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Miracles and Joy

(In December of 1992 my father and my mother and their cats and I spent a few days letting go of my father’s life.  It was a touching privilege to be there, some good days for me at the end of a difficult year.  I looked to write that anecdote, and maybe later I will.  For now, this is how it came to me a year and two months before his recent death.)

Yesterday my mother underwent mastectomy.  As I write this note my father is having a bronchoscopy.  They are in the same hospital.

Cancer.  It will kill us, no doubt.  Cancer is not what I write of today, nor do I care much about cancer.  My parents are threatened with death this moment.  I am concerned about my parents but I am not concerned about death.  There is plenty of undeniable suffering here, but I can't do much about that.  I will prefer to write of miracles and joy, two topics I have until recently dismissed as nonsense and frivolity.  Now these (or something like them) are all I know as real.

Joy and miracles, what can they be?  (I can't afford to get academic about all this, lest I leave truth for a realm of obsessive-compulsive fantasy, footnotes French, Greek and German.)  Joy is something which can germinate and grow in me, an attitude which accepts what is before me as what is best.  Miracles are those events which come from completely beyond my own power which have great meaning for me.  I find it convenient to talk as if they came from God.  But the joyful attitude is not something I imagine up or resolve on my own, nor (from my perspective) is the unplanned powerful event of a miracle something God imposes on me without my being open to it.  Joy and miracles are part of what flows between God and me constantly, and the more attuned I become the more deeply I can be immersed in them.  Joy and miracles are not just the private property of this one little child, but are yours to share with me also, and mine to share with you.  We can be aware (and probably always are, beyond what we are willing to admit) and we can enhance our willingness to be aware, to accept what is here for us as what is good for us.

I think of the bleak self-pitying child I was, and although I understand something of the pouting fury with which he rejects miracles or joy, I know the warm fluid of miraculousness and joy seeps through the seams of his armor, and the warmth radiates out from him also.  He uses rigid rationale to show there is no God, and that even if there were, that God would not suspend the regularity of statistical probability or the "laws" of "science" to produce the offensive miracle.  He knows there is no joy, for all the world is neutral, and happiness is a fantasy which has never been, which blinds us to the truth of cold reality.  His pretense that he does not suffer joy is belied by his scant sadistic laugh, his obvious enjoyment of his own gloom.  His pretense that there is no higher power for him is belied by his loyal dedication to what he calls logic and fact.  He believes in Truth.

It is not difficult to analyze the faults of his position (nor is it very important for me to do so with academic thoroughness).  He is self-centered.  He takes seriously the obligation he has felt to comprehend the universe (rather than to enjoy it).  No wonder he feels burdened!  Without having intended to be grandiose he has taken on (more than is possible for him) the tasks of God.  In that process to a great degree he has lost his freedom to receive, to rejoice.  He is hard to live with, because although he is always willing to do things for you, it is by his best judgement, "for your own good."  (Perhaps persons who trust each other share, and persons who do not trust one another do each other favors.)

To me, the family in which I grew up was characterizable by the ethical imperative to be right.  Conflict centered about being right, and there was no room for two rights.  To be right was to be acknowledged as right.  It was not enough merely to be convinced in your own heart you were right.  No sacrifice was too great a price to pay to be acknowledged as right.  You would even relinquish the larger piece of chocolate cake if only the other would concede you were the one who had the right to it.

There were various styles of being right--by might, by suffering, by noise, by haughtiness, by the over-ready admission you were to blame.  It seems to me none of us was especially right, that our little family system too closely resembled the larger culture, and was not right at all.  It was surreptitiously based on competition, threats and bribes.  It was not very much directed toward the growth and freedom of the persons in it, especially not the growth and freedom of my mother or my father.

An anecdote reminds me what it was we carried from before the beginning:

Not many years ago my identical twin younger brothers, pained and wild, came to visit me.  After two hours of incoherent unjustified face to face to face screaming during which no sentence was completed we came suddenly to rest and repaired to the stoop to view the moon.

Three men sitting together in the cool night, together in that moment for no reason, remembered (did not recollect or reconstruct, but recalled directly from where it happened) a single moment we had shared thirty-five years earlier.

“Do you remember when you hung us out the window?”

“I was just thinking of that exact moment, not merely remembering but feeling it right here in my hands and wrists.”

“I remember that too.”

“It’s clear now:  I took each of you by the ankle, one in each hand, and hung you out the third floor window, over the concrete sidewalk.  It horrifies me to think of it (though I have from time to time), appalls me to consider I would do something so dangerous, so arrogant––and I have no idea why I was doing it, then or since or now, no idea why.”

