A Personal Reflection of Charles Bukowski’s Poem, Bluebird

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My dad. I’m fairly certain he had a bluebird in his heart, so deep down not many knew of its existence.  He passed away 5 years ago, alone, in the bedroom he rented from a minister who ran a “sober” house.  A house in which 4 men, all strangers, each inhabited a bedroom and shared the common spaces.  Like college roommates without any connection to each other whatsoever.  And minimal conversation.

Of course, when I called my sister to join me in saying goodbye to his body, stiffened in an upright, seated position, we noted that his blaring tv was set to a sports channel, and we wondered what he had been watching for his last moments.  He hated sports.  We sent him off, packaged in an awkwardly shaped body bag to the the local medical school, and emptied his room.  There was a backpack tucked deep in his closet, filled with emptied Jim Beam bottles.  He had a couple drawers of clothes, and a laptop.  And, propped on his dresser, a framed photo of us taken during our childhood.

Our mother was forbidden from visiting.  She was, as he claimed all too often, “an asshole.”  Theirs was not a civil divorce.  His girlfriend of 15 years had evicted him a month before he died.  He clung to his cell phone, undoubtedly hoping for her call during his last day.  She never phoned.  I could only imagine the drama they had shared.  God knows, we witnessed 20 years of it in our own house.  The angry silences, the excuses after his late nights, half-concealed bruises on my mother, the slurred rants, plates smashed against walls, the tears.

Clumsily moving aside these images, I choose to focus on others.  The drives to school, windows rolled up, cracked open just a touch, so that the cigarette smoke could meander up and out, but only after leaving us with its stench.  We carried the lunches he prepared for us . . . the mini pizzas accented with added mozzarella and slices of lunch meat.  We didn’t have the heart or courage to tell him that by noon, the cheese and meat would have congealed into a cold mass.

He would sing sometimes, eyes closed, head tilted upward, smiling and feeling every word of Bridge over Troubled Water.  When we scattered his ashes in the ocean, my sister and I anchored our canoe, shared stories, and sang his favorite Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel songs.  We knew song was how he allowed his bluebird to appear.

I wondered how long in the past it was that others could see that bluebird as well.  So many secrets that, like the bluebird, peered out every once in a while.  Secrets that forced my dad to guard that bluebird fiercely from a childhood spent moving from family to family after some hushed abuse, mysterious not-to-be-shared time as a sharpshooter in Vietnam-era Southeast Asia, countless fights, a lackluster attempt at self-employment, and failed relationships.

Somehow, I have a confident knowing that today, my dad’s bluebird is perched next to him, both of them singing wholeheartedly and with so much feeling.

Aloha, Dad. And Aloha, Self-Compassion.

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Sometimes, the Universe decides it’s time for you to learn or practice skills.  You notice the same lesson or situation repeating itself until you figure it out.  I believe that if you open your eyes to subtle messages, support and solutions, they are usually waiting in the wings at the ready.  Well, apparently, it’s my time to further hone my self-compassion and quiet the droning voice of criticism and not-enoughism.  Universe, I hear you loud and clear, and I am working on it.  Dude.  Uncle.  Whatever.

Let me set the scene.  Last week, I was visiting family on O’ahu.  Yes, I realize the fact that my people are all in Hawai’i is a good thing when I make my yearly visit home.  My kids spend a week hiking trails tourists don’t usually visit, eating shaved ice known by locals to be the best, playing on uncrowded, breathtaking, and a little harder to find beaches and hanging out with other kids.  Not a bad deal.

For me, it was a little more complicated, of course, as visits home often are.  My dad passed away almost a year ago, and his ashes have been waiting to be scattered.  My sister and I had a distant and difficult relationship with our dad.  As an adult, I see that his life was bubbling over with challenges.  I can understand why he wasn’t fully available to anyone.  He drank, he cheated, he fought hard, and sometimes, he didn’t come home.  When he was home, it wasn’t peaceful.  Police showed up.  I went to sleep praying for quiet at home.  He didn’t remember our birthdays.  Not sure he was certain of his grandkids’ names.

When he was given 6 months to live, my father’s communication with us ramped up.  He told us he loved us.  He wasn’t afraid of death.  He donated his body to the medical school, and asked that we scatter his ashes in a bay that just happens to be a wildlife preserve with deadly currents.  Seriously, Dad?

