May 13, 2022 • 14M

Both My Parents Died When I Was 22. Now I'm Happier Than Ever.

How the unimaginable led me to finding happiness from within.

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Essays and meditations on happiness, non-duality, and healing trauma.
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I'm not comfortable sharing this story. And you probably won't be comfortable reading it. But this story is important. It serves as an example of what can happen when trauma and suffering is ignored. And conversely, I hope it can serve as proof that true happiness is possible, even in the midst of unimaginable circumstances.

My mom. I think in the 1980s.

It was Valentine's Day when I found out my mom was missing. I figured she was on another bender. My dad said she was drunk when he saw her last. I'd find out later that this was an understatement.

My dad told me years before that my mom has bipolar disorder. Her dad told me that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her early 20s. MS would have explained some of her physical problems. Whatever she had, her self-prescribed treatment plan of vodka and Vicodin wasn't helping. Especially not when mixed with the cocktail of mood stabilizers she'd actually been prescribed.

My dad filed for divorce in 2001. It was never finalized, but they were more or less separated for as long as I could remember. My dad moved back in with her in 2012 to save money. But she wasn't well. She struggled to control her bowels and bladder, and she had a hunch that was worse than her mom's. She dulled some of her pain and suffering with drugs and shopping. She took the rest out on my dad.

I went to stay with them for a few months at the end of 2015. I arrived to find a bruise covering my dad's right cheek. He said to me in private that my mom punched him while he was driving them back home from therapy. I said to him that mom needed to be in a psychiatric facility. And I begged him to leave her. But he said that they didn't have the money. And he was afraid that if he sold their house to pay for her treatment, or even just separate apartments, that she'd kill herself.

Maybe she would have. But I was scared that if he did nothing, she'd take him down with her.

A few weeks later my mom got drunk again. My dad was still at work, so I was home alone with her. She screamed at me from her bedroom that she couldn't find her phone. She demanded that I help her. I told her I was leaving to stay with a friend, and when she heard this, she scrambled to her bedroom door. She burst through and lunged at me. I backed up to my own bedroom adjacent to hers. She shrieked that she'd kill me with a look in her eyes that told me she meant it. I slammed my door shut before she could reach me. I sobbed as she clawed at the door, cursed at me, and continued to threaten my life.

My mom and dad in 1992.

My dad last saw my mom at home the night of February 12th, 2016. She was drunk, and they were arguing, so he left to stay at a hotel for the night. When he came back the next morning, she was gone.

She told him the night before that she was going to stay with a friend for a while. But she left without her car and phone. None of her friends had heard from her. There wasn't any activity on her credit cards or bank accounts, and she hadn't checked into any local hospitals.

There were a couple reported sightings of her. But nothing we could confirm. After a week passed without any real trace of her, I cried knowing my mom was gone. I thought that she must have finally followed through on her threats of suicide, and we just hadn't yet found her body.

On February 23rd, I got a call from a reporter. She told me that police had just found a woman's severed torso. She asked me if I thought it was my mom's.

She told me that the body was washed up on the shore of the San Francisco Bay, and that the woman had a lower back tattoo. A few minutes later, I got a call from the detective on my mom's case. He asked me if my mom has a lower back tattoo. I said she does, and that I remembered it as a bat. He muttered that my dad said it was a flower.

The detective told me to look at an email he just sent me, and I opened it to find an exact sketch of my mom's tattoo.

My mom in the early 90s.

I called my dad to share the impossible news. He was quiet — almost as if he was unsurprised. I rationalized that he was just shocked like I was. We didn't talk about who we thought might be capable of something like this. We didn't talk about my mom much at all. My dad quickly changed the subject. He told me he was proud of how I'd been handling all of this. He asked me about my career plans, and he said I could be a leader one day if I wanted to.

We planned to talk again after he called the detective to ask for more information. But after getting off the phone with me, my dad drove to the Bay Bridge and jumped off.

My dad in the early 1990s.

