Tuesday, January 18, 2011


It’s been 6 months since my adopted dad died. And I haven’t been able to write much about him, not just since he died, but for many years before he contracted Parkinson’s. Some of that is a combination of grief and estrangement, and some of that is guilt for the many ways I was never the child he wanted me to be, and some of that is that he is and has been a very tough person to do justice to.

My father was a good person.

That just doesn’t give those words enough resonance, so let me say it in a different way: my father was a Good Person.

And because he was so busy being so very, very good, in a way I never knew enough about him as a person, other than that if there was something on behalf of others that needed doing, my father was going to be there with his hands outstretched. It’s hard to explain how relentlessly flawless he seemed.

Dad was very religious. Our days started with scripture study and ended with prayer, and our weeks were often spent studying and volunteering for church service. Among other church roles, dad spent 5 years of my puberty/teens as a Mormon bishop, which in adapted terminology is like being the minister or pastor. Mormons don’t have a theological education or ministerial training program, per se, although some of the weekly 3-hour church sessions include priesthood leadership classes for men. Being a bishop is, therefore and like all church roles, a lay-person’s calling. However, I’ve never known anybody better suited to that job: if someone needed a bed to sleep in while their marriage fell apart, they spent a night or five in our basement. If there was a flood, if somebody’s car broke down, if someone was ill, my father was there, calm, and thoughtful, and listening, and infinitely helpful.

I’ve been thinking recently, both as a parent and as his child, about a disciplinary concept he used a lot, which was to remind us that whatever we did, good or bad, had resonance in the rest of our lives and the lives of everyone to whom we were connected. For me, this really stuck, and the results were not so great, as they fed my already strong sense of depression and outsider-ness. While I had probably a usual number of parent/child run-ins, this sense of resonance made me think that every infraction committed was permanently blackening the person I was becoming and infecting those around me. The voices that praised me (and there were enough of these) seemed nearly silent, while the voices that blamed me seemed very loud.

Probably there are people who can resolve to do better and succeed easily, but I’ve never had those skills. It’s taken me years to find my inner mettle and to find the person within of whom I am proud rather than guilty – and to stop covering that guilt with a mixture of defiance and sarcasm. I now think that dad was probably trying to help us build strong characters amplifying our strengths, not remind us that our characters were going to be comprised of the mess resulting from every bad judgment, self-serving lie, and half-cocked argument we’d held. But because I thought of myself as bad and unworthy, I didn’t have a healthy way to expunge those feelings of guilt.

Also, because the way I was supposed to heal my feelings of unworthiness was through the Mormon path of confession/forgiveness to the bishop, which meant confessing my guilt and doubts to my father, I ended up avoiding what possibly would have been cathartic in that way, choosing instead to avoid any cause to talk to him as his congregant. This may not have been as cathartic as I imagine - I am not sure what this deeply religious person who was also my father might have done with doubt-riddled me when he put on the confessor hat.*

I miss him. My siblings each have seemed to try hard to be the same kind of person: infinitely good. I have to confess that, while I admire that strength and devotion to a path of hyper-vigilant excellence, it’s occasionally a bit irritating in a sibling. It’s lately occurred to me that my mother, who, while averagely good, isn’t a deeply Good Person in the same way (interesting, vivacious, fun, and prone to emotional intensity, yes), has been discovering her own level without the constant excellence-by-example my father provided. I’m sure she misses him tremendously, but I can see that she’s also more her own self than I’ve ever known her. This has been difficult, but also very interesting.

I’d like to think I can parent my kids in a way that organically evolves as they get older. I have no fear that they’ll think of me as exceptionally Good. Hopefully they won’t think of me primarily as Muddled, but that’s at least a fairly human example. At any rate, I’d like to think that I can grow my relationship with them to encompass their ever expanding intellect and sophistication – remaining both Mom and person, and that I can help them build characters that acknowledge the possibility of what occasionally may feel like endless mistakes without the weight of endless resonance.

* Not a literal hat


Laura said...

Wow, Rebekah, that does sound difficult to live with, and really explains a lot about you. I'm often envious of how you've managed to make space and commitment in your life to help rape/abuse survivors, and the neighborhood cats, and anyone else needing help around you. It's still one of those "someday" things for me. My primary example of Good Person has to be my big sister whose whole career is about helping underprivileged children in the Chicago school system. She has just begun learning how difficult it is to balance with a small family and not a lot of nearby support, aside from the nanny who takes care of her son while she is at work. The take-home work still has to be done around a baby, though, or balanced with her husband's odd-houred work schedule. Then there's all the interrupted sleep.

Most of us are content with managing the day-in day-out job of parenting, and some of us (not me) WOH on top of that. To go beyond those two time and energy sucking responsibilities is truly admirable.

There is never a moment of resting on your laurels and congratulating yourself when you want to give and give, though, since there is so much need in the world that all you see is what you didn't/couldn't/can't do.

Since I'm not one to judge personal lives held up to any religious standard, I'm one person who sees you as a Good Person. You work your ass off to be a Good Person. So don't beat yourself up, k? :)

M said...

Grandpa was Good Person. My mom really admired him for his Goodness. As do I.

And it's interesting to see how this same Good Person mentality (and its resonance) is affecting my own family, but specifically with my mom's passing. Although, I think it's in slightly different terms for us: I think that we mostly are aware of how our bodies will (or guiltily seem-to-be) damned because Mom isn't telling us what to ingest. I think we all feel a bit guilty, in a way, even though I know that V tries especially hard to maintain an "A.M. Approved" diet. Perhaps my mom's approach to teaching us about nutrition was similar to what you were taught about resonance and actions. Maybe that explains why my mom developed her own philosophies about nutrition and consistent healthy eating - because of how she felt good food would continually affect her life/health and the lives/health of her children (especially when thinking about food allergies). Anyhow, your post really made me think about the approaches that mom used when teaching me and my siblings.

I can see what you are saying about the adverse affects of the actions/resonance mentality. The great thing is that you are aware of how you were affected in that way, which I think guarantees that you will use a different approach when raising your own kids. :)

Irish Gumbo said...

We all hear the toll of a bell in different ways, not better or worse, just different. Perhaps it is how act after hearing it makes all the difference.

Very nice resonance of your own, as this made me think about some things in my own life, and the ripples in it.

Peace and balance to you (bowing)

unmitigated me said...

Parents (fathers, especially it seems) don't always consider how a teenage child hears things. I think I'd have felt the same as you about the resonance idea, that I was probably poisoning everyone around me, and all would be better if I just went away. I sort of ran away. I moved into an apartment with a friend at 19. My mother turned my room into a den by that night, she was so pissed off at me. It took me a long time to come to grips with my mother, and then she went and turned into a self-serving addict, so it was like she died ten years before she died, ya know?

Jason, as himself said...

This was one of your best posts ever. I, of course, can totally see where you are coming from.

And I know I don't have to say this because you already know it, but you are just as Good, (or Gooder!) as your siblings and all of the other Good People up there in Utah.

My dad has Parkinson's, and he is going down hill fast. Some day I will share with the world about his own particular brand of Mormonism.

trash said...

Thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

I am glad you are working your way to resolution. I believe inner peace is something we all struggle with and even those who seem to be the 'Goodest' may well hear that niggling voice of doubt in the quiet of the night.