When I was two years old, I was walking with my parents on a boardwalk in Minnesota where I grew up. The boardwalk went over a marsh that was totally covered with algae – completely green. I said, “Look mommy – grass!” She said, “No Rusty, that’s not grass”. A confident two-year-old replied “Mommy grass” and stepped out.
My dad reached down and pulled me out of the water, pulling me back up onto the boardwalk. Once I was up and somewhat settled, he spanked me. I guess it was because I had not listened to my mom – I had done something dangerous. But I was confused, and that confusion with my dad lasted for a decent part of my childhood.
My dad was very strong willed, very opinionated and had a clear sense of right and wrong. I never did quite figure him out.
In middle school we pulled a prank on a friend – filling his locker full of toilet paper. As teenage boys, we thought it was hilarious. He just pulled it out and left it all on the floor. The school administration figured out who had done this, and I got detention. On the way home I remember being so scared of what my dad would say. With his strong sense of right and wrong, I knew I was in the wrong. But my dad thought the school had overreacted – that it was simply an innocent teenage prank.
They say that if you don’t figure out how to live with and manage your parents that you marry someone with those same traits to continue trying to work it out. I did that. I married someone who is opinionated, strong willed, and has a very clear sense of right and wrong. Fourteen years later as we were getting divorced, she had a very clear sense that she was right and I was wrong. And you know what? I agreed with her. I must have been well trained by my dad.
As an experiential learner, the experiences I had up to that point did not seem to be working to teach me what I needed to learn. It was time to try some new experiences.
I tried therapy, retreats, workshops, 12-step groups, meditation, even hypnosis. One of the things that stood out most was a meditation-based class I took at Stanford called compassion cultivation training. The class was started by the Dalai Lama. My teacher was a man named Robert, who had been a Buddhist monk and a hospice chaplain.
One of the practices I learned was called Tonglen. Tonglen is a breath-based meditation where on the in-breath you lift away the other person’s suffering and discomfort. On the out breath you exhale compassion, love and healing. Breathing in to lift suffering, breathing out compassion and comfort. I learned that I could even apply this Tonglen practice to myself, and it was a great source of healing for me.
This variety of new experiences seemed to be working. It was about six months ago that I finished talking to my dad and noticed as I hung up that we had been talking for 45 minutes. That is the longest one on one conversation I ever had with my dad, by far.
A few weeks later, the phone rang again and there’s my dad. This time, he’s calling to tell me that he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I followed from afar as he visited doctors and mapped out treatment options, and ultimately decide not to do chemotherapy but to call in hospice.
A few days later I flew to Florida to be there for two weeks. Towards the end of those two weeks his condition was deteriorating. He needed more help. He needed help getting around, bathing and generally caring for himself. We did not yet have that help arranged, so as I was going to sleep the night before I was scheduled to fly home, I told my mom to let me know if she needed help in the middle of the night.
My mom did wake me in the middle of the night because she hadn’t yet been able to sleep. He was tossing and turning, uncomfortable, and needing help. When I came take a shift, I told my mom to go sleep and rest.
By the time I got to my dad, he did not need any physical attention. But he was uncomfortable, moaning and rolling around on the bed. So I lay down next to him. And I started practicing Tonglen. Breathing in and relieving pain and suffering. Breathing out compassion and love. In and out. As I did this for a few minutes, his breathing started to get more regular, normal, and relaxed. I thought for a moment he was falling asleep. But there were some spaces between his breaths. And then one particularly long space, and a sharp inhale.
That was his last breath.
When I was two years old, my dad lifted me up out of the water. Forty-five years later, I lifted him up to the next stage of his existence.
I am grateful for all of the experiences of my life. The positive ones, the challenging ones, and the ones that stretched me. Because those experiences equipped me for his final moments.
I am an experiential learner. And for that I am grateful.