What comes to mind when you think about losing your father? If you have already, do you bask in good memories or maybe regrets? If you haven’t yet, have you considered when that time does come? If you are a father have you thought about what impressions you’re leaving with your children? Maybe you haven’t had a father or maybe you’re so young it doesn’t seem relevant.
My father is dying. I’ve no idea how much time he has left, only that he’s digressed quickly in recent weeks. “Rapidly” better describes it. Perhaps that’s a blessing of sorts, providing the experience of losing him gradually (for me) yet happening quickly (for him). It’s jolted me into a progression of grieving that, one can only hope, helps prepare for the inevitable … if there is such a thing as preparing for that. I seriously doubt it.
To say my father will be 90 next month doesn’t do him the least bit of justice. A few months ago he was shooing the neighbor’s escaped pit bull with a stick. As recently as last month he insisted on hosting our family reunion for yet another year. He’d just begun to go downhill then, acquainting himself with a new walker that a couple of weeks earlier wasn’t even on his horizon. Until then he was still puttering in his garage, taking his rambunctious pet out to chase squirrels, running household finances, keeping in touch by email … and the tell-tale sign of fatherhood, telling his kids what to do.
Dad was diagnosed with cancer about four years ago. He never was a doctor-goer or medicine-taker and, praise God, he rarely needed either. After cancer diagnosis he talked to oncologists and weighed his options. With bad effects from a first medication he decided quality of life was better than longsuffering misery. So he set out to make the life he had left as full and complete as possible.
His prognosis wasn’t good. Family said he had four months. He didn’t see a doctor again for a couple of years and even then not without necessity. Dad remained remarkably active and spunky, teaching himself ways to ease the pain that did come. He had always commanded authority and up to this very moment he does, albeit in a less intimidating way now. How he’s handled this disease and dying warrants respect if not unbridled admiration.
A couple of years ago he gave his old truck to me (see Home/About, Introduction). Being dad, it’s a fit old truck with all of the subtle bedazzledness he’d so tenderly invested. I’m an old lady and just accelerating at a stoplight makes the tires squeal. Yeah that kind of “subtle begazzledness.” Dad always liked his vehicles fast. He called it “The Red Dude” but upon gifting it to me he changed that to “The Red Dudette.” I suspect this has to be the first transgender pickup truck.
The last time I traveled to see dad (and maybe the last time I will see him) he invited me out to eat breakfast. That may sound like a small feat – it was anything but. He had just gotten the walker and was still fighting against using it, but he knew that was the only way to safely leave the house.
That was the first time he’d been back in The Red Dudette. I had her all polished and clean. He was so commendable to extend the breakfast invitation, but more so, to do – with his head held high and all dressed in nice clothes – what I knew he so dreaded: using that awkward walker to go out to a restaurant. He did it for me to have that bit of personal time before the end he now knew was soon coming … he certainly didn’t do it for himself.
A few days after returning home I tried to speak to him about establishing hospice and he wouldn’t hear of it. He had no qualms in telling me so. He asked questions about getting a scooter and I was excited he might be up to the possibility of better mobility. I don’t know when or how he changed his mind, but within a week he called to say he wanted me to hear it from him: he did contact hospice and he’ll be “bedfast” from now on. For me that was devastating news. All of this degeneration in a matter of weeks.
When I call now he’s asleep or occupied with caregivers. I want to, no, I need to hear his voice.
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? [Matthew 7:9-10]
Dad was the only one in the family who stood by me in all of my life’s years and some were unpleasantly troublesome. He was there come hell or high-water. He never flinched, even when I reacted like the immature jerk I sometimes was. Mom died years ago and I remember how alone I felt then. Dad leaving really scares me, even at my ripe old age. I’m grateful he’s staying as astute as he was the last time I did talk to him. They say he’s not in pain and I’m grateful for that, too. He’s still at home and surrounded by the people he loves and that is a tremendous blessing.
Since his downhill trend all of these great memories have come flooding back. Happenings and events that dad made possible and that were so personally giving of him. Things that seemed insignificant as a kid but hold so much meaning now – not unlike the seemingly commonplace but strenuously unpalatable act of simply taking a daughter to breakfast. Things he didn’t have to do but did anyway. Things that made me who I am, that taught me what I know, that etched an unyielding personal character … that built a lifetime of love personified.
Thank you, dad. I may not have always understood you nor you, me. We’ve had many differences and we share many likenesses. This, your final lesson, is the most inspirational one: how to face the fear of dying and the pain of death with honor and dignity. You cannot know and words cannot say how much I still need you … how much I already miss you.
The Red Dudette has taken on a whole new distinction. She’s not just an old truck anymore. She’s as close as I can get to hugging dad. She’s tattered and worn, her windshield washer and a/c don’t work and one headlight is barely tethered in place … but her spirit still comes alive when you step on the gas.
