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On Remembering Dad

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Oftentimes September 20th comes at me by surprise. I wake up one morning and suddenly it’s here. This year is different. This year I’ve been watching it approach, anticipating its arrival, waiting to greet it like a guest stopping over on a long journey.

Maybe it’s because of the work I’ve been doing around the energy that September is ushering in, bringing awareness to any unfinished business or unresolved intentions in my life. Letting go of them once and for all, applying dedicated discipline and persistence towards practice and completion. Cleaning out material possessions I no longer need. It feels right and good, like I’m expanding my lungs with a deep, baby-bellyful breath.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve been contemplating grief a lot these days. Grief long hidden and unexpressed. Exploring what grief looks and feels like, turning it over, feeling it in my hands, probing with my fingers for any nooks and crannies where grief can hide like infinitesimal grains of sand. We, in the west, aren’t practiced or comfortable in the ritual of grief, either outward or inward.

I thought I was well prepared this year for the coming of September 20th, the twelfth anniversary of my father’s death. We siblings have our own small ritual to mark and honour his death and it begins with a morning email from my oldest brother with the simple subject line, dad. For me, this exchange of emails always brings me back to that day in the hospital when we all gathered around his bed one last time, his spirit in the room but no longer within his body. The string of time folds in and I am both here and there at the same time. And always I’m surprised.

This year I’m in the best place possible, in the peace of Hollyhock, immersed in the loving, holding space of my Art of Spiritual Guidance community. We’re beginning our second year of training/instruction/practice (it’s all these words and a hundred more) and I’m drawing the Home of my Soul. I have a handful of crayons and pencil crayons and a large piece of paper in front of me. It’s full of promise and potential and suddenly I’m filled with incredible sadness. It spills out of my eyes and stops my hands. Around me the air rustles with crayon strokes and the papers fill with beautiful, colourful images and my sadness is tinged with guilt. I’m not doing this right. I’m not grateful to the gift my soul is giving me. I can’t draw. I can’t…

I sit back with my sadness and sigh three times, letting go of my judgements, both around my drawing ability and around my sadness. Then I pick up a rose-red pencil crayon and begin writing instead, my words creating the images, enticing me to remember what my hands cannot draw.

And then I remember. Today is September 20th, the day my first spiritual teacher died. The home of my soul remembers and gives me the gift of sadness, a sadness that draws me inward to the source of my healing. Today is a day to sit with my sadness and be okay with that, because I know that this too shall pass. I know that on most days I remember my dad with great joy and delight. I know that even as I type my last word here, the sadness will leave and the joy will remain.

As my brother wrote this morning, “Yet, on most days, and particularly on this day, I only remember the infectious fun, joy and intelligence that Dad imparted to all of us.

That will always remain alive.”

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Hidden Treasures

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Where has the summer gone? I’m finding it difficult to stay present in the stillness of today when my tomorrows are lined up like soldiers marching into battle. I long to return to my ten-year old self when the summer days stretched endlessly in front of me. Time is elastic and perceptions shift.

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I have a house at the lake where my family gathers. This year my Colorado sister and her family camped their way here pulling a trailer, which they nestled neatly under the trees once they arrived. Once again I have my sisters beside me, if only for a long weekend.

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My younger sister, my older sister and me…and Lani the dog

On Saturday we three sisters drove along the narrow, winding country road into town for supplies for the weekend, stopping at every garage sale sign along the way. Who can resist a garage sale? You never know what you might need.

IMG_3382We stopped and poked about and did a lot of visiting. We found a few books at the first garage sale, bought an almost new rice cooker for $5 at the next one and found hidden treasure at the last stop.

When we five ‘kids’ first began gathering our families together each summer, we rented tiny rustic cabins on the Shuswap Lake close to the small town where we grew up. My mom would drive out to spend the day and my dad and step-mom stayed at a B&B close by. It was a great, big, messy, wonderful memory-making time.

I can still clearly see Dad sitting in a chair under the trees eating a mango and watching the grandkids play. I’m sitting beside him and as I reach for my own piece of mango he says, “There is no greater joy on earth than watching all you kids visit and laugh together.”

I smile back over at him, happy that he’s happy.

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Now I know what he meant. I watch my own adult four children as they talk and laugh together. My heart grows bigger than life itself as I watch their relationships grow into deep friendships. I have an experiential knowing of what my dad was teaching me fifteen years ago.

The last garage sale my sisters and I visit is at the top of the driveway. Long tables are set up end to end, their surfaces covered with a sundry and assorted bric a brac. Boxes filled with books and larger items cover the floor, leaving narrow aisles for walking and browsing. One sister kneels at the books and a second sister heads directly to the back. Im wandering through the middle, idly picking up one thing and then another when I spot the hidden treasure.