A month before he died, his girlfriend of 20 years evicted him from her apartment.  He rented a room with a bed, a desk and a tv in an apartment with three men he had never met before.  He deteriorated steadily and relied on my sister to deliver groceries and do his laundry.  Hospice nurses checked on him, but there was no bed available for him in the facility.  He died sitting up in his bed, tv blaring, roommates home but unaware.  Not the best death, but somehow fitting.

Last week, my sister and I paddled a canoe out from the beach in our hometown early Saturday morning.  We shared memories, tears, and laughter, and forgave our dad for his dreaded fish stew, among other things. We remembered him singing happily along with the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, and Simon and Garfunkel. We prepped the water with flowers, and together, dropped his ashes, contained in a sea salt urn, into the ocean that he so loved.

My Guilt

Here’s where the self-flagellation comes in.  And trust, I excel at the self-flagellation.  Imagine each of these statements delivered with a pointing finger and head shaking, brows furrowed:

Didn’t Dad deserve to end up where he wanted?  The thought of hiking the rocky ridge to the water’s threatening edge with my kids scared the BeJesus out of me, but, really did he ask for much?  It was yet another disappointment in the picture of his life.

Was he scared and lonely as he left this Earth?  I flew all the way across the Pacific to see him before he passed, only to leave his apartment hours before he died.

Maybe I should have traveled back more while he was dying.  My sister was stuck with so much responsibility.

Should I have taken him into my home?

During our vacation, I brooded, I cried, I snapped at my family.  I wanted someone to take care of me.  I had to cancel a client call that was scheduled on a particularly rough day for me.  That was a first, and I didn’t feel like much of a professional.

Divine Nods

Here’s where I found support in unexpected places. I gratefully received it.

I decided earlier this summer to participate in an online retreat with two inspiring and rocking women, Christine Arylo and Kristine Carlson.  Immediately after I returned from this trip, our group call centered on the topic of Self-Compassion.  One woman shared her experience of choosing to cancel a work meeting so that she could be available to her family amid a collective emotional crisis.  It was an act of self-compassion. Necessary and forgivable.  I could so relate, having just done the same thing.  Thank you, Universe. I so needed that.

Christine spreads the message of self-love to women and girls, and Kristine, who exudes calm and grace, helps others navigate life and its rocky times with greater ease.  I had no idea when I signed up for their program that I would find both of these women so instrumental in helping me recognize and shake off my self-imposed guilt.  On our trip to O’ahu, the book atop the bedside table of our rental house was a collection of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff writings by both Kristine and her late husband, Richard Carlson.  Bedtime doses of kindness, comfort, and inspiration.  Thank you, Universe.

Divine timing.  One of my most intuitive and present friends in Oakland just happened to text me a message of support as I drove to the cemetery to have my father’s ashes transferred into a biodegradable urn.  I was torn about where to scatter him.  I was upset.  Her words healed and lifted me.  The urn available for my dad was hella heavy.  That took the hiking idea out of the picture.  The mortician was a young, warm, and affable woman (another surprise) who assured me that I was doing the right thing.  Salve for the soul. Thank you, Universe.

I got the message.  I was supported. Now it was my turn to treat myself with kindness and compassion.

My dad’s story was his, not mine.  As much as I would have liked to give him the fairy tale ending, it was not to be.  Honestly, I was as present as being a wife and mother of three living across the ocean could be.  I called weekly and flew home as often as possible.   He would have been miserable at our house, having little patience for children and spaces in which he could not smoke, and being displaced from his home of over 50 years.

I thank my father for teaching me, in his own way, how important it is to be present for my kids.  I will do everything in my power to make my family know that they are precious, safe, and my priority.   Many of my childhood experiences have led me to choose to live in love.  I honor him with a legacy of presence and connection I hope he can find in his new journey.

I am at peace now.  I know I gave me as much as I could, without compromising my own family and wellbeing.  I know I did my best.

So, here’s what I suggest if you need to practice self-compassion:

Remember, you do the best you can in any given circumstance.  We are always learning and growing.  Each experience provides new lessons and opportunities to evolve.  You are being the best you at any given time.

Give yourself the benefit of the doubt.  Are you as generous with yourself as you  are with loved ones? Do you speak to yourself as kindly as you do your friends and family?  If not, what do you expect to gain from punishing yourself?  We learn more when relaxed and open.  You deserve love too.

If you seek guidance, watch for it.  It may appear in your surroundings in a lesson from a mentor, in a feeling you just know to be true, or in an image or message you seem to hear repeatedly.  Practice connecting to your intuition.  You’ll be surprised at how much it reveals.  The wise voice deep inside knows the truth, and if given the floor, will stand up in your favor.

 

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