by Norman Allen, guest contributor
For my father’s memorial service, my sister suggested that I stand before the congregation and say, “We’d like to share with you exactly what it was like to live with our father. So let’s have a moment of silence.”
It’s not that Dad didn’t speak, it’s that he didn’t speak about the personal. He could rant against George McGovern and lift Richard Nixon up as a god, but remain entirely silent about my sister’s adolescent breakdown. A few years later, he declared my hero Jimmy Carter the “greatest embarrassment the White House has ever seen,” but didn’t say a word about my recent emergence from the closet.
Dad built his life on the foundations of a suburban existence: retirement plans, company loyalty, and a close-knit family that gathered to wave him down the street each morning and waited each night for his return. True to his class and time, he made himself a Manhattan before dinner and smoked incessantly. No one was going to change that.
But behind this rigid façade lay a man tragically eager to please. As kids we could always talk him into a double-scoop cone, if we could just get him away from Mom. As an adult, I learned that this tendency went much deeper.
Dad went to medical school because his parents told him to. Failing that, he accepted their second choice and became a mechanical engineer. In a rare moment of intimacy, on a father-son camping trip to the High Sierra, he confessed that his dream was to be a park ranger. I wonder what his life would have been if he’d had the courage to follow that ambition. Perhaps he would have found his voice leading nature hikes and campfire programs.
Dad never broke the habit of trying to please his parents, but he made sure that we didn’t suffer the same fate. He applauded my high school theatricals and provided financial support for a creative college major. On my weekly calls home, he always made sure that I was writing, though he never inquired about the specifics.
True to his nature, he remained silent and stoic through my mother’s seven-year battle with cancer, and continued so when he was diagnosed himself two years after her death. During Dad’s final months, I bathed him, mopped up his bodily fluids, and listened for changes in his breathing. The only concern he voiced was for the future of his dog, an oversized Sheltie who watches as I write.
It was Dad’s Lutheran pastor who put his silence into context. Older congregants, he said, had expressed a need for guidance as they considered death’s approach. My father provided the model they were seeking. Church members who visited in his final weeks all returned with the same tale: Dad was quiet, uncomplaining, unafraid.
In the end, we didn’t ask for a moment of silence at Dad’s memorial service. Instead I shared a story about Saint Francis sending his brothers out to spread the Gospel and telling them, “If necessary, use words.” When one of Dad’s elderly neighbors caught my eye and smiled her appreciation, I knew we’d made the right choice.
Dad was a quiet man, but he renounced his parents’ prejudices, encouraged his children’s ambitions, overcame his own homophobia to welcome new family members, and remained a steady presence through his wife’s long illness. If St. Francis is right, and our actions speak louder than our words, you might say the man never shut up.
Norman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.
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by Preeti Kaur, guest contributor
In the Sikh faith, the role of the nurturer is one, among many, of the celebrated roles of all Sikhs, regardless of gender. My own father often reminisces to me of how his mother would nurture his growth and curiosity by imparting Sikh teachings to him while he was growing up in Dharamsala, India as a post-Partition refugee family. Everyday when he returned from school, his mother recited the Janam Saakhis, a collection of “birth stories” based on the life and lessons of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev Ji. He remembers this nurturing time as his favorite time of the day.
I recently saw a video of Harneel Singh, an extraordinarily eloquent young American man, describing his painful experience growing up as a Sikh boy wearing a patka (a Sikh mini-turban) in school, where he was often taunted and bullied. He speaks very freely that his experience is something familiar to many young people.
The patka is worn by children in preparation for wearing a full turban as a grown Sikh. Many young Sikh boys wear patkas throughout the world, including in America, where Sikhs have lived for over one hundred years. As adults, many Sikh men (and some Sikh women) wear a full turban, or dastaar, as a display of their commitment to accepting their body as it has grown and to distinguish themselves as physically committed to a path of justice. The global political climate of recent years, where turbans are inaccurately portrayed as the garb of global terror, has increased suspicion and violence against turban-wearing Sikhs especially in the form of hate crimes, down to the youngest members of our society in the form of school bullying.
