The Day A Father Dies: A Love Story

I have been encouraging people to share stories about losing their parents because those are among the hardest days to live through and yet they come to almost everyone. I recently shared the story of my mother’s death and now it’s my dad’s turn.

One Friday night my family went to my father’s house for our weekly dinner. As Dad walked up the steps into his kitchen, carrying the plate of barbecued chicken he had just prepared outside in the backyard, I heard a deep wheezing in his chest. “Dad,” I said, “you don’t sound good. Do you feel okay? Do you have a cold?”

“Nah,” he answered,”I mowed the lawn today and must’ve breathed in some grass.”

“Did you stop mowing and sit down when you started feeling bad?” I asked.

“No, I had to finish mowing.”

Seven weeks later, he was dead from the massive cancerous lung tumors.

Since I insisted he see a doctor after I heard that wheezing, he went the next day and they told him he had a collapsed lung from stage 4 lung cancer. (Yes, you read that right, collapsed lung and yes, he finished mowing the lawn and then barbecued dinner!) I was grateful for the gift of knowing in advance that he was going to die so we were able to spend that 7 weeks together, as a family, helping him enjoy his last days on Earth. They were simultaneously the saddest and most loving days of my life in many ways. I wrote an entire chapter about it in my book, how he moved in with us and we all faced death together.

His last 24 hours or so were a poignant story in themselves. Friday night we watched the movie, “Avalon,” which takes place and was filmed in Baltimore, my dad’s childhood home. He enjoyed pointing out real places he recognized. The next day my aunt, his sister, came to visit. They talked about the movie. And when I say “talked,” what I mean is my aunt asked how was the movie and my dad said, “Okay.” That is what is considered a conversation in my father’s family. People of few words. After my aunt’s visit, Dad was tired and got into bed. While he wasn’t exactly sleeping, he wasn’t fully awake. I sat by the side of the bed, keeping him company. My husband and my three daughters (6, 8 and 10 at the time) came into the room from time to time. I held his hand. He said “I’m worried.”

That was shocking as my father had never expressed worry before. Hearing that was almost more upsetting than knowing he was dying.

“What are you worried about, Dad?” I asked.

“I’m worried about moving to Philadelphia.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” I assured him. “Everything works out great for all of us.” I knew this because that move had taken place 40 years ago and everything is still just fine. I found it fascinating, but not surprising, that in the fleeting moments of life the biggest events pass through your mind. It was a big deal when the factory my dad worked in moved to another state and he had to uproot our family to keep his job. While I never heard him voice that worry or any other (remember, he was a man of very few words), I guess it weighed heavily on him.  Taking good care of his family was his reason for living and he did it masterfully. As he was dying his family was still his #1 priority. What a guy.

Next he said, “It’s a big job.” Didn’t say what he meant. I could only guess. Was it dying? Yes, that is a big job.

At one point, he sat up and appearing to be fully awake he called out, “Why can’t they teach others what they know?”

“Who, Dad?”

But I don’t know to whom or about whom he was speaking because those were also his last words. Soon after that I left the room to make coffee. I was out of the room for only five minutes or less when my 8-year-old daughter came into the kitchen and said, “Grandpop is very quiet.” Yes, he was, and also very peaceful, something he had not been during the previous 7 weeks of struggling to breathe. My husband and I knew what this serenity meant. We walked back into the room to kiss him goodbye and bid him farewell.

My dad was not known for being profound. He never asked “Why” about anything.  That question, “Why can’t they teach others what they know?”  was not something my father would ever have asked. He took life as it presented itself to him every day. He didn’t look into the deeper meaning of anything. He could’ve coined the phrase, “It is what it is.” Why this deep, probing question in his last moments? My theory is that he was speaking to someone only he could see with some knowledge that came to him just before death. I like to think he was conversing with friends or loved ones who had died before him who just told him about great things ahead for the dead and he wanted to know why they couldn’t just tell that to everyone.  Am I right, wrong, crazy? Maybe. We’ll never know, will we?

The day your parent dies is one of the hardest days you’ll survive. But it can be beautiful. Sad doesn’t have to mean lacking in beauty. That’s what I learned on the day my father died. I feel differently about death since that day. I believe my father saw something on the mysterious path ahead that appeared beautiful. Like he had done my whole life, he tried as best he could to teach me to ease my way and to leave me a guidepost.

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Have you learned anything from experiencing the death of a loved one?

