Joe, my father, survived horrific war experiences. He was a boy when they packed him onto the train where people who fell were trampled and smothered. He woke up under a pile of machine gunned bodies, surprised to find he was still alive. He saw crows eating the eyes of dead prisoners, and officers using babies tossed into the air for target practice. His gangrened big toe was dipped in bleach and cut off without anesthetic. He was a slave laborer and a death marcher. He wore the yellow star. He bore the green numbers on his arm.
The war made him an atheist. He told me he didn’t care if the whole world died so long as he wasn’t singled out again. Like many atheists he was an ethical and honest man. Like all war survivors he was deeply troubled and troubling, refusing any therapy for the world of horrific memories he carried with him every day, while he worked his way from janitor to owner of a big manufacturing company. He was a fearsome executive. If you underperformed or otherwise caused problems due to your lack of self discipline he would yell you up and down the way an officer berates a private for his own good and the good of the company. But he also sent employees and their children through college, using the company to help them raise themselves to a higher rung on the ladder of American society. He loved that about America and his patriotism was sincere and deeply felt. My father regretted that he had not been born American. He talked often about what profound accomplishments might have been his had he been allowed to be a physician as he always dreamed.
Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out that nature often has her revenge by providing fathers with children who are their opposites. For example, rough and ready western types who wind up having to raise delicate intellectual daughters. My father married a flamboyant yet isolated woman who loved to read Schopenhauer and Paul Valery. Admiring the Impressionists she obsessed over the harsh details of her illnesses and aging. Her favorite music was gypsy and at first he thought her mood swings romantic, only to find out much too late that she suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder.
They waited a long time after they married to finally have their only child. Later Joe confided that he regretted the decision, a curious confession since it implied the preferability of my non existence! My first disappointment for him was my immediate rejection of doctors. I made clear I would never be a doctor when I was still wearing diapers in a surprisingly articulate declaration that rallied my mother to my side. He was ready to settle for a lawyer or statesman but what he got instead was an artist and musician, a poet and mystic, a stubborn child ready to fight for his right to his own way of doing things.
Influenced by world mythology, Earth First, and William Blake, when I was fourteen everything that I wanted to do with my life could be summed up in the word “imagination.” Joe and I had bitter arguments about how hard my life would be, how I was throwing away my intelligence and my responsibility to my family and society. I tried to explain that for me there was no more pressing duty than serving the mighty imagination, the engine of human evolution. Eventually our arguments about it were reduced to catch phrases delivered with bitter sarcasm. Whenever I waxed idealistic about anything including the human race my father would dismiss my optimism with the curt remark: “I don’t have that kind of imagination.” To him imagination meant delusion, effeminacy, laziness. A s I began to study the history of religions I eagerly reported back to him my favorite gems of wisdom, including various perspectives on life after death. Such forays into speculation were always met with the most bitter performance of his catch phrase.
We never found common ground on such matters and at first I lived a secret life and then I disappeared from his for years. Joe had been sickly all his days, and burdened with numerous afflictions caused by starvation and exposure in the war. When I returned he was on the long slow decline that tortured him until his death. After my mother’s attempted suicide and her incarceration in a hospital, Joe decided to risk a procedure he was told would give him only a 50/50 chance for survival. He couldn’t go on the way he was. To his mind he had to gain enough functionality to clean up the mess they were leaving or he had to get out of the way. After hours of calm conversation in his hospital room I knew he was certain he would not survive, and he wanted it that way. Even there taking his last few conscious breaths he refused the comfort offered by religion, or if you prefer, spirituality. He was embracing the sweetest thing he could imagine: an end to suffering.
But he didn’t die immediately. Trapped in a coma, he could show consciousness only by moving one eye. Doctors called it an involuntary response but his sister and I experienced the very conscious communication of this eye as she shared memories of their childhood together and I tried to prepare him for the bardo. As I wiped his sweating brow with an iced towel I talked quietly in his ear about what he would see, and what he should look for. I promised him reunions and expanded horizons, and with his left eye he followed me, reacting, until they turned up the morphine and his eyes glazed over. They kept him unconscious for days until he took his last breath.
After that I liked to think of my father whenever I gardened. That was his greatest joy. A sunday afternoon of transplanting colorful flowers to decorate the backyard. Saddled with all the responsibilities he had left me unprepared for, trying to do the best for my now mentally impaired mother, missing my father despite our lifelong battle and his sometimes sadistic pleasure in defeating my dreams, I suffered a slight but painful back injury that seemed symbolic of the camel and the straw. After getting my spine adjusted the practitioner suggested I visit a therapist specializing in releasing trauma with gentle guided meditation and herbal formulas. Feeling miserable I drove deep into Laurel Canyon where I met the healer in the closest thing to a shack in the woods Hollywood can provide. The living room was well stocked with art and history books I perused while waiting. Then I was shown into the therapy room with a window on the green backyard.
A few moments into our session, I had told him only that my father had died recently. He got a peculiar look on his face and stopped the session. H e told me that he was not a trance channel, not a spirit medium, that he never practiced such arts and certainly would never in a therapeutic situation, but he said he felt my father’s presence so strongly and intrusively, and a phrase was being repeated over and over again that had to be an important message for me. He said: “Your father wants you to know he’s learning to love his imagination.”
The phrase had a profoundly healing effect on me. Soon after I happened to meet online a wonderful old gardener who specialized in breeding new types of orchids. When I told him this story he told me that he had just tinkered into existence a new kind of orchid: a yellow star with a trumpet. W e named it Joseph’s imagination.
Joseph’s Imagination has always been unusually prolific. Early this year I transplanted it from the small pot it inhabited for years into a large planter behind my house next to the hot tub. A palm that my father nurtured for years was transplanted with it. Transplanted orchids rarely bloom the first year so I was surprised to see the bloom stalk emerge mere weeks after the transplant. On the day Joseph’s Imagination bloomed I received sad news from my cousin. Joe’s brother in law, my uncle, had passed away that morning. I sent the family this story and a photograph of Joseph’s Imagination in bloom. Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity to capture the fact that coincidences can be meaningful.