Letter #3 — Trying to complete a coherent response amid the destruction of the Western wildfires
This is the third entry in a series of letters between me and my father, also named Tom Rastrelli, who has stage IV cancer of an unknown origin.
Sept. 12, 2020
Here are three letters I wrote this week, the first of which I rewrote numerous nights in a row and then abandoned because I couldn’t figure out how to conclude it. I regret that they are so long, as I know I wanted to limit each letter I publish to about 500 words. (I apologize to our readers, too.)
This week has been so disorienting. I don’t know how to better communicate that than to share all three of these letters at once in succession. Please take your time to respond. Or if you want to respond in separate letters, do what you need to do.
I have a feeling it’s going to be very challenging for me to find time to write this week as I prepare for our trip.
Sept. 9, 2020
I’ve been struggling to find time to write. We’ve been in survival mode here with the fires in Oregon, power outages, wind storms, and now we have no water. Thankfully, our home isn’t in the paths of the fires, but we had a scare with a fire that we could see from our house two days ago. Thankfully, the volunteer firefighters contained it. Entire towns, neighborhoods and histories have been lost, not to mention all the trees and wildlife. I fear for our planet.
One thing before I get into my deeper response to your last letter. I’m sorry that I didn’t explain more about your family and Uncle Bob in my previous letter. If those reading these letters have read my book, they know that you and Bob reconciled and that I got to know him in my adult years before he died. He supported me when the news of my having been abused by Dr. Lauz became family knowledge. I’ll always be grateful to Uncle Bob for that.
Thanks for sharing all of those memories about your cancer treatments and how it was a big ego check for you. I imagine that your father’s death six years earlier was an ego check as well. That leads me to a question. Your dad died of a massive heart attack while working at the store. You never got to say goodbye. If you are open to it, I’d like to know if there was anything you wish you could have said to him or heard him say to you before he died. You weren’t fortunate enough to have that opportunity. We are. I realize how great a gift this is. Is there anything you’d like to know about me or hear from me right now?
Knowing that you lost your dad so young and that you could have died or become sterile during your cancer treatments before my birth, knowledge of these facts has been an ongoing ego check in my life. The scent of death permeated my preexistence. The name you gave me, your name, has been a reminder of life’s frailty and our need to persevere.
It’s odd to know people are reading these letters. I feel like I need to explain things that are shorthand for you and me, like the origin of my name. That Mom went into labor on March 16. Grandma and Grandpa Figgins were hoping for a St. Patrick’s Day baby, so I would embody the oxymoronic name Patrick Rastrelli. That would have been “fun,” but (sorry Mom) I’m glad I didn’t arrive until the 18th so you could name me after Dad in honor of his surviving cancer.
And you both had the foresight and wisdom not to make me a junior. You gave me my own middle name, Patrick, a strong nod to my Irish side. Dad, you didn’t make me in your image as a Thomas Edward. You gave me the freedom to be my own person.
Thomas means seeker of truth, and that has always been central to the core of my being, my fundamental drive to know and better understand the truth of existence, the truth of who others are and the truth of who I am. I’ve been a Socratic gadfly since I can remember, refusing to accept convention and ways of thought just because they’ve always been that way. I think you get this about me at a core level. You’ve come along for the ride. We’ve challenged each other. We’ve listened. We’ve consoled one another. We’ve had our disagreements. But we’ve grown into a relationship where we see the truth of the other and hold that truth as sacred and allow the other’s truth to affect us and effect change in one another. We’ve been good foils for one another.
Tommy, Tomasino, Tom, Thomas, TP — the name you gave me has another meaning, personal to me. It means perseverance. When I think of you and the countless surgeries you’ve had, when Bruce and I have helped nurse you back to health and seen the patchwork of scars covering your body, when I think of the years Alzheimer's was slowly deleting Grandma Ida (the opposite of how you lost your dad), when I recall so many more things you’ve endured, Thomas to me means perseverance.
I think back to the ego I had in seminary. There was a part of me that really believed my generation of priests could fix the Catholic Church, that we could overcome two millennia of white patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and imagined theological superiority. Sexual abuse and cover-up. I needed to believe that I could change that. That we could be successful, so that I could remain part of such a historically abusive and corrupt institution.
In that last letter, you wrote about how you find hope in a higher power, in God and Jesus and redemptive suffering. I respect that and am happy that you have your faith to ground your hope and give you solace and meaning through all of your suffering.
