I’ve often heard that wisdom is found at the intersection of knowledge and experience. I tend to agree with this statement and can attest that my direct life experience has illuminated the textual meaning of many words. For instance, I spent years misusing and interchanging sympathy, empathy, and compassion. This is the story of how my life journey taught me the meaning of these words and birthed invaluable wisdom.
I turned the engine off after parking in dad’s driveway and stared at his half-opened front door. This was one of many daily stops to clean up and make sure he had everything he needed. This was also a daily ritual of bracing myself emotionally for whatever scene awaited me behind that door. He had just arrived home in an ambulance a few days before due to angrily signing himself out of yet another hospital. After many years of alcohol abuse, his esophagus was eaten away by cancer, but he refused any treatment. He had been rotting away for weeks right before my eyes. The man who I despised for most of my waking life was now dependent almost solely on my care.
As soon as I stepped from the car, I could hear the television blaring. He had lost most of his hearing in his 20’s while being treated for a brain tumor, and now at 41 he was practically deaf. Walking into the living room, the scene was heart-breaking. There was my dad, for years such a dominant and aggressive figure, now a skeleton in white briefs. His little body almost disappeared into the recliner seated directly in front of the TV. His eyes were wide and darting back and forth as he watched the old Western gun fight, the skin flaps from the open wound left by the emergency trach he ripped out flapped back-and-forth as he struggled to breathe. There was a tube protruding from his stomach, resting on his thigh, leaking Ensure onto the chair.
My stomach churned at the thought of breaking the news to him that there would be a nurse coming by in the next few days because all of this care was far beyond my capabilities. He would not be happy about this, and even without words he had been able to express his feelings quite clearly. I stood beside him for a while watching his chest struggle to expand and contract corresponding to the gurgling sounds coming from the hole in his throat. He had no idea I was standing there. I finally put my hand on his shoulder. His head slowly turned from the TV and his eyes locked with mine in a way I had never experienced in my life. My body shook; I was taken off-guard.
It was as if I was looking into a stranger’s eyes. They were so expressive and deep and captivating and clearly trying to send a message. He lifted his hand slowly to take mine. As I held it, I thought how could this be the strong hand that had built our house from the ground up? How could this be the hand I saw hit my mom, me, his brothers? This tiny, soft, frail hand that belonged to those mysterious eyes. I held on to it with both of my own hands as if I were meeting my dad for the very first time. I leaned in close to his face as if maybe he were going to speak. We both had tears trailing down our faces.
I’m not sure how long I stood there staring into his eyes. I was trying so hard to decipher his message, almost telepathically. There seemed to be desperation, sadness, apology, maybe some exhaustion…they expressed something beyond emotion. Or was this me projecting into his eyes what I wanted him to say? Was this me trying to reach closure? Was I simply dramatizing this? Or was he asking me to put him out of his misery? That look in his eyes will forever be vividly etched into my memory.
I instinctively knew that there was no need to mention the nurse or to clean up. He would die that night. The next morning my grandma and uncle traveled to check on him and found him dead in his bead; he had asphyxiated in his sleep.
Throughout the years since that day, I stopped trying to interpret the mysterious message from his eyes. What I decided I felt that day was sympathy–the feeling of sorrow for another’s misfortune. To me, that emotion was something I had never felt for him before and was enough to break the walls of anger I had allowed to build up over my lifetime. Sympathy opened a pathway to forgive him for everything that had transpired in my childhood and beyond. It was relieving to me that I could feel pity for a man I had hated, and there was a sense of freedom in forgiveness. In my mind, I had moved on and had the closure I needed.
As my kids grew older and my parental skills tested, I began to see glimpses of my dad showing up in my screaming tantrums, knee-jerk physical reactions, stinging sarcasm, and manipulation. Once I threw the TV remote and broke it against the wall which triggered memories of never having a working remote in our house growing up because dad broke them all in anger. As I would go to my kids’ rooms to hold them and apologize after I had overreacted, flashes of my dad doing the same thing to me would flood my mind. That’s when I experienced a newfound feeling toward my dad–empathy. I was able to see from his perspective how he may have felt, and how easy it is to make some bad decisions and lose emotional control. This was before I used any mind-altering substances, so as I thought about my actions I imagined how alcohol probably aided in this temporary mental hijacking. This line of reasoning helped me embody and understand where he might have been coming from. Empathy brought a new level of forgiveness for me.
