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?

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?

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

Surviving A Family Vacation

I live in a lovely place where huge family groups come to vacation. When I say huge family groups, I don’t just mean a lot of groups. I mean the groups are each huge. Folks rent enormous vacation rental homes, some accommodate 25 people under one roof. They actually choose to spend a week with all of those people, most of whom are relatives.

As you may know from reading this blog or my book, I wouldn’t be likely to need a huge house to accommodate my extended family since most of them don’t actually speak to us. Even before the “falling out,” though, I can’t imagine going on vacation with most of the people I’m related to, unless I was being punished for some super bad behavior. So you can imagine my sheer puzzlement (or shock) at seeing hordes of family members who actually choose to be together for the week.

Since I’m a people watcher I’ve learned a great deal from observing these groups in their unnatural habitat — a big house with 20+ relatives. I also see them on the beach, playing mini golf, at the supermarket, and other places people can truly drive each other crazy. If you have such a trip coming up this summer, take heed in these tips for getting out alive at the end of the week.

1. Don’t go. Unless you want to. People who are forced to go rarely have any fun at all. They are the ones rolling their eyes and complaining constantly. They are stirring up trouble all week. If you are going on this trip to please someone else in the family, I promise you that you won’t be the only one who is miserable. Make an excuse, say you can’t get time off from work but do yourself and everyone else a favor. If you don’t really want to go, please stay home.

2. If you do go, be cognizant of the fact that people on vacation have left their minds at home. Lower your expectations for reasonable behavior. They will make dumb choices, they will do things they would never do at home, they will embarrass you in public. Be prepared to see them in different ways than you see them at home when they’re not on vacation.

3. Go outside. A lot. Spending too much time together can be dangerous and deadly. Take a break. Politely announce, “I’m going for a walk,” or “Meditation Time” and get out of the house for a while. Ten minute breaks could work wonders for your nerves

4. Let some of your rules go. If you believe things have to work a certain way, like dinner must be at 6 and everyone must show up on time and eat after saying Grace for 10 minutes, you are destined to be disappointed. Not everyone functions the way you do. Let it go. Let it be. Let them live the way they want for once. You’re not there to teach them, you’re there to have some freaking fun so do it! Also, on that point, remember this: they don’t necessarily raise kids the way you do or you think they should. Really, really, let that go. Don’t try to show them the right way to raise kids even though we all know you’re better at it.

5. About kids, yours and/or theirs….Don’t punish children on the beach, in the park or in any public place. Don’t yell at them either. The whole world is watching, they have nothing else to do while they’re off from work. So, lighten up on the kids. Definitely do not do what I saw one parent do — call out “Mandatory reading time!” Then she took two perfectly happy kids away from building sandcastles and made them sit up on the beach for 45 minutes reading a book. I’m a former teacher. I think reading is a fantastic way to spend time, but reading on the beach because you are forced to is not a way to instill a love of literature in children.

6. For god’s sake find a good way to make a group decision. Just take one vote and majority rules. I can’t tell you how many people stand in groups in the supermarket trying to decide between cereals. For the love of all things holy, just grab the Corn Flakes and go! It’s cereal, people, it’s not war and peace.

7. Which leads me to the next point. There will be leaders and followers in your group. Someone has to step up and take responsibility for decisions in order to break ties. Let the leader or leaders do their job and be happy to be a follower. Too many leaders is a recipe for disaster but too much democracy leads to anarchy. One or two leaders should be chosen on Day 1 and everyone else should just let them make their magic happen. When things don’t go your way simply find a kindred spirit in the group and roll your eyes gently so he or she will know no one is doing things the way they should be. Have a buddy system so you can telegraph your disappointment to each other without actually yelling at anyone.

8. Which leads again to the next point. Develop a “Who cares?” attitude for the week. Didn’t get the restaurant or meal you wanted? Who cares? No one else wants to see the movie of your choice? Who cares? Are you going to let that ruin your vacation? Don’t be too set in your ways and desires. Remember, this is your time away from aggravation so just refuse to let it seep into your fun times. Appreciate the sights around you or the natural beauty of where you are. Nothing else should matter.

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9. Remember who these people are. If Uncle Harry annoys you at home, the likelihood is he will be astronomically obnoxious on vacation. If you are imagining you’ll like him better in larger doses, you’re insane. You’ll like him a lot less, so just know that going in and try to steer clear as much as possible.

10. Keep in mind, these are the people who help shape you. They love you and you love them. (some of them at least) And, if all else fails, keep in mind it’s only a week. Next week you’ll be back at work, safe and sound.

I Understand if You Hate Me

In a previous post I mentioned we live near the beach. Yes, it’s a good as you might imagine. We don’t live here all the time. Here’s how we got here. Many years back we started coming to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to camp on the beach. We loved it here. There is something about the salt water environment that speaks directly to the soul. So, we camped and after our kids were born, we camped with kids and after we got older and more spoiled, we rented beach cottages for a week and lived like kings and queens compared to camping.

