I’m tempted to keep saying “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.” But I stop. Who cares how I’m supposed to feel?
My father died 2 1/2 weeks ago. We knew it was coming. And then, of course, once it happens, things happen so fast you don’t have time to think. Now I’m home, receiving condolence cards, some from people I haven’t seen in 35 years. They speak of the pastor they remember in my father. “A loving, compassionate man.” “Brilliant.” “The best preacher ever.”
Just a few years ago, those comments would have made me angry. “Whoa,” I would have said, “if they only knew.” But in the last few years, I think I’ve done a lot of healing. I don’t know why. Was it turning 50? Gaining peace from leaving the pastorate? A lot of Al-anon meetings? Yes, yes, and yes. I didn’t want to get to my father’s death and have all that anger erupt then. I didn’t want to be THAT family member at the funeral.
But I haven’t known what I feel. When I saw him in the hospice that last day he was unconscious. I touched his hand and tried to feel a connection to this person. This was my father. The person, anyway, that occupied that role for the last 53 1/2 years. But he seemed like a stranger. When we viewed the body two days later, same thing. I tried to feel a connection. But all I could think of was that night in October in the hospital in Jackson when he tried to have a “significant” conversation with me.
“You were into the equal rights women’s stuff, I remember,” he said, trying to recall memories of my life as he knew it. I smiled. No use arguing now. He never knew that all I ever wanted was to be seen by him as a full, valuable, cherished human being. He just never got that. So he dismissed my passions. Laughed at them sometimes.
That night, once he could not truly remember much of my life, he began to tell me all the “wonderful” things he accomplished. Then he pat my hand and said, “So, it’s ok if I don’t wake up tomorrow. We’ve connected.” I nodded. I knew that was as good as it was going to get. The time for wishing for more was long over.
Upon viewing his body, I looked upon a man who never let me know who he really was. Who kept himself aloof, impersonal, always professional. His parishioners saw him in his pastoral role; the orator, the counselor. My warm, personable mother made it possible for them to see him as human. They didn’t know that they wouldn’t know how to relate to him if my mother wasn’t there. They saw the role he played, apparently well. Not everybody adored him. There were some that said that he didn’t talk about Jesus enough. He was offended.
But it was true. He didn’t.
I don’t know what my father believed, when it came right down to it. I know he was terrified of death. I know in the last three months of his life he was inconsolable. They increased his Ativan to the maximum dosage. He was terrified of being alone, especially at night. He was not comforted by the presence of his family, he didn’t care if we were there or not, really. He just wanted a warm body in the room. He wanted a voice on the other end of the phone when he intellectualized his terror. His family just could never please him.
The preacher for the funeral was a man whom Dad filled in for in Brookhaven, at Jackson St. UMC. Pastor Ron was a tall, skinny, effeminate man with a syrupy smile and a very large bow-tie. Dad would drive into Brookhaven occasionally and visit with Ron. For Dad, being a pastor was being part of an elite club. He felt that United Methodist pastors especially, were a special breed of people. They were above laypeople, for sure.
Dad had prepared a narrative that he wanted read at his funeral, to make sure certain things were said about him. He’d asked Stan to read it, but I don’t think he trusted Stan to go through with it, so he gave it to Pastor Ron.
My father’s eulogy about himself said that he was a British subject who was born and raised in India. He served five “really big churches”, with memberships from 600-1200 members. He was a pastor, preacher, counselor, educator, seminar-leader, keynote speaker, director and “many other things.” “He led many, many people to Jesus, and he was profoundly committed to his relationship with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Then Pastor Ron talked about how he would invite Dad over for “high tea” in downtown Brookhaven, MS. Dad had a way of getting people to do things for him. Pastor Ron got his secretary to provide cucumber sandwiches and a pot of tea for Rollo when he visited. One day, their visit came after Pastor Ron was out doing his pastoral calls. He came in and took his coat off, and took out his .357 Magnum pistol and laid it on his desk. Dear God.
That syrupy sweet smile. “There the pistol lay between the Word of God and English Breakfast tea.” The congregation laughed.
