I moved to Oakland, California in 2014 with the intention of staying there for a long while, but then took an unexpected detour in January 2019. Returning home from my first ISTA training, my energy shifted the moment I walked through the front door. It looked the same but no longer felt like home. At the same time, I felt a sudden need to return to Ohio to take care of my dad, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006. By last year he had gotten to a point where living by himself was unsafe. I loved California and selfishly had no desire to leave, but I surrendered with deep trust to the inner knowing that I had to go.
In May 2019 I sold my Oakland home, a 1938 fixer-upper with great haunted house potential that I bought in 2014 and lovingly restored over the next few years. In leaving California, I left behind people I care about, a community that’s taught me so much, and the gentle giants of the redwood forests who became my friends. That summer I drove across the country from Oakland to Cleveland, Ohio, arriving at my childhood home the day before my birthday. It had been 14 years since I last lived here.
The last time I recall living with my dad was in 2003 when I stayed with him for a few months after living in Japan for several years. We had grown apart during my years abroad so there was a lot of unresolved pain and grief between us. I’m not sure I gave much thought this time to how our dynamic would be. It turns out we triggered each other a lot, sometimes daily. That lasted for months.
If you were to meet my dad, I would forgive you for thinking he’s in his 90s (he’s 76). Life’s been tough on him and he’s been plenty tough on himself. He has a deep well of unresolved pain and grief as well as unexpressed thoughts and feelings that he never acquired the tools to process. He has a set and understandably old-world view of how things should be. He often sees life as a half-empty glass, the kind with a cracked bottom. He’s frequently apathetic to the joys of life, quickly jumps to the worst-case scenario, is overly fearful, unconsciously prejudiced, and… you get the idea. All of these things are great fodder for triggers, his and mine.
He’s been an excellent mirror and spotlight for me my entire life, long before I even knew what that meant. Living in my childhood home and in the neighborhood that I grew up in one final time has been the same. Each has unwittingly shown me things that have needed my attention and healing but weren’t getting it. Things that I overtly suppressed or that were thankfully hidden from my consciousness by a convenient veil of ignorance; something we’re gifted in exchange for avoiding the things that trigger our wounds to painfully open and surface.
In recent years I’ve had a handful of nights when I’ve awoken with tears in my eyes after dreaming that my dad had died. Perhaps the dreams and associated fear of loss had been brought on by the death of my mom in 2004 or of my brother Marko in 2012. My dad raised me after he and mom divorced when I was 4. I rarely saw or heard from her again until we began forming a relationship more than a decade later. My two brothers are from my mom’s second marriage and we didn’t grow up together. So you see, my dad has been the one constant in my life. He’s been my lighthouse and my hearth. I don’t know a world without him nor what my life looks like after him.
A few months ago my dad expressed concerns about not having made any funerary arrangements yet. He was concerned about being a burden on me after he died. Even in death, he would put me before himself. I wasn’t ready for that conversation. I wasn’t okay with the idea of him being gone one day. So I casually brushed it aside by saying, “don’t worry, we have plenty of time to figure all that out,” and then moved on to something else. The truth was that I was scared and heartbroken. I secretly hoped that by not talking about it, the quantum possibilities would never collapse into a finite reality—one in which he’s dead. Like the premise of Schrödinger’s cat experiment.
I recently came across an old photo of my dad that was taken maybe a decade ago. The contrast was stark. He’s aged beyond his years. At that moment my eyes welled up with tears. I thought of the years when he was still full of life and I took him for granted. I thought of all the times that I was with him but not present because that required facing parts of myself I wasn’t ready to look at. I cried knowing that soon all I would have of him would be whatever part of him continues on through me.
Last week we finally talked about his death. I brought it up this time. I told him that I wanted to make sure I knew his final wishes so that I could honor them. He mentioned a cemetery not far from here that’s a go-to final resting place for many of our area’s Croatian community. I shared that I planned to leave Ohio after he was gone and asked what he thought of cremation. “Whatever is easiest for you,” he responded. We finally settled on bringing his ashes back to Croatia and placing them to rest at a family plot. Later that week I called one of my cousins in Croatia to ask for his help when the time came.
