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?

What To Expect When You’re Expecting… DEATH. Five Things You Should Know.

You’re probably heard of the “What To Expect” series of books that are pretty much the bibles on expecting a baby. The first in the series is a book considered to be one of the most influential books of the last 25 years and deservedly so as pregnancy was formerly a much not-talked-about topic. It was time to bring pregnancy out of the closet. (It was also time to do away with the godawful maternity clothes that came in one size — TENT — and in one style –BIG BOW BABY. Thankfully, that happened too in the last 25 years.) The books offered information on a topic very few people had ever been willing to discuss.

Well, I’m about to launch a similar and yet opposite end of the spectrum series. I’m considering calling it, as above, “What To Expect When You’re Expecting…DEATH.” (Can they sue me for that?)

My point is it’s time to bring death out of the darkness into the light. Those closets in which we shun the topics we don’t want discussed in polite society are way too dark. Death is not something you can avoid by simply not discussing it.

I know you can’t bear thinking about losing the ones you love. The deaths I’m suggesting we talk about are the ones we start fearing when we are very young — the deaths of our parents. If things progress naturally in our lives we will live to see our parents die. It’s sad and I’m not suggesting otherwise. I’m suggesting we can make the transitional time less sad and maybe even a bit beautiful if we know what’s ahead. Here are five things you should know about what happens once a parent’s prognosis is determined to be terminal.

1. It doesn’t have to be all bad. We knew my dad was dying of lung cancer for only a short time before he died. But since we did have a heads up we were able to make his last weeks include some fun times. We did things he could still do and enjoy. Little things meant a lot. We played cards and pored over his coin collection. We watched movies. We cooked. We enjoyed simple day to day life in the days leading up to death. What could be better?

2. It doesn’t have to be painful. I worried about how much  physical pain my loved ones would suffer. Turns out one of the best advances in medical science is that many dying patients don’t have to be in pain. Depending on their condition, they can be medicated so the pain isn’t so intense. Pain management isn’t perfect, as it does in some cases render the patient pretty out of things but it can be very helpful at the end.

3. It doesn’t have to be a forbidden topic for the person who is dying. You may think not telling your aging parent he or she is dying is a good idea. It’s not. They are adults, they have a right to know what’s ahead. They have a right to speak up and voice their own choice about their death or dying process. In fact, you don’t have the right to keep this most important piece of news from them. If you’re worried they might be upset, you’re right. But isn’t being upset about your impending death a natural reaction they have a right to have?

4. It doesn’t  have to be your responsibility to make every decision. There will be choices to be made. Choices about where to die, choices about how to die and even in some cases when to die. (Life support machines or not?) You can get help. You can speak to people who are experts in this field like doctors, lawyers or hospice personnel. Then you can talk to family members and to the dying person. Yes, you will need a point person, a Power of Attorney person who makes the ultimate decisions. But if it is you, you don’t have to decide alone. Get help. Ask for help, ask for advice. And know this too — you are stronger than you think. You can handle losing your parent, you have to survive it, your life will go on and it can be good again. You can be happy again, the sadness will pass.

5. It doesn’t matter if you are there at the moment of death. I’ve spoken to many people who regret missing the last breath their parents took. It’s a wasted regret. Be there for as many breaths as you can while your parent is still breathing. He or she will cherish those memories. They will know the legacy of love they leave behind. What matters is  how you treat your parents while they are alive. If you somehow don’t get there at the very end, but you were there for other times throughout their lives, that’s what counts. In fact some parents manage to control their moment of death specifically so that you won’t be there. I was with my father for every minute of his last 24 hours except for about the five minutes it took me to walk from his room to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. While I was waiting for the pot to drip through, he died. Was that a coincidence? I think not. I believe he wanted to spare me the pain of watching him take that last breath. We come into this world solo, maybe it’s okay we leave solo. It’s what happens in between that first breath and last that matters.

Consider reading the book “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande. It will help clarify for you issues about end of life care. It could spur a good discussion in your family. It’s a start.

Finally, if we’re lucky our parents are going to live long lives and walk toward that light knowing they lived good lives and will be remembered with love. It’s our job to help make that happen. Let’s start by shining a light on the road ahead so we are all prepared for what’s coming.

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Free Is Just Another Word For…

Yesterday and today I’ve been offering a free download of Tales From the Family Crypt on Amazon.   I’ve been watching the download numbers go up with… well… actual glee. Mind you, no one makes any money on a free download so why is this making me so happy? What is it about imagining the readers who are about to crack open (cyber-wise that is) my work that gives me joy?

