This is by far the most personal podcast episode I've ever done. I had to pause a bunch of times to get my composure back. This is a story of my dad's bravery in love–and of never giving hope–even in the face of the most terrible challenges. This one will fill your heart. And tissues may be required!
Episode Table Of Contents
- A Story That Illustrates Hope
- Friendship Saved My Father's Life
- My Parent's Love Story
- My Father's Magic Words
- My Father's Greatest Wish
Episode Introduction: Losing Love and Finding It Again
Today, I'm sharing a really big personal story. It's a kind of story of redemption. It starts out really, really bad, and it ends up really, really wonderful. It's got huge lessons about love in it. So stay tuned to the Deeper Dating Podcast.
Hello everybody and welcome to the Deeper Dating Podcast. I'm Ken Page and I have a big story today that I'm really looking forward to telling you. A story with a lot of amazing lessons that's very personal from my own life and we'll see how I do getting through it.
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A Story That Illustrates Hope
This is a story that is beyond close to my heart. It's from my own life and my family's life, but it's a story that illustrates hope. It illustrates and captures what they say about intimacy, which is that intimacy is a journey of rupture and repair. I'm going to speak about some really hard ruptures and some really almost miraculous repairs that I think apply to all of us, especially when we think,
"Am I too damaged to find love? Am I too old to find love? Do I have too many obstacles? Do I have too much baggage? Is it like looking for a needle in a haystack?"
So, I just want to share this story.
It's a story that revolves around my dad. My dad was a Holocaust survivor, and he passed away just a short while before… My dad is a Holocaust survivor, and we're just at about the three year anniversary of his passing. The story, his story, of how he freed himself from hate's grip and how he healed his relationship with his gay son, me, and how he resolved profound difficulties with his wife, my mom, and how he healed a gaping, strange silence between him and his grandson, my son, taught me a lifelong lesson about love and has given me a really great deal of hope, and I'm happy to share it with you.
A prediction for the future
When my dad was 15 years old, the Nazis took over the small town that he lived in. Overnight, his safe little world just became terrifying and unpredictable. One evening, a friend came over, a wise older guy, and he gave a prediction for the future. He said,
"This will be a time coming of great joy." Everyone looked at him and said,
"What are you talking about? We're entering into horror."
He continued and he said, "When we have bread to eat and water to drink, there will be great joy. When our children are safe in our arms, we will have great joy."
My dad never forgot those words until he passed.
My father in the hands of the Nazis
My dad's father died before he was born. He was his mother's life, my grandmother's life. The certainty of her love, which was fierce, was the foundation of his world. It was a foundation which would be savagely shattered, and then one day healed. So this is a hard part. The last time he saw his mom she was being beaten by guards in the concentration camp and he had to walk by. He couldn't stop. He couldn't speak. He couldn't intervene, or the guards would have killed both of them. He kept walking, completely helpless, and he lived with that memory for the rest of his life. That was the last time he saw his mom. Things get more healing, folks. They get better, but that was the last time he saw his mom.
Before they were separated, they agreed to meet in a nearby town if they survived. When he was liberated by the American troops, he went to that town, and he found an apartment, and he waited. He waited, and he waited until he was certain that she would never come back. We never found out what happened to her. We even went back to Germany to try to find out.
My grandmother spoke back
Many, many years later, 50 years after he was liberated from concentration camp, I dragged him to a Lifespring workshop, which was a kind of EST derivative, like The Forum. He was in this workshop, and in it he was asked to have a conversation with a loved one who had died. So, he remembered his mom really vividly, and he went through it. He spoke to her, maybe for the first time since that horrible day. He felt like she spoke back, and this was what it felt like she would've said.
"Eric, look what you have done. Look what a beautiful family you've created. I'm so proud of you."
The feeling that is what she had said, what she would've said, was like a knot was removed from inside of him that had never gone away, an anger, anxiety, a fury, a tightness, a not-okayness. It was life-changing. It was a healing that none of us ever could've imagined, and we all felt the change in him after that day.
Friendship Saved My Father's Life
You know, in later years, he and my mom would go to middle schools and they would talk to students, but he never ever would talk about the atrocities. He only talked about hope. That was really hard to get through. And, he talked about survival. He would tell the students that one thing saved his life, and it was friendships. He told them,
"If you want to survive in this world that is filled with bullies and I suffered with one of the biggest bullies of all, Adolf Hitler, you have to find your true friends. How do you find them? You become a friend, and that's how you'll find them. You learn how to become a friend."
In addition to friends, one thing kept my dad alive during his years in camp, and it was his hate. This diamond-hard desire for revenge saved his life, and saving his life allowed us our life. That hate is what kept him alive. We'll come back to that.
My Parent's Love Story
But after he got liberated from camp, he came to America. He's really a handsome guy, and he was like a total ladies' man. He met my mom, who was like this European… She was also a Holocaust survivor, white glove, European kind of gal. When he met her, he knew that he had finally found his one. They would just walk together, and they would just speak about life. He proposed to her after three dates.