My gawky legs wouldn’t carry me fast enough. When did that walk become such a long one? Could she, would she? How was it going to feel if she had? She’d talked about it for years, but this morning there was an excited certainty replacing the helpless desperation I’d heard in her voice so many times before.
Mom hadn’t gotten up with us in the mornings for what seemed like years. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d made breakfast. When she was up and dressed before school this morning it was clear something was different.
I’d listened to mom’s infrequent pleadings about how unhappy she was, how she was going to leave someday. They seeped into late night talks like the sharing of confidences between old friends. I’d heard it enough to assume the day would never really come. Maybe I hoped listening was enough or maybe I was too young to comprehend. For sure my baby sister couldn’t understand. Mom’s talks of leaving seemed more frequent after her arrival six-years earlier, perhaps feeling more trapped by another pregnancy. She never said and I’m glad she didn’t.
It wasn’t so much what mom said as who she’d become that cemented the truth of her longsuffering. We knew how hard dad was to live with, no one had to tell us kids that and in many respects dad treated mom like a kid. Given her withdrawal from us as a family, I’m not sure why I felt such sympathetic loyalty to mom, I just did. I would grow into quite the suffering martyr for many an underdog and maybe mom is why.
Mom tried to prepare me in an awkward, unpleasant sort of way. But that was mom, a cut-to-the core woman. “Here’s the way it is, deal with it.” Her method of teaching us to swim was to toss us in a lake and stand protectively nearby waiting for a head to bob and figure out the rest. She was a great cook. She started writing out recipes for me to learn, but she was rarely there to guide me. Naturally I took no pleasure in learning that way. To this day when cutting potatoes for scalloping her few words of personal advice still roll through my head: “It’s important to cut each slice the same size.” A mother’s words last forever.
On this particular morning mom echoed those all too familiar phrases about leaving but now she seemed invigorated by hearing herself say them. I don’t remember any special hugs or tender kisses or sign this was something difficult. Maybe she was trying not to upset us. Maybe she thought we didn’t care. Maybe she was so relieved to finally figure it out she didn’t care. Maybe dad had dictated strict orders how she was to handle it, which was just as likely. Among whatever other chatter took place, the only words I do remember are, “I wanted you to know, I won’t be here when you get home from school today.”
Mom’s forewarning replayed in my mind on that long walk home. It seemed unnatural I should have to make that taunting walk alone; that no one was there to console or occupy me, to talk with me, to help me know what to do or how to feel. What parent leaves their 12-year-old child to handle this adult stuff? What am I supposed to feel in what I knew would be frozen moments of time? Am I supposed to cry? Will I cry? I wanted to want to cry, but my heart refused to give-in to the uncertainty.
More than anything I wanted to believe this was just another of mom’s misfires. Surely dad would’ve picked me up from school or had someone there to meet me if it wasn’t. Surely they both wouldn’t have left me alone with my own devices to confront something this life-changing.
We lived in a long ranch home and I entered the back door as most everyone did. I didn’t take time to look around the “breezeway,” a large family area where mom did her creative magic. It was always in some new disarray. I had a plan, though, and that was to ease straight for mom’s bedroom closet. That was the only sure way to know. But that was on the other end of the house and there was a lot of territory in between.
Maybe mom would be in the kitchen on the other side of the door.
The kitchen and living rooms were divided by a brick wall and the moment I stepped into its split entry an eerie pause overcame me. A stark, unfamiliar living room wall glared back with some hideous clock I hadn’t seen in years, half of its decorative pieces missing. The house looked oddly, emptily unfamiliar. It wasn’t the home I’d left this morning, but I still wasn’t convinced.
I rushed through the kitchen, down the long hall to mom’s bedroom on the far end and struggled to pull back her closet’s heavy hanging solid wood doors. Mom’s closet was bare except for a simple plastic rose. I’d never seen mom’s closet empty. All of her beautiful shoes and flowing skirts were – gone. She’d done it. She really had done it.
Trying to figure out what I was supposed to feel, I picked up the plastic rose and sat on the stoop twirling it in my fingers, wanting it to mean something. I was ashamed I couldn’t cry and even more ashamed that what I felt was relief. Maybe I felt it for her as much as I did for me. I was angry she’d left a stupid, ugly plastic rose. What was that for, anyway? She’d taken so much to change our lives, why leave that stupid thing? Maybe she wanted me to have it? I thought about keeping it. I held it to my nose to smell her life, but it didn’t have any life. It was just a stupid plastic rose. I tossed it back to the floor and never opened that closet door again.