My heart does that expanding thing as I pick it up and a frisson of recognition flows through me, leaving me tingling. I’m holding a simple pottery spoon rest decorated with my dad’s signature glaze. I don’t need to turn it over to see his stamp to know that my dad’s hands made this.

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Of course we have to buy this! To find a piece of his pottery at a garage sale along a remote lakeshore road almost 900 km from where it was made is mystically magical. Serendipity.

The seller smiles and hands me back my money with the spoon rest, “It belongs to you.”

My dad’s spirit sits and rejoices beside me at the lake. It’s the next best thing to sharing a mango with him.

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There Once Was a Potter Named Dan

Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air.  They are where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.  ~ Henry David Thoreau

There are days when I’m drenched in sadness.  When melancholy seems to seep into my being even before I’m fully awake.   Grief can be like that, even seven years on.

I’ve had a restless night of very little sleep and when I roll over and finally open my eyes to the morning it is with the foggy brained headache of fatigue that I’m all too familiar with.  I close my eyes and mull over the remnants of my last dream, a variation of one that keeps recurring over and over again.  I wonder what it means, what my Self is trying to wake me up to.

I’m searching in the dream for the fingers of depression I feel stroking my skin, but find no answer.  I reach over and unplug my BlackBerry and automatically do a cursory check of my email and suddenly I’m flooded with memory.  An email from my brother with one word in the subject line, “Dad”, and I don’t even have to read it to understand why I’m filled with a sense of loss.  My mind has finally caught up with what my body has already remembered.

My brother’s email reads, “Hey guys, I remember it like it was yesterday.   I always will.  Raise a glass with me.”

My dad was one of those dad’s who could fix anything.  He was a jack-of-all trades, reinventing himself many times over, from working in radio and television, to drumming in a jazz band, to becoming a chicken farmer, but underlying every incarnation lived the heart and soul of an artist.  When he became a ceramic artist, creating a collection of handcrafted dinnerware, he finally came closer to marrying his passion to live a creative life with the everyday need to earn a living.

As I’m writing this I’m drinking tea from a mug thrown and glazed by my father.  I wrap my hands around the grooves that circle the outside and I imagine his hands as they crafted this mug and try hard to feel a connection; to feel my father.  I do this every time I sip tea from this mug and every time I am disappointed when it feels just like every other mug in my cupboard.  My father is not in the mug he made, my father is in me.

My dad visits me in my dreams sometimes.  Not often.  Not nearly enough and never, ever by my willful wishing.  When I lost my father I lost a vital link to the stories of my childhood.

Shortly after the birth of my second daughter my father and I are driving to visit my older sister who had recently moved to Saskatchewan.  My two young daughters are finally asleep in their car seats when my dad says to me, “I sometimes thought when you kids were young and life was stressful, how cool it would be to be able to meet your babies at birth, to look them in the eye and hold them and love them and then say to God – I love this baby.  This one is a perfect keeper, but I’m not quite ready.  And then put the baby up high on the shelf until you’re ready.”

I turn to him and am filled with an instant knowing connection.  He has just put into words exactly what I sometimes feel when I’m overwhelmed with the responsibility of mothering two young souls when I’m just nicely out of my teens.  And I’m suddenly struck at how young my dad was when he first became a father…and again and again times five.  With a big shift my perspective has permanently changed.

As we continue to drive the ever-long, never turning prairie highway, we continue what would become regular conversations that explored our shared history.  Together, throughout the years, at every visit we work and play to excavate our separate, yet conjoined truths behind almost every incident that might have seeded psychic wounds or joys.  This is the greatest gift my father gives me and the greatest loss I feel in his physical absence.

It is this loss I’m feeling most acutely in the early summer, the Gemini months of my dad’s birthday in May and my own in June.  My four children and I are celebrating my birthday in the first days of a rainy July, after my second daughter returns for a month long visit from Memorial University in Newfoundland.  Patrick and I are meeting his twin brother Braden, and my two daughters Meghan and Kate in Meghan’s apartment before heading out for dinner.

I open the apartment door and before I take two steps inside I’m greeting with three voices stopping me in my tracks, “Close your eyes and stay there!”

I stop and close my eyes as Patrick brushes past me to join his brother and sisters in their whispered planning.  They are becoming famous for their surprises and while I stand there with my hands now covering my eyes “in case I peek something inadvertently,” I’m silently thinking that nothing can top the gift of love that I’m feeling right this very minute.

But I’m wrong.  At Braden’s okay I open my eyes and step fully into Meghan’s apartment.  All four kids are looking at me with anxious and expectant expressions on their faces.  As I walk into the room and fully see the gift my children have given me I am flooded with emotion so strong it almost drains me of the energy needed to even stand.  Love and gratitude pour with a gentle strength into the hole of loss I’ve been feeling of late.  Tears are the only words that flow until finally I’m able to voice one word again and again.  “Wow.”

