Not Scared, Just Different

the-dark-tunnelA few weeks ago I heard the theologian Matthew Fox discuss the different paths we walk in life; in his parlance, the different vias. I was particularly struck by the way he talked about the via negativa, which he characterized as periods when we experience suffering, darkness, silence, and solitude.

Fox posited that our discomfort with the difficult is mirrored by our avoidance of literal darkness: “Everything Is Illuminated” is not just a book title — from nightlights in kid’s bedrooms to flashlights on smartphones we tend to enlighten our worlds rather than face the dark in them. How breathtaking the night sky is when we are away from the city and really see the stars! And how ghoulish a face at night looks when bathed in the blue light of a computer screen. Perhaps there is something almost sinister about light if we overuse it.

For a good stretch my sister and brother in law held weekly “Blackout Tuesdays” in their home: when the sun went down, no machines were used until morning. This was inconvenient for sure — candles instead of lights; meals without ovens; questions without the easy answers found in computers. But by their reports, both parents and children went to bed with satisfaction deep in their bones — proud that they’d gone off the grid and made it, and also enlivened by the experience of living in the dark.

A few weeks ago my son Rio and I were walking in Dimond Park in Oakland, where the grass and playground eventually give way to a dirt trail that winds up the canyon. At one point, the stream we were following led to a dark tunnel. The path weaved around and over it, but Rio wanted to go straight ahead. It was a warm day, the kind when you can lift your face to the sun and find its warmth filling you up  until worry has no room. The tunnel, on the other hand, looked cold and foreboding. But I followed Rio’s lead, and we began walking in a tunnel so long we could not see daylight. As the creek trickled by and my hands groped their way along the walls, I started to feel strange. At first irrational thoughts shot through me: Could a train be coming? Could there be no exit at the end? Could the entire tunnel spontaneously collapse and trap us inside? Would I lose Rio forever to the dark? But then another feeling came — without the gift of sight, my other senses were more acute: the feel of the hard granite; the soft sound of water over rock. I suddenly felt like a monk walking back to his hermitage at night, the town’s creek and the walls of the monastery my only guides home.

After about five minutes, I finally saw a pinhole of light in the distance. As we reached the exit, I asked Rio if he had felt scared.

“Not scared,” he replied. “Just different.”

A few days later my father had a catastrophic stroke and fell into a deep coma. I flew down immediately and arrived at the post-acute care center to find him in what I can best describe as a deep sleep. The nurse told me she was shocked he was still breathing on his own, as if he were waiting for someone. “His lungs are strong,” she observed. “Was he a runner?”

“Nope,” I responded. “Just stubborn as hell.”

Even though my father showed no response when I shouted his name in his ear, I told him everything I needed to tell him. I caressed his cheekbone as I told him how much I loved him. How much I always had. I thanked him for coaching my little league baseball team for so many years. I forgave him for being such a difficult man. I stroked his earlobes. Other than the occasional awkward hug, I hadn’t been physically intimate with him in 70 years. How sad that only his imminent death was allowing that kind of contact. And yet how alive I felt bestowing it upon him. I told him I would return the next morning and would be happy to see him. But I also whispered, “You don’t have to hold on anymore. Maybe you should just go.”

When the nurse called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me my father had simply stopped breathing, I was not surprised. I returned to the center and stood next to my father’s dead body. I had never been so close to one. I touched him as I had the night before, although of course it was completely different now. I now truly understand that the skin is an organ. And yet I continued to graze his stiff cheekbone with my knuckle and did the only thing I could think of to ease his spirit into whatever realm it reaches next: I made a circle with my fingers around my own beating heart and sprinkled whatever they found there onto his corpse. I stood there in silence for a long time. Then I said goodbye.

I’ve tended to walk around life’s dark tunnels, or hold my breath through them. End, End, End seems to be my mantra. But on that morning, I was content to touch life’s cold stone.




three generations




15 thoughts on “Not Scared, Just Different

  1. My condolences on the passing of your father. Thank you for your posts. I’ve been reading them for a few years now, and have been lucky to have another path of spiritual development to watch unfolding other than mine and that of those who believe the same way I believe.

  2. Tim, I send condolences for the loss of your father and admiration for an essay that is—excuse the phrase–so brilliant in its portrayal of fear of darkness. What a beautiful piece of writing–and thank you for sharing it.

  3. Ah. Reading that is like taking a walk in the shade — cooling and revivifying.

    I am sorry you lost your dad, Tim. But what a blessing that you were able to say goodbye.

  4. Tim, This was a soothing and gentle blog to read on a difficult and hot-flashy day for me. It was like taking a walk in a quiet, shady path: thanks.

    I’m very sorry about the loss of your father. I’m glad you got to have a peaceful goodbye, but I’m sure there’s a lot of pain nonetheless.
    Holding you in the light,

  5. Oh Tim, losing a parent is never an easy passage. Embrace the dark AND the light, for without one, how can we ever recognize the other? My condolences to you and your family.

    ~ Risa

  6. Tim: I didn’t connect the dots on what was going on…until now. My deepest condolences. I’m deeply moved by your words and reflections. I’m grateful I had a chance to meet and interact with your father at your beautiful wedding. Wishing you and the family the very best through all of this. I really mean that! Love Pete

  7. Beautiful post, Tim. I was right with you through all of it. Thanks for beinging us along on such a precious vulnerable passage. Love, Ali

  8. Tio, such a beautiful reminder that there are portals to deeper existence all around us. Sometimes the guardian is fear. Sometimes it is just time, standing there, pointing at his watch and saying, “Let’s keep it moving, folks.” Thanks for your voice from the darkness, the second morning after the wind knocked out the power on our block and said, “Remember darkness? Sit your butt on the floor and play guitar. That computer can wait ’til tomorrow.” So good to see you making sense of your loss and plunging forward into the unknown. This makes me want to sit down and write.

  9. Thank you for putting these thoughts and feelings into writing and for sharing them with us, Tim. I’m really sorry for your loss. I pray that the days to come bring you peace and healing.


  10. Dear Tim- I am so terribly sorry for your loss. I knew your father for about 18 years – we spoke regularly. I send my condolences to you and your family. I hope you find peace and healing.

  11. Tim,
    I miss your blogging so much. I keep coming back in hopes that you’ve written something new. I certainly hope that all is well with your family and in your new job.

    Be well.

  12. Tim,
    Thank you for sharing your feelings on the loss of your father. We are very fortunate to have people like you to help us find our way through the darkness.
    I did want to note though, that I thought Rio was a dog, UNTIL he answered back!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s