Homage to My Drunken Buddhist Father
Michael Ortiz Hill
My translation of Jungs’ ideas of “individuation” is amor fati: to love ones fate. It is easy to read my family and myself for pathologies but the question that has kept faith with me since I was a homeless is how does one meet the anguish of being human with compassion?
Or more precisely – how does one transform a portion of ones suffering to compassionate activity?
My father died a drunkard’s death. I was eleven when my parents separated. My father had his first major heart attack three months after my mother left him. I came of age watching his slow motion suicide. Liquor and cigarettes. He was my first spiritual teacher and my first partner in intellectual dialogue. And I knew there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to save him.
My father taught me to meditate and even those years as a homeless teenager I was a creature of his library. Buddhism, Jung, Thomas Merton, St. John of the Cross, Sri Aurobindo, Allan Watts, Herman Hesse. His library carried the voices of the ancestors and I knew it.
As he descended into the dark night of the soul, I also. My life was gathering garbage to eat, sleeping under the freeway bridge if it rained. Meditation, reading, prayer, solitude, dysentery, lice, scabies and madness. I had dropped out of high school, thank God, and was getting a real education.
When I was mad I called my father and spoke to him of ecstasy and terror. He listened deep and said, “I know it’s frightening but it’s a rite of passage and you can trust it. I went through the same thing when I was your age.”
I am now exactly the age my father was when he said these words to his psychotic kid. When I write of stepping forth it carries the shade of that moment and in the layering of time that moment is now. He seeps through. I witnessed my father stepping forth as junior elder and now he speaks to me of the open secret of it.
My father went crazy as a teenager when his uncle was shot over poker in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. We shared this, he and I. For the two of us this baptism in the waters of psychosis was formative.
My father was a profound man and profoundly broken. Radiantly imperfect. His slow suicide was swift enough. It took him all of nine years to find death.
A week before my father died he dropped me off at a freeway onramp to hitchhike four hundred miles home. There was a lack of grace between us, a clumsiness we shared. The previous night I’d burst into tears.
“I think you are dying,” I said.
A sorrow song carries the dark notes of what a son knows of his father’s soul and what he know they share in common.
“God bless you,” were his last words
“God bless you too, dad.”
Hospice was the crucible in which I reinvented myself. Dylan Thomas wrote, “After the first death there is no other.” I know that to be true. My father extended God’s blessing and left behind the gift that is the mystery of death and grief. That mystery I’ve lived by and has so shaped my life. With my hospice patients I envisioned and revisioned who I might have been if I had been at my father’s bedside when he passed. Is the simple awkward exchange of God’s blessing sufficient? Must be.
It was in hospice that I began to imagine the craft of compassion that I’d later apply to nursing. I had intimations of the village that I’d later see within the hospital. Sympathetic sorrow calling from my father’s death to the bedside of the ill. There is a beauty to the blues song, rich and resonant in its meaning and not without joy. Here one participates in what has the most heart in the experience of being human.
It’s been thirty years now – moving from hospice to my eccentric career as an RN. We had big dreams back then. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was just coming out with her seminal work. Death and Dying was on everybody’s lips. Classes were being taught in colleges and universities. Some of us – myself for example – imagined a transformation of the culture’s naïve and brutal relationship with the simple fact of mortality and bereavement. I remember being taken by the simple Latin words, ‘ars moriendi,’ the medieval, ‘art of dying’ that once had a place in European culture. Could we not reimagine such an art for the contemporary world?
I have lived by a blessed monomania since I was homeless: what is compassion and how does one realize it? How does one live it?
A central metaphor in Buddhism is the lotus that draws its nourishment from the mud. This life is so generous with its suffering and so the flower blooms.
So I m sitting in a parking lot eating chicken with anonymous Bill and pondering the mind of the addict which is to say “all of us.”
In Buddhism the suffering we perpetually live is called samsara – wherever you are you refuse to be. There is always a “better now.” An addict is not really addicted to a drug. He/she is addicted to elsewhere.
Likewise the ordinary liberation we perpetually avoid is the simple fact of this present moment – not another. A light comes over Bill’s face.
“You mean where we are now?”
I recall the months I‘ve spent alone in the forest, meditating.
Returning again and again to the present moment. Beautiful, stark and uncompromising. Where could I conceivably be but the present moment?