My father’s blessing

by Keith Barber

Driving north on US 52 at sunset, the blue haze hung over Pilot Mountain like a warm blanket on a chilly autumn evening. The beatific vision released a floodgate of memories. The giant rock on top of the mountain known as “the guide” to the Saura Indians is the iconic image of my childhood. It had been less than 48 hours since my father passed away and all those memories — held back by what seemed like a mental wall stretching to the sky — came rushing forth. I was not in control of my feelings, both painful and joyous. It was pointless to try.

A sliver of light pierced the darkness of my childhood room. I woke to find a large figure standing in the doorway, a shadow with no discernible face. It was my father after yet another late night out. I can still feel his beard stubble, like sandpaper rubbing against my cheek, as held me in his muscular arms while telling his version of a bedtime story. He spoke of urban legends, adventures with guys named “Hazel,” “Yoke Man” and “Gabriel.” Eventually, his voice would trail off as he drifted off to sleep. And there I’d be, trapped in his bear hug. I would always manage to extricate myself, and wake my mom to complain. She would then forcefully eject dad from our room. Her reaction made a strong impression on my older brother and me. It was that first hint that all was not well with our parents’ relationship. Several years later, I slumped in an lounge chair in our downstairs den, staring intently at the linoleum floor, my leg swinging back and forth, as another family took a tour of our home. My parents had separated and my mom was selling the house.

The thread was broken; our family was fractured. The relationship between my father and his four children would consist of bits and pieces of precious time and scattered, loosely connected memories. We spent a good part of our lives trying to repair that thread. We needed him, and he needed us. That should’ve been enough, but it wasn’t.

And when I saw my father’s lifeless body lying in a hospital bed at Baptist Hospital two weeks ago, I wished for more time. My shift in my consciousness — the way I thought of my father my entire life compared to the insights I developed over time — came too late. Now I see those late night storytelling sessions as his misguided attempts to connect with his sons. Later in life, I missed his bear hugs.

Ralph Waldo Emerson believed the universe is perfectly balanced. My father’s life stands as evidence of that axiom. In his essay, “Compensation,” Emerson observed: “Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet hath its sour; every evil its good.”

My father had a big heart. He was a loving person. He was also an irresponsible father and unfaithful husband with the capacity to inflict great pain and suffering. He was good at so many things, yet horrible at others.

As his physical health declined, his anger and bitterness got the better of him. A year ago, my three siblings and I were not allowed to say goodbye to our grandmother — his mother — after she passed away in a nursing home in King. My father refused to tell us. We found out about Nana’s death three days after it happened. No funeral, no memorial service, nothing. Not even an obituary in the newspaper. It was his last stand. He was angry at all of us.

Emerson also wrote, “Justice is not postponed.” My father spent his last days paying for a lifetime of mistakes. In 2000, I remained by his side as he underwent major heart surgery. Feeling his own mortality, he told me, for the first time, that he loved me. Remarkably, he called my mother and apologized for everything he had ever done to hurt her. He came through the operation with flying colors but a subsequent staph infection landed him back in the hospital for another two weeks. By the spring of 2001, he was beginning to fully recover. My visits to his Winston-Salem home would include walks around his neighborhood, part of his physical therapy. It was during one of those walks I realized I couldn’t be dad’s friend anymore, and it really, really hurt.

My decision coincided with a sharp decline in my father’s mental and physical health. Then, 15 months ago, I lost my maternal grandfather. I had never cried like that in my life. Not a single tear has come since the night I saw my dad at Baptist Hospital, but perhaps, in time, that will change.

Dad believed life to be a random series of events strung together. I always disagreed. I believe life events might seem disconnected, leaving us to wonder why bad things have to happen. But one day when you look back on it, and it plays out like a marvelous story. I wish my father could have found the poetry of his own life.

For the past 15 years, I have been searching for that poetry. I have asked myself, “Will I enter the forest at its darkest point, and make my own path?”

Ten years ago, I actually entered the forest, quite literally, when I moved to Utah and rented a cabin 20 miles east of Park City. I traveled out West to pursue my dream of working on the Sundance Film Festival, but it was my time alone in the wilderness that helped me arrive at a more expansive view of myself. My father never had that opportunity.

My father had an expressive personality to say the least. He was a storyteller — I became a journalist and a filmmaker. He was a voracious reader — I have the same thirst for knowledge. He was a champion of the weak and the disenfranchised — I try to stand up to great forces with the power of the pen. His gifts were many, and I owe him so much.

Since his passing, I’ve had to break the news to his close friends and acquaintances. The reaction has been consistent. There is a moment of silence followed by an expression of sincere sadness and a deep sense of loss. It has helped ease my personal pain to know so many thought so highly of him. They saw the good, the boundless potential, and now I see it, too. For true forgiveness is the ultimate expression of love. And I love you, Dad.

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