“You win,” Kate says to Meghan.

“I told her you would cry,” Meghan explains.

I can’t take my eyes off of their gift.  My children have given me the gift of my father’s legacy.  Propped before me are two large pictures.  One is an unframed liquid graphite finger painting done in grids by my son Patrick.  My dad is smiling as he guides the small hands of his two young grandsons as they work together to throw a pot on his wheel.  I can see and feel the love in my father’s smile and eyes.

A Potter's Legacy. Artist: Patrick O'Neill

The second large frame holds the gifts from my other three children.  Meghan has photo-shopped a picture of her grandfather working at his wheel and turned it into a Warhol like work of art.  Kate has produced an incredible sketched likeness using the same photo and the two of them side by side are striking.  Braden, my creative writing child, has hand-written his poem on linen and as I read the words I feel something within me begin to loosen, like a long ago rusted gear suddenly oiled and cleaned.

My Father's Legacy

A deep understanding fills me with warmth as I recognize my children for the teachers that they are. I hear my father speaking through my son’s words.  I don’t need to seek my father by wishing for a dream visit or by wrapping my hands around the mug he made.  My father lives in my children – in all of his grandchildren.

          Memory of Daniel Taylor Artist Hero Love Smile
                                    ~ Braden Daniel O'Neill

So, tell me now (I beg! I plead!)
              What is it you remember?
For your mind has moments in its caverns,
              With things distilled like coloured patterns.
These things have wandered, seeped, and spread
              Into the fingers of your soul,
                    Throughout the web within your head.

And here, this man, he sits all day,
              He prods and pulls and folds his clay.
He folds his arms, sits back at night,
              Content and happy.  Proud.  All right.
This man (his body) has passed since his arrival,
              Reduced this world by one less laugh and smile.
And he's reduced me too, by what he gave,
              Has swelled my shell (my soul), unending waves,
                                 Unending waves........
                                                                                      unending waves...
He's reduced me to a smile,
              Which conquers canyons every year.
He's reduced me to a courage,
              Which held my passions, quelled my fears.
He's reduced me to a love,
              Which turns to strength when things are hardest.
So he's reduced me to an artist.
                    And I've reduced him to a hero.

With his hands in yours, your eyes in mine,
              It's turned into something surpentine.
Unfolding lives from molded clay,
              That wheel he spun still spins today.
He holds our hearts and sits in minds,
              He folds our waves in patterned caverns.
                 He's made his glaze to shine through time.

Every mortal loss is an immortal gain.
The ruins of time build mansions in eternity. ~ William Blake

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Dream Visit from my Father

I wake gently in the morning, even those days that begin with the beep of my BlackBerry alarm.  I lay in the same position in which I awake, keep my eyes closed and I breath out slowly and evenly.  I let the last vestiges of the dream sink into me, running it through my head like a film.  What does it have to tell me?  What am I telling myself?

Last night’s dream leaves me feeling particularly good because my dad came to visit me.  Mornings after a visit from my dad are always better.  Like all my dreams I seem to drop into it in the second act and my friend Darlene is working on some kind of project with my Dad – which involves meeting up with him.

I’m not jealous but I’m wishful.  In the dream I’m telling her stories about him (I can’t remember which stories, just a feeling that I was sharing memories of him – like one would if you had never met the person – which was kind of weird since she was spending time with him) although at this point in the dream my Dad was also kind of Robert Redford…..it wasn’t clear if she was doing a project with Robert Redford or with Dad….they were kind of both the same person.  I smile at this.  I don’t usually think of my dad as Robert Redford, he’s more like the father in The Waltons.

I ask her what they do, and she gives me an old photo album.  Big with a worn, brown leather cover.  I slowly and carefully, almost reverently, turn the pages of this heavy book.  The pages where the photos would be is like a threadbare corduroy, a dark mustard brown colour, the fabric pulled tight, the corduroy in rows almost – like double furrows down the page, the fluff of the fabric worn almost completely away.  There are no photos, just the little corner pieces left to indicate where the photos were at some point.  My dad/Robert Redford has taken the photos out of the album so that Darlene may use it for the project.

I turn the pages wistfully and comment on how cool it would be to see the photos that were once here.  A couple more pages and there, lying loose, close to the inside binding and almost falling out of the book, are two photos.  I pick up one of them, a strip of four photos like those received from a mall photo booth.  They’re brown sepia toned pictures of my Dad at about ten or twelve years old.  I hold them gently as it’s obvious they’re very fragile.  Only two pictures remain and those two are in danger of disappearing – the emulsion has peeled away from two pictures at the top of the strip and pieces are loosened on the remaining two, like sunburned skin or the loosened paper label from a jar put through the dishwasher.

