I spent a few weeks this past June reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. Much of it deals with his difficult relationship with his father. As both men aged, the turmoil that drove them apart receded, and a reconciliation was able to emerge.
Toward the end of his book, Springsteen casts his matured relationship with his father in an evocative image of ghosts and ancestors. He says:
… you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it is the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry…I work to be an ancestor.
The ghosts are the haunting presences in our lives of those with whom we had, or have, disrupted and difficult relationships that resonate in hurtful or harmful ways. The ancestors are the presences with whom we have managed to reconcile, whether in life or in memory, the people we welcome to keep us company as we journey on.
I had my own visit from ghosts and ancestors this summer, when I encountered an unexpected medical moment.
Last May, while out for a “break the COVID hibernation” walk, I noticed that I was becoming short of breath while walking uphill. I assumed it was my body’s way of saying that a little more regular exercise would not hurt. But when I noticed the same thing the next day, and the day after that, it seemed wise to report to my doctor.
The next step was a cardiac stress test, walking the treadmill while connected by all kinds of wires to all kinds of monitors. The results of that test led to a cardiac CT-scan, which confirmed what I and the cardiologist had anticipated — that there was a blockage in a major heart artery.
I had not done so badly on tests since 11th grade algebra.
In early August, I found myself at the hospital, undergoing a coronary angioplasty and having a stent placed in an artery that was significantly blocked.
As I was resting in the recovery room, I found myself thinking of ghosts and ancestors, because of the several standard indicators for developing coronary heart disease, the singular one that I have been tracking through my adult life is the one called “family history.”
My paternal grandfather, who I never met, died of a heart attack at age 51. My father had a similar experience, succumbing to a heart attack at age 44. If biology was indeed destiny, being the third generation of this lineage was a haunting that was hard to evade and impossible to avoid. I had long imagined the moment when the family ghosts would catch up with me.
Despite decades of imagining this moment, upon learning that my diagnosis was coronary heart disease, I did not feel haunted. The ghosts that always seemed to be present seemed to have disappeared. The ancestors had arrived to take their place. Or perhaps they had been there all along, and I had not noticed.
My grandfather and my father had, as it were, come to pay a visit, to be present, to have a family reunion of sorts. I could appreciate that they would accompany me through the process of dealing with heart disease without being haunted by the fears of accepting our family legacy.
Our three generations were now united in a way that we never had a chance to experience in real time. And together, we could, at least in my imagination, hope that this time the outcome of our shared experience would be different.
It seems that everyone, at one time or another, has a heart that has been hurt. Sometimes that hurt is inherited, and lingers and haunts us. It leaves a legacy we did not ask for, but with which we have to live. It may leave us vulnerable, and exposed. It often leaves us fearful, constricted and compromised.
And sometimes the hurt in the heart is self-inflicted, a consequence of circumstance, choice and confusion. We may try to rationalize or to minimize what we regret, or displace responsibility for decisions that diminished us, but our mistakes and our faults, remain our own.
As we were recently reminded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, regardless of how the heart has been hurt or harmed, there can be atonement for what has gone wrong. Where there has been hurting and harming, there can potentially also be healing.
Such healing is difficult and challenging work. It involves apology, and forgiveness and repair. It inevitably requires a willingness to be vulnerable. And as any responsible cardiologist or clergyperson will tell you, it always involves a degree of risk.
And when the healing of the heart that we seek involves a negotiation with our ghosts and with our ancestors, we are seeking to go beyond repairing of a relationship; we seek to transform the legacy of a relationship.
The heart is the place where, for the sake of those who came before us and for our own sake, our ghosts become our ancestors, the presences that accompany us.
And the heart is the place where, for the sake of our children and those who come after us, we commit to becoming ancestors, rather than ghosts, so that we may be able to accompany them, for as long as we are given the opportunity to do so.
When intention, affection and compassion come into alignment, the heart becomes the intangible place where the mystery of repair, reconciliation and redemption is accomplished.