My experience has been nearly the direct opposite. You can blame the truth seeking gadfly in me. I found that same deep level of hope and freedom that you have in redemptive suffering, when I let go of belief in a higher power. For the first time, my life wasn’t saddled with the distortion that a perfect god had created me “intrinsically disordered” as the Catholic Church teaches about those who are queer. I was no longer under the control of a system that told me I needed to suffer to transcend myself. Letting go of god was the catalyst for me finding true joy, peace and purpose in my life. This frail life is all that I know I have. It’s all that I know every living creature has, so why wouldn’t I do all that I can within the limitations of my time, space and resources to try to make life better for others? (This part of the letter is unfinished. The thoughts were coming faster than I could type.) Go into the myth to control. Put off change and happiness to next life, while those teaching the myth are living in palaces.
One of the greatest gifts in my life has been the time I’ve had with you, Mom, and Grandma and Grandpa Figgins in my adult years. Looking back, I see how you sowed the seeds for our relationship when I was young.
We’re very similar and very different. It’s ...
I also don’t feel like we have any unfinished business between us. I’m sure there are things we will discover in these letters, but we’ve grown together in this life.
(The letter ended there.)
Sept. 11, 2020
That date is so much harder this year. That anniversary. 9/11. Our house, cars and plants are coated with ash, just like the ash I saw covering Lower Manhattan when I was there in October 2011. It’s all just so devastating. Smoke permeates everything. Ash falls like snow flurries. The sunlight is as orange as our president. And there’s still COVID. And cops killing our BIPOC friends. And children in cages at the border don’t know if they’ll even see their parents and families again. There is no god in their suffering, no god in their deaths. There is no good there.
This was the hardest week of my life, and that’s saying a lot. Worse than the week the archbishop gaslit me and ordered me to be quiet about the abuse I’d endured in the Church. I nearly killed myself that night. Drove to the icy Mississippi with the intention of driving on the ice until it buckled and I drowned. Worse than that week, when you and mom came the next morning, and found me in the worst state of my life. You got there so early. And you stayed with me, and I slept soundly for the first time in months. This week was worse than that week.
Ten percent of Oregonians are displaced from their homes tonight. So many cities and communities have burned to the ground. The smoke is the life of this planet, the oxygen, burning away forever into an orange carbon curtain that blocks the sunlight.
And there’s no god. No redemptive value to this suffering. The value in life is love. And love doesn’t need suffering to exist. That belief, that redeptive suffering, is a lie used by the straight white male Christian patriarchy to control the rest of us while they get off on the innocence of the children they rape and get fat on the tit of our tax dollars while grabbing pussy in the White House and lying about the plague.
This evil. This destruction. This catastrophe. This apocalypse. Is disorienting. There is no center. There is no direct path forward. Where is the ground?
It’s in the love I have for you. The love you have for me. The love we have for our family and friends and for all people, especially those who are suffering because they are in the most pain. I don’t want them to suffer, and it hurts so bad to suffer with them because we have only this life. We have only this planet. There is no second earth. There is no heaven. There is the void. There is the ash. The star dust that floats through space in the wake of a supernova until it coalesces by gravity into elements, and compounds, organics and water and nitrogen and life and consciousness. Period. We are the space dust reincarnated. That’s all we know. And we don’t need to redeem any suffering. Suffering is just part of the circle. The worst, most painful part.
And love perseveres. Love exists apart from the pain. Love lives through the pain. Love does not give the pain value. Love is the only value. It’s what grounds us in the face of such suffering. Our love is real, but only as long as one of us is conscious. We love our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, the children we encounter around the world and those we never meet, because they are children, and we want this one life that they have to be a good one with as little suffering as possible. So we love them. We empathize. We grow. They grow. They come to love us, and they in turn love the next generation. That’s how love remains constant in the face of suffering and evil. It’s because we have empathy and love beyond ourselves.
We have humanity.
Suffering and hatred are opposite of that love. They can’t be redeemed. But we can love in spite of them, because we still have to make this life as good as it can be for all loving people and spare them from as much suffering as possible. The Catholic faith glorifies suffering. That’s repulsive to me now. The cross is disgusting. It’s horrifying. Because death is real. It’s the end. But our love doesn’t end, our wisdom, our words, as long as we pass them on to the next generation. And you have given so many people so much love in your life. And they, in turn, have given it to others, and those to others beyond them. As long as the human race perseveres, so will our love.
But there is so much hatred now feeding so much greed and fear. And because of the carbon and methane we pump into the atmosphere and the plastic we dump into the sea, it doesn’t take a majority to kill the planet. It takes a small, rich, white, straight, male, cisgendered, Christian, science-denying, lying American-led country to lead the way in poisoning the planet. This is the endgame for the human race. This is the planet burning into a dry desert with orange or red skies and no life with consciousness or memory of us will evolve until after our bones, our cities, and even our plastics and nuclear waste have turned to dust. There will be no more of that love that keeps us alive, that humanity. That humanity and joy and pleasure and laughter and awe and creativity and ingenuity and empathetic and understanding and consoling and forgiving and passionate and sexual and angry and hungry for justice, sacreligious love. That love will be no more, lost to the vacuum of space between the dust.
