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.

P1020788

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.

P1020785

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.

Do Great Expectations = Great Disappointment in Families?

Recently a friend and I were talking about our lives in terms of what we thought they’d be like when we were younger and what our lives turned out to be. We discussed whether life had for the most part exceeded or failed to meet our expectations. We’re both pretty happy people and we came to an interesting realization. Neither of us had much in the way of expectations when we were younger and really don’t today either. As a result, we’re both pretty happy with the way things are going.

“Low expectations,” my friend exclaimed, “that’s the key to happiness.” We laughed but in considering it later, I realized he may be on to something. Especially when it comes to family. We all have expectations about family relationships, I think. We’re pretty much wired that way from the time we are young. We expect our parents to love us and to take care of us when we are children. We expect our siblings to love us and be our playmates when we’re kids together. Then we take those expectations into adulthood and maybe that’s where we go wrong. If we have high hopes and great expectations and our family members don’t meet our lofty goals, we come crashing down amidst the disappointment. From there the disappointment could lead to anger, to adult sibling rivalry, to fighting for parental approval and any hope for a healthy adult sibling relationship falls apart.

Perhaps the key to happiness here is to lower our expectations of family. Maybe we have to treat family members more like we treat our friends. With our friends we don’t just expect them to treat us fairly and with respect. We understand our friends owe us nothing unless we earn it. We accept the fact that good friendships are the product of work, of give and take, of treating people with respect. We don’t just expect our friends to be good partners, we know we have to work for that, to be good partners in order to have them. We understand inherently that we teach our friends how to treat us by how we treat them.

But maybe with family, we often just believe things will be good because they should be. Unfortunately, what I’m hearing from people who read this blog is that philosophy isn’t working so well. Too many of us are disappointed in our sibling relationships. The family waters are tougher to navigate than those of friendship. I’m seeking to understand why that is. Why do I and so many people I’ve connected with find loving friendships but fail to develop loving sibling relationships? Why are we so lost in the weeds in these waters?

P1020698

Are our expectations too great or is it something else entirely?

A Tale of Two Sisters: Choose Your Own Ending

This week marked my sister’s birthday. It’s the 22nd one she’s had since she stopped talking to me. In an earlier post I wrote about how I wasn’t sure if I’d recognize her or if she’d know me. I’m sorry if you can relate to that because you’re estranged from a sibling. It pretty much sucks.

But this week I had a realization. I don’t have to be miserable every time I think about my sister. I can choose to remember a good memory and to replace the pain with that memory when I think of her. Truth be told, I don’t think of her that often but on weeks like this one, it happens and it’s a bummer. Not any more.

You feel what you feel in life but you can choose your reaction to it. That’s what I always taught my daughters. You can’t control everything but you can control how you react to everything. (or most things). So this year when my sister creeps into my brain I’m going to remember this.

We were young, maybe 14 and 9. We were watching the “Beverly Hillbillies” on TV and the daughter in the show, Ellie May, was playing with a bra. She didn’t recognize it as clearly, “hillbillies” had no use for undergarments of that nature. (Wow, was that show offensive or what? Good thing the PC police weren’t around then.) So, the character used it as a slingshot. Well, that was simply hilarious to us and we started to giggle and then to guffaw loudly enough to bring my father into the room. “What’s so funny?” he wanted to know.

Neither of us could say the word “bra” to my father. My sister probably was wearing one and definitely couldn’t say the word. This was a girl who had to recite Shakespeare for school and wouldn’t say “Damn” so she walked around the house saying, “Out, blank spot.” She was clearly not saying “bra.”  I said nothing but Dad was waiting for an answer. My sister sensed my discomfort and gave him a satisfactory answer. “She has a funny accent,” my sister explained. My dad left the room. We looked at each other and started laughing all over again. We shared a secret and a giggle. Very rare indeed. The fact that this is one of the only good stories I can tell about a nice moment with my sister is in itself pretty telling about our relationship growing up.

But, here’s the message of this post. If you are hurting from the actions of other people be they family, coworkers or anyone else in your life, remember this — you can’t change them but you choose how you react to them.