So, year after year we’d come for one precious week of sun and fun and family togetherness. Then we got a brilliant idea. Why not make a lot of money  ruin the whole vacation paradise by opening a seasonal business here? So we opened an Italian Ice (water ice for those readers from the Phila. area) and ice cream shop, open from May to September. The whole family worked, even our two youngest who were about 11 and 12. Did we see the beach much anymore? Not so much. But we loved the experience and stayed in business for many years. Our kids learned myriad lessons about responsibility, dealing with the public, running a business and getting along in the world. We know working in our store had a big part in  forming the wonderful beings they now are.

After our kids grew up and couldn’t continue working all summer in the store we sold it. That presented a dilemma. Could we justify living here all summer when we didn’t have a business here? We had another business which could travel with us so we could work while we were here but could we really be people who live at the beach just for… FUN?

Spoiler alert. Yes.

We come every summer to live here. Our kids come for about a month. We all work other jobs but manage to make time to be who we once were… a family communing in paradise. We are endlessly grateful for being here. We share it with friends who are always invited to come and stay with us and many do. We have no idea what we did to deserve this lovely life but we’re pretty happy about it.

Our dysfunctional siblings have never been happy about it. It may be part of the reason why they are so dysfunctional I had to write my book about them! They have long referred to our annual move as our “extended vacation,” despite the fact that for ten years it was work and not vacation and despite the fact they’ve been invited many times to stay with us. (Given they don’t really work, their whole lives are extended vacation but I’ll overlook that for now. And, yes, before the whole family fell apart, they did come to enjoy a free beach vacation more than once.) I understand their reaction because: 1. They don’t care about us and 2. They’re jealous, not necessarily about where we live but about how happy we are wherever we are. So, they’ve repeatedly tried to hurt us in order to act out their frustrations about their lives. I get it, I really do. I understand envying my life; it’s pretty good.

What can you do if parts of your life are worth envying? (Because even my good life isn’t completely perfect, after all.) Be grateful and do what you can to continually earn what it is you have. But what about the people who resent your good life? What can you do to reach out to them? I’m not sure about the answer to that one. Haters gonna hate, I suppose. I just try not to be one of them. Envy is tough. We’ve all experienced it. We look at people who have what we don’t have or achieve what we’ve failed to achieve and maybe we’re even happy for them but we’re envious too. I know I’d envy another writer’s success with perhaps a huge book advance or a best seller on Amazon or even a blog with 10,000 followers. I don’t think it makes us bad people to envy. Maybe envy can even motivate us to work harder. What makes us bad people is acting out of envy in an attempt to hurt the ones we are envious of. I think this is a very important topic for parents to discuss with children. Explain to them, yes, you will feel envious of others but that is not a bad thing. What matters is how you react to that jealousy. You feel what you feel but you get to choose your reaction to the emotion and that is where you have power.

What do you do to fight the green-eyed monster when it strikes you? Is there anyone you envy? Have you ever told anyone you envy them? I never have but I think maybe I should.

Meanwhile, here’s your moment worth envy. I suggest you take a one-minute mental vacation imagining yourself here. It could help!

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Writers and Parents: Be Careful What You Wish For!

Writing is a great many wonderful things but making a living at it isn’t easy. And, more importantly, it may not be a good thing. Consider this story. I wrote a parenting book some years back, before the advent of self publishing. Shockingly, at least to me, it was published by a major publishing house and even more shocking, they actually spent about 10 minutes promoting it. (Because promoting books is not one of the things big publishing houses do well or even at all for most books! Yes, that was a surprise to me too.) One afternoon I returned to my home office to hear this voice mail:

Woman’s voice: Hi. This is Andrea. I’m a producer  at the Oprah Show. We just received your parenting book and we think it’s terrific. We’re doing a show on being organized and we already have an expert booked on the show but if you could be in Chicago next week, we might be able to add a segment specific to parenting. If you’re interested, please call me at …

OMG. I won’t even bother trying to describe how I felt.  I know you can easily imagine. (Suffice it to say the moment was so thrilling, I can still remember what I was wearing when I heard the message.) So, of course I returned the call ASAP. First she waxed poetic about my book and explained the reason they loved it was because it was so practical. Every suggestion in the book was something any parent could do with any child. She loved the way I looked at parenting which was that parents should integrate kids into their lives while maintaining as much of themselves and their previous lives as possible. I was thrilled they understood the point of the book which was to give parents actual, doable advice for raising responsible, good kids without overwhelming parents with a lot of theories and philosophizing. She asked if I could send video of me on any prior appearance on TV as well as a brief description of what I thought would be a good two-minute segment. She explained it was not highly likely they’d be able to add me in since the show was really already tightly planned but she really liked the book and was going to try. I sent off my package and held my breath.

