his legacy and his death.
He and I knelt in the damp spongy fragrant forest soil…a tapestry of rich color and textured substance. The air smelled of fresh spicy pine and earth mold, and light in darkness. With his arm around me he directed us to what remained of a log laying on the forest floor. He reached out to the rotting log and then looked at me with his engaging brown eyes and told me to see what was happening here in this forest. With seeking hands he started digging carefully, only his fingertips were necessary for the soil was soft. What was once a mighty tree, solid in its stance, was now a malleable mass of something else. This was my Dad’s passion.
Dad’s fingers came right to where this once upon a time tree met the soil beneath it and he showed me that they were no different….they were one now…tree was becoming soil and soil received tree as nutrient. Dad scooped up a handful of this humus, with its darkness clinging now to his fingers and stuck beneath his fingernails, and lifted it to his nose, breathing in its fragrance fully. His eyes twinkled as a hobbit’s would when he offered the handful of humus to me. I smelled it with a tentative curiosity. As its scent reached into me I remembered it somehow and inhaled totally. It was soil and body and mother and safety…it was fertility and beauty somehow as well. I felt home. It was a fragrance that rooted into my memory banks to a time before time….the food for all life and the essence of transformation. Transforming energy incarnate was there in Dad’s hands. Somehow my young mind and body understood this. I looked up to the swaying green pine fingers and saw the blue sky beyond, and suddenly the sound of the quiet earth surrounded me and I became something more.
Even now the earth-filled moment penetrates me and whispers in hushed tones…carrying the forest truths into me. It was that experience that was at once a single moment and a million other moments that flowed through my veins when I looked into my Dad’s eyes for the last time.
He sat in his chair looking out beyond the balcony of the eighth floor apartment in the retirement home that he and Mom lived in. I knelt before him and told him I had to go…my voice cracked. I saw in his eyes a cross between a surrendered readiness for death and a frustrated, decidedly done man. Months earlier he had told me that his quality of life was now such that he was ready to move on…to change rooms as some native people refer to as a notion of death. I was blessed over and over again by our honest, raw and curiosity driven phone conversations where death and dying was so often our topic. We questioned the beyond and this great transforming, and again and again we met in a place not unlike that honest forest floor…when reality reigned and a sacredness surrounded us.
How could I say goodbye to this man I had called father for fifty years? We both knew it was our final goodbye, even without knowing. Why was I leaving now? Why was I feeling rushed to meet my sisters for dinner? Why would that take precedence? Was I folding under the tension of my heart? Was I fearful that I would be destroyed by the pain of this goodbye and so simply wanted it over? I remember almost avoiding his piercing, loving and pain-filled eyes…why WAS this so terrifying? How could I avoid them in this moment of never agains?
Almost numbing to the last seconds of our connecting, I hugged my Dad, my breath shallow and my throat grasping for something other than the cry that I feared would destroy me. I told him I loved him and walked out of apartment 815.
I rode the elevator down those eight floors with seemingly no oxygen entering me. My knees were weak. I did not want the reality of this man who influenced my heart so deeply to disappear forever from my days. This man had gifted me in a million ways with an ethic and love of Earth that now directs my every cell in my body. He was stubborn and beautiful and a lover of trees and humans and life, and a seeker of truth like me.
I turned one layer of my attention elsewhere and drove to my sister’s.
Was this really goodbye?
How could it be?
One week later, amidst a workshop in New Mexico, I got an urgent message to call my sister, Marci. I entered the glass phone booth outside the busy restaurant and pool area and dialed her number. In a faltering voice she cried that Dad was gone.
I stood in that sweltering, once common phone booth outside the hotsprings with sheets of tears flowing down my face. It was June…June 30, 2009 in the heat of the desert summer. In want for privacy I closed the glass phone booth door. I was drenched. Tears and sweat and whatever fluids flow from the heart in such desperately honest times, soaked me. Surely the heart had tears too. Retreatants walked by with concern on their faces, trying not to stare at me.
I hung up and dialed the phone number for Mom and Dad’s apartment. My niece picked up the phone and told me about the scene there and that Dad’s body was still sitting slumped in his chair, surrounded by family. In Iowa it was nearly the hour that Dad had long ago appointed the hour for his nightly ritual of imbibing in one ice cold Miller Genuine Draft beer, so my sister, Barb pulled out as many beers as were in the small refrigerator and passed them around the family members to share. Someone dipped their finger in their beer and put their fingers lightly to Dad’s lips…offering a toast to him. He was 88 and would have loved that.
I asked that they put the phone to his ear and through my gasping, cry-filled words, told him I would always love him…forever…and that I would always love Earth, and I thanked him for all his love and immensely caring heart. I told him to forge ahead and make the crossing…to walk ahead of us to show us the way. “I will miss you Dad, but I know I will find you in all of the glory of trees and nature.”
The tale of the time leading up to his death that morning was a miraculous story of will. My sister told me that Dad had fallen that morning and was not doing well…that my Mom was feeling the tremendous weight and stress of caring for him and that they felt it was time to call hospice to take him in. Dad had been stubbornly decisive over the months of his active dying that he wanted to die at home…NOT in hospice or the hospital.
A hospice nurse was there that morning and she had administered morphine to give him more ease with his pain. The nurse called hospice and told them it was time to send an ambulance for him and Barb and Mom and Jessica sat down with dad who was hunched over and barely awake in his chair. They gently told him that they had called hospice and that the ambulance was on the way. Dad groaned and made a despairing face. In the moments that followed with some kind of grace on his side, he simply reached up his hand as if someone on the other side were reaching for him, and bowed his head in death.
I hung up the phone and walked out into the desert hills of Ojo Caliente. The steep dirt trail was empty of humans as I had hoped. I came to a place where a gigantic ancient Juniper spread its branches wide, offering shade. It reminded me of Dad and his undeniable connection with trees. I sat beneath it and continued to open my voice to him. The sound of raven’s iridescent black wings speared the silence and it’s voice felt like a response to my cries.
He was with me.
My tears seeped into the soil beneath the tree and I swear the roots mopped them up.
He was here.
I lie on my back and felt Earth’s strong and loving support like his arms around me.
He was here.
I loved Dad more in that moment then in all the moments of my life. Funny how death defies argument and lays a banquet for love to live again, and grow.
He was there.