Happy birthday to my sister. I hope you are enjoying a good laugh, albeit not with me. I am smiling at a memory of us, that’s what I choose this year.

IMG_0570

The Irony of Amazon Reviews Mysteriously Disappearing

This post is not a complaint about Amazon reviews. It’s just something that made me smile this morning. I read recently that Amazon is going to crack down on reviews of products or books by people who are somehow related to said product or book. I get that Amazon wants reviews to be unbiased. As a consumer I want that too. And yes, I’ve heard the many stories of frustrated authors whose books have had completely legitimate reviews removed. I am, in fact, one of those authors and I’m not that happy about it.

I’ve had three reviews deleted from my page mysteriously. There were all there for a while and written by completely unrelated people. Two were 5-star, one was 4-star and OUCH it hurts to lose those. I’m guessing that somehow the Amazon algorithm used to crack down on bogus reviews somehow found that one of those writers is my friend on Facebook. He’s a guy I graduated high school with whom I haven’t seen or spoken to for 40 years. But, Amazon decided, I suppose, he and I were too close for their comfort and boom, his lovely review vanished. If you’re reading this, thanks for trying.

They deleted a review of someone I don’t know and to my knowledge she doesn’t know me. Five stars down the drain.

A woman who “liked” my Facebook book page sent me a message saying she was trying to write a review but was unable to “submit” it as Amazon seemed to be blocking it in some way. Maybe they discovered she is one of the 400 or so people who “liked” my page but for whatever reason they didn’t want her review to post.

But, overall I’m doing pretty well for a new nonfiction book about dysfunctional family. Twenty-four reviews, almost all five stars, a handful of four-star reviews and then these two, which are the ones that made me smile.

First is one written by a friend of my sister-in-law, one of the more despicable but true-life characters in my book. The “reviewer” even identified herself in the review as someone who “knows four of the people” I wrote about. She also pretty much said she hadn’t bought or read the book. And, she didn’t say she knew me, because I’ve never met her so I guess that was enough distance for Amazon to allow her review in which says the book is a “sad tale of a woman who is not happy in her own life.” That right there tells you she didn’t read the book because it’s not all sad. Some parts of damn funny, if I do say so myself.

But my favorite selection for Amazon irony in review deletion has to be the one by my brother-in-law. He does know me (alas for me), he’s an actual family member (alas for him since I pretty much described all the family members in detail and he is in no way happy about his depiction because it is, true and undeniably awful). Yet, Amazon allowed him to call me Hitler and that review stands!

But, as I said at the start, I’m just musing, not so much complaining. I’m overall grateful to Amazon for offering a platform for indie authors to get their fine work out there and to promote it to readers seeking new voices to enjoy. I’m hoping to garner so many good reviews I will no longer notice if a handful disappear. (Unlike now when I have pretty much memorized each review as if it were one of my children and therefore I notice when they’re missing!) Until that happens (the magical day when my reviews are in the hundreds instead of the 20s) if there are bumps along the way, if the system is imperfect, I can live with that. But when I realized the irony of stranger reviews being deleted while actual family member reviews are allowed to stay, it did make me wonder what’s up at Amazon?

Have you authors out there had mysterious deletions of your reviews? Do you think this matters much?

Be Present in Your Life: Father’s Day Edition

This morning I was running down the beach. Yes, I live near the ocean, you may commence hating me for that, I’ll understand. (More on that in the next post.)  From afar I could see what appeared to be a large heart-shaped something at the water’s edge up ahead. As I approached the image came into focus. (Keep in mind I didn’t have my glasses on so the heart-shaped something could have been almost anything and not at all heart shaped.) It was two horses, a stallion (male) and a smaller one, obviously a younger horse, a child of sorts. The little one was standing in the larger one’s shadow kind of resting its head on the stallion so they were somewhat connected at the head end with their hindquarters apart, forming a triangular, yes, heart shape. Awww. It being Father’s Day, I imagined them as father and child. A child often stands in a father’s shadow. I did and it was warm and wonderful there.

