In my last post I described the first five of the top ten lessons I learned from my dad, John R. Wiley, whose physical body died at 91 this past April. This is Part II of the talk I gave at his memorial service. Dad taught me — by example — to be rich in what matters: community, meaningful work, connection to God and nature, and physical health and vitality.
6. Use vivid language whenever possible. Growing up, if we were late getting out the door, Dad didn’t tell us to hurry up. He told us to “Expedite it!” He didn’t tell us to bring a jacket, but rather, an “outer wrap”.
In the Wiley family, words were our favorite playthings. They were tools for connection, for storytelling, for cracking each other up. Words created quality of life. No wonder I became a writer.
7. Be of service. Dad devoted thousands of hours in his life to volunteering for Meals On Wheels, Hillcrest Church (where he was a member), the local hospital, etc. Moreover, Dad didn’t call attention to his service. For him (and much of his generation) service was a normal way to live and didn’t make you special. I have found many ways in my life to volunteer, and it’s deeply satisfying. But I have thousands of hours of service ahead of me to match the joyful example Dad set.
For Dad, life was about fellow human beings. All his conversations and concerns were about people. He was a good listener with strong eye contact. He was right there with you. In his later years, Dad condensed much of his interest in people into the single word “Really!?”
“Dad, Michelle’s going to Florida for a week with her school choir.”
“Dad, I talked with Suchira yesterday.”
“Dad, Mark and Jan are living in Claremont now.”
“Really!?” His interest and animation never faded.
We’ll be coming back to “really”.
8. Choose your partner carefully. This lesson was humbling.
My dad’s final partner, Margaret, suffered from alcoholism and paranoia. She didn’t choose to get help for those things. I would call Dad every Sunday as he lived with her, to stay in touch. But Dad asked me to stop calling at all, because Margaret was suspicious of me. I obeyed him, but I grieved. (And I got my husband to call instead).
We tend to adopt the behaviors and habits of the partner we choose. Because Margaret was physically sedentary and socially isolated, Dad adopted those habits, even though it wasn’t the real, original him.
As I watched Dad with his final partner, I gained empathy for what my parents felt when I made poor choices of partners in my youth. I could finally feel their pain. You want the best for your loved one, and they’re not choosing that for themselves. The lesson: choose your partner carefully, because the impact is big.
9. How to release someone when they need to die. This might be the most practical, valuable lesson for you, since you will eventually have people start dying on you. It comes with the earth territory.
I learned from Steve, a hospice chaplain, when a person’s body is done – and Dad’s clearly was — it’s important to have a certain conversation, so that the loved one doesn’t hang on painfully from a sense of duty. They need permission. You don’t even have to use the word death. Here is how this went for me and Dad.
“Dad. All of us here are OK. You’ve done a great job. We’re taken care of. No need to stay on our account. Whenever you’re ready, it’s fine to move on.” (Those last words are key.) Dad and I looked into each others’ eyes when I said this to him, and I saw he understood. It was the next day that he passed.
This was the hardest and the most rewarding thing I learned from my relationship with my dad. In Part I I mentioned Dad’s rageful, abusive behavior in my youth had wounded me. Many of us have wounds; I’m sure Dad did. BUT. Wounds can be calls to action.
I spent hundreds of hours in my twenties and thirties in therapy, and especially in twelve-step support groups, dealing with the wounds, and learning to not recreate the pain of the past. Those hours were well spent. I learned to make healthy choices. I’ve also spent hundreds of hours of my life running, largely in forests and wildish places. My legs have been my lightning rods, grounding painful emotions from the past back down into the earth.
These healing rituals let me forgive my father more than a decade ago. They gave me the privilege of holding Dad’s hand in his final hours. My brother Mick held his other hand, my brother Jeff was at the foot of the bed, and sunlight streamed into the room. Every ill feeling was long burned away, my heart and mind were clear like water, and I murmured into Dad’s ear about where he was now going.
This love and joy would have been inaccessible without forgiveness. Forgiveness brings redemption, the cornerstone of my faith.
Which brings us around full circle to lesson # 1: practice your faith, whatever it is. It triggers joy and makes us rich in what matters. Like Dad.
And what’s going on with Dad right now? Here’s my conviction, born of faith but actually reported by thousands of people who have come back from clinical death. People from all different backgrounds have reported this scenario, including people with no religious background at all.
Dad is in a dimension suffused with light and governed by unconditional love. The prison of his physical body has fallen away; his soul-body is weightless, free. Dad’s parents and family and friends are in their own light-bodies, greeting him in loving reunion. Dad is looking all around with delight, wonder and amazement. And he is saying – please say it with me —
Yes, Dad. Really.
My break from blogging this year has meant less screen-time. And with less screen-time, I’ve felt richer in what matters: spending more time outdoors, and being more present to my face-to-face relationships and my paid work that I love (I coordinate public transit for rural Southwest Oregon). So ironically, chasing the diamond-cut life means I won’t often be blogging about it. I hope the 637 posts I’ve published to date are helpful to people; here are the most popular ones. And eventually I’ll be checking back in. Namaste.