There’s an irony about the word retreat. By abandoning routine cares and responsibilities for a few days or a week, I can take long siestas, write, read, pray a lot, and finally re-enter the world refreshed. Of course, the daily slog serves a mental health purpose, though not necessarily a healthy one. Keeping busy helps me stay distracted, mostly unaware of the emotional sediment swirling around my soul.
So far this Gethsemani retreat has been joyful, restful, and undisciplined: no agenda, other than what I want to do in the present moment—within the confines of a monastery, of course. Fortunately, I’m a tame enough person that what suits me is being quiet and thoughtful. Call me a cheap date.
This morning was tough, though. As I prayed out on the balcony, a memory I’d hoped to retreat from stopped for a visit. Surrounded by cool air and bird song, I remembered the last time I saw my father. He died in January of 2012 in a nursing home, oddly enough while I was on retreat in a hermitage at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. The call from my brother Ed came around 1:00 a.m. when I was in bed, not sleeping.
He’d called me in the early afternoon the day before to say the end was near. I left the hermitage intending to stay with Dad until he passed, playing-by-ear what I’d to with the rest of my retreat. When I arrived, he was unconscious, but restless.
“I’m here, Dad.”
He responded by reaching up in the air as if he were trying to pull pillows to his chest and howling—that’s the only word for it. He sat up part way and let out a roar mixed up with a sob.
Not the comfort I was hoping to provide.
I took Dad’s hands, but he wouldn’t be consoled. He squeezed so hard I thought, “This man’s got way too much vinegar in him to die anytime soon.”
For the hour I was with him, he sat up part way at least a dozen times and howled. Not a single howl, but a few strung together. His hands crushed mine and reached for invisible pillows. Over and over. He was having a nightmare that he knew was a nightmare, but he couldn’t will himself awake. That’s what I imagine, anyway.
Sixty minutes of this was enough. I said goodbye as best I could and drove back to the hermitage. What did I do that evening in the quiet woods? No idea. I only remember thinking that I had to let my father die alone because if I weren’t there he might calm down.
Dad had the most tortured death of anybody I know. I’m not just talking about his deathbed, but his final months. Every time I visited him, he reached for me and cried, tortured by his dementia. The only thing he knew was that he’d lost his mind, and he couldn’t stop trying to get it back. He could never let go into oblivion. “If I had a gun,” he often said, putting two fingers to his temple in the universal suicide gesture.
When I touched Dad’s forehead at the funeral home, it felt like cold, hard rubber. In eighty-five years he never lost one of his wavy gray hairs, but nothing was left underneath them.
So this memory compilation of my father ran in a loop during morning prayer. I guess it was my morning prayer. Restful as retreats can be, a visitor like this can be tiring. My siesta this afternoon will be sweet, delicious.
In this moment I’m not sad. I accept that Dad’s death loop has to run every once in a while until I’m finished grieving, which may be never. So be it.
For some reason I feel light, as if some emotional sediment floated downstream. It’s strange to think that part of the reason I retreated eight hours to Kentucky may be that I needed to see Dad die again as birds sang around me in the morning air.
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