IMG_0023

I stood for a while, keeping the recommended distance of 50 feet from the wild horses who live here and just appreciated the beauty of nature and of nurture. I thought about the majesty of fathers and how they shape their children’s lives. It’s a “big job,” as my own dad would have said but when done right, it leaves a legacy of love.

So I observed and enjoyed what I was seeing and feeling. Normally I would have been doing something entirely different. I would have been frantically trying to get their picture before they moved. I mean heart-shaped horse bodies, one doesn’t see that often. It would have made a fantastic photo and I would’ve loved to capture that moment in time. That’s what writers and photographers do, we observe and we feel compelled to somehow record what we see. We can’t stop ourselves and maybe that’s often a good thing, this desire to see and share, to help others learn what we’ve learned or failed to learn, to see what we’ve been privileged to witness. That’s what we do most of the time. I’ve “run” into these horses before and they are majestic in their beauty. I often have a phone with me and I always say, “This photo is going to be awesome.” Because in real life the view is incredible. So I snap and snap and snap and almost never does the photo match what I recall seeing.

But this morning I couldn’t strive for the perfect photo because I had no camera. No phone, no instrument of moment capturing whatsoever. Which afforded me the luxury of simply being present to truly see what was. I really need to focus on doing that more often because when you are truly present you can feel things you might otherwise miss. You can grow in unanticipated ways. You can see inside yourself and outside yourself toward the goal of knowing more of both. And maybe with that knowledge comes peace.

Even if I miss the perfect photo, I’ll take the peace if I can capture that moment.

But, I don’t want you to miss the opportunity of seeing a wild horse so here’s one I captured on a previous day. I can tell you the photo isn’t nearly as cool as the sight of this magnificent, free, animal on the dune. But you’ll get the idea.

IMG_3191

So, today, I wish you peace and I wish you the ability to be present, be focused, see what’s around you. And, I hope it’s beautiful.

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.

IMG_0023

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

What If Your Story Is Too Good To Be True?

In my writer’s group I offered for critique a short piece I had recently written about my dad. It’s a true story from many years ago, but one with unbelievable events involving my father somehow managing to reach out from the grave to give me money when my husband and I really needed the help. While Dad didn’t literally send a hand out from the gravesite, he did, I believe, send a handout from the grave in the form of a CD he opened for me showing up miraculously years after he had died, despite the fact there had been no record of the account previously.

As I said the story is true. The money showed up under very mysterious and timely circumstances. I wrote the essay with warmth and a poignant and humorous tone. I really loved the ways the piece turned out (because as all you writers know, these things we write often have a mind of their own in terms of the way they form) and maybe even more I loved  the memory associated with it. Members of my writers group had almost universal glowing and positive reactions similar to these:

“I love your dad.”

“This is wonderful.”

“I feel like I know your dad.”

“You were so blessed to have him.”

And, then there was this one.

“I’m sorry. I know I’m a cynic but this story is just too too perfect. It’s hokey. You were in trouble, Grandpop came back to save you just as he always did. You needed money, and oh lucky you, you got money. Ugh.”

The critic, a very nice man and good writer, didn’t intend to hurt my feelings. He was offering honest critique as we are supposed to do in order to support each other to create better work. And, my feelings weren’t at all hurt. I just didn’t quite know how to respond. Yes, it’s a lovely story. Yes, it all happened almost exactly as I recounted it. Yes, it is very mysterious and unexplainable, and yes, my dad was always there for me, even, as it turned out, seven years after his death. The story may have been too too perfect. But it was true.

Just as my memoir, Tales From The Family Crypt is about family members who may be too awful to be true but are, this story about my dad is the exact opposite. The critic suggested it would be a better story if I made it a little less pristine in its goodness, in its somewhat miraculous aura. If I toned down the facts to suit what real life is like, which is to say, not often perfect and beautiful and poignant and lovely and true simultaneously.

But in that moment in time when the CD showed up, in that instance real life was all of those things. Too good to be true? Yes. But it was.

So, what do you think, writers? Do you shy away from such stories? Is grit always better fodder than grace?