Carving a Path to Belief: Tarot’s role in understanding my father’s death

A guest post shared by Lauren. 

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Ritual became an enormous part of my life last year by complete accident.

When I planned a trip to Big Sur for the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death, there were a handful of things I wanted to do there: hike, journal, read, heal. I’d never been before. I didn’t even really know why I was so stuck on going, but some part of me was tugged inexplicably toward it, and I listened. It felt important – hugely so. My internal compass was drawing me north up the Pacific Coast Highway to rocky cliffs and redwood forests, and that pull was like a fishhook in my gut, too strong to ignore.

I grew up not believing in much of anything, despite an academic interest in tarot and spirituality and religion. My dad was an atheist, and my mom walked away from her belief in God when my dad was diagnosed with blood cancer, stage four. I only ever went to church or temple when friends invited me, and I felt invariably Other when I tagged along, pretending to mouth the words to hymns I’d never heard before. My parents encouraged me from a young age to pursue any religion I felt drawn to or believed in, but I was pretty content to self-identify as atheist or by the time I hit my teens, and was maybe open to this nebulous idea of Something Bigger agnostic. Maybe open, but mostly skeptical.

And then, after years of remission and seemingly robust health, my dad got sick again. My junior year of college was punctuated with e-mails and phone calls about hospital trips; I rescheduled papers and exams so that I could go home early that semester to help out. His health was a rollercoaster with terrifying drops and hairpin turns, and none of his doctors could figure out what was wrong.

I left for vacation the last week of July that summer, and he seemed to be doing a little better. There were talks of releasing him soon, of hospice care. I texted him while I was on my trip, and thought about what souvenirs to bring back with me.

The day I flew home, his liver was failing. He died quietly, peacefully in the CCU that night, and I had never felt further from faith or God or the universe than during that numb car ride home in the rain and the suffocating dark.
But his death, oddly enough, despite the heart-wrenching unfairness of it, the way it gutted me and my mom and my sister and utterly changed the trajectory of our lives, was precisely why I began to believe in magic and miracles and that nebulous Something Bigger. Seeds that were planted during my dad’s life began to struggle through the dirt after he died, and tarot was that final nudge that helped them burst into the sun.

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A few nights before I left for Big Sur last summer, I was lying in bed with my journal, thumbing through it. I intended to write or draw something every single day in 2015, which didn’t exactly pan out. But on days when I had nothing to say, I’d sift through bookmarked quotes and scribble one down and call it done. As I went back through those quotes, the thought occurred to me that I should leave them around Big Sur in my dad’s memory.

So I got out my watercolors and a pen, and I made some small, rough paintings with words inked dark over them, words that had spoken to my soul in some way last year. I wasn’t really sure where I would leave them, or whether I would actually leave them at all. I wanted to buy yellow roses to accompany each painting, like the ones we’d scattered with my dad’s ashes in Maine, but I was low on time and energy before the drive, so I improvised with the help of Google: rosemary was an herb of remembrance. I could buy that at the grocery store, so it would have to do.

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I wrote at length about the startling and strange and beautiful ways I began to feel my dad?s presence after his death in an essay called Funeral for Fun. He put together a 200-song playlist for his own funeral before he died, and I heard those songs in the most unusual places, during the oddest moments, in restaurants, shops, three in a row in a helicopter over the coast of Kauai, and so that became the soundtrack for my road trip. Before I even left, it felt like I was making a pilgrimage, searching for something unknown and maybe ultimately unknowable.

The intent was to honor my dad’s memory. To go somewhere he would have loved, listen to his music, immerse myself in nature. Nature had a way of healing me, of helping me reconnect to the sheer joy of being alive that nothing else came close to. The woods and the ocean were the sort of places that broke you open and then tenderly, carefully stitched you back together again.

So on a sticky, smoggy Los Angeles morning this past August, my roommate and I loaded up my car and set off on our six-hour drive up the coast. The scenery shifted from the dusty hills of southern California to butter-yellow flowers on cliffs that dropped sharp into the breathtaking green-blue sea. Parts of the drive were treacherous; the PCH winds up and up and up, and one poorly-navigated turn could send you plummeting onto those deadly rocks and crashing waves.

And maybe that was what drew me there. Big Sur is lush, it’s wild, it demands survival of the fittest. You don’t really go to Big Sur just to relax, to chill on the beach with a margarita. Life and death are so intrinsically linked in a place like Sur, a place where you can watch mottled-grey seals bask on rocks with their young just yards from the battered body of another, scavenger birds picking its bones clean. You come to a place like Sur to reconnect with what it means to be alive, to be a part of this earth, a part of something bigger than yourself.

