.

But sometimes the pain of it all hits so hard that I have no language to communicate. I literally disassociate from reality and enter another dimension. My mind shuts down in complete denial that he is gone. That’s the downside of opening your heart to someone, right? It’s devastating when they’re gone. 

In other moments that are more simply sorrowful, I think of the potentials that are lost. Potentials for more closeness, more understanding, more love. I still struggle and imagine I always will with the reality that even until the end, my dad didn’t want to die.

But as I sit here today, I feel confused and frustrated. Angry. I think about my dad, growing up poor, dropping out of high school, joining the Navy, serving in Vietnam. Trying to support a family, but never being able to. Not having money or resources or access to them. Not knowing how to connect to people emotionally. All the while trying to repress his own sense of failure and self-hatred because he hasn’t lived up to society’s conception of what it means to “be a man.” 

When I was young and didn’t know any better, I directed my anger at our constant financial struggles at him. My parents hadn’t had access/exposure to progressive/radical ideas, so didn’t know that there were political/systemic reasons for our circumstances. When I discovered my life’s work of fighting for social/economic justice, he didn’t understand. His internalized classism ran too deep. So does mine, I’m learning, since some of this is finally coming to light for the first time in my life.

Funny, when I was tying this into a word-processing program, it flagged the word “classism” because it’s not even in its dictionary.

And as I sit here today, I also think about what we (as social movements) say we’ve learned, how important we say it is that we avoid “oppression olympics” and how important it is to focus on intersectionality yet how infrequently this happens (and is it possible, many ask). 

And we all have our own wounds and scars, but I’m beginning to open some of mine because I see/feel the need for genuine healing… 

Where does class and anti-classism fit into our feminism(s) or movements for social justice, if it’s not as central as other struggles? 

Are we actively seeking to center people from poor backgrounds (from across race/ethnic and gender categories) in our movements, recognizing the violence of capitalist/economic oppression?

How do we politicize family struggles/experiences?

How do we move beyond organizing by outdated identity categories, start considering/politicizing the impacts of other identities, and also focus our attention on one’s consciousness rather than what we see on someone from the outside?  

How do we infuse our work with “spiritual activism” (I first heard this term from Gloria Anzaldua, but perhaps it originated with someone else?) and centralize concepts like love, forgiveness, and compassion into our politics? 

I’m not asking for answers to these questions (though if you have them, by all means, I’d love to hear them, as well as other questions or insights). I just know that the conversations need to be pushed deeper, farther. I know that I have to start getting these thoughts out of my head and out into the world. People will continue to be hurt and silenced if we continue to use the language/frameworks we’re using.  

I’m not sure how to end this post, so I’ll end with a video of Johnny Cash, who my dad and I both loved, and who gracefully and powerfully addresses some of what I’m trying to get at here (collective struggle, the idea of solidarity). How wonderful to find Spanish subtitles to one of his great ones. 


by Debbie Rasmussen
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Moving me

I wish I had the answers for you, sweetie, (tho I know you're not asking!) but all I can say is that you moved me to tears with this. Squeezes across the ether.

We need a better language to chew on these concepts. The framework we have to start with is poor with concepts of compassion. Our metaphors of love are ones associated with violence or weakness, in so many ways... there has to be a better way.

Forget Me Nots

First, what you've written and that you wrote it all is incredible and brave both emotionally and politically. You know that separation between the personal/emotional and political; that it's even harder for women to be taken seriously when they admit their feelings. Fuckin' eh, you've done a thing here Rasmussen -- you're the woman in black!

Having grown up poor, I hear what you say about the coldness that becomes a person when they are working so hard to climb that impossible ladder: The iron fist and judgement, and all that self-loathing because despite the effort it's just not, and never going to be, enough. I struggle to get my head around it all -- to make sense of classism, my own, the nations, society, and culture. But to ignore it is the most criminal and destructive thing we can do to ourselves -- our abilities to love -- and each other.

I'm reminded of a poem by Keith Douglas, who was a solider in his early 20's and died before he was 30, fighting the Germans. This poem (pasted below) is one of my favorites because it always reminds me that even the seemingly worst of us -- those we call enemy and who call us enemy -- can love. And if that's true, the rest of us (the most and whole of us) have so much potential.


Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Keith Douglas

you are so thoughtful and brave and AWESOME

and i am chewing on those heavy thoughts.

Moved me to tears


Such a beautiful and powerful post. Thank you so much for sharing this. Very intense, personal and important.

To some of what you ask at the end: I think our movements traditionally were about class more than other forms of identity, and that there has recently (like starting in the 70s, and especially the 80s) a shift to identity politics that brought these other aspects forward. I still feel like the movements I've been involved with center class a lot, but I also have noticed that there are a lot very rich people with central roles in our movements. And I mean rich not just as, like, parents are doctors (though that certainly is rich), but like, "trust fund with millions of dollars" rich.

