I spoke to my dad for the last time this past Father’s Day. He died three days later. As I imagine is the case with most men, my father had a tremendous influence on my life. What may be less typical is that I had a fantastic, close relationship with him for nearly all of my 52 years. That final conversation with him was probably the most heart-wrenching experience I’ve ever had. I’m so grateful to have had it.
As I mentioned in the opening of my last post, one of my favorite things about backpacking is all that time to think, yet one of the most challenging things can be what I say to myself with all that time to think…
What I didn’t mention to my good buddy, Dan O’Brien, as we drove out to climb Mount of the Holy Cross, was that I was looking forward to taking advantage of four days in the Colorado wilderness to work through my ongoing relationship with my dad, just a few weeks after his passing. I knew he’d be out there with me and I was excited to see how he’d show up. I was most excited to learn how I’d deal with it.
As with most of these multi-day adventures, there’s a fair amount of nervous excitement at the trail head: changing into hiking shoes, last-minute gear checks, final sips of coffee, hiding the car keys. All of that falls away as we take our first step on the trail and I remember saying quietly under my breath, “Here we go.” I realized as I said it that I wasn’t talking about Dan and me but my dad and me. He was with me from the start and I was thrilled to show him my life in the woods. I loved that.
It was a little odd, at first, but I chose to welcome those thoughts in to see what would happen. I’d let feelings of grief, sadness, and longing go by and stay open to what came next. Early on, as my mind wandered, I had a vision of the two of us sitting at the dining room table when I was a kid and he said, simply, “Hey, Jeffer” (one of his many names for me). It was so clear and so direct that it was a bit uncomfortable. I let the discomfort pass and answered, intentionally, “Hi Dad.” This simple gesture of welcoming him in rather than freaking out or getting on the Grief Train opened the door and I felt my dad join me on the trail.
From then on, I talked to him without discomfort. There was no more grief or sadness to let pass, just the joy and contentment of having my father with me, exploring one of my favorite ways to live out my life. It was wonderful.
My dad continued to flow in and out of my awareness and thoughts throughout those four days. Sometimes I’d see something that stirred a memory with him.Every time I crested a ridge and was able to look out over the broad expanses above tree line, I was reminded of the incredible times we had spent on the long motorcycle trips we took together when I was growing up, racing through the desert. These memories made me smile. No reason to be sad over a good time. When things got hard on the trail and I questioned my ability to continue, I could feel his strength pushing me to soldier on (he never quit anything). When I came to an amazing view, I could feel him taking it in with me. I could sense the difference between looking out, alone, and knowing there was someone with me, his arm around my shoulder.
When Dan and I reached the 14,005′ summit of Mount of the Holy Cross, there were ashes scattered across the survey marker (see picture). It was a fitting reminder that my father was with me on that summit. His first Fourteener. I’ve since acquired a tattoo as a tribute to my dad, the ink infused with his ashes. I love it!
He’d always marveled at my backcountry adventures and now he was having one of his own. I’m so grateful to have shared this with him. He could see that I knew what I was doing, that there was no reason to be afraid for me, despite what he might have said when he was alive. He really seemed to enjoy it 🙂
I can’t express how grateful I am to my dear friend and coach, Jason Berv. Several years ago, he shared the understanding of our true relationship to our thoughts and how we make meaning of our experiences. Knowing that I can choose to take whichever of my thoughts as seriously as I want was a true blessing as I dealt with the grief of my father’s passing.I realized from this perspective that I could let the memories of my dad and the desire to reach out to him flow through me. I didn’t have to let them get me down. Instead, I could see the joy in those memories, appreciate my father’s love for me, and feel my continuing love for him. I came to understand that these thoughts and feelings were his energy flowing through me; that even though I couldn’t call him, he would be living with me forever.
I came away from this trip with a different perspective on my own death. I understand now, more than ever, that our essence is energy and that when our physical body gives out, our essence continues in the experiences of those we’ve touched. I’m no longer afraid to die but, rather, excited that my energy will continue to flow through those I love.
I love that. And I miss you, Dad.
If you would like to explore a different relationship with grief or sadness, I can help … it’s what I do. You can message me here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.