India – Tonglen Meditation

As I kneeled on my meditation bench, I pictured my father sitting across from me on the metal cushioned porch chair, in the screened porch in my parent’s backyard. This was the new screened-in- porch, the one that they hired someone to build. It wasn’t the one that my dad built when we were young. My mom said that one would never fall. If the plans called for 2x4s, my dad used 4x4s.  He had laid down his tool belt after he built bedrooms downstairs for my older sister and I when we were teenagers.  He picked it up twenty-five years later to help me build a house I had every intention of moving into, but didn’t.  

I was picturing his suffering in the form of black smoke, like the smoke that used to fill our house at Christmas time when my grandparents came to visit.  How I used to stare at those long, skinny brown cigarettes that dangled on the edge of the square glass ashtray.  The red ember ate its way up the brown paper as a thin grey curly cue of smoke rose towards the ceiling light, mixing with the perfume that my grandmother, who had lost her sense of smell, doused herself with every morning. Thinner and more translucent grey strands accompanied the main spiral and spread out into a diffused haze that filled the whole house.  I was fixated on the long blackish grey tube of ash, watching to see when it grew too heavy and fell into the tray.  I couldn’t wait for the final ember to meet the white part of the paper and extinguish itself.  There was relief for a moment, but only a moment, before the next one was lit.  My family, that is the immediate nuclear one, and I would barely breathe the whole time my grandparents visited.  

My grandfather was 6’2”, with alabaster skin and a full head of fine white hair. Thick, layered glasses rested in front of his translucent crystal blue eyes, that were deemed legally blind since he was forty.  My father was 5’8” and deferred his authority the moment my grandfather stepped into the house.  

On the day of my grandparent’s arrival, my sisters and I would frantically clean our rooms. We tucked away every toy. We paired our shoes and lined them up in our closets.  Somehow my grandfather could see clutter, which he would efficiently throw into the trash. 

My father never told me any stories about his father.  But he told my sister about the time my grandfather made him climb up on top of the neighbor’s two story house during a torrential down pour, complete with thunder and lightning, to repair a leak in her roof when he was ten.  Granddad never told me stories, but Grandma talked about the two-year period after she met him, after he found out he was going blind, where he disappeared, then came back and married her, never to mention that time period again.  He adored all 4’9” of her.  He doted on her, brought her tall gin and tonics while they sat at the dining room table and played Euchre.  It was really my grandmother who ruled the house.  She was witty and charming, told story after story about the parties her and my grandfather would have with the nuns and priests, and about the terrible 5 years they spent in and out of the hospital with my dad’s brother, as he died from Hodgkin’s disease at seventeen.  She told me, in private, about the time she greeted my grandfather at the door on Halloween, in a mink coat, with nothing underneath.  She said, “trick,” cocking her hip out to the side with her hands wrapping the mink around her, or “treat,” opening herself to her lover.  

There was none of that sassy, sexual energy in our house.  If ever a lewd comment or gesture came on the television, nobody moved.  Breathing stopped until long after wholesomeness had returned on the screen.

My uncle told me a story of he and his brothers getting in to a fight.  He ran into the bathroom and locked the door.  His older brother, not my dad, broke it down and in the process broke my uncle’s nose.  My door-breaking uncle eventually gave his life over to God, becoming a Franciscan monk. My other uncle gave his life over to alcohol, drugs, and a secret habit he shared with me in a state of inebriated suicidal depression. I might have suspected something the day we both stretched our arms up to the sky after eating way too many crabs on a hot Maryland July day, on the porch that my dad didn’t build.  Upon viewing my hairy armpits my uncle recoiled in disgust, while proudly presenting his smooth, hairless ones.  I was confused at the time, before I understood the difference between gender identity and biological sex, and the suffering that one endures because of lack of understanding. Years later I tried to get him help. After his suicidal ideation confession, we made the phone calls. He changed his story and said he was fine.

I saw my father’s suffering in the form of black smoke and instead of taking it into my own heart, something I could not afford to do anymore, I sent it to the sun, to God.  I willed it to leave him like our family willed the smoke and perfume to leave our house the moment my grandparents pulled out of the driveway.  Regardless of the temperature outside, windows opened.  The attic fan was turned on high.  Curtains were in the washing machine, along with sheets, clothes, tablecloths.  Candles were lit.  The vacuum cleaner roared through every inch of carpet.  Hair was washed.

I willed the black smoke up to the sun.  I forgave him for all that I remembered and all that I could not remember with my mind, but remembered in my body.  I forgave him for not remembering.  I truly wished him freedom from suffering.  

I willed God’s light to fill his body completely, allowing him to finally relax.  I set him free.  I stopped wanting him to be different than he was.

Leave a Comment