The men who share identical genes and mirrored selves, one clockwise, one counter-clockwise, and so much the same they have been able to communicate by E.S.P. across the continent––these twins who always know each other’s minds responded variously:

“Yes, damn you!  That’s when I began to hate and fear you.  I have never been so terrified.”

“That’s strange.  This is when I began to love and admire you.  I’ve never been so excited.  I knew you wouldn’t let us fall.”

“Well, damn you too, then.  You’re crazy.  I was scared.”

“But I was thrilled.”

“You both remember?  That’s amazing.  You couldn’t have been three years old...”

“I’m still angry.  Didn’t you know we looked up to you as a father?”

“...and I was only nine.  I hadn’t quite yet thought of the responsibilities of a father.  I hadn’t yet become aware that our father wasn’t there for you.  I hadn’t thought you needed me––but that is why I did it!  I held you out the window to show all of us all of these things, the things our family didn’t know:  that life is dangerous, that I was strong, that you could trust me, that I did care for you, that my brothers needed a father, that I needed to be needed, and all the rest, all the rest...”

“What is the rest?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe we all hold babies in our hands, and maybe those babies also include our selves, our tender fears and feelings.  Maybe we each contain within us all the persons, all the relationships we ever lived or imagined; and we have to be able to mother and father and sister and brother ourselves––just in case.  And none the less we need to know no matter how scary it may be we must trust another person, put ourselves in another person’s hands, be contained in ourselves and held by another at the same time.”

“I’m not so angry.”

“I love you.”

“And I love you.”

“And I love you.”

“And I love you.”

“And I love you.”

“And I love you.”


For more than twenty years I (and my siblings, I suspect) communicated into that family rarely and shallowly.  We avoided or repelled contact.  We moved to distant cities.  We were very busy.  When my father considered a position on the faculty where my brother and I were medical students we told him directly there wasn't enough room in that city for him while we were there.

About five years ago a miracle happened.  My father got lung cancer.  Miracles do not come from what is good only.  My father's cancer was not good.  Miracles bring about what is best.  My father changed.  He had no expectation of leaving the operating room alive.  When I talked to him on the phone soon after the surgery I heard the voice of a man who was alive.  He cried joyfully, without coherence or discipline, free to live the rest of his life on borrowed time.  He stopped drinking without the slightest conscious thought.  It was exactly the spiritual experience.  Since then four more of the seven of us have stopped drinking.  The remaining two (the women) have had no need to stop drinking, expert, perhaps, at other dimensions of excess.

Starting, stopping.  Neither can be done without a capacity to engage in change.  That takes freedom much more than discipline.  And faith, openness, flexibility, willingness, humility.

We have grown, every one of us.  We have grown together.  We have come together often in the past five years.  More than the formalities of fixed expectations in roles and relationships we have shared what has been before us and what has been deepest in us.  I will not bore you with what would sound silly details of many visits or letters, but I will focus on a few highlights of my own experiences with my mother and with my father, as I pray for their wholeness and togetherness today.

I sent him some poems about the abuse and pedanticness I suffered from him as a child, explaining I did not intend to offend, but out of honesty sent them to him because they bore on him.  I received a letter from him which praised the beauty of my poems.  "You have described a difficult and distant parent.  I'm glad our relationship is not like that.  How are you getting along with your son?"  Soon I learned he had not first heard these poems from me, but from my brother to whom I had also sent them, when our father visited him in a hospital alcohol treatment program.  An ardent reading, no doubt.  An intricate interweaving of persons and tenses, no doubt.1

I didn't realize fully until long after medical school I, the eldest son, had spent most of my life energy trying to fill in the personal and professional holes I sensed in my father's life.  His brutality had convinced me of his pain, and rather than running from it I had tried to live out the comforting of it.  I don't know why my next younger brother went into medicine, but I sense his reasons were as deep, and (if you wish) neurotic.

I remember as a child having firmly resolved never to mistreat my children.  Of course I did, but I was as blind to my own self-centered brutality as I could be until I was well enough for my children to trust me enough to say, "Oh yes, Dad.  We were terrified of you.  Friday nights were the worst.  We hid under the bed even before you came home."  It is a miracle that we would ever get well enough for them to tell me, or that I would ever get well enough to hear (and cry with tears of sharp pain and deep joy).

