My Father's Teachings

By Fred Eppsteiner I t wasn't easy for my father to age. To see his hair turn grey, his hairline recede, and then gradually disappear till only a few strands remained. To lose the energy of his youth and feel the weariness and discomfort of his aging body. He was both saddened and angered by this "unexpected" turn of events. He mourned the loss of his body, this form he thought he'd always be.

But old age was not the only infirmity my father endured in his golden years. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease. I watched as he lost first mucb of his short-term memory, then his medium-term memory, and, finally, his long-term memory began to go as well. In addition, his reasoning and cognitive functioning slowly became impaired. His ability to think, to retain and process information, and to converse became confused and impeded. To these losses, he responded with frustration, anger, and despair.

As I watched these profound changes in my father, I realized I was also viewing the disintegration of his self-concept. His idea of himself that he had mentally constructed for seventy-five years and that he had held together by imagining a permanent self that continues over time, moment-to-moment, year to year, was no longer functioning. His self that had accomplished this and done that, a self that could remember itself, a self that came from here and went there, that was productive-he couldn't find any of those selves anymore. He became lost and frightened. He didn't know who he was anymore! And he had lost the ability to recreate a new self to solve this profound dilemma. My father fell into a state of depression, alternating between despair, fear, and rage. It is a common emotional state for people with Alzheimer's in our culture.

As I lived with him, observed, and listened, I realized something else was occurring. As his cognitive capacity diminished and he slowly got used to his new condition, he began to live more and more in the present moment. The whole apparatus of conceptualization through which he had always related to reality no longer functioned, and he just experienced things directly. I joked with him that be had attained what many meditators and seekers worked so hard for-to do nothing, accomplish nothing. I told him that to spend a day looking, sitting, walking, eating was enough; he was enough just as he was.That it just didn't matter that he couldn't remember what he ate five minutes before, or what he did that morning, or even who he was.

And gradually my father began to change, to soften, open, and accept. A complicated man for much of his life, he became simpler and more direct. A man of some hardness and emotional distance, he became much softer and loving. He would constantly tell us, his family, how much he loved us and would ask us to love him. He would want to kiss us and to have us kiss him. A man who would always fall asleep when my mother took him to a classical music concert was now in love with music and dance. And every concelt and performance he went to was always "the best one ever."

I want to relate a little story that happened two years ago. My father would come to our meditations, sit and listen, and the people in our Sangha got to know him. One day, one of the men told me that when he had greeted my father before the sitting, my father had asked him, "Lee, do you love me?" Lee, who is sixty-six, told me this anecdote with tears in his eyes. In his whole life, he said, never had a man asked him that question, and it had touched him deeply.

I also watched as my father became a child again (or perhaps one he never was). All his higher cortical functioning, his social training, his adult self-consciousness fell away. He could be impulsive, inappropriate, spontaneous. A man who was never known for his sense of humor, and certainly never the clown, now delighted (sometimes mischievously) in making people laugh, in being a buffoon at times. Music would play, and he would just stand up and dance by himself, impervious to the judgment of others. Like a child, he thought he was always terrific!

For me, the son as caregiver, I had to constantly reaffirm to my father that it's all right not to remember, not to think, analyze or judge; not to retain any information for more than a brief moment. Yet, on the other band, I had a very strong concept, supported by fifty-plus years of experience and memory, of who and what my father was, and should be. I had to deal with my own judgment, evaluations, selfconsciousness, and often embarrassment as I watched my familiar father disappear and become someone totally different from all my prior concepts about him. I had to learn to accept, to let go and to love my father in the most challenging and unusual way of my life.

Then, unexpectedly, came death. My father, who had never had a heart problem, had a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. My brother, sister, and I came to New York to be with him and my mother, and to aid in some decision-making about a course of medical intervention. The doctors gave him six months to a year to live. There he lay in cardiac intensive care, hooked up to endless tubes and monitors, and all he wanted to do was "go home" or as he said, "just let me get up and I'll come right back." And then he died. One minute alive and then, all the vital signs disappeared one by one on the monitors. There, before my eyes, he exited his body, he was gone. The doctors and nurses all disappeared and we were alone with him. Holding him, stroking him, kissing him. Expressing our gratitude to him for all he had given us in this life and wishing him well on his journey. We stayed with him for several hours, his face serene, his body becoming colder and colder. For thirty years I've studied and practiced the Buddha's teaching, and yet never so clearly had the truth of impermanence, of birth and death, of death and deathlessness, of change and changelessness, so directly and clearly been pointed out. In that hospital room with my father, mother, brother, and sister, a palpable sacredness emerged, a profound experience of Dharma that brought my palms together in deepest gratitude.

Several days later, my father was cremated. We took his ashes to his family plot in Queens, New York and dug a hole by the graves of his mother and father. Lighting incense and chanting the Heart Sutra, his wife, children, and grandchildren each put a spoonful of his ashes in the hole, said good-bye, and wished him a speedy and auspicious rebirth. Your body, cold to my touch. Your face, peacefully at rest. The candle's wick, all burnt up. Shakyamuni's Truths, totally revealed. With moist eyes, I receive your final gift.

Dharma Teacher Fred Eppsteiner, True Energy, was 52 and his father, Larry Eppsteiner, was 80 when he died. Fred is a psychotherapist in Naples, Florida.

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