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.
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.