My mom was 19, and she was a new-found bohemian artist who was going to art school and had a whole world that she pictured in front of her. She fell in love with him, but the last thing she wanted was to be tied down. She was a 19-year-old artist, and didn't want to be a housewife, so she fled. She ran back to her hometown, Chicago, and my dad was completely devastated.
He was this survivor who never, ever, ever showed vulnerability after the Holocaust, but he wrote her a letter that was unlike anything he had ever written. He told her that if she didn't marry him, he would lose all hope, that he would never trust anyone again. His letter touched her down to her bones, and she knew that she had to marry him, so she came back. She got married, and they had two kids, my sister and me.
Our hurt morphed into anger
From the beginning, my sister and he were great, but he did not know how to reach me. He hoped that I would adore him, even with his walls, but that did not happen. I knew he loved me, but I never felt that he liked me, ever. His accumulated rage, it was tempered by a very fierce control, but it still always bled through. I never felt at home with him, and I felt so guilty for that. I felt like the Holocaust was this unspeakable abyss between us. It was unspoken, and it was untouchable.
I somehow felt like I was supposed to have rescued him, but I didn't want to get close. Neither of us felt like we liked each other, and our hurt morphed into anger and distance. He felt inadequate as a dad, I felt inadequate as a son. I was a gay kid, and my dad was like this motorcycle-riding, deer-hunting, heavy-drinking, smoking tough guy. I was uncomfortable in his presence, and I just inched through my childhood with him. Time alone together just never felt right.
We both needed each other
But our huge discovery, which didn't come for years, was that we both needed each other. He would ask my mom why did I never kiss him when I came home from school, and I just felt this barren awkwardness of a kid who doesn't feel comfortable with someone who he was supposed to love. Through the years, we fought and we argued a lot. I held him accountable for the sting of his criticism, for his lack of praise, the lack of feeling of safety that I never… the feeling of safety I never felt with him.
He, ultimately, learned to listen and to try.
Over the years, we worked and we became friends and we felt the warmth of shared love. But I'll tell you my protective reflexes were always cocked, ready for the next criticism, and the next criticism kept coming. Over the years, we worked through our fears and our problems and our anger pretty damn well, I mean really well. It was a healing that I never thought could happen, but the awkwardness never fully lifted, and I really, really knew. I just knew that he would die without that awkwardness ever being lifted. I didn't think that could go.
My Father's Magic Words
Down the road, I adopted a child, and I'll tell that story another time. But he was the one who said the magic words to me, as I was wrestling with the fact I'm a single guy, I don't make a ton of money, how am I going to have a kid? How am I going to have a life? How am I going to do this as a single dad? I remember him saying to me once words that changed my life because when he talked, people listened. He said to me, "Ken"… after listening to me suffer with this decision for years, like, was this realistic to do? He finally said,
"Ken, is this something you really want?"
I said, "Yeah, I really do." He said, "Then you have to jump."
And that was it, I jumped and I adopted my son. Such a huge, huge subject, but my son changed my life, changed my world and became the joy of my life, one of the great joys of my life.
His heart wants to stay, but his body needs to go
Anyway, my dad got sick. About three-and-a-half years ago, about half a year before he died, he announced to all of us that it was his time to die, and we were not happy with this. Because we knew that if he would keep eating, he would live, and he didn't want to eat anymore. My son, who had a very deep but silent bond with my dad, kind of explained it to all of us in a way that made sense. He said,
"Guys, you've got to leave him alone. Because if you keep pushing him that he has to eat, it's going to bring him back to his Holocaust days, where he had to keep choosing whether he wanted to live or not. Don't do that to him because…"
And he was young at the time, Jessie, my son, but he was pretty wise. He said,
"His mind wants to stay, his heart wants to stay, but his body needs to go."
That explained to us the struggle that was going on for him, and we kind of reached a state of peace. When we reached it, we shared it with him, and then he said, "It's my time to go." He called all the people he loved on the phone to tell them goodbye, but he was so… He got such an outpouring of love, but also finally acceptance we stopped fighting him on this. Our outpouring of love and our acceptance with his decision made him change his mind, and he said he was going to stick around. What happened in those next six months was something I never expected. He became the dad I always dreamed of having in those six months.
How to make perfect caramelized onions
A very good friend of mine taught me how to make perfect caramelized onions. Here's how she taught me to do it. She said,
"You cook them over a really low flame for hours and hours and hours. As you do that, every drop of their acidity disappears. Their bite goes away, and they become like the essence of onion."
That's what happened to my dad. He lost his bite. He became the essence of Eric, and we called him Caramelized Eric. He lost his anger, and he became the essence of himself. I saw the guy he would've become if he grew up in a safe world.
In those months, I got to see the goodness that was inside him his whole life. His kindness and his love were overwhelming. He became like one of the closest things to a saint that I've ever experienced in my life, and that's been a kind of thing of mine, is to visit saints.
The one thing that I never ever thought would change, which was my awkwardness with him, left forever. I would visit him in the mornings before I went to work. I would lie in bed with him and hold his hand. We would look outside at the window at the squirrels and the birds, and I would feel like I was in this oasis of safety. I wasn't the only one. People would come to see him and leave the bedroom with like balled-up wads of tissues in their hands. They were just moved to tears by his wisdom and his guidance.
