During the last eight months of my father’s life, he was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers. I had flown in to see him again. When I arrived, he was sleeping, and my brother said he was having a hard day. I sat by his side. When he woke, he didn’t know who I was. This had never happened before.
I was stunned, and it felt odd and evacuating to have my father stare with enormously wide eyes, as if I were a stranger. My heart began to sink. I thought, “So this is what it will feel like when he’s gone.” I took his hand and tried to remind him, “Hi, Dad, I’m Mark. I’m your son.” He looked at me like an old miner trapped underground. He looked at me as if to say, “Am I still here? Are you here to help me?” My heart began to tumble in this canyon between us. But it was suddenly clear that in this moment, I had to be a kind stranger.
I gave up trying to have him recognize me and sat closer, introducing myself for the first time, “Hi, I’m Mark. I’m here to help you, to keep you company. How are you today?” His stare softened and he gripped my hand, thankful for the company. Then, he looked beyond me, as if to say, “No one can get me out of this. No one.”
Later that night, he knew me again. But this was a humbling episode in which I was challenged to feel the unnerving moment that I was erased from the consciousness of the man who fathered me and to enter a reality that existed beyond my feelings, my story, or even my life. Without denying either. It was also a deeply personal moment of knowing that all things are true. This was my father, the man who held me as a boy, who cried but didn’t show up when I had cancer, who was lost to me for 15 years, who cried in my arms when he was 90, who didn’t know I was his son at 93. All of it is true. And it’s imperative not to choose between them, but to let the many faces of my father wash into the many sides of his son’s aching heart.
What I’ve learned from these passages is that the heart not only has room for both, but that life demands that we embrace both what is particular to each of us and what exists in mysterious complexity beyond our singular life. I’ve learned that the bird must feel both its broken wing and the current of wind that lifts and twirls and carries it. This is what it means to be a bird. As a person, we must feel both the break in our heart and the current of life that lifts and twirls and carries us. This is what it means to be openhearted.
Excerpted from The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, by Mark Nepo. Atria, 2014. Reprinted with permission.