My dad passed away last night, around 9:45 p.m. I had been on the phone with my sister--she was at our parents' home in Seal Beach, CA helping out as dad lay comatose on his hospice bed. My mother, mostly recovered from a head injury (a result of a fall) was in a separate room. We have had a lot of phone calls lately, as dad's condition worsened. This last week saw him take a sharp turn towards eternity, with family rushing in to say goodbye to him on Thursday. All thought he would not last the night, but he lasted one more full night and part of another.
My dad fathered seven children, and all did what they could to help as dad's condition weakened with time. The real heroes are our sisters (three of them) who did most of the work with dad, especially these last few weeks. I am 1,000 miles to the north, and last saw my dad in November for his 83rd birthday--I'm glad I was able to get down there for his last birthday party. My dad had many issues, and my love for him is not because he was a wonderful father but because we all deserve love. When I was a kid he was a terror, and mean, mostly verbally. If I happened to say to him something like "Are we going camping?" or "Are we going to the beach" he would usually respond with "Got a mouse in your pocket?" I didn't get it at first, but he made me get it eventually: there is no "we" when it came to my dad. For years I drove my current wife nuts because I could not say "we" to her--it was always "I" or "you." I say "we" now (with some effort, and flinch a little when I do) half expecting to be rejected and dismissed. Old songs play deep into our bones.
Anyway, last night I called my sister Diana, who happened to be on watch with dad. She was in an adjoining room, and I asked her to please do me a favor: make a drawing of a mouse and place it with dad, in his pocket. She said he was wearing a sweatshirt and had no pocket, so I asked her to draw the mouse sitting in a pocket (she's a darn good artist when she wants to be). I had no malice or sense of revenge or sarcasm towards dad--it just felt somehow right that in some small, symbolic way he would not be alone, he would not be rejected--that little drawing of a mouse was about love and devotion. Diana told me that she too had been the victim of his little phrase (as another sister told me later the same thing) and we talked about how we often did not know how to join in with others, did not sign up for group projects, etc. Being part of a "we" never clicked for us, so we talked of how the mouse in the pocket was a part of that cool remove, that alienation. We both love our dad, but with honesty and for the most part clarity, the mixed bag that life is when addressed honestly. After a bit more talk my sister and I finished up our phone call. Five minutes later she called back, and told me that dad was gone, that he had died while we were speaking. She also told me she placed the drawing with dad.
I then called two of our siblings (and then one of them called the eldest brother) with the news, and Diana called the sisters and soon everyone knew. Some time ago we had all vowed that no one was to inform a family member of a death via email or voicemail, only by speaking directly with a given family member. We kept to our pledge.
Now it is the next day, the first day of my life without dad. Alan Watts spoke and wrote about the infeffable (or God) as playing hide and seek in the world (because it would be utterly boring to know everything, know all results before they occur, that one would have to make a game of it, a "forgetting" that made this amazing dream seem the ultimate reality). This "hide and seek" (based on the Hindu idea of God dreaming the world dream) has it that when a person dies god wakes up from dreaming (in this case the dream that the Infinite was my father) and goes "Oh, it was only me." No barriers, no veils, no dogma--just release. Goodbye Bob. You were only dreaming.
This post is a goodbye to my dad, whose hand I could not hold those last few days, but whose heart may know that the mouse that is in his pocket is in mine as well.
Good night, sweet prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Tat tvam asi.
Robert Mandeville Armstrong
Born November 10th, 1927
Died February 5th, 2011
"Why, it was only me all along"
Update: Diana sent me a picture of her drawing.