When Daddy Died…

“In order to die a good death, one must live a good life.” – The Writings of Nichiren Diashonin, vol. 1

“The life of a human being is fleeting. The exhaled breath never waits for the inhaled one. Therefore, I should first of all learn about death, and then about other things.” – The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 759

I have been a practitioner of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism for close to four years now. As an active member of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), the world’s largest lay Buddhist organization, I have spent the last four years working to access and maintain my Buddhahood by relentlessly working on what we Nichiren Buddhists refer to as human revolution.  For non-practitioners, that simply translates into: Taking FULL responsibility for your own life by transforming yourself at the most fundamental level. It means embracing the ultimate truth of the universe. That your life houses within it the law that governs this vast cosmos.

While I have gained a litany of benefits from strengthening my Buddhist practice, it was not until a little over three months ago that I witnessed the concrete actual proof of my development as a human being. The day after Thanksgiving I got a call from my brother saying that our father had taken a bad fall and was now in a coma. The prognosis was not positive. Roughly a week later, my daddy died.

It was this obstacle, which I recognized even then as an inconspicous benefit, that allowed me to gratefully add another marker to the long list of markers outlining my growth as a human in the short time I had been chanting nam myoho renge kyo. My father graciously allowed me to witness his death – an excruciatingly difficult ordeal that has better prepared me for the eventual deaths of others I love. My father’s gift to me underscored the sage guidance the Daishonin shared with his followers centuries ago. The best way to guarantee yourself a death of value is to live a LIFE of value.

Your Death Will Mirror Your Life

My father was a planner. A very practical man. He was not long on formality or wasted resources. He had but one goal his entire adult life: Work for 30 years at a good state job, save up enough money during his working years AND his retirement to pay off his house and leave his kids a respectable “estate” – as respectable as possible for the son of a junk man. He did not believe in Christmas gifts or frivilous spending. He believed in quiet joys – going to the movies, day trips to Biloxi, lunch at the Golden Corral. As far as he was concerned all of those lavish luxuries that others felt they “earned” because of daily toil was short sighted and ultimately, resulted in a man stiffing his family when they needed him most.

Two years before he died, Daddy had gathered my siblings and me and told us with as much sensitivity as he could muster: “I am not young; my health is not great. Here is how I want my funeral handled, what I want done with the house and how much money each of you will get.” When my sister burst into tears in the middle of what seemed to be Daddy’s self-administered eulogy, he comforted her with: “I know this is hard, Sarah, but we have to face reality. One day I will die and it’s best that y’all know what to do.”

The last two years of his life, my father was fully prepared to leave this Earth. Whenever I came home, he always ended up telling me some variation of this story: “I have taken care of my children and helped them when they needed it. I am living comfortably in my retirement when some men my age have to apply for food stamps. I am still in my right mind when friends I went to school with are slowly losing their’s. God has blessed me; I have lived a good life.”

It was because of these conversations that I gladly gifted my father the death I knew he wanted. When my brother explained there was blood seeping into Daddy’s brain and if the doctor performed surgery, he would either be killed instantly or worse, survive the surgery as a permanent invalid, I faced reality the way he and my Buddhist faith had taught me. I advised my brother to give our father the death he deserved. “I’m buying my plane ticket now,” I said. “Tell the doctor to give Daddy the strongest pain meds he has and then take him off life support.”

During the four days I sat with my father waiting for the inevitable, I thought of a moment from years ago that completely encapsulated who he was and how he lived his life. We had made plans to go to the movies and I told him I would meet him at the house at 3:00. When I drove up, his truck was gone and there was a yellow post-it note stuck to the front door. You were supposed to be here at 3. It is now 3:10. I am at the movies. When my father was being transferred to hospice care, the doctor gently informed: “He probably won’t make it pass Saturday.” At 4 o’clock that Sunday morning, the hospice nurse called to let us know my father had taken his last breath. Yes, Gerald Kendrick was a strict adherent to deadlines. Daddy lived and died by the clock.

Grief Can Coexist with Joy

My father’s death exposed an understandable, yet disappointing belief the general public harbors about grief. That, by its very existence, grief is supposed to break you. The death of a parent, I was told many times, knocks the wind from under you and I should be prepared to be inconsolable. I remember a time when I believed that myself. Before nam myoho renge kyo, I, too, associated the very nature of grief as existing solely because it sapped one of her joy.

