The sorrow over my father's death lingers, an ache swirling in my heart, triggered by reminders. Today is one of those days, the anniversary of his...
It’s been a long time since I had an adventure. I have been consumed by my day-to-day responsibilities of my relationship, work, family. I try to fit in all the important things. This is what I call having an intentional life that is driven by my values. No pressure? SMH... Its actually the complete opposite. I live with lots of internal pressure and too much movement.
I am a therapist, which means I work in a world where people are overcome by their internal workings colliding with their external world. Bearing witness to such a process daily, creates a knowing that we either synthesize these worlds or continue fighting this process.
Letting your values gently guide your actions is part of synthesizing these worlds and building a life worth living (This is part of DBT). It is one of the essential ingredients to treating a whole array of mental illnesses. I cannot be a part of this career and not be changed by this process. Presence with other's suffering creates my own inner reflection and knowing. It is a magical mix.
In my office and in life, I am an adventurer. I like discovering the inner workings of humans. There is so much in there. It’s an intrusive process to work in someone else’s mind. To help categorize their internal workings. I am constantly helping others to identify what is important, what is destructive, what is authentic, and what is "junk email". I am delicate and abrupt at the same time when doing mind surgery. That’s how change works best.
Currently, I am headed for a different kind of adventure in Puerto Rico, a boat ride to a nearby island with a few friends We get on the boat greeted by Toni, a friend guiding us on this journey. He’s a jovial Puerto Rican, who is a lot like men in the Cajun culture; personable, hospitable, funny, and ready for the daily adventure on the water.
We start the journey with our boat powering through the Atlantic Ocean, where it meets the Caribbean Sea. The water is choppy, and you can see the storms brewing around us. This is so familiar, countless memories of chasing good weather in what we call "the bay" in Southern Louisiana. The difference is Puerto Rican water is crystal clear, and sand lines the bottom of the ocean.
When I was a small child, we would take off over this murky Louisiana water. It would be choppy, and my father would race through the waves. And of course, I would be terrified, attempting to grip the bottom of the boat. He would laugh so hard over the insanity of my reaction. Pounding my body down every time we hit a wave. I would flail about on the floor of the boat and fight the process.
My father would try to teach me how to ride the waves by:
2. Bending my knees
3. Holding on with one arm so I could lean into the pounding of the waves
In my 6-year-old brain, I was like hell no. I’m not standing up, because I’ll fly out of the boat. Common sense was not a part of my solution. Even that young I would counter my father. Stand against his direction, challenging his authority. So, he laughed and increased the speed of the boat.
Growing up I always fought the process of things, not just my father. Gripping to the sides of the wall of my misery. It gave me a badge of honor that I didn’t give in, that I would do it my own way. No matter how much terror and misery it brought me. If only I could have allowed other's wisdom to be a part of the process. SMH. I just loved to challenge and to battle.
So, upon my refusal to submit to the ways of riding waves. I bit my tongue and it was bleeding, and I was crying blaming my father (which became a common theme in my life). My mother chastised my father for not slowing down. As my mother hugged me, my father got defensive and refused to apologize for "toughing me up".
But really, he was teaching me a valuable lesson about life. About learning to ride the ups and downs of life by relaxing.
Life Lesson # 5224
Mindfulness = Relaxing into life's ups and down
I would not understand this lesson for many years. I am a mix of fire, grit, and fight. Age has allowed wisdom to help guide these parts of me, and thus lessoning so much of my suffering.
I am now just upon my 45th birthday, on a boat of the coast of Puerto Rico. I am learning to ride the waves, remembering what my father taught me. My knees are bent, my arm holding on, but relaxed. There is something about the pounding of each wave that stirs my body with a lifetime of memories.
I was raised on the water, boat riding, hydra-sliding and skiing on baby skies that tied together as early as the age of 5. This was how we lived. Connected to the brown murky water, sitting in lawn chairs in the water with our feet in the mud, it cooled our skin during our hot summers. Sometimes we would tie a ski rope to the wharf of the camp, in order to hold the rope while floating in the canal. This again was to cool our bodies in the oppressive Louisiana summer heat. We would fish (while I talked too much), sometimes harvest our own oysters, cast net for shrimp, and put meat on lines to catch crabs with a net (this is my favorite), while watching the alligators on the sides of the canal. All the familiarity of my life with water came rushing back. It’s crazy how memory returns with the littlest reminder. Sometimes it’s a smell or a color, a sensation inside your body. It’s beautiful when its connected to wonder and happiness like today, it’s something totally different when its connected pain.
I was quiet but not because I was sad, because I was filled with memory, a comfort came across me. As I stood there. I was reminded of the beauty of feeling, the beauty of the islands as we rushed across different beaches and rocks. I took in the present moment, and I took in the wonder.
This wonder of presence, silence, and water I don’t receive in my daily life of responsibilities. It is something about the openness of the water, all that space calms me, the same way the Louisiana canals do. I especially love early morning boat rides when the water is flat like glass, and we are the first boats on the water breaking the stillness as we tread over it. I feel small yet connected. Lost in the vastness of the earth and lost in the beauty.