That’s what I’m mourning tonight. That’s what we are seeing in this suffering, this unprecedented environmental destruction. You can call it Biblical. I call it the opposite of love.
So tonight I hold onto that love. Because I still have hope that we can win this country back in November. That the majority of us who still have empathy and love and who know suffering, we will rebuild a better and more just world, and we will be industrious and imaginative enough and loving enough to unite and turn the tide against climate change. So I will keep watering my baby trees. I’ll keep reaching out to the people in my circle, the people I love. I will love them in this suffering. I will give of my heart and my wallet to provide for those in need. I will give love. That is how I find the ground in this gaslighting-plagued dystopian apocalypse. You taught me that love by example, and I think I’ve taught you to love beyond the boundaries of your love that existed before me. And I know Isabella, Sofia, Tosca, Rowan, Giovanni, Cassidy, and so many other children of their generation and the generation after will expand beyond my ability to love. They give back their love to us as a gift.
Anyhow, I’m super stoned. My Friday night pandemic tradition. But I think you already knew that. So, you have that to look forward to once I drive to Texas in a motorhome without breaking quarantine in the middle of a pandemic to bring you back here without exposing you to a disease that would likely kill you because the radiation treatments that saved you from cancer have now destroyed your lungs and damaged enough cells to cause another cancer that is no longer treatable. Dad, when you get here. We are getting stoned together. Only this time, you will do it voluntarily. And then, we will look at the planets through my telescope in awe and love.
Sept. 12, 2020
I keep starting this letter and failing to finish it. Every day this week I’ve written in this document or written in my head and feel inadequate to find words that express the cataclysmic reality we are living in here in the Western U.S. And this is just what is happening here in this privileged nation. I’ve seen years of hardship for Abdel’s family in Puerto Rico: hurricanes, earthquakes, political unrest, no power for months, and our racist president badmouthing them and refusing to help them. I’ve read about the experiences of the migrants, the hell they were trying to escape only to be ripped from their children and caged in COVID-ridden concentration camps at our border here in the “Land of Opportunity.” We only lost power for 30 hours or so and water for four days. We are so damn privileged even in the face of this cataclysmic fire engulfing the West.
That letter you wrote me a week ago, seems a lifetime ago. So much has changed and deteriorated and did in just one day: Monday into Tuesday.
But today, in the grief and disorientation, I also celebrate.
Today is your and Mom’s 50th wedding anniversary. Congratulations! You two have loved each other so well and that love has expanded and grown and nurtured so many others. You have left a legacy of love. You have expanded the legacy of love, empathy, generosity and goodness that your parents passed on to you. Thank you. I love you.
The smoke chokes out the view and the light here for another day. More are dead. More burns. We have water now, so that helps. I’m watering the heck out of the ground directly around the house, so that if a fire starts in the hills, maybe that will help.
It does seem like this is the true beginning of the end of the human race. Or maybe it’s just that our privilege is finally being overcome with the reality that the poorest of this planet already knew as the tides rose years ago to flood their island nations in the Pacific, and as the fields turned to desert in Africa causing a famine that has lasted my entire lifetime. This is the reality of climate change. I just hope that we can turn to science instead of the insanity, greed, and religious bullshit coming from the Right, and then stop polluting the planet and work to reverse what seems to be irreversible at this point.
I hate burdening you in your final days, months and hopefully years, but this is reality. And every letter I’ve written you this week is overwhelmed by reality. So, I’m just going to publish all of the versions. Perhaps those attempts and words will help others to verbalize what they can’t right now, provide them with understanding and the ability to express what they are experiencing, and find some peace. That’s the job of a writer after all. The job of a prophet.
In the face of this chaos, I persevere. You taught me that, too.
So I will pull it together. I will prepare to help you move up here in just over a week. I will drive through the flames, the smoke, the armed right-wing caravans on the interstate, the cities and towns of people in the rural mountains, plains and the South who think gay people like me are an abomination and who think atheists like me have committed “the sin against the Holy Spirit,” and all in the middle of a pandemic to come to you and Mom and move you here. Because I love you. You would do this for me if our roles were reversed. And because when I was 17, you saw in me the resilience, fortitude, self-control, empathy, and courage to walk into the most difficult situations, even in the face overwhelming grief and be able to do what is right and good, to be with people in their pain, and to act out of love in the face of hatred and destruction. I cannot wait to hug and hold you and Mom. Hugs are no longer without risk. They are a privilege. And I am keeping the quarantine for selfish reasons, too. I want to hold you both again and drink a bottle of good wine and prosecco to toast your 50 years of marriage and love. I love you, Tommy