And I believed that was my ultimate closure. Until last year when I had a reading from an intuitive medium.
The medium told me that my father was “stuck” in an unknown realm (which I have come to believe is the spiritual middle world) where essentially “ghosts” exist. He was suspended there because of the acts he had committed while alive. I said to her that I had already forgiven him and come to peace with the past so it must be acts he committed to others. She advised that I try to contact him, maybe sit down and have dinner with my dad in order to find what deeper meanings lie there. He was a soul, she said, that had a generation of burden.
Every other part of her reading was precisely correct, so I decided to follow her advice. I had dinner with my dad. I remembered how much he loved ribs, so for the first time in my life I bought two racks of baby backs and grilled them. I sat down at the table with the ribs and I began carrying on a conversation with him, who I imagined in the empty chair across from me. I went through the litany of reasons why I had forgiven him, letting him know that I was in recovery from my Meth addiction, that the family was thriving. I forgave him again. I left the conversation asking how I could help him and I sat in silence for a long time waiting for some sort of sign. What came next will probably seem hard to believe.
After the dinner, I went to bed and was quickly swept into an altered state of consciousness where I had a vision. I was standing on the banks of a river made of crystal clear water. I received a message that this river was all the thoughts that had ever been thought and would ever be thought. If I wanted answers, dive in. So I did. I swam underneath the water, the bottom of the river was made of the most beautiful and glittery crystals I had ever seen. I noticed a door among the crystals which I opened to reveal a warm, dry room. Inside the room was a fire burning in a small fireplace and an iron kettle suspended above it, the contents bubbling.
I approached the fire and noticed that instead of logs the flames were coming from a pile of what I perceived to be human bones. The kettle above the fire was hot, thick blood. (In research after the vision I found out that there is an ancient Shamanic tradition of releasing souls from a purgatory state by exhuming their bones and burning them.) Then an image appeared above the mantle of the fireplace and it was the image of my father’s eyes from the last time I had seen him. The familiar and mysterious expression that seemed to penetrate my soul. This time, though, I could hear words. You didn’t know my soul. I didn’t know the damage I caused. You didn’t know my soul. I didn’t know. That wasn’t me. Over and over.
The eeriness of the words and the sight of those eyes caused chills down my spine and I rose up from my bed screaming and sobbing. As I fell to the floor crying uncontrollably, I had some profound realizations.
Dad was in active addiction all of my life. I used to wonder how and why a man would ever treat his kids and family the way he treated us. Now I know. I had committed the same egregious acts to my own kids and family while in active Meth addiction. My loved ones were just as abused and mistreated as I ever was, even more. And just like that version of me didn’t reflect my soul, neither did the version of my dad that I knew reflect his soul. I had to go through Meth addiction to finally feel the emotion I needed for complete and total reconciliation with my dad–compassion. To feel compassion, I had to suffer alongside him in the deepest way. And I understood in that moment this healing was meant not only for me and my dad, but for the generations of men before and after us.
My face was planted in a pool of tears as I continued to scream from joy, sadness, resolution, epiphany, victory and purging…I’m really not sure of the word to describe it. I suffered alongside my dad and understood the final look on his face was the raw bearing of his essence transitioning out of his tired, sick body. Those eyes were truly windows to his soul.
I then saw a vision of me standing in a vast darkness holding a torch. Suddenly my dad was there, but this time smiling. I handed him the torch. He turned and passed the torch to his dad, after which he vanished. Then my grandfather passed the torch to his dad, disappeared, and I watched the torch being passed down an infinite line of figures. I knew from this vision that one of the reasons I experienced addiction in this lifetime was to break the generational curse of my ancestors and pave a new path of health for my own son and his descendants. I laid face-down on the floor all night. The whole experience was overwhelming and draining, to say the least. I felt the weight of hundreds of years lifted from me. I could feel the healing in my cells and a newfound confidence that my life had meaning, purpose, that my experience as a drug addict was not in vain.
When I found myself addicted to Meth, I was asleep. I didn’t realize my subconscious was lining this up for my benefit. Freeing dad and healing across time and space wasn’t the only benefit I have found from that dark time. Being awake simply means that I remain open to understanding the reason for my reality and always look for the advantage. This practice eliminates regret, which is an emotion that stifles, hinders, and causes stalemates in my development. The belief I now consent to is that nothing and no one in my life is left to chance, but part of an appointed journey. I choose to stand firm within the intersection between knowledge and experience because therein lies the wisdom to move forward with intention.