I think it’s something like this– Writers write. We often write in isolation but while we’re doing so, we’re envisioning the reader who is going to absorb our words. However, we can only imagine that person, we’re not there when they’re reading what we’ve written. (Unless you have a significant other you’ve been regularly forcing sweetly asking to read what you’ve written.) Seeing my download numbers go up on that lovely graph Amazon provides and on the rankings (#63 in nonfiction, #1 in Parenting, #1 in Aging Parents!)  just fills me with the hope that maybe, just maybe, in the next couple of days lots of people will read what I artfully crafted and poured heart and soul into in the tiny space that is my office. The work from that small space will spider out, yes, like the crack in your windshield that pops and then grows quickly into a web eventually taking over the front of your car, but in a good way. It will grow and expand into the universe of readers who will see what I wrote and perhaps act on it in some good way. Maybe they’ll call a long lost relative. Maybe they’ll find a way to speak to a family member or friend with whom they’ve had a falling out. Maybe they’ll hug someone who means a great deal to them. Maybe they’ll phone me with an offer for a movie script in which I will be played by Jennifer Lawrence. Anything is possible, right?

So for today, the download graph forecasts more joy. I hope you have a wonderful day too. And, remember, the best things in life are free. Some very good things cost money, don’t get me wrong, I like those too, but being able to enjoy the free is also terrific.

Free Book Today! Great Story, Well Told, Fast Read

Tales From The Family Crypt is FREE Thursday, May 28, 2015 and Friday May 29, 2015! If you’re looking to read a true story that reads like a novel, this book is for you. And, please if you do read the book, take a moment to review it on Amazon and Goodreads. Please share this post and pass along the heads up about my free book giveaway. Thanks! You can click here to get the book on Amazon. Don’t wait, though, it will go back to regular price on Saturday.

Want A Great Free Read For Anyone With A Family?

Tales From The Family Crypt is FREE Thursday, May 28, 2015 and Friday May 29, 2015! I could wax poetic about the many reasons you should download the book and tell everyone you know to do the same but instead, I’ll just share excerpts of a few of my recent 5-star Amazon reviews. You can decide for yourself if this book calls you. (It will! And, it’s a quick read too! Perfect for summer reading, fast and entertaining and possibly helpful.) And, remember if you do read the book, reviewing it on Amazon and Goodreads is good Karma! Please share this post and pass along the heads up about my free giveaway. Thanks!

Click here to the link to download Tales From The Family Crypt.

THE REVIEWS ARE IN!
May 24, 2015

Unbelievable! Yes, I have a crazy sister! Thank you, Deborah, for telling the truth about dysfunctional families with grace and humor. What a great story, what a great story teller. I am recommending this book to everyone I know.
The author’s story resonated with me in a huge way. I’d give the book ten stars if I could.

Stranger Than Fiction April 26, 2015
Format:Paperback

I have always ascribed to a quirky theory that nuttiness skips a generation. By and large, both sets of my grandparents were pretty normal for the era in which they lived; whenever I tell stories about my parents, however, I always feel inclined to add, “Seriously, I am not making these people up.” Over the years, so many friends from elementary and high school have expressed envy about our picture-perfect existence and my supposedly idyllic life as the only child in a wealthy family. What no one ever saw, however, were the deep layers of emotional abuse that – if I had ever shared with a teacher or a counselor – would have been dismissed as the product of an overactive imagination.

I was, thus, able to relate on so many dimensions to Deborah Carroll’s nonfiction narrative memoir, “Tales From the Family Crypt,” in which she illustrates – often with bittersweet humor – how the interactions she and her husband had with their respective families shaped how they would eventually raise their own children. The opening chapters about family photographs are especially well drawn; when everyone is dressed up for photo ops and on their very best behavior, how are viewers ever expected to discern the pain that lays beneath? Sadly, we all want to love our families because we’re supposed to, that to not love them or to see what flawed and hateful individuals so many of them are will somehow label us as “bad” or ungrateful individuals. Yes, they put a roof over our heads and gave us daily sustenance but what about nurturing our souls?

Carroll could certainly have taken the easy route of turning this into a work of fiction with combative characters. The fact that all of it is real, however, delivers a much more potent message. Specifically, you can’t choose your relatives, nor can you rent any of them out for parts. You can either be crushed as a victim to their own insecurities or you can shrug and say, “Yes, well I’m my own person and I will always care what happens to you but I really can’t be around you when you’re being so annoyingly toxic.”

A highly recommended read and kudos to the author for the courage of sharing her own story in such a constructive – and entertaining – way.

A Great Read! March 19, 2015
By Judy
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Whether or not you have dysfunction in your family, Tales from the Family Crypt is a great read! The author shows her strong desire for a close, loving family, but how wanting it and working hard for it doesn’t necessarily make it happen. Her story is both poignant and hysterical. I laughed and cried and nodded my head a lot! As a slow reader with a short attention span, I have to say that I breezed through this book and had trouble putting it down!
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think of the book and please feel free to share the download with everyone you’ve ever met in your life…. especially your family members.  – Debby. 🙂