THE BEST WE CAN - Mike Riddell
THE BEST WE CAN
My father died recently. He was 92 years old. He’d had a tough life in many ways. He was born “out of wedlock” as they used to say, and carried a deep sense of shame that went with the imposed callous label “illegitimate.” When he met my mother, he cried while telling her his secret–certain that she would want nothing more to do with him.
Later in life they divorced after he’d abused alcohol over a long period throughout their marriage. He was severely beaten while drunk and needed surgery. He developed cancer of the jaw, and it looked like he might die. Fifteen years after this he had a major stroke and couldn’t speak. Then he gradually began to lose his sight.
His name was Ron. For most of his life he was a laborer and hard work took its toll. But he overcame all the assaults on his body, and lived alone, remaining in his own house for most of the final years of his life. He did this through a fierce stubbornness that resisted any challenge.
He couldn’t bring himself to tell me he loved me. I suspect he thought to do so would be transgressing some sense of male identity. The closest he got to affection was to finish our phone calls with “all the best.” It was less than I hoped for, but it was as much as he could manage.
For the final three weeks of his life, Ron ended up in hospital-level rest home care. With his mental faculties dimming, he had some falls; and being blind, had no idea where he was. I went to see him in the distant city where he lived. By the last day of my time with him, he didn’t know who I was.
I tried to feed him, but he couldn’t swallow and so the food spilled out and ran down his chin. When it came time to leave, I kissed him on the head. There was no flicker of recognition. He died a week later. Fresh out of the hospital with my own encounter with cancer, I was able to return and be there for his funeral.
My dad was racist, homophobic, sexist, and bigoted. He was also a damaged man with an enticing smile and a great fund of stories. In his better days, when we both lived in the same town, I’d spend time with him in the pub every week. It was his natural environment, and the best way to get to understand him.
I would try to hug him, but he did his best imitation of a surfboard, clearly embarrassed and reluctant. I was a little hurt by his reticence, but found it easy to forgive him. Even if we don’t recognize it, the social currents in which we exist often shape us. I was willing to cut him some slack.
We’re all doing the best we can. Ron played the cards that were dealt him, without much sense that he had a shitty hand to start with. The great thing about a funeral is that it gives the opportunity to name and dismiss human faults, while celebrating the essential goodness that lies within the journey of a life.
We live in fractious times. It’s all too easy to cast difference as evil, and to adopt an attitude of enmity. Certainly there are times when resistance is needed, but more often than not it is the ideologies that mold people that require our attention, rather than the unthinking products of such dogma. The temptation to personal hatred is subtle and corrupting.
I find in myself a reservoir of anger, brewed in the dark places. Often this gets hooked onto an external source of provocation. Sometimes there’s good cause for my arguments–but little justification for the vehemence that accompanies them, nor for the disrespect I demonstrate toward those who oppose my views.
The person I damage most in such moments is myself. I diminish my own humanity by doubting that of others. I don’t beat myself up about my character flaws. Like everyone else, I’m doing the best I can as well. But I do try to reflect on the dynamics of my anger. Hatred is a poor methodology to reduce hate.
My home country, New Zealand, is a long way from the sort of conflicts that literally threaten the future of existence. I watch in wonder as world players seem to acquiesce to the prospect of nuclear war or environmental collapse. But even in these situations, it’s useful to attempt to get behind the posturing and find the causes.
Which came first–Nazism or Hitler? It was a symbiotic relationship, clearly, but the figurehead is nothing without the ideology that fuels him.
Many years ago I spent a day at the Dachau concentration camp. After touring the site, I took time to sit and reflect in a beautiful Catholic chapel, named Todesangst Christi–literally, Christ’s fear of death. In meditation, I peered into the heart of darkness.
While earlier I’d felt rage at the Nazis, now I came to the realization that this evil was lodged inside my own heart rather than outside it. Whatever any human is capable of, we all are. If we are to condemn, we include ourselves in it. Otherwise we border on extinguishing the lives of others.
I’m not advocating quietism, or just rolling over and letting terrible things happen, but simply that we try to live out of connection and inquiry, rather than projection and vilification. I no longer believe it is possible to bring light to any person unless we find it in ourselves, and then make common ground with the other. After all, it’s not our own light we’re offering.
My father loved animals, the whole of his life. In his childhood, he had a pet trout, a pet owl, and a pet penguin (don’t ask). Later he had dogs, and in his later years cats–including one that travelled the country with him in a VW van. There was a mutuality of love between them.
He made a lot of mistakes along his way, but he got many things right as well. There was a kindness that struggled to find an outlet, and it’s this that I hold on to now that he has gone. He was doing the best he could. Twenty years before he died, I wrote him a poem that I think of as an epitaph. It included these words:
It's the inner wounds
That take their toll;
A childhood as a bastard,
A loneliness in your heart
That nothing ever reaches.
I watched you scrape new spuds
With tenderness and skill,
A gift to us from your garden.
Only in these silent gestures
Can you describe your care.
Your cross-country running
Gave the pattern;
Stamina, endurance of pain,
Solitude - but now
Where do they leave you?
“Your father misses you,
Lives with regrets,” said Kath.
Have none on my account.
I never needed words
To understand you.
There's something of the father
In the son.
Before you go,
Pour yourself another beer
And know I love you.