Coping with the death of a parent I hardly knew

They say our loved ones live on in our memories.

Or in the words of poet Thomas Campbell, “To live in hearts we leave behind. Is not to die.”

When grief wraps its spindly fingers around our hearts, we overcome by turning to recollections of our time together.

What do you do, though, when the pool of memories is slight, and the pool of disappointments runneth over?

When my dad died Tuesday at 2:44 p.m. Texas time, so did the fantasies I’ve been clutching for three decades.

It doesn’t feel like I lost a parent, it feels like I lost someone I’ve been longing to know — someone who looks just like me.

I’ve met my dad five times — six if you count our first reunion when I was 6 years old.

When I look back on those encounters, it’s not bliss that overwhelms me.

Nervous excitement ran through my veins the first time I met him when I was a little girl. It was at a gas station in Albuquerque. He bent down and gave me a hug. I remember his boots and jeans and jacket, but not his face. I remember the tears that followed after about two weeks, when he disappeared once again.

Anger seized me 13 years later when I saw his deep blue, discomforted eyes at an airport outside of Marshall, Texas. Sadness and frustration enveloped me when I said goodbye — sadness, because I wasn’t sure if I’d see this man again; and frustration because our time together had washed away the ire I wanted so badly to cling to.

Thus was the circle of emotions that came with each visit. It was a grueling vortex of sentiments — one I don’t particularly want to turn to in this time of grief.

For me my dad won’t live on through joyful memories, but through regret. I regret not knowing each other better, not having a seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th visit; but I also know I did my best. And, somehow, I can also sense his remorse. I saw it in his eyes. I heard it in his jokes. And more recently, I read it in the comments he left on my Facebook page.

Some, in efforts to console me, have said he’s watching me from above now. I wish I could believe that, but why would he start guarding me now?

No, I won’t find comfort in memories or thoughts of his watchful spirit. True relief lays in forgiveness. His abandonment will always sting. But I feel no resentment, no fury. I’m thankful to have met him, and by meeting him to have met my two half sisters. I’m thankful they were kind enough to hold the phone up to his ear for me in his final hours, so I could finally say, I love you.

I’d forgotten why I became a religion reporter

March 2016

After Coffee Talk last month a friend texted me and said, “Your smile is gone.”

I didn’t know it was evident.

In the course of teaching at two universities that are 75 miles apart while managing the ins and outs of SpokaneFāVS, Coffee Talk had just become another “to do” on my list. It felt meaningless — in the busyness of it all — I had forgotten why I become a religion reporter in the first place.

That story begins in Albuquerque.

Only recently have I begun to share pieces of this story publicly. I’ve dropped the word “cult” into guest sermons here and there and have alluded on social media to my broken family.

The religion beat is unique in that those I interview want to probe my own background. When I covered politics, no one asked who I was voting for. When I covered sports, no one asked what team I cheered for.But covering religion means being faced with these constant questions:

  • What religion were you raised in?
  • Why did you become a religion reporter?
  • What religion are you now?

A reporter is purposely evasive. I realize, though, that partly why I didn’t share is simply because I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to think about what I was taught, who taught it and how those messages have taken my mother from me. I thought about my friend’s text and realized my smile was gone because I had lost my vocational motivation by letting everyday distractions stifle my memories. And those recollections are what move me to be a religion reporter.

Those experiences generated my motive to educate people about various faiths and to provide dialogue and community engagement opportunities around the issues and thoughts regarding those beliefs.

I still hesitate using the word “cult” in describing the religious sect I grew up in because it brings up wrong ideas. We didn’t live on a compound, there was no sexual or physical abuse, we weren’t asked to drink the Kool-Aid. On TV that’s what a cult is, but in reality a cult is a religious group that is exclusive and authoritarian. There are, of course, other aspects too. Cults are controlling, the leaders get special God-given knowledge, there’s indoctrination, group think, cognitive dissonance, and so on.

The group I was raised in was exclusive in that, like other groups that exercise enormous power over their adherents, they are the only ones who are right, and if you leave them, your salvation is in danger. It’s authoritarian in that its leader expects unquestioned and unwavering loyalty and obedience.

There isn’t a name for the group I was raised in. It’s led by one man – Sam Soleyn — a self-proclaimed apostle who says he gets direct revelation from God. To his thousands – yes thousands – of followers, his teachings are Gospel.

Soleyn is smart. He has a doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of New Mexico and has managed to recruit thousands of followers from New Mexico to Texas to Washington D.C., all the way to his native the Caribbean and beyond to South Africa. And he’s done all this while remaining under the media’s radar and off of social media.

He preaches doctrine you might expect: Homosexuality is wrong, abortion is wrong, premarital sex is wrong, tithe 10 percent, be prepared for Jesus’ return, and so on.

But Soleyn’s theology goes much deeper and becomes much more questionable than these typical fundamentalist teachings. For instance, he says to isolate from the rest of the world, because of rest of the world is wrong.