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I only had a few days planned up there, during the height of tourist season, it was unsurprisingly expensive and on our first full day of excursions, I stuffed the rosemary sprigs and watercolors into my backpack, feeling nervous about having them with me. I had visions of park rangers stopping me, or the owners of the cottage we rented keeping my security deposit for leaving these tiny paintings around their property. It was a weird anxiety, maybe, but it nearly stopped me from going through with something I desperately wanted to do.

I hadn’t told Kaiti what I planned to do with the paintings, in case I ended up just bringing them back home with me. We parked at a set of trails that we thought led down to the beach, but they twisted around wildflower-strewn cliffs, rafts of sea otters floating gently in the water below.

I felt that internal fishhook tug as I looked out over the ocean, water surging restlessly into the mouths of caves beneath us, foaming pale green as it swirled back out to sea. When I placed the first painting and rosemary sprig in the shrubs on that windy cliff, something ebbed in tandem inside of me, a slow and shaky exhale beneath my ribs. I didn’t consider the ritual I was creating, the unspoken prayer left with each painting. There was powerful intent behind these small gifts to the universe, though I didn’t grasp the full magic of it until later. I didn’t know what would happen once I left the paintings in each spot. I hoped people would see them, maybe keep them if the quotes resonated with them, but I sometimes wonder how many blew away on the wind or dissolved in the rain. I had this odd sense that either way, I was placing them in good hands.

Kaiti and I got back to our cottage an hour or two before dusk, a private retreat tucked a few miles from the ocean in a dense forest of redwood and oak. All of Big Sur felt magical, but there was something especially otherworldly about these woods, the owners left the key under the mat for us when we arrived, so we didn’t encounter a single soul whenever we were on their property. There were a couple of short trails, and one held the promise of a hammock and a waterfall at the end of it, so I suggested we make a quick loop before it got dark.

Each step we took along that trail felt like a thinning of the veil, and by the time we reached the redwood grove at the end of it, a fairy ring of ancient trees, some charred and hollowed from lightning or fire but most still standing, tall and watchful, it was like we had found a place that existed outside of time, somewhere quiet and dark and sacred. There was the promised hammock, and what was presumably an impressive waterfall when California wasn’t in the midst of a miserable drought. The stream running through the grove flowed stubbornly along, though, and water was the only sound beyond the snapping of twigs under our own feet. This was a place that asked for silence, for reverence, for respect.

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The grove was clearly maintained by the property owners, but Kaiti and I were both drawn to what felt like an odd addition to the table and chairs and hammock: an impressive redwood stump with a braided wooden arch above it. It felt like an altar of some kind, a gateway.

I wish I had an offering, Kaiti mused as we stood together in front of the arch, clovers and ferns growing at the base of the trunk.

I do, I responded quietly, a little startled by the truth of it; I’d brought my backpack, though I intended to save the rest of my paintings for our longer hikes. I fished through it until I found one that felt right, a hummingbird with a quote from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman:

Every atom of me and every atom of you will live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams.

I placed it, along with a rosemary sprig, on a small ledge in the trunk. Kaiti had ventured across the stream, and let out a cry of surprise, hidden in the foliage was a buck skeleton, velvet-soft fur still clinging despite the absence of flesh, antler and bone both stark white amongst verdant green.

She hefted it across the stream, then carefully laid it at the base of the trunk, beneath my painting. ‘Watch over this place, okay?’ she asked, nestling clovers in the hollows where its eyes once were.

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I felt, inexplicably, as if we weren’t alone. As if the forest had asked us to partake in a ritual of great importance, though I couldn’t quite say what it was or what it meant. It was the same feeling I had whenever I heard my dad?s music, the feeling of driving along those winding roads with mist rolling in over the mountains, rain meeting the ocean in sheets of blue-grey.

It was healing, but not the healing we’re always told about. This wasn’t soothing warmth, a feeling of peace. This healing was tremulous, aching joy.

This was the place you were split open and stitched back together again.

My chest and throat were tight, eyes burning as I knelt beside the stream, grasping one last sprig of rosemary between my fingers. It was August 4th, the day before my dad’s death, and I felt him there but I wanted so badly for him to be alive, to speak to him again, to hear his laughter. I choked on the words ‘I miss you’, water carrying the rosemary swiftly downstream.

When we got back to Los Angeles, I felt like I’d left a piece of my heart up north, with the paintings and rosemary. About a month later I decided to purchase a deck of tarot cards for the first time since high school. I figured that if there was nothing ‘real’ to them, they would still be a solid self-help tool to use each day, but after Big Sur I felt more spiritually open-minded than I ever had before.

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So I bought The Wild Unknown Tarot on the independent recommendations of three different friends, and started pulling daily cards for myself. I took extensive notes on their meanings, and while I felt they fit well enough each day I drew them, by a couple of weeks in they hadn’t yet made any earth-shattering predictions or observations. I remained politely skeptical.

