Saturday, June 20, 2009

My dad, Zen master? Zen gone!

Back on May 17th I wrote a post that began, “I suspect that my dad was a Zen master. He would have denied it. Zen masters always do.”

I wrote the post inspired by a book I’d recently read, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. The book got me thinking about my own father and the things he taught me. He was, in many ways, my Zen master.

I say “was” because he is “Zen gone.” He died in early December of 1996. I last spoke to him by phone around Thanksgiving. He had gone into the hospital for some tests. It did not appear to be serious, but in a matter of a few weeks his colon ruptured and he died of sepsis. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, because I was preoccupied at the time.

On Christmas Day, 1996 my wife died. I was out-of-the-loop in my father’s last weeks, because I was tending to my wife who was on hospice care at home after battling cancer for five and a half years.

No one would blame me for not being an integral part of my dad’s last days. I was doing what I needed to be doing. He was in Iowa. I was in California. My mom and sisters were helping him, and my three kids and I were helping Patti. It was the natural order of things. And it sucked.

Back in early May, I went to a family reunion. I wrote several blog entries about the weekend. On my May 5th post, I recounted how I was helped by a talented relative named Katrina. She is a trained Jin Shin Do masseuse, and during a massage she was giving me for a wrenched back, I recalled and released some major grief I was holding on to about my first wife’s death. I had held on to some of that grief because, at the time, I needed to be strong for the kids. I had been holding on to that grief for 12 years. My kids had grown up. I didn’t need to be strong for them anymore. I could let go. And I did.

After the reunion I began to explore acupressure massage therapies similar to Jin Shin Do. I hit upon something called Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT. A quick definition of EFT is “an emotional, needle free version of acupuncture that is based on new discoveries regarding the connection between your body's subtle energies, your emotions, and your health.” I went to the web-site, downloaded the free book, and started practicing EFT.

One night, several weeks later, as I was going to sleep, I was doing EFT and I recalled a regret, “I never was able to properly mourn my father’s death.” I recalled many of the specific aspects of that time: not being there for my mom, not being able to hold my dad’s hand, not being able to tell him I loved him…

And I cried. I mourned his death, 12 years later. I lay there in bed, tears running down towards my ears, until the phone rang. (I jumped out of bed to answer the phone before it woke up my wife Leslie. Ten years ago I remarried. She was widowed as well.)

It was 10:30 at night, but I answered the phone. It was Leslie's brother whose wife had passed away suddenly earlier in the week. He couldn’t sleep, so he’d called. He and I visited. I didn’t tell him why I was up. It didn’t matter. He just needed to talk, so we did. I understood something of his loss and grief.

It was a few days after this mourning for my father that I wrote the first Zen piece on my dad. After the release of the grief, I began to recall and see many positives that had lurked beneath the hurt. More pieces followed. Unknowingly, I had moved on from mourning my father's death, to celebrating his life. I was giving him a memorial service. Who knew?

Well, my readers knew it before I did. I read your comments, and I realized you were right. I was paying him a tribute.

This Zen series has been my way of saying, “I love you Dad. You are loved, and you are missed. I treasure the things you taught me. I’m a better man because you were a good dad.”

Tomorrow is Fathers’ Day. Some of us still have our dads, and some of us are dads. Some of us never had a dad who could be remembered as a personal hero, a Zen master if you will. (If you need some good “dad” memories, you can steal some of mine: I’ll share.)

June is often called the month of grads and dads. If this were a commencement speech, I’d entitle it “Looking back… and looking forward…”

The heart of the message would be “Live the dash.”

We each have a day of birth. We’ll each have a day of death. And someday, we’ll each have those dates etched on a gravestone or plaque. And in-between the dates will be a dash. That’s where we are right now: living the dash.

Be somebody’s hero. Live the dash!

Happy Fathers’ Day!


  1. Don, this is beautiful.
    And what a tribute.

    I am always astounded when I take a step back and look at the "pieces" which lead up to break throughs and break downs.

    It's like a well-orchestrated symphony, isn't it?

    Grace, Peace, and Zen.

  2. It's amazing how we can hold our grief for so long before releasing it. It just comes natural. What a beautiful post. "Living the dash"; I like that. It makes a lot of sense. I like it better than "live like you are dying." Happy Fathers day.

  3. Chase: "It's like a well-orchestrated symphony, isn't it?" I couldn't agree with you more. After my Jin Shin Do massage with Katrina, I "knew" why I had hurt my back... God has a way of getting our attention and giving us direction, especially when the path leads to places we don't usually go. And as with most blessings, it's not just for our sakes, it multiplies to others. Thanks for the comments.

    Omah: It is amazing to me too that we hold on to grief, even when we try not to. I'm just so glad I've found some ways to find some of the "hurts" and give them some "healing." I had a nice Fathers' Day, thanks. Live the dash!

    ~~ Don

  4. Hi Don,

    I realise how much I have missed reading your posts, as my own life has been pre-occupied for the last six weeks with work, personal life and all the gritty bits that creep in between.

    What a wonderful tribute to your father, and to yourself, I should add.

    You might be surprised to know that we had an EFT trainer come into high school and give us some sessions earlier in the academic year. It's weird how we all have those sore spots in our chests, and the difference some assisted openness can bring.

    Take care,


  5. @Sacha: Good to have you reading and commenting again. I read your blog, and yes, you have been busy, very busy. I'm glad you enjoyed the Zen posts. (Even my sisters and mother enjoyed them!) ;-)

    That's great that your school hosted some EFT training. What a great gift for kids (and staff). "Assisted openness" is a good description. "Method of self-discovery and healing" might be another. Youth has always been a period of turmoil, angst, and emotional damage. How great to have tools to provide emotional first aid or even emotional CPR as life unfolds.