what happened at burning pan part 3 – taking dad to the temple
The featured photo in this post is my favorite photo of the temple. It was taken by Andrew Jorgensen for The Confluence. He has an amazing gallery of brilliant images that you should look at.
My father and I always had a contentious relationship, probably because of our similarities, and how much I just wanted to have him around and he just wasn’t. My earliest memory in life is of the one time my father spanked me when I was three because I was being a stubborn brat and made a mess and wouldn’t clean it up. My first memory of being alive is one of anger toward me from a man. The man who was supposed to love me the most. It’s not an accident how I am now, because that’s how it started. I’m not blaming him, he did the best he could, but that shit sticks.
He would blow into our lives and do literal magic tricks and take us on fancy vacations and be big and intense and I thought that was how men were. He was majestic, surprising, fun, loving, funny, fun, and weird. One year, he showed up with a fully decorated golden Christmas tree and just brought the whole thing through the front door like it was no big deal. I can’t count the number of evenings he would roll up in a new sports car (When I was 8, dude had a Delorean. Like the Back to the Future for real kind. I’m not kidding.) Corvettes, Porches, fancy, fast, colorful speed machines that he would get us in in our pajamas and whisk us around in at night as children. Then we wouldn’t see him for days. He would loved going to the mall on Christmas Eve and buying ridiculous amounts of absurdly extravagant presents for us and having them fancy gift wrapped. He wore a red plaid dinner jacket to many family affairs and was constantly late but never gave a fuck because he was the party and he knew it. Everyone loved him. Everyone also worried about him and hated him and wanted to murder him at times. My dad invented not giving a fuck and I love him for that. I also resent it.
My dad was a chiropractor and spent his entire life caring for other people while barely being able to care for himself. I cannot count the number of people he healed and helped and nurtured. He took in the sick, the weary, the wounded. He just didn’t know how to do that for his own body and mind all the time. He had a hard childhood. He claimed to have been hit by a train as a kid, and also that he saw a massive UFO, hung out with Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, and that we were definitely related to at least one member of Fleetwood Mac. You could never really tell where his stories ended and the truth began but sometimes you didn’t care because he made everyone feel special all the time. It was his best gift.
In the house we grew up in, he had this massive closet full of various reptilian skinned boots, satin jackets, wild, flowery Hawaiian and silk shirts, cologne, and gold jewelry. I hung out in there a lot as a kid. I played games and twirled in his clothes just to be near him and smell him and pretend he actually lived there. But he didn’t. I didn’t know that until I was 12.
One year he took me to this fancy store called Sakowitz and bought me a purple ballerina outfit that was my favorite thing I have ever owned. He bought me countless pairs of roller skates, Cole Haans, Girbaud jeans, and every time I did something well, he gave me money. I made straight As, played three sports, took dance classes, and excelled in everything I did. No matter what, my dad always made sure I knew I was smart, but because he felt absent, he used money to make up for that. So in my mind, I equated men’s love with being earned, and I got good at it, even if that love was given as money. Even if that love was sparse, because when I was with him I felt like a superstar. And even though now I know we was just doing the best he could, it shaped the way the rest of my life would go with romantic interests in men.
I was lucky to get his power and charisma and charm and vivaciousness and ability for handling huge, heroic feeling, but I also got his corresponding vices and self doubt and shame and self destructive qualities, as we all do from our parents. He was a vivacious, gigantic, heroic, beautiful healer who didn’t know how to heal himself. I am trying to do better. Sometimes I am good at it, and sometimes I am not. And I am coming to terms with that.
I’ve had conversations with him at dawn about Buddhism and the meaning of life and he amazed me as a child and an adult with his insight and thoughtfulness and capacity for intellect and wonder and love. We ate ice cream and meat salad and pizza and he cooked me crab legs and weird clean out the fridge pasta dishes and grilled the best steaks and put salt on watermelon and taught me about the majesty of food and gave me oysters and caviar and champagne for the first time. He went big and hard all the time and I loved him more than life, but then he would disappear, both physically and into alcohol. He was also mean and sharp as a serrated knife, disconnected and embarrassing, neglectful, selfish, and a was a compulsive liar.
The night I graduated from college he yelled at my grandmother and I got in his face to defend her and I ended up in a corner with him screaming at me “I wish you were never born.” The next morning, no memory of that whatsoever, let’s have a Bloody Mary! But I always remembered. That wasn’t the first or last time he abused me and my family and forgot about it. Not even close.
He taught me that in order to get his attention, I had to earn it and to perform for him and I carried that into my adult life through countless romantic relationships, never believing in my true value individually and always needing validation from a man. I have sought the approval and adoration of men my entire life. Love me. See me. I chase after wall builders and emotionally distant men who want to be in my sphere until they realize I don’t have an off switch. And then they leave. Just like he did.
