My father, in his final days (August 2015)

GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly — one of my oldest friends, as he points out — analyzes yesterday’s Washington Post Style section profile of me (see the original story about the “combative, oversharing blogger” here). He writes:

I guess you could say that the key is that this Post feature failed to, well, get religion, in terms of taking religious faith seriously. You see, it’s impossible to understand Dreher and his story without facing how he is attempting – Rod would want the word “attempting” in bold – to live out his religious convictions as an Orthodox believer, as a sinner aware of his own need for repentance and healing.

That’s all I have to say about that. Read the Post piece. Read Frederica’s commentary.

Most of all, read the most crucial element of Dreher’s story, material that you know he stressed in his interview with Heller – yet it did not make it into the piece. It’s the epilogue he wishes he could add to his book “How Dante Can Save Your Life.”

I’m talking about the remarkable spiritual healing that took place in Rod’s relationship with his own father, in the months leading to the family patriarch’s death. Readers don’t know anything about Dreher’s confessions about his family’s painful past – a subject explored in the Post piece – without knowing this information. This is life-and-death material, and I’m not just talking about this life in the here and now.

Get past the bouillabaisse story, for heaven’s sake. How does a reporter ignore the crucial final act of this drama?

I e-mailed her the link to the epilogue on October 16, two weeks before the story ran. It’s puzzling why it wasn’t included in the final story, as it talks in detail about the resolution I found with my dad, through struggle with my faith, and by applying spiritual lessons from my reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy. There is, in that epilogue story, the answers to things I had been seeking about my family, and about God. Here’s an excerpt:

I told him that I didn’t have time to stay that morning, that I had a lot of work to do. I was going to slip in and refill his pillbox, then head on back to my house. It took about ten minutes to get the pills sorted. I dashed out the door, then leaned in to kiss him goodbye as he sat in his chair.

As I drew back after kissing his cheek, he grabbed my forearm and drew me in close. His chin was quivering. The old man looked frightened. His eyes filled with tears, and he began to stammer.

“I … I … I … I had a long talk with the Lord last night,” he began. “I talked to him about, about my transgressions against you. I told him I was sorry. And I think he heard me.”

There I stood, stunned. All my adult life, I had been waiting to hear something like that. My father, that mountain of a man, could not condescend to address his son directly and ask forgiveness. It just wasn’t in him to do. But make no mistake, that’s exactly what he was doing. It took a lot of courage for him to say what he had just said to me. With a man like my father, that was as good as it was ever going to get. But it was sincere.

I leaned back in, put my hand into the back of his thinning hair, pulled his head close, kissed him on the forehead, and told him, “Thank you. I love you.”

Then I walked away, got into my car, and drove off. I was afraid to look back at him, because I did not want to see him crying. I knew that’s exactly what he was doing.

As I drove home, I could not believe what had just happened. Daddy apologized. That wasn’t supposed to happen, ever. But it had. The previous three years, since I had been home, had been among the most painful of my life, because they compelled me to confront the profound brokenness in our family — a family in which we all loved each other, but could not live in harmony. The shocking family secret disclosed to me at the end of the Little Way of Ruthie Leming narrative — that for over 20 years, my father and my sister had been nursing a deep grudge against me for moving away, and had conditioned my sister’s children to reject me — sent me into an emotional, spiritual, and physical tailspin. Coming out of that dark, dark wood required a pilgrimage, including through the dark places of my own heart — a journey on which I was accompanied by my priest, my therapist, but which was led by Dante Alighieri.

The main things I came to understand were these.

First, I had made an idol of Family and Place, embodied most of all in the person of my father, and without knowing what I was doing, had given my father the place of God in my imagination. This is why I could never escape the sense that God may love me, but He does not approve of me, and that if only I worked harder, I could win that approval. In truth, this was how my father saw me. Becoming aware of this, disentangling God and my father within myself, and repenting of the idol worship, was the first crucial step in my healing.

Second, I had to face down my anger over the situation. My family wasn’t going to change. It seemed like every day or two, there was something else to rub my nose in the fact that I wasn’t good enough, and didn’t belong. It was unjust, and it was painful. But Dante, and my priest, told me that I could not let my anger over this prevail. As my priest put it, love is more important than justice. Besides, God wills us to love those who mistreat us. As my priest put it, if Jesus Christ, on the Cross, asked his Father to forgive those who did this to him, because he loved them just that much, what right do we have to withhold our love from those who cannot return it, or who return it in an impaired, distorted form. Piccarda, a saint in Dante’s Paradiso, explains to the pilgrim Dante that his notion of justice does not make sense in heaven. She says simply, “In His will is our peace.”