The Day A Parent Dies

About a million years ago when I was taking Lamaze classes in anticipation of giving birth to my first child, the teacher said, “Be prepared to tell your labor story…. over and over and over. You won’t be able to stop yourself.” I wondered aloud why anyone (let alone everyone as she indicated) would feel the need to do that. She explained that giving birth is among the biggest transitions of your life and as such it will have a profound effect on you. As a result, you will be compelled emotionally to process it, even if the compulsion is somewhat subconscious. The way humans process, she said is by word and often by spoken word, almost as if our minds need to hear us speak the thoughts in order to fully understand them. I doubted she was right about all that but weeks later and even years later I found myself telling people about my 33-hour labor and how my OB/Gyn went to the cafeteria and bought dinner for my husband.

So, if big transitions require the telling and retelling of the story, I think the death of a parent certainly fits that bill. Yet, we don’t. While some may revel in revealing the details of the day a child was born, we don’t love talking about the other end of life. But I hope that will change. I think talking about when parents die is one of the best ways to cope with that huge transition. Nothing is ever the same after a parent dies. Your life is irrevocably altered. It’s worth pondering. So I invite you to tell your story, if you have one. If you’ve suffered the loss of a parent, please feel free to share here. My goal is to help others cope with what we’re all told is a natural part of life — seeing a parent die — and yet I can tell you it hurts. It’s a profound loss and it merits processing.

Here’s the story of the day my mother died. I’m following that up with my “takeaways,”– things I learned since which I wish I knew then. If you share a story here, please also share anything you learned from the experience that you think could help others cope.

“Come right now, Mom had a heart attack and she’s been in intensive care since Tuesday,” my father pleaded. My husband and I were on a camping trip in Florida. There were no cell phones then. I called on Thursday because the next day we were supposed to drive to Miami where my parents were vacationing. We got to the hospital quickly; she was still alive. She lingered in a semi-conscious state for several excruciating days. They had told us she would not recover from this, her fifth heart attack, so we weren’t hopeful, just waiting. We stayed at the hospital around the clock. Per the hospital protocol in those days, we could visit her just four times a day for 15 minutes at a time. Her mouth was taped around a breathing tube so she couldn’t speak but she was awake and could look at me and hold my hand. It was heartbreaking. She was 63, I was 24. On the fifth day after her heart attack we were sitting in the waiting  room in between the visiting times. The nurse walked in and said, “She’s gone. You can come in and say goodbye.” My father went in. I didn’t want to see my dead mother so I stayed in the waiting room thinking about how she was all alone when she died. To this day the thought of that breaks my heart.

What I learned/What I wish I had known:

  1. What I thought was appropriate to say to my mom during those days prior to her death was,”You’ll be okay, Mom, you’re going to be okay.” What I should have said was, “I love you, I will love you forever, you’ve been a wonderful mother. Thank you for my life. Goodbye.” Maybe not in those exact words but you get the idea. My mother had the right to know what was happening to her and I should not have been a part of the conspiracy (one which still exists today, alas) to keep a dying person from knowing what’s happening in order to avoid upsetting them.
  2. I thought that because I was 24 I was a grownup and that an adult was supposed to cope with grief by showing strength and resiliency. Now I know that at 24 or 64, when a parent dies, you are still a child. You don’t grow out of being someone’s child. That death will hurt and you need to take the time to grieve it without being concerned about looking weak. It also doesn’t matter much about the quality of your relationship with that parent. Whether it was perfect or deeply flawed, that loss will hurt. My relationship was in the middle somewhere. I loved my mom but we didn’t wholly understand each other or agree about some things but I think we hadn’t yet had the time to develop a more peer-like relationship because I was so young when she died. Part of what I had to grieve was giving up the thought that we’d ever have that chance.
  3. You are your parent’s advocate. If you see something you don’t feel right about, speak up. I should have insisted on spending more time with my mom at the end. I should have insisted they come and get us when they saw she was nearing the moment of death. I should have at least insisted they tell her she was dying and take that damn tube out long enough for her to speak last words or kiss us goodbye. She was going to die anyway, removing that tube wouldn’t have made anything worse.
  4. I thought it inappropriate to laugh or feel joy or enjoy anything for a while after she died. That’s nonsense. My mother would have wanted me to be happy whenever and however I could.

So, that’s my story. I hope you’ll tell yours if, alas, you’ve lost a parent. I expect some stories will be sad, some will be beautiful, some will have sorrow, some will have joy, but all will help others to cope with this loss. One final thought: Everyone’s parents die, but the relationship lives forever. I still feel the presence of both of my parents, despite the fact neither is alive. I was running this morning, deciding whether this post wherein I’d ask people to share stories about their parents’ deaths, was a good idea.  I looked down at the ground and saw these, side by side.

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I don’t know what you see when you look at that photo. Maybe you see two rocks. What I saw at that moment was two heart-shaped rocks, one big, like a parent’s, and one small, like a child’s. I came home to write this post, thinking it was what my parents wanted me to do. I still hear from them from time to time. 🙂

I look forward to reading your stories.