“Three years ago I prophesied, ‘Come my children, enter your rooms, close your doors, hide yourselves for a little while,’” he says in a sermon. “I explained to you then that what the Lord was saying was that a time where truth was of no particular value to a people, had come and that God was going to pull his people out from the public forum so that the world could engage itself – the world and the secular church – could engage themselves in debates based on sociology and not on the Scriptures and that we were to be silent and offer no participation in any of that…”

He teaches that you start out by being a “son” who needs a “spiritual father” to guide and discipline you. Perhaps ultimately you can make your way to a patriarch. “A patriarch is a father (man or woman, supposedly) who is mature enough and (in) depth of relationship with the Lord such that he no longer needs oversight…. If there would ever be a need to bring correction to a patriarch, the matter would be judged by a delegation of apostles,” according to Sam’s website. Anyone — like you or me — who does not have a spiritual father from Sam’s group is an orphan.

He teaches dogmatism: “The biblical standard is not ‘love is tolerant.’ That is the convenient view of the popular culture today….Tolerance… lacks convictions. It is a human standard and not a divine one.” I read those lines in a letter written by my mom and stepdad – and, I’m convinced, Sam — sent me three years ago.

Soleyn teaches that those who don’t believe his truth do not have God in their lives. As my mother, et al, wrote in that same letter: “Truth is an eternal plumb line by which we are to live and by which we are eventually judged. For a people who choose not to retain God in their knowledge, these are quaint notions easily sacrificed on the altar of convenience, mere traditions to be discarded in the greater goal of human freedom.”

In that letter I was told that because we couldn’t agree on Sam’s theology, we could no longer be in relationship. I’m confident that that “order” came directly from Sam and was never questioned. With these words, my mom wrote off her only child.

Exclusive. Authoritarian. It’s a dangerous combo. And that’s why I became a religion reporter. Because there are “Sams” everywhere. I talked to a cult expert once, and he told me he learns about a new cult leader every single day.

That’s scary, but for lots of reasons it’s not surprising. There are vulnerable people looking for belonging and unknowingly aching for the comfort of someone telling them what to do and what to think. Enter Sam. There are others looking for power. Enter Sam with his message of “fathers” and “patriarchs.”

I don’t write about religion and urge others to do the same just because I want to prevent people from joining cults. I do it because it’s easy to be close-minded.

Being narrow-minded spawns fear, hostility and as we already saw above — intolerance. It also breeds ignorance. It becomes a place of order where critical thinking skills aren’t needed. Being receptive to others takes work, takes intentionality. It means trying to understand what your neighbors believe, and why, what their traditions are, and how such customs are practiced — even if it’s uncomfortable. Because wouldn’t we want the same consideration for our own beliefs?

That’s where the religion reporter comes in. Someone well-versed in theology needs to study and write about the belief systems in a community, needs to put a human face on Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and so on. You might not even know you wanted to learn about the synagogue on the corner until you pick up the paper, or click on a link that caught your attention.

As a high schooler I lived next door to a Hindu family. I was taught they were wrong and weird. Not once did we try to understand them or their culture. To me, it was our own lack of respectful curiosity that was wrong and weird, and countering that attitude was a driving force in my finding the God beat.

My mom and stepdad think what I do for a living is spiritually dangerous. Educating people about other faiths is spreading a doctrine – acceptance, tolerance, respect — that’s not Sam’s, and thus a wrong theology. They refuse to read my articles or visit SpokaneFāVS.com.

I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot while writing this column. It was just the two of us growing up, and her absence hurts. But in that pain I find meaning in what I do. Bearing that pain I can only hope that during my 14 years of writing about religion, the stories I’ve written have softened some hearts and connected new and unexpected friends. Owning that pain, I can only hope that the stories I will write over the next 14 years will re-connect human beings, whatever their creed, more lovingly to each other.

A lesson from a painful memory

“Memories are not shackles, Franklin, they are garlands,” Alan Bennett.

Newspaper clips of the news of Daniel's death
Newspaper clips of the news of Daniel’s death

Today I’m 15 years old again. I’m wearing a plaid shirt. My hair is in a ponytail. I just said happy birthday to my friend and left school. I’m outside now, walking home.

But now I’m frozen, my legs anchored to the sand beneath me.

Why, of all memories, is this the one I remember so clearly?

Of all the magnificent sounds I’ve heard in my lifetime — songbirds, praise, prayers — why is the sound of that pickup slamming into his body the one I still hear the loudest?

His gruesome death — the details too gory to burden you with — to this day is the clearest vision in my mind. I can still see the unnatural way his legs landed and the way his head hit the sidewalk, filling the gutter with blood. I know exactly where his fingers landed, and his shoe. I remember how quickly his face drained of its color.

My neighbor, my classmate, died not 10 feet from me. It was exactly 15 years ago today.

