Letter from my Father: A Tarot Conversation by Mark McElroy

Many people I admire make confident claims about the activities of the dead. They are certain, they tell me, that the dead are aware of us, interested in us, and watching us.

I confess this opinion makes me a bit paranoid, especially at bath time.

I must also confess that I have no idea what happens to us after we die, and no certainties about the awareness of the dead. Some months ago, however, I did get the idea of using the Tarot to construct a conversation with my father, who died thirteen years ago.

Dad was a gentle man, the perfect balance for my mother's more reactive nature. He was a photographer by trade, a man who made thousands of photos, but who actually appears in just over a dozen. My mother, brother, and I are talkers; Dad was a doer. He loved work, and hard work was one of the ways he had of showing his love for us.

He died without our ever discussing my being gay. I have always regretted that we never talked honestly about my search for someone to love. I have also always wondered what Dad would think about my relationship with Clyde, my partner of almost ten years ... and what he would think of the gulf that has developed between me and my remaining family.

I decided I wanted to have that conversation. Unfortunately, AT&T rates to the afterworld are prohibitively expensive. And, with apologies to his many fans, I think John Edwards is more frequently in touch with his broker than he is with the dead. So, lacking any other means connect, I decided to turn to an old and familiar friend: the Tarot.

My Mindset

As I started this exercise, I had three things on my mind:

1) The possibility I would hear only what I wanted to hear. When reading the cards for ourselves, objectivity always becomes an issue. I was very much aware of the temptation to "spin" the meanings of the cards in directions that would please, comfort, or satisfy me. With this in mind, I resolved to accept whatever messages I was given, whether they seemed supportive or not.

2) The possibility that this dialogue might really only be with myself. I went into this well aware that I might be the only person actually participating in this conversation. Even if this turned out to be the case (and I'm still enough of a skeptic to admit the possibility), I decided the exercise was still a healthy one -- not unlike a similar exercise in which family members with unresolved issues write letters to deceased relatives, then write responses to themselves.

3) The possibility that somehow, someway, this exercise might really be an opportunity to receive a message from my father. I don't understand how this could work, and won't pretend to ... but I was, at least, open to the idea. This excited me ... and helped me approach the exercise with reverence and respect.

My Method

 So I sat down with Carol Herzer's beautiful Illuminated Tarot and went about the business of creating a conversation with my father.

Originally, I planned to do a completely unstructured reading in response to the question, "If we could talk now, what would you want to tell me?" As I settled in for the exercise, though, I found myself drawn to two topics in particular -- my father's opinions about my relationship with my family, and his reaction to my relationship with Clyde.

Ultimately, I decided to draw three pairs of cards: one pair concerning my family, one pair concerning my relationship, and one "open" pair that could touch on any subject my father wished to discuss. I also decided the first card in each pair would help me identify the topic, and that the second card would be a commentary or directive associated with that topic.

I also resolved that, if I got a message that didn't quite seem to fit in with this structure ... I'd blow off the rules and go with the flow. The message, I decided, was more important than any constraints I placed on it.

My Cards

The Illuminated Tarot served up these three card pairs:

Pair One: Queen of Wands / Six of Cups

Pair Two: Two of Cups / Three of Swords

Pair Three: Ace of Wands / Page of Cups

My Reading

Faced with these cards, I literally gasped.

I had hoped Pair One would be a comment on my relationship with my family. The worst relationship is very likely with my mother. Though capable of varnishing her feelings with a polite veneer when necessary, she makes no secret about her displeasure and anger over my relationship with Clyde.

In past readings, my mother has frequently been represented by the Queen of Wands. Having the Queen appear here, in the family position, made a big impression.

Then came the Six of Cups. This card features my least favorite illustration in the Rider-Waite family of decks. Is the guy with the cups of flowers a merchant? Is it a trick of perspective, or does he really only have one leg? Is he passing the cup to a child? A dwarf? Does she really only have one arm? Why is she wearing an oven mitt? And who's the figure retreating in the background?

I connect sixes with collaboration and sharing, and cups with emotions, spirituality, and relationships. So what was the comment with relation to the Queen?

After a few seconds of meditation, the message of these cards came to me, appearing in my head almost as if they were being spoken: "You need to repair your relationship with your mother."

