My father has been dead for 13 years. He was a good guy. He was a bastard. He was human. He was my dad.
I have a single picture of him, kept in the back of a book. I have never had the impulse to display or frame it. It’s not a particularly good picture. But it’s what he looked like when he was healthy, and I’d rather remember that than the dessicated husk my family forced me to view in his casket.
I struggled with the memory of my father for a long time. Do you love someone for the good they do? Do you hate them for the bad? Can you do both at once? There is no doubt that I love my father, but since his death I’ve had to process my feelings regarding his faults. That’s tough. When your father is alive you can rebel against him to process his humanity and yours. When he is dead there is nothing to rebel against. Your anger and sorrow have no wall to dash themselves up against.
One of my sisters think I left the Christian faith because of dad. I have resisted phrasing it this way for over a decade, but in a way she is right. As a teenager I was angry about the circumstances of my life, and the lack of opportunity and hope my parents had given me. I was angry about my parent’s faith long before I could recognize or articulate it. Yet in my prime rebellion years my father was very ill. You cannot rebel against a dying man.
I held on to the faith of my father, despite doubt, misgivings and anger, right up until the night he died. I remember that night I prayed what I sometimes think of as “my last true prayer.” I told Jehovah and Jesus that my father had loved and served them well, he was in pain and it was time to give him relief. It was time for him to go home. I offered this prayer up in the back of my grandparent’s car on the way back to their house from the hospital. Before we reached their home we got the call that he was dying. I slept through his passing, curled up on some uncomfortable piece of hospital furniture with a relative I no longer recall.
Among all the emotion that comes from losing a close relative, came a great surge of relief as I realized I no longer had to deal with God the Father: the staunch, cold patriarchal deity of my father’s faith. Jehovah, Yahweh, El, the Big G, or whatever it is that you call him, was no longer connected to me. My father’s death snapped that cord irrevocably.
Had he lived and been healthy, I would likely have abandoned the Christian faith sooner and rebelled against a father of flesh and blood. Dated men he didn’t approve of and espoused political views just to annoy him. But my father was dead, and I rebelled against a “heavenly” father instead.
There were seven months of spiritual vacation after my father’s death in which religion was of little interest to me except as an intellectual curiosity. Faith aside, I suddenly found that I no longer had any rational basis for being anti-GLBTQI, and it became the biggest shock of my life to find that my rational mind was a liberal, as my religious upbringing had shaped me to be rather Republican. Then, by pure chance, I found a reference to Wicca online. I became sucked into one of those vortexes that tend to happen when you go from link to link down an endless internet rabbit hole.
Looking back, I am surprised at how much was on the web about Wicca, Paganism and the occult back in 1999. In that first week I embraced, and subsequently debunked and discarded, dozens of ideas and beliefs. I became fascinated by heresy and alternate forms of Christianity. I became engrossed in Goddess lore, in arcane systems and strange magic. I read Margaret Murray and Kaatryn MacMorgan, I poured over the Goetia under cover of darkness and listened to Loreena McKennitt as if she would save my soul. I found Jesus to be mostly harmless, the Holy Spirit to be nothing more than a storehouse of energy, Virgin and Magdalene became goddesses, and yet I still could not reconcile myself to God the Father.
Part of the spiritual revelations I have had of late include the realization that when you struggle against something you feed it. You give it power to be a stumbling block in your life. I was surprised to look inside myself and realize that a small part of me was still rebelling against God the Father. So I stopped. I snapped the cord.
I was surprised at how small and insignificant the god of my father was when I snapped that cord. How inconsequential. And then I turned and saw the vast Universe stretched out all around me and marveled at how wonderfully, awesomely, big it is. It brought to mind the old hymn How Great Thou Art. And for a moment, I felt that my father’s faith and mine were the same, without need for disappointment or conversion on either side.
Instead of railing against some angry, beardy god of the Fertile Crescent all these years, I had turned my father into a god, and rejected him. It’s not something I meant to do. Never anything I consciously recognized all these years.
So I think I’m going to take my father’s picture out, and place it somewhere I will see it now and then. He is neither a god to be exalted nor a demon to be banished. He was human, full of human faults and human blessings. He’s long dead, and his spirit has long since moved on. I cannot rebel against him, even by trying to build him up into a boogeyman. He gave me life, a name, and stories both sweet and bitter. But today, he has as much influence on my life as does Yahweh: precisely as much influence as I give him.
So this Father’s Day, I’m thinking about remembering my ancestors for the human beings they were, not deifying or demonizing them. I think that’s what they would want, but then again, they are dead and might not care.