Next I phoned my agent, who, while she was thrilled for me, had a cautionary warning. What I said to her, somewhat jokingly but also maybe a little bit wistfully was, “Maybe I’ll be the John Gray of parenting.” Back then he was the IT writer, who had written the phenomenally successful relationship book about men being from Mars while women were from Venus. She answered quickly, “You don’t want to be that. He’s a relationship expert who’s on the road about 50 weeks a year. Do you want to be writing about parenting while being away from your kids 50 weeks out of the year?”

That struck me and proved to be a little comforting when I heard back from the producer who reported, alas, they could not fit my two-minute segment into the show, as she had feared. But, she said they loved my book and would try to find another show to work it into. Despite the fact I spent the next year sending her show theme pitches and small gifts in Fed Ex envelopes monthly (my agent’s suggestion), my Oprah appearance remained elusive. I was so disappointed. My dream of being a fantastically successful writer did not come to pass.

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Lego Art by Nathan Sawaya

Thus, I did not become the John Gray of parenting. But I did raise three amazing daughters who probably lamented how much I was around the house more than I did! I have no regrets. My book sold okay, I did some other  fun TV and radio appearances with it and got some very positive feedback. Thanks to the ability to self publish and the fact that the rights reverted back to me, I updated it and published it again this year so if you want to check out Raising Amazing Children: While Having a Life of Your Own, the practical parenting book an Oprah producer loved but didn’t produce a show about, it’s just 99 cents on Amazon. I figure if it’s a bestseller now, I can hit the road. My kids are all grown and won’t even notice if I leave town!  If you give it as a gift to a new parent you know, you can tell them it was almost on Oprah. (They don’t have to know you only spent a dollar on it!) If you read it, please share a review on Amazon. Your opinion will mean more to me than any producer’s! And, writers, rethink your disappointments. Maybe the way it’s working out for you is the way it’s meant to be after all.

Who Taught You To Be Generous?

Love the conversation I overheard in the gym locker room this morning. Okay, I admit it freely; I am an eavesdropper of the highest magnitude. On a scale of 1-10 guilty of listening in to what total strangers are saying, I’m a 12. But it’s a wonderful vice to have. I find people so fascinating and sometimes uplifting too.

Two women, both in their 40s or so. Truthfully I can never tell, they may have been anywhere from 40 – 65. But they did both look terrifically fit, whatever their age. (I’m not that big a snoop, I didn’t secretly photograph them so you’ll have to take my word.) Here’s how the conversation went:

Woman A: I’ve always had the habit of making extra food when I make something like Tiramisu or lasagne,  you know the things it’s just as easy to make double of as it is to make one. I give the other one to someone else. But my husband always asked, “Why are you giving our food away?” He was annoyed about it and didn’t understand why I didn’t just freeze it and keep it for us. So I told him it was no big deal to make extra and other people need it more than we do. We’re not rich but we can certainly afford to give away a lasagne every so often.

Woman Z: That is really nice of you. How do you decide who to give the food to?

Woman A: Well, I just kind of pick anyone I’ve talked to recently who I think could use the help. Like you know that guy in the gym who just lost his wife? He’s alone and I don’t think he cooks so I gave him a meal last week. And, that’s when it got interesting. When I got home and told my husband who I gave the food to, he said, “Oh, now I get it. I understand why you’re giving away food. That guy probably won’t have a home cooked meal now that his wife is gone. He probably doesn’t cook. That’s really nice of you.” So, when it was someone my husband could clearly relate to, because he knows he’d be lost without my cooking, he finally understood the whole idea of helping people who need a hand. I was really happy he got it and won’t be pissed at me for giving away our food.

Woman Z: So, that’s cool, you taught your husband how to be generous. Who taught you that?

Woman A: (Period of total silence)

Woman Z: I mean you weren’t born that way, someone had to teach you about generosity. Who was it?

Woman A: Wow, I never thought about that. I’ve always just seen myself as a good and generous person. Let me think about it.

Woman Z: Your mom?

Woman A: No, I don’t think so. Wait, you know what? It was probably my dad. He is and has always been dirt poor. He lives in Puerto Rico and has never made any money but he’s always seen a beautiful world around himself. He never thought of himself as poor. When I was a teenager I’d take odd jobs to make some money and I’d give some of it to him. He’d give it away and I’d get really angry. I’d say, “I worked to make that money for you, not for that guy. Why’d you give my money away?” And he’d say, “I’m okay. I have everything I need but that guy needs help.” And, believe me, my father had nothing, but somehow he always thought others were worse off and wanted to help them because for whatever reason, he saw a beautiful life surrounding him and felt sorry for other people.I guess it was my dad.

And she smiled. And the woman who asked the great question smiled. And I smiled but I had to turn away so they wouldn’t know I was eavesdropping. But I was glad I did. Maybe I should have saved this post for Father’s Day and maybe some folks will reblog it then but I just couldn’t wait. What a tribute to what makes a great dad!

So I ask you that wonderful question. Are you generous? What does that mean to you and who taught you to be that way? If you could teach that to someone whom would you choose?

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