The truth, the rightness of this directive struck home more powerfully than I expected. The more time I spent with it, the more the meaning of the statement unfolded, drawn from the illustration: "Be the bigger person. Make the first move. Don't walk away and miss this opportunity like the man in the background. No matter how she responds, keep sharing what you feel. Set an example of how the two of you should interact."

I'll be honest: this hit me hard.

The second pair was bittersweet. Again, the topic card (the Two of Cups) couldn't have been more appropriate, given my hopes this pair would concern my relationship with Clyde. It was the commentary card -- the Three of Swords -- that gave me pause.

Again, however, the message seemed clear. The Three of Swords is the theme I've chosen for a recent art project, so I'm deeply connected to the spirit of this card. For me, the Threes are about expressions, results, or products ... in the suit of Swords, the three concerns the expression or results of our decisions.

I rarely read the card as heartbreak, the more traditional meaning; instead, I think of this card as capturing the difference between what we planned or tried to achieve and what we actually achieved. You know that moment when you finally finish a painting or a poem or an experimental dish ... and realize that, while you might like it, it falls short of your ideal? Welcome to my Three of Swords.

I felt Dad was saying, "This isn't what I hoped or pictured for you. I'm disappointed. I don't think the situation is ideal."

Frankly? That's not what I wanted to hear ... but it felt authentic. It resonated so strongly, in fact, that I cried ... but my response to this message was mediated by the next pair of cards.

The "open pair" begins with the Ace of Wands. I read Aces as opportunity, and Wands as the suit of action and intention. My father's free-form statement, then, would have to do with an opportunity to take action or make something happen.

The commentary card was the Page of Cups. I connect Pages with enthusiasm, with fresh starts. Influenced by early exposure to Joan Bunning's great book, Learning the Tarot, I still connect Pages with "Be statements." In the case of the Page of Cups, I hear, "Be loving! Be emotional! Be happy!"

Again, a brief meditation on the cards produced a message: "Don't miss the opportunity to do what makes you happy." And again, I was struck to the heart.

The Outcome

Despite having done the reading back in November, the experience is still very fresh, very raw ... the emotions are still very close to the surface, and writing this has been hard.

The impression the reading made was a big one; within a week of the exercise, I saw my father in a dream, and he repeated the same three comments to me. I awoke convinced he was back with me somehow; the reality of the dream temporarily eclipsed the reality of the waking world.

Back in November, after months of not speaking with my mother, I made contact with her and arranged for us to visit during the Thanksgiving holidays. Our Christmas celebration this past year was the best I can remember. We are speaking more frequently now. Last week, for the first time in years, Mother called me, just to chat.

And while I'm sad to know that my unconventional partnership with Clyde isn't what Dad imagined or hoped, I'm not surprised. I do, however, take a great deal of comfort in that final message: Do what makes you happy. I've tried to take that message to heart in my work (a few months back, I began writing full-time) and in my life (I'm happier than ever with Clyde).

After living with these messages a few months, I am convinced the second and third pairs of cards summarize exactly what Dad would have said, had we talked about my relationship with Clyde: "Not what I imagined, but I want you to be happy." It's a comment that's in character ... it works, it fits.

My Conclusions

I will not pretend to know whether or not these messages really came from my father. But I will tell you this: I came away from this exercise with an overwhelming feeling of peace. During the reading, I felt a closeness to him that I've missed these past thirteen years. I felt re-attuned to his gentleness and his honest, simple love.

If this article does nothing else, I hope it encourages you to spend a few minutes in happy conversation with someone you love.

If that person is no longer with us, you might use the method I've described here to construct a conversation of your own.

If that person is still here -- you're lucky. Take advantage of that fact while you can.


Mark McElroy works as a writer, creativity consultant, and multimedia designer in Jackson, Mississippi. He began his study of the Tarot in 1997, after travels in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Thailand introduced him to various methods of divination, including the I Ching. His approach emphasizes using the Tarot to generate insights, spark creativity, and plan action. His upcoming book, Putting the Tarot to Work, explores practical applications of the Tarot in business and corporate environments.  His first Tarot deck, a work in progress, can be seen at his personal website.


Article 2003 Mark McElroy
Page 2003 Diane Wilkes