It’s been five years since my father died, changing my relationship with my ancestors.
Anniversaries of our bad days are funny. As we get close, our brain skids away from them.
I know quite well that September 18, 2022, will be the fifth anniversary of the worst news I’ve yet received in this life. And it’s something I was thinking about a lot up until a few weeks ago, putting it in the context of the fresh potential this year has brought — because that same day will also mark six months in a new romantic relationship that has the potential to completely transform my life. More on that later.
But as the day has gotten closer, it paradoxically retreated in my thoughts. Until today, when it suddenly hit me like a punch to the floating ribs: oh, that’s Sunday. Just a few days, and it will be five years since Dad died.
The loss of our parents is something we all endure, if we live long enough. But the circumstances, and the support we receive or are called upon to give others, vary enormously.
Dad died a week short of the one year anniversary of my mother falling deathly ill and nearly dying. We were just recovering from that, didn’t yet have our balance back, when this even bigger blow struck, multiplying its effect.
Mom needed lots of help to get through that, both emotionally and practically. They had a little bit of an old-fashioned relationship to the extent that Dad handled all the financial stuff and Mom didn’t know much about it. (Folks, talk to your life partners about these things.) And my brother…well, he was useless, for reasons we only came to understand later. So I really had to step up.
It was a lot. It’s been a lot, on top of what else has happened for the world the past few years. It’s still a lot.
But so it goes. The shitty times we go through can provide fertilizer to enable growth, if we know how to mix it into the soil and plant the seeds. Going through this experience showed me that I can endure great difficulty without collapsing, that I do have the strength.
And it put me in a different relationship with my ancestors. Perhaps that’s the most straightforwardly Pagan part of this.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I remain a naturalistic Pagan. I do not necessarily believe in literal, supernatural, individual and personal survival after death. But magic doesn’t care about our metaphysics, and spirits (divine, natural, or ancestral) can be operationally real without having a separate existence.
The July after my father’s death I attended a talk by Byron Ballard at the Starwood Festival in which she emphasized the importance of ancestor work. (Starwood, for those unfamiliar, is one of the great magical/Pagan/transformative festivals, held in southeast Ohio every July. It’s an important nexus of the Neopagan movement in the US.)
Byron gave a spin on the topic that was new to me, and resolved my hesitations about it: it is troublesome ancestors to whom we should first turn when doing ancestor work. She used the metaphor of waking up Sunday morning after a party where you had entirely too much to drink and behaved badly — you’re full of regrets, and are looking for opportunities to make up for it. Just so, ancestors who behaved badly in life now have a new perspective and want to make things right.
Let me be clear that Dad was not one of those problematic ancestors. We had our moments over the years, as most fathers and sons do, but we grew past them. But I personally knew more flawed ancestors, and know there are more in the family tree, and that was enough to make me wary of ancestor work in general.
But Byron’s idea, plus the fact that Dad was now among the Honored Dead, put the whole thing in a different light.
So later that year, at the Fall Equinox I set up a simple ancestor shrine, a corner with family photos going back a few generations and my dad’s old guitar. (He didn’t play past his teen years, but still, a powerful talisman.) “Coincidentally”, a few months later at Imbolc I received some more family photos from one of Dad’s cousins; and posting about those on the net prompted a different cousin to send me some old photos she had.
Remarkably, those photos included several of my maternal grandfather, of whom I previous had no photos. It’s remarkable because this cousin is on my father’s side, not related to him; yet had a few photos of him from family gatherings, to pass on to me.
Such are the signs that we’re on the right path.
This grandfather was one of those ancestors with whom the relationship was…complicated…during his life. But I took Bryon’s advice and called upon him for help with a problem. I was waiting for news about an opportunity, wondering if I would receive an invitation to test for my next level of black belt in my karate training. When I added the photo to my ancestor shrine, I reached out to the energy of my problematic grandfather, asked him to clear the way. And within just a few days, I had my invitation.
And that went okay. I passed my test and got another hash mark on my belt.
I also got the opportunity to travel to Sydney, Australia, to attend the anniversary ceremony of our main dojo there and help judge a tournament. My first time in the Southern Hemisphere. While I was there, I had some magical experiences. I saw the Southern Cross and a whole new set of stars above my head. I got to immerse my body in the South Pacific, or at least a bay connected to it. I had a very odd string of “coincidences” which led me to see some ancient rock carvings hidden in the brush between a highway and train tracks, which included a winged figure like an angel or Cottingley-style fairy.
And one morning, as I lay at the liminal point of waking in a hotel bed on the other side of the world from my home, I knew that my father was working on my behalf in one of the areas that has always been a common focus of magic: love.
My love life had pretty much shut down in those years. With Mom’s near-death and extended hospitalization, and Dad’s multiple hospitalizations and death, there just wasn’t the energy to go looking for a date. But one thing Dad told my brother and I more than once was that he wished for us the sort of companionship and partnership he had with Mom. And that morning in Sydney, somehow, I was filled with the certainty that my dead father was working magic on my behalf on that front.
And it was three months later, at Starwood 2019, that I met the woman I’ll refer to for social media purposes as the Special Lady Friend, or SLF.
SLF was not in a good place in her life at the time, and the world hasn’t been in a good place for a while since then. So we didn’t get into a relationship immediately, or even see each other in person for a while. But in the interval we kept in touch, and I kept doing ancestor work, requesting their aid in bringing us together. (If, and only if, it would be for the best for both of us. I think we need that sort of disclaimer when working love magic.)
And, well. This March I flew south — though not as far south as Sydney — to spend a long weekend together, and see if we wanted to pursue a romantic relationship. And six months in it seems to be working. We attended Starwood together this year, and I think living in a tent with someone for a week is a decent test of whether a relationship has potential. We’ll be back at Wisteria for Autumn Fires in a few weeks. (Love you, SLF!)
My father is five years dead, and his death was a great blow at a time when I was already weakened. But I recovered from the blow, and the experience transformed my relationship with him and with all of my ancestors, maybe setting my life on a whole new path.