I think also that the way class mixes with other forms of identities - the assumptions that are made about peoples class based on their other identities, for example - as well as the fact that class can be (and often is) hidden, changes the way that we deal with it.

Anyway, just a couple brief thoughts, that I feel like only touch on responding to one aspect of an amazing post. Thank you again so much for who you are, what you do, and for sharing with us.

struggle and strength

thank you for sharing your story.
i recognize that it is very exposing and puts you in a vulnerable position.

this post is groundbreaking.

its the sharing of experiences like yours that address so many personal and real struggles (many that are personal and political struggles) that involve class, classism, family, love, death, communication, community, support, lacking of resources, health care, exclusion from movements, inclusion of consciousness, the personal and political experiences, silenced experiences and feeling at loss for words when it has to come out, and more and more.

and trying to move forward without answers.

its been hard for me to process this amazing and difficult and touching post.

the struggles and experiences you have spoken out about are difficult to process and vocalize, especially when trying to work within language and its many boundaries.

but you have vocalized these experiences and while doing that, have opened the door to voices that include experiences and questions that dont have a language and are, at times, solely based off of feelings, thoughts, and/or energy.

i appreciate that you said some families are not families of love.

i believe that even when some families are not overflowing with love (or have little family love), even for a long time, that its possible to put love back into it.

i believe that even tho some family members have died, that even they can feel the love.

right now,
yr shared experience and questions are exposed to air with my every breath.

beautiful words

debbie, your words are so powerfully moving. thank you for sharing your thoughts, emotions, love, voice...

i am reminded of a quotation by eve ensler: "live with the suffering in the center of your heart...the struggle is the change."

your strength in engaging within the raw messiness/pain/uncertainty (for lack of better words) of that struggle is inspiring.

this too is activism.

On Parents: Memories from Childhood, Knowledge from Adulthood

Thanks for writing this, Debbie.

Over my childhood I watched <i>Mary Poppins</i> several times, and one particular scene has stuck with me to the point that I could say it haunts me, when I am reminded of it.

And now I hope that I can remember it enough to explain it to others.

As I recall, the Banks children are complaining about their father, who is grumpy and who never has time for them. Mary Poppins asks them to consider having more compassion for him. He works long days every day in order that they may have a good life—he doesn't want to go off to his job; it's like a cage to him.

From my view, my parents modeled a rather 1950s-era white and middle-class lifestyle in many ways, including in division of labor and in feeling held to—perhaps trapped by, I amend, when sadness and compassion, rather than anger or frustration, remind me of Mary Poppins's lesson—certain societal expectations. Now that I'm older, and they're getting older, and mortality is more a part of my awareness, I too find myself thinking and trying to reconcile memories from the past with knowledge from the present.

Debbie, have you been sharing your thoughts and questions with your sister? I have one sibling as well, and I find her an invaluable help as I gather, sort, and create memories, perceptions, and new conclusions because she's the one person who comes closest to exactly what I lived.

Thanks again.

Thanks Debbie

What a powerful and brave articulation of your experience. I will be thinking about this for days to come.



When you're honest, it gives others the freedom to do the same! Thank you for powerfully abandoning confinement in favor of truth.

"The more willing you are to surrender to the energy within you, the more power can flow through you."
~Shakti Gawain

Love is Radical


Conversations we have had about birth and death, love and pain, this circle of experience brings us closer to our truths. It is these authentic moments that bring out about our most radical selves. Love, in it's truest form, as you experienced those last few days, that feeling and experience is not only life-changing, but changes the world as well. What a gift that you both so willingly embraced, and now a gift that you share with us all.

Love is radical indeed.

Politicizing Family

I think that a good step towards politicizing familial experiences is to talk about them - which is what you've done here. Family background, for most people, is intimately linked to class and, like class, is not always the most immediately obvious aspect of someone's identity (at least for a large number of people engaged in social justice in this country). Knowing a person's familial history is not terribly common in my experience within various social justice movements and communities unless you get to know someone very well (though this obviously may differ depending upon the general demographics of a given activist community). And while this is partly due to the desire for privacy, I think some of it is because many people, especially when they assume they are in the company of people from various classes, don't want to talk about it and don't want to hear about it - for any number of class-related reasons.

Wow, this took guts

I wish I had something to say, but my reaction to this post is still just contemplative and emotional. I have no words yet... except thank you so much for putting your experience & thoughts into words for all of us to digest. It couldn't have been easy, but clearly there's a lot of appreciation for your efforts!

Many thanks


I may or may not gather the words to respond to this, but for now I will say thanks for sharing your story. In one year, I lost my mother (cancer), grandmother (cancer), and father (stroke). All of those relationships were complicated and often painful throughout my childhood and beyond. But as with your situation, these losses brought with them a kind of healing. Some doors were closed, others opened.

Again, many thanks,
~Deesha Philyaw

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