I couldn’t help but think that the pastor was a deeply closeted gay man who felt the need to assert his manhood by bragging about the size of his concealed-carry.
How to feel? My father was not a British subject. That was the narrative I was fed all of my life, until my brother gave him a DNA test and we came to find out he was more than half Indian. His mother, Mom-Mom Jesse, was nearly 100% Indian. The woman who Dad claimed made him embrace all things British. My father hated the Indian side of him and was verbally racist against “the natives.” He said once that Britain should never have left India. In fact, he left when they left.
My father always wanted to be British, and for his entire life after India, built that entire facade of being the Englishman. Even after the DNA test.
He would take it to his grave.
All of us children agreed that the service was for Mom. It was in her home church, the people were all “her” people, and it was for her comfort. Therefore, it was ok. Pastor Ron led us in a singalong of “Beulah Land,” a song I never learned but was always a favorite of Mom’s. The highlight for me was when my great-niece Riley sang “Amazing Grace.” It was the most real part of the entire service, and beautiful.
I still don’t know what my father believed, and neither did Pastor Ron. My father would never use the phrase, “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” and he thought “fundamentalists” were stupid. He did not talk about Jesus, for fear of sounding simple. He talked about “life beyond life” and “being accepted,” and a lot of esoteric language I can’t even remember because it made no sense.
He couldn’t tell me what he believed. What gave him comfort. What gave him hope. He never talked about “heaven” or “eternity.” I cannot imagine my father being at peace. Because he never was on earth. He was always very anxious. Obsessive at times. But he dismissed the “simple faith” of my mother, of me.
Pastor Ron said he knew that Rollo was laughing, now. Laughing with joy. Maybe. But I cannot imagine it at all. He never laughed with joy here. I never knew him to have joy. My daughter said she cringed when the preacher said that, because she could remember too many times when I was so angry with my father that I couldn’t see straight– and he laughed in my face. I saw him laugh at my mother when she was furious with him.
I sat there with my arm around my mother, who was comforted by Pastor Ron’s words. She sang “Beulah Land” with gusto, as I’d often heard her do so in the kitchen many years ago. My mother taught me about Jesus and God’s love and joy in faith, and how faith can help in hard times. My mother taught me how to find God in nature, in the woods, in a sunset, in the quiet, by the ocean or a stream. My mother taught me faith of the heart.
I didn’t cry. I have cried so many tears over the decades; tears of sorrow over not feeling loved or even seen by my father; tears of frustration when he just wouldn’t listen to me or take me seriously; tears of sorrow when I felt he belittled my mother one more time. Perhaps there are more tears in there to be shed. Perhaps not.
My mother was comforted. That’s what mattered that day. The casket spread was full of roses and pine branches, which gave off a powerful, sweet scent. As I listened to Pastor Ron say things that were blatantly untrue, the aroma of roses floated between us all, around us, enveloping us. I remembered Rosanne Cash’s song, “God is in the roses… and the thorns.” And I was comforted with every inhalation.
I was ok. I am ok. My brothers are ok. They, too, were baffled by my father’s aloofness and lack of ability to feel an emotional connection with anyone, much less his own children. But we all found healing in our own ways. Mark attends Catholic Church since marrying Nancy, but the other two want nothing to do with church. My own relationship with church is like a marriage that has gone sour after too many betrayals and hurts. Me and Jesus are fine.
The night Dad died, as I went to sleep, I felt a huge relief. As if a wall that I’ve been pushing against all my life finally fell open. Dad was always the source of tension. The person I could never prove myself to, the one who was never satisfied, the man who first dismissed me as “hysterical,” “too emotional,” and “just like your mother”– as if that was an insult. I stopped pushing so hard a few years ago. The night he died, it felt like a deep sigh. A release.
A chance to begin again.
I am sad that he lived such a lonely life inside himself, when all four of his children would have loved, at one time, to be a source of joy and pride for him. All of us had to finally give up that hope to have lives of our own that were healthy, full of love and relationships, and peace. I assume he’s in heaven, but I can’t picture it. I assume he’s different. That he finally experiences joy. And peace.
I hope he does.