I hold it carefully and look into the eyes of my father as a child and smile.  “I wish you could have known him,” I tell Darlene.  Oblivious, in that dream-like way, that she is the one meeting with him in this dream.  And then, almost as soon as I say this, something in me softly realizes that I can see my father too, I simply have to ask.

And just like that I’m in the front seat of the car and we’re waiting for my Dad.  We’re picking him up, like teenagers heading out on a Friday night.  It’s dark and Darlene, my sister Shari and my son Patrick are sitting in the back seat.  I’m in the front passenger seat, which is oddly covered with a slight dusting of snow, which spreads a light one inch blanket across the entire front seat area – passenger seat, centre console and driver’s seat.

We’re parked in the driveway of our farmhouse on Harbell Road in Salmon Arm, just slightly ahead of the house, facing away from the road and toward the big barn at the end of the long driveway, so that I have to turn my head and look slightly over my left shoulder to see the back door of the house.  Up ahead to my right I know the machine shed is there beside the old outhouse, although I can’t see them through the dark night.

Looking and waiting for my dad to come out of the house I notice the shadowed shapes of the life-size reindeer, silently lined up as if to pull Santa’s sleigh, although it’s nowhere to be seen.  Big, blown-up birthday candles jut out of the top of each reindeer’s head – are they lit? I look at these stranded, frozen, flying reindeer with fond, melancholy recognition, thinking “Oh look, there are the Christmas reindeer of my childhood. If only you’d been there when….”  In my real childhood we had no such thing.  No lawn decorations of any kind.  But in this dream the memory is just as real as the snow I sweep from the seat of the car.

Then my father is jogging toward us, his arms full of packages meant to be used in whatever project he and Darlene are working on.  He runs through the dark, heading to the driver’s side before he remembers with a barely there “Oh, right, Darlene drives during these excursions” and he changes course and heads for the passenger door.  I’m smiling as he opens my door and greet him with a “Hey dad!”

He smiles back, hands me the packages and then wordlessly circles the car to get into the driver’s side, not surprised at all to see me sitting in the seat he thought he was to occupy.  I brush the snow away from the console and put the packages down.

We’re driving down the driveway, which is now paved and morphed into a narrow road.  “When did this happen?” I think,  “When did our farm driveway become a road and where does it lead?”  To our left I know is the house where Bubba Bland lives, down the paved road past the side lawn and the big tree with the tire swing.

In real life there is no such road.  In my real childhood the lawn spreads from the back porch to the summer house – a small, screened-in out building that we children used to sleep in during hot summer nights, the mosquitoes buzzing around our heads despite the wire mesh screens meant to keep them out.  Too many children opening the doors with unthinking abandon.

Walk along the grass away from the driveway with the house on your left and the summer house on your right and you’ll see the large maple tree with branches low enough to climb and big enough to settle into to read a book.  Hanging from the biggest branch is the big tire swing.  Lay a folded towel to protect your soft stomach from the hard ridges of the inside circle of the big tractor tire, dive through with your hands above your head and position yourself just so, finding the perfect balance point, and then push off, arms and legs dangling, long hair flying to just sweep across the top of the lawn and the hay field that the big maple borders.

Only in my dreams is Bubba Bland’s house where the alfalfa grows, his driveway paved over the grass of reality.  In fact, Bubba Bland’s brother now owns the farmhouse of my childhood.  The house where my dream father lives.

So we’re driving along the narrow, paved driveway road, Bubba’s house somewhere to our left, the machine shed and then the old chinchilla house to our right.  Then we’re driving between long rows of parked cars, under a large white tent.  It’s a car lot.  “Wow.  Progress.”  I think.  “Our farm has turned into a car lot?” I ask my father.  “Yep.”  He answers, both hands on the wheel, his attention focused on the road ahead of him.

Then we’re at our destination, the no-longer-a-barn at the end of the now long, paved driveway.  We park the car inside the large cavernous building and then we’re sitting at a desk or table with a large, over-weight man dressed badly in drag, a large “beauty” mark on his right cheek.  He’s removed his wig and his balding dark hair is messed.  Is he smoking, or is that the filmmaker in me adding details to complete the dream picture?  He looks like a mafia man wearing make-up.

My dad has the photo album on his knee.  My son Patrick sits beside me.  We’re here to talk to the mafia man in a satin spaghetti strap dress about a job for Patrick.  Go figure.

And there my dream ends.   My dad, me and my son in a scene from a 1930 gangster movie, minus the guns and danger and with the added colour of a man in drag.

I’m left with the lingering memory of my father who died suddenly on September 22, 2004.  At the time of his death I was just entering into the possibility that my husband was having an affair.  Double death.

I cherish these dream visits from my father.  An unexpected welcome to visit with him once again.  During my entire adult life my dad was one of my spiritual teachers and he continues to be so in death, the wall between worlds disappearing in dreams.

My dad working at his wheel.

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