Over and over and over and over. I have given myself away and been destroyed. I am trying to change and I still do it, but I am recognizing it faster now, but I still get hurt because like him, my love doesn’t have an off switch. Wall builders are afraid that I will just as quickly decide I don’t care about them but that is not how I am built. I love fully, intensely, too quickly, and I stay that way. It’s in my DNA. Because of him.
I am atracted to charismatic, unavailable, emotionally stoic, men incapable of opening and then they are terrified of my massive emotional connection and instead of leaving them, I turn on the circus and chase. They want to lie in the sun and then are so afraid of my massiveness and power they run. Look how beautiful and funny and wonderful and loving I am. If I just change or sacrifice or give more, surely they will see my magic. I get the martyr self sacrificing “I am the moon, you are the sun” gifts from my mother, who is a beautiful caregiver and took the best care of us ever. I could not love my mother more. She rules and she is one of my best friends. But I realized I am not a fucking martyr. I am not someone’s girlfriend, or their electronic bench side piece. I am not to be cycled through. I am not your placeholder. I am not your toy. I am not Pluto. I am the sun. You are either in or out. Men who run from me are not capable of my majesty. BYE. And yet I still do this. I still chase men who are just like my father. I am trying to make different choices and it is hard but I am working on it.
And then when it isn’t reciprocated, I turn inward and tell myself there is something wrong and unloveable about me because if my dad didn’t love me I must be broken. That’s why I was unable to come out as bisexual until this year, that’s why I have had horrible non-relationships with vampire men who want to stand in my sunlight and drain it out of me and the leave me alone to wonder how could anything be less brilliant than the sun. And tell myself, maybe I’m not the sun. Maybe I’m a black hole.
In 2009, my dad did something really bad. Violent. Illegal. Horrible. To someone I had worked years to love. In my previous writing about his crime and sentencing to prison, I could never really admit that he did it. Like I asked him and he held my face in his hands and said, no I did not do this. But now, I accept that he did. Or maybe he didn’t but I know that he did. And I have forgiven him because of Burning Man.
Our parents don’t fuck us up on purpose. They try the best they can. Some of us have more dysfunctional families than others. I am so grateful for my brother and his son and Mia and my mom and my amazing grandmothers, and aunts and uncles and cousins, and so many beautiful family members. But we’ve also lost some. Heroin. Suicide. Untreated mental illness. Sickness. Pain. Abuse. A lot of us grow up in families that can’t talk to each other. That hide their real selves. That are struggling with abuse of all kinds and never talk about it, just push it down and hope it will go away. I am the opposite of that. Because of my oppressive youth, I am open to the point of pain all the time. I refuse to close down and I will never stop opening my heart no matter how many times I get knocked down. Because love is all we have in this world.
It doesn’t go away.
The only way out is through. And that is why I took my dad’s ashes to the temple at Burning Man. We never had a real funeral for him because his trial was a massive scandal and I think my mom was worried people would come be mean and her heart was broken. It’s still broken. I hope her reading this makes it feel better. My mother lives to love. And her favorite person ever died horribly chained to a prison bed. I am sorry Mother. But you are not his problem and never were. You are also the sun. You were always the sun and I am so happy that you are my mother.
The last time I saw my father, he was on a respirator, chained to a hospital bed surrounded by three guards. I have never been looked at by law enforcement the way I was in that room. It was the first time I understood what it is like for people of color to deal with police. My father was dying and they were like this man is scum. He is not human. It was in the hospital in Huntsville (in Texas this is where the death row people are held). The chaplain was there with us and promised to help us. He promised to get him out of general population and that Dad would be able to help these guys who needed him. He saw my father’s gifts of healing, his intelligence, and his kindness. He gave us hope that Dad’s prison life experience would improve. That he could be a teacher to men who need love and healing. He was so wonderful and I will never forget his kindness and hope. But I knew it was not to be.
When he went into county, he was detoxing from alcohol (life threatening) and also had a massive untreated hernia. He was there for probably a month before he was moved to a maximum security prison full of murders and rapists and child molesters and violent, mean, horrible people who had no chance in life from the beginning. I like to think he did his best to love even in his lowest, most hurtful place. But he kept his compassion. He would get commissary money and buy dudes toothbrushes and flip flops and Twinkies and wrote me letters about how alone these people were. Not about his pain and suffering, but about the guy who couldn’t get enough to eat. And man, once the word gets out that you have any money, you are fucked in prison. He was getting blackmailed, shaken down for Doritos, his food and supplies got stolen, and he was threatened constantly.