My parents had been the greatest companions
My mom and dad had one of the best relationships I had ever known, but in the five years after his open-heart surgery, that changed. She became bitter and angry because he stopped fighting. She married a fighter, but there was no fight in him left anymore. Her anger grew worse and worse as his anger began to disappear. But they loved each other so much. It was just a helpless mess, and we didn't see any hope for a good ending.
But they had been the greatest of companions for almost 70 years, and they didn't give up. My mom would wake my dad up at three in the morning, and then she would say,
"Eric, what is happening to us? We can't let our relationship turn into this."
He would look at her, and he would say, "I love you, and you're right."
The next day, they would wake up and fight again. It never stopped. Somehow when my dad decided it was time to go and when my mom heard those words of insight from Jessie, my son, my mom stopped fighting him, and their relationship went back to its earlier state, which we never, ever, ever thought would happen. My mom kind of cared for him as if he was her child and her lover all at once.
My heart is your heart
My dad once said that after concentration camp, he felt like he was in a cage. He felt like the hate that kept him alive was the poison that was going to kill him. He said he felt like he had to reach into himself over and over again, piece by piece, to pull the hate out that was inside him. He told us that it came out little by little, piece by piece. I lived through that struggle, and I was able to witness his success.
The day before my dad passed away, we had another kind of healing that happened, which was that, Jessie, my son who loved him dearly… He used to say, "My heart is your heart," to my dad. They really understood each other. They have pride, they had anger, they had silence, they had depth. They had both been through a lot, and they really understood each other.
But my son was silent when it came to sharing with his grandfather that he was gender-fluid, or at that time, transgender. It was just too hard for him to speak, and it was too hard for my dad to speak, and they spent I guess the last nine months barely speaking. The love was clear, the love was there, but they were just kind of silent. They couldn't get through that wall.
My son's revelation
I called my mom the night before my dad passed, and I said, "We got to intervene." My mom talked to my son. She said, "You got to tell Grandpa. He's going to love you no matter what." My son said, "I can't say it. Can I write it?" My mom said, "Of course, you can write it." So, he wrote to my dad and said, "I haven't been able to tell you this." My dad got the note, and he called my son in. He just grabbed him, and he almost cried out, "I don't care what gender you are. I love you. You're my grandson." And they held each other. My son knew down to his bones, and will know for the rest of his life, that his grandfather embraced him.
My Father's Greatest Wish
My dad passed away the next day, but I will tell you another thing, and that is one of his great wishes was to see me and my partner Greg marry. He loved Greg, who is a very kind and silent and loving guy, and silent like in a lot of the ways that my dad is silent. My dad used to say that we fit together like an ass and a pail, and Greg and I would joke about who was the ass and who was the pail. But we told him that he was not going to miss our marriage, and we made the first appointment we could at the closest marriage place that would take us about a month later. But my dad didn't make it. He didn't last.
The day that he was going to die, the hospice nurse said, "Guys, this was like his last wish. You got to get married in front of him." She said, "I have a friend who is a minister." She called that friend in, and Jessie and Greg and I sat down and wrote our vows. Jessie went with my sister, and they got declarations. Then Jessie and Greg went and got rings for a dollar. They came back, and Greg and I got married in front of my dad. When we finished saying our vows, he had passed.
My beloved friend
People often came up to me after that and acknowledged my grief. It was a really weird thing because what I experienced was not as much grief as a kind of child's joy because I had finally found a beloved friend in my dad. It took 60 years, and now I feel him as like my greatest ally. When I do therapy, he is goodness to me. When I do therapy, I think, "What would my dad say?" And I align with his energy because he always saw people's gifts first. He would say the hard truths, but he started with people's gifts. That's the essence of what I try to do in my work as a coach and a teacher and a therapist.
Never, ever did I think that would happen between me and my dad. We never thought that my dad's anger and bitterness would ever completely go away, and we could not imagine that his grief and his guilt at the loss of his mother and his not doing anything on that day would ever go away. I never thought that I could feel fully joyfully comfortable with him, and I never thought that sad quietness between him and my son would ever go away. I never thought that my mom and my dad could work through their bitterness and their anger and find healing. But every one of those things happened. Most of them didn't happen in years; they happened over decades.
I felt great hope
When my dad left, he knew his work was done, and these stories give me such hope. Not just because of their success, but because of how slowly it happened, how painful the process was, and how full the healing. That healing did not happen because of one course or one workshop or one conversation. It happened from decades of work. At 60 years old, married for the first time, I felt a great hope and now at 62, I feel an even greater hope. That hope is for me and for my family and for my students and for the world.
Healing took so much longer than I ever thought it would, but it was more complete and more full and more beautiful and magnificent than I ever thought possible. So, this is a story of hope and for each of you on your journey, that's what I want to impart is hope. Even if the person you loved has passed away without this healing, that healing I personally believe can still happen as you heal. So no matter what your age, no matter what your challenges, I just want to share the story of slow healing and the hope for healing for each one of us.
Thank you all for listening to the story, and I'll see you in the next Deeper Dating podcast.