This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Honoring the father as well as the mother.” This talk was part of a special service on Earth Day.
You can view the YouTube video below. If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video.
In the past month, my 98-year old father has been hospitalized three times. Since I am an only child and a dutiful daughter, this has thrust me into a new chapter of my life – which feels at times disembodied and surreal and other times purposeful and grounded.
The night before one of his medical appointments, I slept in Levittown – the place where I grew up and is so much a source of strength to me as well as a considerable source of angst. I attribute my strong work ethic to my working class background. This is also the backdrop of two of my novels and partly of my memoir, Tea Leaves, about taking care of my mother when she was terminally ill.
In this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to a conventional God about my father. Now, I was raised secular. In the past four years of being a Unitarian Universalist, I have learned about traditional religions and at the same time deepened my spirituality through such alternative paths as Buddhism and yoga. I have always prided myself on being alternative.
To say that I have long had issues with patriarchy is putting it lightly.
One of my earliest memories is when my father and I walked to the neighborhood pharmacy – which is still there but now sells convalescence and medical supplies for the home instead of the chewy Mary Jane candies of my childhood – and for some reason I stayed outside. When he came back out of the store, I was putting the imprint of my finger in the pliant grout around the store’s window. “What are you doing?” he asked me. I truthfully replied that the group of boys who had just been there told me to do this. “Never do what a group of boys tells you,” he said gruffly. I must have taken his words to heart, because this is how I have lived my life.
And so in this conventional landscape, I found myself praying to God the father to help my father. When I told my partner who I was praying to, she gave me a quizzical look – that comes rarely in the lives of the long married — that said, who are you?
A week later in the emergency room with my father again, I found myself again praying. There is much suffering in the emergency room. I could feel the pain around me – the squalling babies, the broken people wheeled in on stretchers, a gaunt and neglected old man leaning back, his mouth wide open.
I was sitting there breathing in and out. I was practicing Tonglen – the Buddhist practice of breathing in the suffering around you and breathing out peace. But there was so much suffering around me – including my father lying back on his bed with a breathing tube in his nose.
Then the young dashing doctor came in. He kept shrugging and mentioning that my father was 98 – and that he could go home if he wanted to. I could see him giving me a sideways glance. I felt summed up as a big lesbian who his charms were lost on. More than that, I found his ageism appalling. My father was in the emergency room because he had a hard time breathing. (He is living with congestive heart failure.)
Fortunately, the nurse — who I liked — suggested that my father be admitted to the hospital. As I write this reflection, he is still in the there. I am sitting with him – making sure that he gets the proper care.
My partner and I live our lives simply and fully as if every day is Earth Day.
Barbara is a drummer and we have attended many gatherings where it is chanted:
The earth is our Mother, we will take care of her.
This is true – the earth is our Mother – and I did take care of my mother.
But the earth that I sprang from is also my father – and I will take care of him.