My father is in the final stages of his journey here. For the last month, he has been surrendering to the prostate cancer that is invading his bones. His principal fear has been of being a burden to my mother, and so he has methodically tried to further the process. The degradation of his sense of taste is facilitating his resolve. It is clear that his extremities are being consumed in the effort to maintain the operation of his heart, lungs and brain.
I could mourn the loss of his brilliant intellect, but that intellect was a mixed blessing to his intimates. It was a very powerful tool that supported convictions that could lead to harsh judgments. What I am finding instead is that as he weakens and submits to confusion, for the first time in my life I am able to proffer simple acts of tenderness. Stroking his head, rubbing his chest over his heart, holding his hand: these have been rewarded by looks of wonder.
I was caught up, for much of my life, in my father’s ambitions for programming. On the title bar, the “Programming” link offers entries that introduce his philosophy of design. It is my own formulation: my father adopted obscure terminology to ensure precision of meaning, and believed that practice under his tutelage was essential to competence. In fact, inspired by Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”, his vision of a training center was a monastery. Having grown up with Diagrammatic Programming, when I joined him in the family business in 1995, I rapidly began to innovate. He found this intolerable, and when I finally had the opportunity to articulate my logic to him, his retort was “Well, it’s clear that if you talk long enough, Brian, you could convince people of anything.”
My mother dreaded our conversations. Even as recently as a few months ago, she would retreat into her office when I came by to visit him. I recognized the dynamic that evolved between us, but also saw that the problem was far more complex than just our personal history. During a transfer to the residents of ownership of the mobile home park property, my father fought a tremendous legal and spiritual battle with the lawyers seeking to maximize the developer’s profits at the cost of displacing old friends. My father eventually shared that the lead lawyer was ticketed on a DC10 that crashed when the cabin door popped open in flight, but chose at the last minute not to board. (Yes, a textbook case of misdirected anger.) I had my own struggle with the family law community that cultivated fear on the 7th floor of the Van Nuys court house. After one conversation with my father, I heard the thoughts of one of them admitting of me, “He’s far stronger than we’ve given him credit for.” Eventually I used my father to send a message back: “I’ve done what I’ve done in order that it couldn’t be said that people weren’t given a chance to do the right thing.”
In spite of his spiritual capacities, my father always pooh-poohed my own experiences. I received several clues as to his motivations over the years. Having suffered the traumatic losses of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., he observed once that “All the good people get killed.” Although he was bailed out of the financial consequences of his own ambitions by an inheritance from a distant aunt, he worried about my financial insecurity, and may have considered wasteful my itinerant attendance at churches throughout the Conejo Valley.
But there was a deeper aspect to the problem that became clear only in 2008 when I went out to the Netherlands on a business trip. As I stepped to the visa counter in Amsterdam, I caught the thought “Well, [the Americans] are finally producing real people.” I immediately entered a warm and open relationship with the engineers we had come to visit, and a couple of nights into the trip, I woke up to them poking around in my mind. They found my father, and showed me behind him the tomb of an ancient Germanic king, still struggling to retain control of his line.
My father never had a father. Grandfather Balke left my grandmother, at the time a professional ballet dancer and later an anesthesiologist, after my father was born. From my father’s response to my physical affection, I came to see that the lack of a father was the wound that his antagonists, both ancient and modern, used to attempt to control him and his children.
That realization brought me back to a day when, returning to work after lunch, I waited at a stop light outside the executive suites rented by my brother. The usual argument over priorities was raging in my head. Suddenly, a wave of energy moved through my mind from left to right. Both the stop light and the radio in my car went dead at the same instant, and a woman’s voice announced firmly “His job is to prove to people that love works.”
My father worried about his lack of success, voicing his concern that he didn’t know what it was about him that brought failure where others less talented had achieved success. On Sunday he let me tell him this: “There’s so much good in you, Dad, but the world is full of things that see good and pile dirt all over it. It’s really hard to love somebody without leaving an opening back the other way. One of the great frustrations in my life has been that every time I tried to reciprocate your caring was that you shut me out, as though there was something frightening inside of you that you wanted to protect me from. I’m sorry if I became angry with you at times.
“There are some things about loving that a man can learn only from a father. Next time, find a good father, Dad. It will be a wonderful life.”