If I was going to dwell within the will of God, I had to somehow work through my brokenhearted anger and love my father. This was not going to be easy. It was going to be like climbing the sheer face of a mountain. But what else could I do?

I did it — imperfectly, God knows, but I did it. And slowly, healing came. The healing was not only immediate, of my stress-caused chronic fatigue, but more profoundly, I found the burdens I had been carrying around all my life from my complicated childhood in Daddy’s house lifted.I thought I was going to be carrying that weight all of my life, but now it was gone. Who could have imagined that? Certainly not me. Driving home that Good Friday morning, the truth came to me: that if I had known all the suffering that lay ahead for me back home, I never would have returned after Ruthie died. But if I had not done that, if I had not obeyed what my wife and I felt was a call from God to do this, I never would have been healed of this wound that I had been carrying all my life.

I never would have been there on the front porch to hear my father say, in his imperfect way, that he was sorry.

What had just happened on his front porch was my father putting a key into shackles — a key only he possessed — unlocking them, and casting off the invisible iron ball that I dragged around with me everywhere I went, and had done for most of my life.

I was free. And so, in a way, was my father.

And here’s how it ended:

Days later, the moment was at hand. We gathered all the family members who were near, and as many of the neighbors as could be there. Daddy had not been conscious for a couple of days. His bedroom filled with the people who had loved him for most of his life. They had come to see him off.

At the end, his breathing became fast and labored, and he writhed, as if trying shake off his flesh. Mama took his right hand, and I clasped his left. As Daddy drew his final agonized breaths, I looked into his face. It was the only thing I saw, and in it, I saw the face of Christ. More importantly, I saw him, not as the man of whom I was in awe, the man whom I sometimes hated, the man with whose difficult legacy I wrestled in my heart for decades, but him as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and poor creature who needed my love as surely as I needed his. Death humbles us all. That hand of his that held me as a helpless baby, I held myself when his soul left his helpless body. There is perfect harmony in this, a harmony rightly divided and bound together by love — the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.

My final words to my father were, “Thank you, old man, for everything.” They may be the truest words I ever spoke to him.

We all said the Lord’s Prayer together over his body, then sang “I’ll Fly Away.” Someone went to call the funeral home. The word went out to the community that Mr. Ray had passed. People started coming by to pay their respects, as they do.

He died just after four in the afternoon. Mourners didn’t leave my mom’s house until after ten. I made it back to my own place at 10:30, utterly exhausted. It was the first time I had been home in eight days. I sat down at my kitchen table, alone with my thoughts, marveling at the sense of calm I felt. I had just watched my father die, and lived through the day that all my life I have dreaded above all others. The thought of the world without my father in it was intolerable to me, and terrifying. I don’t know why, but it was. It was as if I would be annihilated without his presence to ground me, and all of us. Fear of his death was something close to a terror for me.

And yet, here we were. Daddy was gone. And I had no thought other than gratitude for his life, and gratitude that he was no longer in pain. The future did not appear frightening at all, nor did the present. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, as Julian of Norwich wrote. I felt this powerfully.

How was this possible? By what means did this gift come to me?

Then it hit me: “In His will is our peace.” The words of Piccarda. Dante had led the way for me to dwell in the Lord’s will, not my own. And in that was harmony, was the peace that passes all understanding.

In His will is our peace. Believe it. Live it. Suffer for it. There is no other way through this life of exile, to the far shore of home. This is the higher justice, and it is Love itself.

Maybe that doesn’t fit the reporter’s snarky narrative, I don’t know. But I think it’s relevant to a story about family and religion as it plays out in the life of this garrulous blogger.

A number of you readers have written to me asking if I’m hurt by the piece, and to offer condolences. I appreciate your kindness, but gosh, I have been in this business for nearly 30 years, and I have dinosaur skin. I’m fine — honestly, fine. It wasn’t that bad. No big whoop. I did learn a useful lesson, though, about why I shouldn’t be so eager to cooperate with newspaper profiles. I had such a good experience with Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker — who was up front from the beginning about his own biases (liberal, atheist), but who promised me fairness, and delivered it — that I had come to believe the line that I often say to you media critics in the laity here on the blog: that reporters really aren’t out to do a number on you.

I don’t really believe that anymore. I mean, I believe it to be true — the profession has many Joshua Rothmans in it; I know this for a fact, because I know them personally — but I’m no longer willing to take this as a given. Neither should you.