Following my father's lung cancer came his strokes, his heart attack, his arterial bypass surgery.  There is no inherent good in pain, suffering, disease, but clarity can come, and  growth or revelation or the bond between us of having shared the survival of what threatens us (or in the graceful or in the furious capitulation to what is overwhelmingly real).   [Dylan Thomas' poem for his father, "Do not go gently..." might be read now.2]

My father seemed to become daily more humanized, more sensitive to the cats, to the persons about him.  His depression brought him deep humility.  Even though for the first time in seventy or more years he could carry a tune, cry when he was touched to cry, express direct emotion of the most meaningful sort, he threw over his head the excuse, "I don't work words good any more" (as if the stripping away of five languages had not for the first time given him articulateness in the language of the heart).  Out of habit he mixed each first evening highball but forgot to drink it, so he left rings on the furniture from the sweating glass--another miracle that his stroke had let him stop drinking, this doctor who had medicated his rage daily with the oldest of all medicines.  Losses are real, no doubt, but gains are real as well, and these are growth and change as beautiful as any symphony.

Mother shared with me some of her fears of again caring for an invalid, as she had cared for her own mother in her last years.  If my father's losses seemed a tragedy because they showed the inevitable degeneration which belongs to us as mortal, my mother's reactions then must seem a comedy.  When we congregated for his heart surgery she told us not to come, forbade us, tried to chase us away.  There were grown persons willing and able to help her, to offer company and to take in return only belonging, and she seemed to think, "I have so much to do and care for, how can I have these guests in the house at the same time?"  Frantic we all are when we think we must uphold the universe alone.  And because we all can be so blindly foolish in our hidden grandiosity, it is comic.  And I thank God for the miracle that today my mother also can laugh at her own enactment of universal human foolishness.

She has grown like a weed since those few years ago before she had reached seventy.  Don't get me wrong.  I have great respect for that intelligent, hard-working and generous woman I think my mother was.  It is not in our proper or helpful or polite behaviors but in our splashing about together in a thick flood of sweat and tears and blood, as we suffer and share together, we become friends.  It has been in our facing who we fear we are we find the selves we share unselfishly, with a special kind of pride and gratitude that life itself has been ours.

As she was preparing to go into the hospital a couple days ago we talked.  I asked her all the important questions I could about her cancer, her body, her feelings for herself, her fears.  I asked her questions more than once, and listened to her answers.  I asked out of respect for her serious self and her serious situation.  I asked as thoroughly as I could out of respect for the truth.  Her voice and her words convinced me she was all there, not hiding, not over-dramatizing.  I thanked her for being candid with me, for including me.  She said, "I don't know anyone who can be so honest with all her children.  I have been able to discuss this with each of you, and I am confident now about what I am doing."  It reminded me, and I shared with her, that by some miracle our family (this week  before my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, this merely fifty year old family) has grown together, and each of us has grown, that we are more sensitive and full and understanding and strong and aware and open each and all, without exception--especially these past five years.

These things all today are a part of my own great joy in being (beyond what I could myself  create), and they are miraculous (beyond what I myself could conjure).  I pray for my mother's and for my father's comfort and wellness and wholeness today.  Today I don’t worry how things will go for them or me, for my brothers or my sister whom I hold dear here in my  heart, or for my children (my furthest hopes, the focuses of my faith, sources of the greenest kind of beauty).  No matter what suffering of pain or loss may be with us or before us, today is a miracle, and I rejoice.


1 A poem for my father, in gentler and more recent form:

Please, Do Go Gentle

If only I had known
I would have grown into the same
I would have given him
good graceful gifts of love
and gotten some and learned to give.
But he didn't tell me what he felt
until we were old men together.
By then I hated what he did to me
when I was young
and needed honest love.
When I got old
I couldn't use my love for living,
only for remembering.
We share some stingy bits now
of love and of remembering.  (1978)

That was then, when I was merely old
and he and I had not gone far together.
As we have grown we have grown warm
and walks along our gardens in the west
have shown how separate,
we have made our ways
beyond the wilderness
of deadly deprivation.
I am in earth, where I exert my plow,
sweat from my brow to clear my plot,
remain gently to plant and to nurture,
prune and clean about it all
in my own way.
Unhurried now
we walk together chatting truth,
noticing each cultured place we pass
succinctly demarcated from the next
(though boughs hang over fences,
seeds blow and fly awry, and bees
dance dizzily beneath the trees
as if barbed wire weren't there).
So, easily we see
the work of cultivation does not change
the force of nature.
Garden fences don't restrain
one species from another
to devour or miscegenate.
We do not subdue nature,
but ourselves become tame in her lap;
and boundaries give us peace between us,
neighbors now,
who know
we can't withstand without each other
drought or cataclysm.
My father and I amble
respecting each,
and know we are neighbors in time,
sharing and remembering,
planting and pruning,
walking the worn path,
minding the traffic passing,
smiling silently
on the earth
and in it,
never again angry
or alone.


2Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their word had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1934-1952, New Directions, New York, 1971.

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