The one thing I made note of, in my first bigger spreads, was the presence of the Father of Pentacles reversed in helping or guidance positions, particularly when my significator was the Son of Pentacles. Both stags, and my heart always twisted back to that moment on the waterfall trail, the buck skeleton beneath the braided arch on that redwood stump. It was comforting, nourishing to think of the Father of Pentacles as a representation of my own father.

And so I kept at the cards. And I hit that earth-shattering observation when, one night after finishing my daily draw, I came across a spread intended for use as a medium tool, and my heart squeezed tight in my chest. I was just wary enough about that sort of communication with the dead, and although I had experienced what I could only describe as inexplicable and miraculous moments of connection with my dad after his death, I still wasn’t sure I believed in anything so concrete. I wasn’t sure what I believed in, to be honest. There was a part of me that wondered if most of this was wishful thinking, if it was coincidence, if everything that had happened to me could be explained away with psychology and science.

But I was curious. I shuffled, and laid out three cards that were intended to answer the question: Would it be safe to ask about Dad? The last in that row was The Magician, determined and powerful, a sunburst of yellow-orange light radiating behind him.

The sum of them was yes, you have the tools, and it would be safe, with caution, and perseverance. I’d pulled The Magician as my significator more than once that week, and it was the card at the center of the first Celtic Cross I’d done for myself using The Wild Unknown.

Three more cards, I thought, pulse thrumming in my ears, because knowing that I technically could safely ask about him didn’t tell me whether I should. So I asked, without shuffling a second time, whether it would be for my highest good to learn to ask the tarot about my dad. What the outcome would be, if I ever chose to.
Ten of Cups, first. Then the Seven of Pentacles, in reverse. And finally, the Father of Pentacles in his familiar reversed position, resolutely meeting my gaze.

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That was enough to set me off kilter, the stunning and clear presence of my dad’s energy, but it was then that I noticed exactly how the cards had fallen: The Magician, upright and active, with the Father of Pentacles directly below him, facing the other way, their positions beautifully mirroring each other. The energy drained from me, a familiar tingle in my fingertips as my blood pressure dropped, spooked exhilaration flooding my body. This was my dad and I, together despite being on different planes of existence. There was something more to tarot than chance, than coincidence, but what did that mean for my beliefs?

For that night, and a few nights after, it meant a little bit of a mental breakdown. Although I’d experienced things that felt inexplicable, Big Sur and The Wild Unknown had tipped my worldview on its head. There was something bigger, after all, something we could pray to, something we could ask for guidance, something we could place our faith in. It was more than just my dad watching over me, though I could say with certainty that he was there, in some form, when I needed him.

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Not long after that, I settled into a slightly more structured spiritual practice, though I was – and still am – working out the shape and form of what my beliefs are. I sat outside one day this past fall, journaling with my cards and my first candle spell, and I spotted the illustration on the matchbook we kept on our shared table: a proud stag, with a bright sunburst fanned out behind him.

My dad is still so present for me, but I’ve been able to slowly crawl out from beneath the grief of his death, the way I’d become so stuck in it. I wanted for a long time to make him proud, and I still do, but I’m also learning to make my life more than a reflection of his passing. His death carved out a path for me to seek greater connections in the world around me, to have faith, to trust my gut. I trusted my gut when I felt its tug toward Big Sur, to leave a trail of quotes behind me when I visited. I firmly believe that the love and sorrow and hope I put into those paintings, that tiny little ritual, opened a door for me last year. It created the most unexpected abundance in my life.

Our cottage in Big Sur had an odd selection of DVDs, and there was one sitting on top of the others when Kaiti and I got back from the waterfall trail, a collection of informal interviews with religious leaders and people of all faiths. We sort of half-watched it as we settled in with our books that night, though I was struck by one quote enough to scribble it into my journal:

Everything is divine if you open yourself up to perceive it.

My dad and Big Sur and tarot all nudged me through that door, and the world spilled forth in a sunburst of light.


98l86Xo9About the author

Lauren Kayes is a 20-something writer who is unashamedly queer, disabled, and married to the sea. You can read more of her work, including weekly tarotscopes, on her WordPress and purchase custom tarot/oracle readings from her Etsy shop. She also spends a lot of time yelling about otters on twitterLauren lives in Los Angeles with her leopard gecko, Isabela.

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7 comments

  1. Tamarack Verrall says:

    Exquisitely beautiful, and so hopeful that such a talented writer, thinker and artist has embraced the magic of our existence.

  2. Julie Slater says:

    I’m echoing the other comments, but this post is so magical, powerful, vulnerable, and full of love. Thank you so very much for having the courage and strength to share this, and be well on your journey.

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