Bedtime reading, fairy tales, and reading with Dad.
My dad read to me a lot when I was young.
We always had a storybook going before bed. Later, I asked him why he read to me so much. He said that if you can find your way into a story, you can often find your way out. That sounded pretty Zen-like coming from Dad. I’m not sure I understood it at the time.
Several years later, I listened to poet Robert Bly talk about fairy tales and why they’re so enduring. He said something very much like my father had. He made his point by talking about certain doctors in Europe working with very damaged patients in psychiatric wings of hospitals—many of them troubled by bad dreams and feelings of inescapable panic.
Frustrated by their inability to reach these patients, the doctors began reading fairy tales to them before bed. Startlingly, many of the patients reported finding doors in nightmares where there were only walls before. Others saw light where there had been only darkness. Some patients showed marked improvement in moods and a lessening of agitation.
If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t always appreciate my father’s gifts, but I did always love him. He was an orphan and he had a tough childhood. He lived in a foster home with lots of children moving in and out. The woman who ran the home liked my dad and raised him as her own. But there was nothing easy about growing up as a foster child in an orphanage in rural Maine during the Depression.
When he turned 17, he graduated from high school and immediately joined the military. It was a perfect marriage for him; they offered him structure, a way to find himself in the world, and a good job for almost thirty years.
If you talk to the kids of military fathers, they’ll tell you soldiers don’t always make great dads. My dad was a stoic. He rarely complained, certainly not about personal pain. In his world, unless you were down for the count, you just kept on keeping on.
Late on September 10, 2001, I got a call that my dad wasn’t doing well; I needed to come home right away. I flew to Albuquerque from Chicago that night. Met my two sisters who lived there and we drove to Lubbock, Texas, where my father had been taken to the hospital.
We arrived at the Texas Tech University Medical Center early on the morning of September 11. My father’s room was crowded with doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel. Everyone was watching a small TV in the corner.
Within five minutes, I learned that my father was dying, probably had been for some time but hadn’t sought medical attention until he collapsed under the pain. I learned that all flights had been grounded. I learned about the hijackings, the attacks, and the estimated death counts. It was all too much to process at once.
But I realized we were living in a story within a story: my dad’s story and our family story, but also the larger story of that day’s horrible events. This is how my father would have wanted me to make sense of the craziness. Somehow, that context proved helpful as I grappled with my frayed emotions.
We lost Dad less than four months after that terrible Tuesday. My father wasn’t a religious man, but he believed. As he drew closer to death, he spent quiet moments praying with his prayer book from childhood and reading novels—constantly reading novels. I asked him about it on my last visit. He told me that stories can make transitions, even difficult ones, possible. Then he winked and said he was simply finding his way out of the story. I wasn’t with him when he died shortly after that, but my mother said he was serene, that he passed over peacefully.
I’ve spent a lifetime working with people who are trying to tell their stories. My father loved that, when I told him about my work, he would smile. I still see that smile in my dreams.
It’s a good story.
(A slightly different version of this story appeared in print, on several websites, and Facebook.)