How To Write A Parent’s Eulogy

Some of the best advice I was given when my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer was to write his eulogy while he was alive. Horrified at first, I took a breath and thought about it. Why was I so upset by this advice? My initial reaction was superstitious — I thought writing about his death while he was alive was in some way wishing him dead or hastening his death. Then I came to my senses and realized I could no more hasten his death than slow it down. In fact I was powerless over his demise. The one thing I could do, though, was to send him off with honor and dignity and love.

The person who suggested eulogy writing in advance made a great point. Immediately after my father’s death I was likely going to be much too upset to do justice to writing his story. That was absolutely true. I would not have been able to write what I wanted to say if I waited until he died.

So I wrote the eulogy my father deserved to have delivered. What makes a good eulogy? Here’s my advice in list form:

1. Consider the small things that made your parent’s life compelling. Tell a story or two about your parent that most of the attendees to the funeral don’t know. Don’t just talk about what he or she did for a living; describe what made his or her life matter.

2. Share a personal memory. Did your mom teach you how to hit a baseball or how to cook or how to change the washer in a faucet? Did your dad teach you how to drive, thereby risking his own life? Did he go to every store in town to buy you the Barbie doll  you most wanted for your 7th birthday only to come home with three because he didn’t know there would be more than one to pick from?

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Share something only you shared with your parent. That will give people an insight into the person they came to honor in a way only you can provide.

3. Describe some family history. People come to a funeral to show respect. It’s always interesting and respectful to give a nod to those who came before in your family. Where did his or her parents hail from? What was your parent’s childhood like? Family tree information is fascinating background.

4. Don’t dwell on the saddest parts. Your parent’s death may have come too soon or been really awful for the family or for you but your parent’s life is so much more than his or her death. This passing hurts you now but with time you will be able to remember your parent and feel good in that memory. Imagine one of the memories you know will make you smile in the future and focus on describing that time.

5. Speak from the heart but read the eulogy, don’t wing it. Write exactly what you want to say. Don’t worry about being articulate or using just the right words. Say what you feel and write it down. Then read it aloud several times before the service. You will likely be nervous and perhaps overcome with emotion but practicing what you will say will help. If you cry, so be it. Everyone will understand. Take your time. Read slowly and don’t look up if you think that might throw you off.

6. Don’t worry about what the audience will think. Speak about your parent in a way he or she would appreciate. At a funeral I attended recently, the family members spoke about the loved one’s sense of humor. They said things that would have made him laugh. Some attendees laughed along with the family. Some were aghast at “joking” at a funeral. But the family knew the most important attendee would have loved it. That’s what matters.

Five Things You Learn From a Dad For Father’s Day

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
― Umberto Eco

What wisdom did you learn from your father? My father didn’t talk much. He was the quintessential man of few words. So how did I learn so many wonderful things? Luck and love, I suppose. Luck and love. Here’s what I learned

1. Compassion. I learned compassion. My father couldn’t abide people hurting others. He didn’t do it, he didn’t stand for it.

2. Not everything is about money. My dad didn’t take money except for his work. My dad worked in a factory so he wasn’t exactly a rich guy but if he had things to pass on, he did just that, he passed them on. When my father bought any new furniture (which, truth be told he only did when my mother made him do so because he really couldn’t care less about what he lived with, furniture-wise.), he gave away what he could no longer use. I remember a neighbor telling him the bedroom set he gave away could’ve been sold as it had value. My dad said, “If I’m not using it, someone should. It’s not about making money.”

3. Read every day. My dad didn’t finish high school but he was a consumer of the written word, mostly newspapers. Never a day passed without an hour spent reading. He may have been that man of few words outgoing but incoming, words mattered to him.

4. Judgement. As a kid I think I may have been embarrassed about how little my dad cared about appearances. He didn’t care what he wore, he didn’t care to impress people with his home, he truly didn’t care what people thought of his superficialities, nor was he impressed by others in that way. When I grew up I realized the strength of character that comes from only caring about what’s inside.

5. Storytelling. While my dad didn’t say much, when he was in his element, with his friends and family, he lit up when telling a good story. His eyes would twinkle, his lips turned up just slightly at the ends. Telling a good story made the world so much better for him and for those of us in his audience. Storytelling enhances life.

Those are my five. What are yours? Oh and I have a bonus one. He taught me how to change a tire. Alas, I’ve used that one a lot!

I leave you with this quote for Father’s Day for everyone who is lucky enough to have a dad’s shadow to guide them.

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The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature. ~Antoine-François, Abbé Prévost d’Exiles