I returned to Ohio to be my dad’s caregiver and to finally show up as the son I had always wanted to be but didn’t know how to be. I’m living in my childhood home, sleeping on a small decades-old bed, and sharing space with all the ghosts who were left behind. They had been annoyingly persistent and relentless, so I eventually stopped to listen. The ghosts lined up one by one—my god, there were so many. As each approached I made eye contact, took a deep breath to ground myself, smiled warmly, and welcomingly opened my arms to greet each in a loving, safe embrace.
I noticed something at that moment: I was no longer afraid to be present with them, each one an incarnation of a difficult memory, the pain of a wound inflicted long ago, an ancestral trauma, something else hiding in my shadows. As I released my hold on a ghost it released its hold on me, allowing the energetic threads that once bound us to detangle and fall into oblivion. With each one I shared these parting words: “Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. Goodbye.” Each day fewer ghosts visit me. Each day I feel more peace.
Lately, I find myself reliving moments of my life in the way I imagine people who’ve had a near-death experience might see life flash before their eyes. On one occasion I stood at the top of the basement stairs and saw myself as a child running through the house. The energy of the scene was youthful and hopeful, happy. Another time I found myself vividly recalling some of the many memories of my adult life and thinking, “wow, I’ve had an incredible life”. The funny thing is, there was a time not long ago when I saw my past through the hazy fog of negativity that’s precipitated by regret, unprocessed grief, and pointless rumination. As I’ve shifted, so has my reality.
This year of living with my dad has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And it is a time that I will always hold dearly as one of the most important and cherished periods of my life. This journey, like a dieta with the master plants, has opened me in ways I never imagined, blessing me with its enlightening wisdom, all while humbling me time and time again. Although the road continues for a while longer still, I see it with new eyes; it’s different now, more welcoming than I remember it. I take each step with greater ease and confidence, and with more joy and wonder. I understand now that there’s a time for action and a time to simply be. The gifts and opportunities lie within what is, not in something different.
I have finally let go of any desires I might’ve once had for my dad to be different—to be more of this or less of that. I’m only here to witness him and love him exactly as he is. Whenever he wants my help or support I will of course give him all that I can, but it’s up to him, not me. One of his greatest gifts to me has been to be exactly who he’s been. One of the greatest lessons for me in all of this has been to find my way to peaceful surrender, allowance, and acceptance—all the while practicing gentleness, kindness, and compassion with myself when I struggle.
Looking back, I’ve been through darkness that felt thick and dreadful like tar, have fallen so many times that I questioned the point of getting up, and danced that fine line of sanity once too often. Throughout it all something kept urging me to take one more step forward and then another, to believe that with the right perspective—sometimes gained only through unwavering faith and a lot of willpower—I would begin to see points of light gradually appear. They would form a rich tapestry of constellations that depict a much richer story of our human experience. In time, the points would be so numerous that everything would be brightly illuminated and clear. Then, the magic would be obvious and the point of it all would be clear.
As my judgments and projections have fallen away, I’ve learned to see my dad’s true essence. He is an embodiment of humble courage, tenacious perseverance, caring gentleness, boundless love, and radiant compassion. I see it in his tender eyes, hear it in his voice, and understand it in his words. Yes, he’s broken-hearted, but he is not broken. The symptoms of his unhealed wounds are obvious and they are many, but they are not him. He is so much more than that and has always been. I just didn’t yet know how to see him without my own stuff getting in the way.
Now, when I look upon his old face, I see him with gentle curiosity and respect. I recognize him as a master teacher as he shares lessons simply through his presence, patiently giving me space to discover truth in my own time. I see the brave young Croatian man who left his entire family behind without a word because he couldn’t risk their safety, living for months as a political refugee in Italy before coming to the U.S. with little to his name besides determination. I see the man who had dreams and then experienced those dreams crushed, yet always cared more about my dreams than his own. I see the sadness he carries for the loved ones he’s lost and couldn’t be with at the end, and the joy that fills him each time I’m with him.
Sometimes we begin a journey thinking that it’s one thing, only to later discover that it’s something much more. There are times in life when we can barely see far enough ahead to know if it’s safe to take another step, but we trust and take it anyhow, and then another. We surrender to the unknown and to the reality that life has never actually been as certain and predictable as we believed. It’s somewhere within that space that we find peace and clarity.