It was (and still is) difficult for those who love me to believe my joyful grief at my father’s funeral was genuine. Even now, months later, when I talk about my father in casual conversation, I can feel people waiting for me to break. When I called one friend to tell her the news, she suggested I was so calm and composed because I hadn’t quite accepted my father was dead yet. “I know it’s hard to face it,” she consoled. Since I appreciated her sincere attempt to give me what she assumed I needed, I didn’t correct her assumption by saying, “Actually I am calm and composed BECAUSE I have accepted the truth instead of fighting against it.”

How fortunate I am to have taken on a spiritual practice that suggests before we spend time trying to figure out life, we need to first make peace with understanding and appreciating death. I think about how fearful I was of my parents dying when I was in my 20s and even well up into my early 30s. One of those friends who tried to get me to “not be afraid to admit you are broken” had lost her father several years prior. Back then I saw death as a negative, a disruption of life so I cowardly avoided my friend. When my friend’s father passed away, I had not taken the time to learn about death. To see it as a part of life, not an interruption of it.

“Really, I am not trying to be strong,” I explained to a friend who couldn’t understand why I wasn’t more upset. “I am just simply strong.” While I was definitely grieving the loss of my father, I was also happy for him. Completely elated that he was able to rest from his current life in preparation for his next. How fortunate he was to be granted release at a point when he felt content and at peace with the life he had so carefully crafted.

“It actually makes perfect sense for me to be burying my father,” I told another friend who commented on how unnatural it feels to bury a parent. “Now, if I were burying my child…THAT would be terribly, terribly unnatural. But the life cycle sort of dictates that your parents will go before you.”

There have been moments when I have thought to myself: Oh, I need to call Daddy only to remember that he is gone. That I am now a fatherless daughter. These moments are anything, but easy. I welcome the sadness they bring because my Buddhist practice has also taught me to appreciate suffering without being defeated by it.

Up until now, I intentionally chose NOT to broadcast the details of my father’s accident and swift death. This facebook culture that seems to entice even the most tactful person to make her life one ongoing status update makes it nearly impossible to have private moments remain just that. I write this blog entry now only because I need people to know that my father’s death was the best thing that ever happened to me. This is not said with an air of flippancy or detachment. This sentiment comes from the part of me that understands life is eternal and extends beyond this present existence. The part of me that knows with absolute certainty not even the loss of the one man who loved me unconditionally is able to defeat me.

6 Responses

  1. Truly heart-warming and soul-healing, Keturah. May Gerald Kendrick truly rest in peace, and may his soul & spirit live on through you and all who loved him. Much love and appreciation for your friendship and thank you so much for sharing this testament of growth, peace of mind, understanding and eternal love. See you again soon.

  2. Keturah, I am weeping as I write; not so much of sadness but because of the depth of what you have said. It is not easy to let go, but truth being said, it is the order of things.
    I would have liked to have met your dad, he sounds like he had some
    things in common with my own dad who died some 20 years ago: May 17th.
    Arlene

    • Yes, Arlene, my father was a very memorable man…”old school” as a friend once said. I am glad to know my words touched you so deeply and thank you for not only taking the time to read, but taking the time to leave a response as well.

  3. Beautiful Piece on death and life and transition Keturah…..You’re a beautiful writer……….

    Was just thinking today that instead of becoming unhinged over the challenges of ‘caring’ for my 93 year young 🙂 Mother ~ as I also approach my ‘golden’ years; that I could instead embrace the beauty of this season in both of our lives.

    I pray to surrender and accept my role in my Mother’s life now as a gift to heal myself and to create the tenderness, joy and understanding within myself that I still seek from her. By doing so, I hope to cultivate peace filled thoughts of this time now and forever.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    • I want to congratulate you on doing the difficult work of caring for an aging parent. I am humbled to know that my words have given you a fresh perspective on how to look at your care of your mother. Through my spiritual practice, I have learned that it is always best to stare reality squarely in the face and confront it gracefully and joyously. Care for your mother the best you can while being cautious of not neglecting yourself. I wish you well. (And thanks for not only taking the time to read this post, but also leaving such a thoughtful response.)

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