On this date every year I stop and reflect on this tragic event. I dig out the newspaper clippings, the depositions the court dragged me through (since I was the only witness besides the driver), the letters I exchanged with Daniel’s family and the poetry I wrote.

I think of Daniel every time I cross a street, every time I hear a noise similar to the noise I heard that day, and every time I see a movie where someone gets hit by a car — which is pretty much most movies, it seems.

For years I wished I could forget Jan. 14, 1998, particularly all the vivid details. But I’ve come to learn there’s a reason that day plays like a movie in my head. It’s a constant reminder not to take life for granted, to be thankful for today. Seems so simple doesn’ it? If he had stopped in the hallway to say happy birthday to someone that day, instead of me, then I could have easily been the first one to cross the street, and he could have been the one watching me die.

But I’m here, and the 15-year pain from that memory is fuel to continue giving my all at everything I do, and to do those things with the right intention.

Why Buddhists may never again let newbies meditate with them

Tracy Simmons/Waterbury Republican-American

I’ve gone to Mass. I’ve been to the mosque. I’ve visited the Latter-day Saints Temple Square, but this was my first time at­tending a Buddhist practice and I didn’t know what to ex­pect.
I spotted some other women and followed their lead. I hung
my coat on the hook like they did and I slipped off my shoes like they did, suddenly very grateful I wore my fancy Gap checkered socks instead of my white Wal-Mart ones.
An associate dharma teacher introduced me to the sensei, who lead me to a navy blue zafu (a pillow to sit on). My plan was to sit in the corner and observe, but I couldn’t pass up an invita­tion to meditate with the group. Before visiting the practice I read “Buddhism for Busy Peo­ple,” so I should have known to sit with my right hand in my left, back straight, head slightly forward with my shoulders lev­el. But those details somehow slipped
my mind. The dharma teacher came over and asked if it would be my first time meditating and gave me some pointers. She said sitting meditation lasted about 15 to 20 minutes and said it was going to be hard to concentrate. She as­sured me, however, that the sensei would ring the bell even­tually, signaling the end of meditation.
I wasn’t sure what I was sup­posed to meditate on, but fig­ured since I was there to honor Nirvana Day (the day Buddha entered Paranirvana), I would contemplate over the life he lead.
I started to think about his teachings that are summarized into the Four Noble Truths — the truth of suffering, the truth of cause and suffering, the truth of the end of suffering and the truth of the path leading to the end of suffering — but my foot was asleep. It tingled. The prickles were climbing up my leg. My left foot was trying to distract me from the path to self-enlightenment.
I tried to ponder the fact that Buddha taught for 40 years, but suddenly I had an itch on my chin. What caused it? Why all of a sudden would I have a ran­dom itch on the tip of my chin? I couldn’t scratch it, I had to sit still, which made me wonder — do you itch a scratch, or scratch an itch? Oh great, now I have an
itch near my eye. Or is it a scratch?
Oh right, back to Buddha.
I remember reading that he died when he was 80 years old.
My stomach just rumbled. Did anyone else hear it? Oh no. It did it
again, louder and longer this time. I knew I should have had that brown sugar Pop Tart. Maybe if I flex my stomach I can control the monstrous sounds coming out of it. I heard another growl, but it wasn’t mine. The man next to me was hungry, too. I wonder if he knows of a good pancake place nearby. Maybe his stomach wants to challenge my stomach in a noisemaking competition?
I’m off track again. Buddha entered Nirvana, how can I do that? I hear someone moving.
Who is it? I just
have to know.
No, I won’t open my eyes. I won’t do it.
I sure hope it’s someone go­ing around giving shoulder massages because sitting with such good posture isn’t easy. I need to twist my upper body and crack my back. But that’s way too much movement for such a quiet, spiritual moment.
I’m a tiny, fragile woman, sometimes if I take a deep enough breath I can pop my back, but I guess that would be too loud, too.
Dang! There I go drifting away from thoughts of Buddha again. When did he live again?
Around 500 B.C., was it? Man I need some Chap Stick. It’s right there in my pocket. My lips have never been so dry. I haven’t moistened them in at least 15 minutes. You know lip­py is addictive. I bet Buddha didn’t struggle with any odd de­pendencies. My mouth is so parched. I need to swallow. I forgot to keep my tongue on the roof of my mouth like the sen­sei told us to. I can’t follow sim­ple instructions. But if I swallow my throat’s going to make that weird gulping sound. Then, the sound echoes through the room. It’s the bell. I slowly open my eyes. It’s bright, like coming out of a movie theater. Everyone around me looks so relaxed and peaceful. I’m ashamed because all I can think about is whether I’m going to fall when I stand up, since my foot is still sleep­ing.
Meditation isn’t easy. I’m de­termined to try it again though.
I refuse to let my sidetracked mind win this one.
Tracy Simmons can be reached at .