Tears of My Father
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Two days after my birthday was my fathers’, or June 24th. This year I wanted to share some snapshots in my relationship with him, in the hope that it might be useful to you in your journey of self-exploration, making peace with your past (if required), or in general, having a balanced psychology so favorable for spiritual practice. Dear reader, I am indebted to you for taking the time to read this, and to think about your own relationship with your parents. What does it tell you about the nature of the material world of (re)birth, disease, old age, death and disappointment, and the importance of receiving the saving grace of spiritual knowledge and bhakti practices to uncover the eternal life of the soul?
I was running a preaching center on O Street in Washington D.C. in 1986. After leaving Baltimore with Maha-nidhi Swami to travel and preach, after some time I felt it would be a natural move to stay there. I had a small staff which fluctuated between 1 or 2 devotees. I also received some morale boosting, and financial support from the near-by Potomac MD, Temple from which devotees sometimes visited to chant, preach, or help cook. We held three feasts a week, mainly attended by college students and young people in the area. All was going fine for a few months after I settled in, and then, one afternoon between feasts, I felt like something ominous was in the air. It was a typical August sunny, muggy day, nothing unusual but this feeling. Although I couldn’t put my finger on the possible reason, I prayed for clarity to understand. As I was lost in thought, the ringing of the phone startled me. It was Barbara, my father’s current wife. She told me that my father had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
A long silence ensued. I didn’t have a personal reaction, being in shock, and besides, I wasn’t very good at dealing with others in such matters of intense sorrow. I was at a loss for words, thinking more about her, than for myself. Even today, it seems so inappropriate and trite to say things like “sorry for your loss,” or any number of socially correct statements. Finally, I was able to thank her for letting me know, and told her how sorry I was. Our conversation was awkward, so in a few minutes we hung up. My gut feeling was that she felt really uncomfortable and disturbed telling me such sad news and didn’t want to spend much time on the phone, lest her own feelings might be revealed. I couldn’t determine how she truly felt from her matter-of-fact announcement, or if she was concerned about me at all—it seemed more a social obligation.
In our previous face to face encounters, we had pleasant talks, as she had been a member of the Vedanta Society and was familiar with and accepted the idea of karma and reincarnation. “Far out,” I thought. However it seemed that she and my father didn’t have the greatest relationship. Thinking back specifically to the last time I visited my dad, I felt bad that in the name of my personal healing in our relationship, I had told him of the nightmares I used to have of him beating me as a child. He really couldn’t hear it, and never responded, but only looked down, dejectedly. I wondered if our conversation had increased his sadness about how his life had turned out, perhaps contributing to his suicide. Studying the lives of my parents shows the futility of a life with no spiritual knowledge or goals. During their last years they were full of regret and despair. All in all, they have been very important teachers for me.
Being overwhelmed by the negative energy surrounding him, and our unresolved issues, I had to leave early from that visit. While leaving him was a relief, our relationship still felt raw and unresolved. And now he was dead—bodily speaking that is—and we had no opportunity to talk. However, from the spiritual perspective, we still have a connection, and I feel his presence from time to time. In fact, as I was thinking of what I might say here, I got goose bumps as I felt his company with me.
The following year I flew out to California to take training in hypnotherapy and to visit his wife and the place he died in, their home. After the training, I took a bus to the city nearest their home in Oakhurst, California, at the gateway of the famous Yosemite National Park. From the moment I got on the bus, I felt my dad’s presence strongly—not in a scary or creepy way, just a presence which was welcoming. I waited at the bus station hours later than her scheduled time to pick me up. I was beginning to wonder if Barbara remembered, but she soon showed up, a bit in a daze.
On the drive to her home she seemed mainly concerned about the financial strain my dad’s death would bring her, not about any sadness, or that she would miss him. In the course of the days I stayed there, it was evident that this had been another compulsive marriage by my father (he proposed to my mom after their first wild night together, and unbelievably, she accepted). This was mainly a relationship of convenience. Fair enough, but unfortunately it had become barely tolerable for both of them. “Fath,”as I called him, was still an alcoholic with an anger problem. Barbara told me the same thing my mom had said: “Can’t stand him when he’s drunk, can’t stand him when he’s sober.” How sad is that? Yet with all his faults, there was a certain sincerity to do the right thing which I felt from him, though he often seemed incapable of accessing it due to his pain and personal demons. At his core, he did love me—a son who is trying to be a devotee--and that made all the difference.
Parents from that era didn’t often reveal any personal information about their lives growing up, the state of their marriage, or in general what was really going on in their lives. Thus, I have had to piece together my parent’s lives, and how they were brought up, in the hope of making sense of their relationship, and how they dealt with me. As I have often shared, uncovering this information is a good exercise for anyone trying to understand their parents psychology and how that affected their own parenting skills. One may be especially motivated to do this, as I was, when one has relationship, occupational, or money problems—much can be traced to our parents, who are instruments of our karma. This isn’t in the mood of blaming them, but in being as psychologically healthy and functional as possible, which is very helpful for giving our full attention and heart to our spiritual practice.
My father’s life, as far as I can tell, was a very troubled one from a young age. His parents’ married very late in life—his father was 60, his mom, 40. His father contacted polio, and although he recovered, when my dad was 10 he watched his father die. He did tell me, almost by accident, that this was a very traumatic experience. Then he was solely under the watchful eye of his mom, who was a very controlling and strict disciplinarian. Her nature caused my father to shut down, or close his spirit, as a reaction. He became a juvenile delinquent, running away from home, and in general getting into trouble—nothing worthy of jail time, but just rebellious stuff. From his words describing women, he obviously had major issues with them. His “sage” advice to me was that one couldn’t live with women, or without them, and in his life, he demonstrated this. He had major self-esteem issues from childhood that he kept his whole life, which crystallized in his suicide.
Let me conclude with this: When I visited my father’s wife after his death, my objective was to pray for his soul, and do what I could to release him, had he been obliged to remain there as a ghost, the frequent consequence of suicide. Though I felt his presence my whole visit, I couldn’t tell if he was bound there. However, I chanted to benefit him, talked to him about spiritual philosophy, and worked with some special prayers and techniques to let him move on spiritually. I felt extremely moved by the whole experience and was brought to uncontrollable tears a few times.
His life was also full of tears, but not shed, covered up by his pretense of being a macho man. Though his death was tragic, I am confident that he came to many realizations, and took a better birth by the power of prayer and the blessing of Shri Chaitanya and His followers. He was cremated, and his ashes were spread in the ocean. Out of the many lessons that his life can teach, the most important are that we have to be at peace with our past, be clear on our life lessons (suicide only postpones them), let go of anger and resentment, share love and kindness, see everyone as a teacher, and engage in spiritual cultivation to uncover the highest prospect of our soul—the true purpose of life. At death, with our life review, this will be abundantly clear, so it’s better to practice it now.