As we passed Puerto Rico, I could see the space of water between the Island of PR and Vieques. I couldn’t help but to imagine what the early inhabitants thought as they looked across the distance to the other island. I imagine someone saying, I will build a boat and cross this. Maybe someone else said I will swim it. And all the people in the village made their wager about who could do it. And so, this warriors journey was created. It was one to "conquer," or become the champion, “the hero". The challenge was there for the taking.
My father was a champion. Sometimes he would walk across the marsh just to see if he could, because he enjoyed the land and the water. He was curious too and liked to observe all of it. And then try to figure it all out with his best friend Doug. Most of what he learned was from pure observation and curiosity.
I am definitely his daughter. I love a good physical challenge. Just to see if I can, just to see where I measure up. I love to feel the power in my body when I embark on one of these tests. It’s competition, but only for my own reward. It is so damn fulfilling. I call it possibility training.
As I imagine these warriors from long ago attempting to cross that stretch of water, I take it in. I savior the feeling of the challenge right before I take off, and then the whole internal battle of the doing it. Anyone who has done endurance training, or racing, or a marathon know the mental game that occurs inside these tests. Memories of cycling, moments sprinting, racing, and just trying to keep up with the guys on Saturday bike rides. I am filled with the nostalgia of competition.
Another big wave brought me back to this moment. Toni the boat guy started sharing the history of Vieques. How Americans had practiced bombing Vieques for years that has caused an increase in cancer on this island. He showed me the towers where they watched the projectile bombs. And he told of a story when a security guard was killed and that’s what lead to stopping the bombing.
I thought of a phrase my father used to say:
“When we know better, we do better!”
And then I was back in those childhood memories on the boat fishing and talking too much, so I would go out in the water when my father was fly fishing. I had to occupy my mind. I was always so curious and easily bored by silence and sitting. I still am.
But now I’m back with the pounding of each wave. Singing music. And I asked Tony when did the US stop their bombing practice. Thinking for sure it had to be around the 1950s. Actually, it was the year 2005. WTF. We knew better but we kept at it, till there was a human consequence.
Humans are like this. We will continue doing destructive behavior. Or behavior with consequences but we won’t stop until we have major consequences. This is a trait I often encounter in my office. People say they want to change but when we explore their willingness they are blocked by other reasons. Like they think they need their behaviors that are filled with consequences for protection, or that it is serving a purpose that no other behavior can.
There is a comfort in knowing how humans work, and in understanding people. After 15 years of walking the inner marshes of others, I have learned so much through observation and curiosity. Thanks to my profession I can bear witness to another's journey in a very profound way. I see humans so clearly.
As a teen and young adult I felt I had to change everyone’s minds, while holding steadfast to my own knowing. I was that kid gripping the bottom of the boat refusing to learn to ride the waves and live on others wisdom.
Warriors possess this grit, but being a hero and champion comes from wisdom. Now I can notice these grit-filled moments, and I bend my knees into the moment. Is it a bow, a pause, or a stillness I am filled with? Maybe it is a bit of all the above. Whatever it is I am learning, practicing leaning into the terror of life’s most difficult and life's most joyous moments.
As I lean into the waves, I let these moments of watching my father suffer and die, go. I am learning to lean into the joy, laughter, and love as well. This one can be just as scary. It come with feeling the vulnerably of your body, your needs, and your wants. It is here that I find myself. Today the waves are filled with so much.
I made it through witnessing my father's suffering. His body struggling to breathe and struggling to die. I rode those waves with support from family and friends. I would rest on their hands, feeling their support on my back, and on my shoulder. I would transfer this support to my mother. Who was always at the whims of my father's championing. He would live those pounding waves with such volition. He chose to ride the biggest ones and slam down into them. It was hard for those that loved him to witness his choices.
So, my brother and I put our hands on my mother's back, and when she had enough she would walk away. And I would sit and continue to watch him when no one could bear to witness him leaning into death.
Years of being a therapist had prepared me to witness to other's suffering. When everyone else wants to turn away, I continue to hold space. Trauma work has taught me to observe people at their most vulnerable moments reliving terror. I learned to observe and witness when it is a natural human reaction to turn your eyes elsewhere.
A good therapist knows the importance of holding space and how it magically allows for others to let go. I was helping my father let go of his life here. He gripped the bottom of the boat just like me, he held on until he could not anymore. Just like a warrior, a champion. It was not a gentle leaving.
Because I like to predict human actions, I am comforted that my father's death was one of those same predictions. It’s fitting that he fought the process, that he burned his grit until there was nothing left. I felt it was my turn to watch him pound against the waters of his death. That’s what parents do for children in their teen age years, and in turn we must do it for our parents. No matter how uncomfortable it is and was. I leaned into it, holding his hand, returning the favor of my teenage years.
I was choosing to be intentional as he was dying. Just like I am intentional on this boat ride. Knees bent in prayer, sublimation, sadness, or about to jump up to the sound of the music. You never know what life experiences will bring.
I lean into all of it!
Wisdom has taught me that you don't always get to choose which moments to lean into.
I concluded our boat ride singing, dancing, the waves pounding away, and rain falling upon my skin. Turns out we could not outrun the weather today, just like I could not outrun my father's death, so we took it all in.... with laughter, with song, and because I am cajun...we took it in with dancing.
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