Harneel Singh shares the tender points of his story because he has been nurtured to a point of strength — perhaps through his mother or father, or perhaps through his friends, or the adults in his life, or perhaps even by nurturing his own self, giving birth to a reflective young man.
The following poem, written for the young men who wear turbans in my life, is to honor all steps in the process of nurturing. This includes the process of negative experiences entering our lives — where it is cold, where it is dark — which provide us an opportunity to nurture others and ourselves.
where ever it is dark
after school i tell my mummy
i don’t want to go back tomorrow
she asks me why
i tell her today in the playground
kids push me punch me kick me
shout POTATO HEAD! RAG HEAD! ALLADIN! OSAMA BIN LADIN!
everything i am not
i throw fists back call them ugly
things too i imagine the bullies
as yellow toothed neon green eyed gorillas
like the ones in my closet at night
my cheeks burn my heart thumps
i am MAD i didn’t start this! i am just one
no one listens when i yell STOP IT! LEAVE ME ALONE!
i want to hide in a tent made of my sky blue bed sheets
i wish for a galactic force field
but no hands shield my head
when the bullies rip my
patka off my head
there is no superman
on this playground not even pretend
not sammy who i swing with
everyday on the monkey-bars
or alberto who swaps strawberry jelly sandwiches
with me in the cafeteria
not jenny who i tell knock-knock jokes with on the bus
not even the adults who patrol the playground
with whistles and detention slips to the principal’s office
so everyone might follow the rules
after bloody noses bruises scratches
after we are trees pulled out of the ground
a pile of mud surrounding us
our teacher mrs. jones sits us down
why did you punch back she asks
the teacher pulls me out of the ground some more
inside i am not a tree
inside i am a match
like the ones my daddy warns me not to play with
an orange blue fire on a stick of arms and legs
which grows short in two seconds
burning my insides too fast
i go home and cry and cry
i tell my mummy everything
mummy wraps her arms around my shoulders tells
me she loves me with her eyes
she unwraps my joora lets loose
my long hair runs her fingers through
mummy whispers your hair
is the night sky your hair
is the universe she combs
my kes with a kanga
twists my hair firm on top of my head
a galaxy you carry high mummy says
she takes the square patka
angles the cloth like a diamond
sets the patka on my scalp
ties it tight
mummy tells me this patka crowns you
one day you will wear a turban
cloth as long as the seven oceans
the full span of the earth
will rest on your head
be brave young prince
like Sahibzaadas Zorawar Singh Fateh Singh
when bullies big as kings
threaten them for carrying the universe on their heads
when bullies locked them
three nights in the cold in the dark
they raised their chins high no tears
they turned their fists to hearts
practiced the ways of the lion prince
with questions and conversation
my cheeks i kiss her back
i tell her i will go back
to school tomorrow i will be
a shooting star prince
bright and brave
where ever it is cold
where ever it is dark
This Mother’s Day, I celebrate my own mother and I celebrate the nurturing spirit which we can each inculcate by sharing the stories of our lives, our own janam sakhis, our own birth stories.
Preeti Kaur is an American of the Sikh faith living in San Joaquin Valley, California. You can read more of her poetry at The World I Stitch.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
What shall we do about the elderly dying with dementia, losing who they are — how do we help them “die well”?
My mom is at the end stage. She is losing her abilities to speak, to eat. How do I help her? Is it okay to talk about dying with her? I do read to her, I tell her I love her, I see her as often as I can at her long-term care home. But as she declines, I am not sure how to help her “die well.”
I have had a great sense of healing in my time with her in this stage of life, but as I see her becoming less and less connected I am not sure what to do. How can I help her at this stage? Perhaps just being there, holding her hand, reading, I am not sure. How do we address her dying? Is it okay to talk about it? I don’t want her to die without being at peace about it.