I cry sometimes when I see old pictures of him like this. Sometimes, a part of me wants to dismiss him as an evil man. But pictures like this show me a kind, gentle, and caring father, who was broken by two decades of incessant abuse.

My dad shared a telling story to our extended family a few days before he died. My dad came home from work one day to see a man storming out. It was a new contractor my mom had just hired. He said to my dad, "I'd rather go back to 'Nam then spend another second with her!"

My dad paused. He looked around at us with his head held high and said, "Ha! Here's a Vietnam vet who couldn't spend a few hours with her, and I've put up with her for over 20 years!"

And he did. Often without reaction or retaliation. A therapist later told me that people are like trees. They need a bit of flexibility to be able to move with the wind. Like a tree too rigid and tired to face the final storm, my dad finally snapped.

There was a morning in late 2015 that I'll never forget. I was home with my parents. My mom was screaming at my dad. My dad was calmly walking toward the front door to leave, but she said something that made him snap. He turned around and barreled toward her with his teeth gritted and eyes ablaze. It was a look I recognized — it was the same face my mom wore when she threatened to kill me a few weeks before. Terrified, my mom slammed her bedroom door shut before he could reach her. My dad had forgotten that I was standing there in the adjacent doorway watching it all. Once he saw me, he remembered himself and left.

We don't know exactly what happened the night my mom died. The toxicology report showed that she had a blood alcohol content of 0.22. My dad recorded a few of their phone calls that night. She was belligerent, sad, and hateful. And he did not sound like a man who was preparing to cut the woman that he loved to pieces.

He made a will the morning after she "disappeared". The language he used implied that he planned to kill himself immediately, but he changed his mind, and he tried to get away with murder.

Me, my dad, mom, and brother in 1995.

I felt like my heart had ripped through my body, and pierced my gut on its way to meet the core of the earth. My parents had slipped into darkness. And I felt ready to join them.

A few days after my parents died, some community members of our hometown of Brisbane, California held a candlelight vigil. My brother, my aunt, and I decided last minute to join them.

There was about 50 of us. We were gathered under the gazebo of the park that my brother and I grew up playing in. Not many seemed to be there to mourn my mom, but this wasn't surprising. She didn't have a lot of fans in Brisbane. My dad, on the other hand, was a local business owner and a youth basketball and soccer coach. But still, I was surprised by how many showed up him. What he had done wasn't a secret. But then again, neither was the way my mom battered him.

The candlelight flickered in the center of the gazebo. After we reminisced, grieved, and sang a few gentle songs together, a natural moment of quiet settled in. The teary eyes of those who'd gathered were radiant with a sad love. Words of gratitude gently fell from my lips, and I lost any sense of separation between myself and those around me. The pain in my heart didn't leave me, but in this moment, I stopped resisting it. And instead of being overwhelmed by the unbearable, like I feared I would, I was met with relief, peace, freedom, love, and happiness like I'd never felt before.

I didn't know what happened to me, but I knew it was profound. The inner peace remained with me for the rest of that night. And the next day, I began suffering again, as I felt I ought to be. But deep in my heart I knew that I didn't need to let the horror of my circumstances dictate my happiness.

Soon after, I stumbled upon some spiritual books and realized that I had an "awakening" experience. These books offered mindfulness as a means of becoming "enlightened". So I spent the next four years meditating obsessively with the goal of putting an end to my suffering forever.

But in the last two years it's become clearer to me that what I was seeking was within me all along. As my favorite nondual teacher Rupert Spira so beautifully writes, "you are the happiness you seek".

The nondual understanding showed me that I'm one with experience. We all are. And nothing is unbearable for the one consciousness that we are. Knowing this is the foundation for healing trauma and ending suffering. And it's through this understanding that we can be living embodiments of infinite happiness, peace, beauty, creativity, and love.

Thanks to Gail Brenner, Justin Kennedy, and Christopher Johnson for reading drafts of this.