We still don’t actually know how he died. Because when someone you love is in prison and they get sick or hurt, you get a call that’s like “Inmate 7456398 was found unresponsive in his cell.” They don’t tell you why. They don’t care if you’re far away 0r close or worried or anything. They ignore your calls for information, and then you end up staring into the eyes of your father for the last time ever while he is completely sedated, nearly dead, and on a respirator hoping he sees you and knows you love him. You wait. For three weeks. You wait until your father dies and the state tells you when they find it convenient.
I held his face. He opened his eyes, and he saw me. He knew I was there and he knew I loved him. He recognized me. After Rich and Mom and I had decided to sign the papers and pull the plug, because what, let’s put dad back in jail for the rest of his life? NO. I wanted it to end because I will not have my father rotting in a jail cell for years. No one deserves that. No matter what he did, no matter how badly he hurt people, he paid the price and then some. He paid the price for a thousand lifetimes. And then three weeks later, as my mom and my aunt were on their way to Galveston where they had moved him, he died alone 30 minutes before they could get there. And then their car caught on fire and burned to the ground.
We never had a funeral for my dad because of the scandal of the trial and because it felt like it might be traumatic for my mom and Rich and we were just not able to mourn him after the trauma of his going to prison and then being gone. We took some of his ashes to Muir Beach in California and had a ceremony there, and then I sprinkled some in Miami Beach when I went last summer. But when I decided to go to Burning Man, I knew that was where I wanted to take him. I had thought I would take them early so he could be there that whole week, but the first night I drove out on our bikes to the temple and saw it I lost my shit. Because it was a Japanese pagoda. And my dad’s whole aesthetic was Japanese art and culture. His entire home was decorated in Japanese art, everything. It was like the temple was made for him. And it took me a few days to get the courage to go out there and place him in his forever home.
So Friday morning, I got the little bamboo box and all the ephemera I brought with me and I got on my bike and headed toward the temple. I was crying from the moment I started my journey. There’s not really a way to explain Burning Man in general, but for me, this is even harder because I needed so badly to put my dad to rest in a meaningful way. I had to do it alone. And I spent that entire day by myself.
About halfway to the temple, I stopped at a sculpture of a Zeus/Neptune like massive head halfway in the sand. There was one woman there besides me, and I didn’t want to talk because I was so sad, but she engaged me and we ended up taking photos and I told her what I was doing. She was an Israeli woman named Lizi. She could sense I needed someone and I was scared and I told her everything. She held my face in her hands and told me “You are moving and changing. You cannot make a 360. You have to make a 180. You must be true to yourself.” Lizi, you forever will be my playa angel. You made me realize that everything I am doing that is so scary and terrifying is right and I have to keep going no matter what. You are my gift. Thank you for that day, and thank you for you. You have no idea how much you gave me that day. I am grateful for you forever. Thank you. I am so glad you are in Denver and I will be coming to see you to truly give thanks for that amazing gift.
I got back on my bike and arrived at the temple. I was having trouble parking my bike and was weeping and a woman gave me some toilet paper and a hug and just said “Go in and let it go.” It had been a few days since I had been there and it was full of memorials. For people, pets, lost hopes, dreams, human suffering, human soaring, every possible part of the human existence was there. I walked around looking for a place for dad, a place that was right but not on top of of or disturbing someone else’s memorial or need or place. I put him on the ground beneath a giant David Bowie mural, and found so many other inspiring pieces of art and love and people’s hearts that gave me courage and hope and sadness. Then I sat in the temple and cried with people chanting, playing the harp and bells, and sobbing, and holding hands with strangers for an hour. I let four years of my dad dying in prison out. I let 38 years of not having him the way I needed out. I wept. I dissolved. I broke apart. People think the Man is what Burning Man is about, but for me, it was this temple.
I went home and washed myself. I washed my hair and took a”shower” as best I could and I felt like he was home finally. On Sunday night, the temple is burned. It’s different than the man burn, which I will write about later. This is a silent, beautiful gathering of souls saying goodbye to the people they have lost. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Thousands of people grieving in respect and silence and then howling together for our lost ones.
We rode up late and I could see the embers floating over the desert from miles away. My dad is now home forever. I later read that David Bowie’s daughter brought some of his ashes to the temple this year as well. While I’ll never know if this is true, the idea of it makes me happy, because my dad was a music man. And while the act of doing this brought up a lot of residual issues which I will also discuss later in my decompression post, thank you Burning Man for helping me and thousands of other burners give the ones we loved and lost a forever home. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am not healed yet, but this was the beginning of becoming free from a pain I have carried my whole life.
Rest with the gods my love. You are home.