They say divorce is hard on kids because they feel it was their fault. That’s not true. I never felt this was my fault. Never. I knew whose fault it was.
What’s hard on kids are the splintering fragments, the life shortcomings that keep shattering into smaller and smaller pieces as parents pick up new pieces of new lives for themselves, scattering the family-gone-asunder as if cremated remains until every residue of cohesive identity the child ever knew disappears. There’s not even a grave to visit and the last thing new arrivals care to hear are utterances of sadness for its demise. The child is reduced to little more than an unpleasant reminder of who they are.
If there is any undeserving guilt it’s the guilt a child is dealt by everyone else renovating their lives into some unrecognizable image of what the child’s used to be … then resenting the child for being an unsavory reflection of their own short-lived happiness.
I never knew that twelve-year-old again. The more time passed the more her life pieces were splintered off until there was barely enough left to differentiate she being left behind from that lifeless plastic rose. The 6-year-old baby sister suffered similarly, considerably more. Her living never had the chance to reflect its spirited potential. She would die long before her natural time.
Love is patient, love is kind … When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me … And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. [I Corinthians 13:4-13]
Mothers leave for their own survival and that doesn’t make them the selfish one. I know the insufferable battles my mother fought trying not to leave. I’m surprised she managed to stay as long as she did. The years that followed her leaving were not kind to mother, but she did it her way and there’s something to be said for that. When she was a mother at home she was a highly commendable one. I prefer to remember her that way and I love her for that … because that is who she really was; because she was my mother; because she deserved better. Because we deserved better.
I think my mom loved me. I’m pretty sure she did. A child of any age deserves to know this.
She called us to her bedroom. There was a handgun in one hand and a clip of bullets in the other. Dad and my brother hunted so at our young ages guns were not new … but this one was. I’d never seen a handgun with its own clip of bullets. Starkly ominous, there was something inherently wrong about it being in mother’s hands.
Since I could remember my brother and I were not close. Three years older, his resentment of me was instinctive. That was just part of who I was, who he was, and, to me, what family is. So it was unique and flattering in an odd sort of way that mom called us in together. Maybe I was finally my older brother’s equal. Then came her question.
Mom frantically asked if we knew how to load the gun. She butted the gun and clip together demonstrating how they jammed, explaining (which was the oddest part even to a five year old) that she wanted to kill herself … could we help her load it? For the first time I can remember my brother and I shared silent, soul-meeting glances.
We were such strictly disciplined kids it didn’t even occur to me that we could lie. Dad dished out the discipline and lying was met with the harshest of punishments, usually whacks with a leather belt on the bare behind. Innocent relief filtered in when I realized I didn’t know anything about loading guns. Mom knew this. I wondered why she’d even included me. Then came the gripping fear that maybe my brother did know – what was he going to do?
I wanted to tell her we loved her but I kept looking to my brother for an answer. Surely he knew better how to handle this and clearly this wasn’t a time for my melodramatics. Looking back, that’s probably exactly what she hoped to hear. That’s probably why she included me. We stood there in silence, me trying to read mom’s face then his. He stared at the floor in humbled obstinance. I hate that I never told her that.
Though incidents like this may not seem so, I lived in the idealistic world of a family that exemplified all things good and right. I took that rearing more seriously to heart than many children would. Dad was a professional, highly thought of in town and reasonably prosperous. He and mom grew up as many of “the greatest generation,” deprived and impoverished. As he told those stories my little heart overflowed with empathetic compassion. I knew their realness because every person I loved was living proof, from mom and dad to “Granny” and her stories of murderous Kentucky family feuds.
Dad was determined to make the world a better place through us; and to make our lives better than theirs. I clung to his every word, every punishment, every childhood adventure as something of indisputable high standing. My life had all the pristine qualities of living highly-esteemed 1950’s nostalgia.
The incident with the gun passed as if it hadn’t happened. My brother and I remained silently unknowing until dismissed, it never to be spoken of again. I suppose we felt secure enough in our surroundings to not find it seriously threatening; or maybe we intuitively knew our mother’s intense unhappiness and regarded that an acceptable side effect. I have tremendous remorse for not recognizing what a tragic cry for help that was.
Dad had the intellect and resources but Mom was the common sense street-wise half. Unfortunately women were still denied their own identities then, believing it sufficient to appreciate a husband who provided the amenities we enjoyed. Mom couldn’t voice herself as I so wish she had. Knowing her life’s obstacles, I suspect she was routinely dismissed while growing up, making it feel all the more normal as an adult, as a wife and as a mother. She poured herself into her natural gifts for mothering and homemaking. My mom was The Best homemaker of all time and she thrived in it.
When you mesh dad’s overly-protective righteous teachings and prosperity with mom’s outstandingly creative gifts for homemaking, along with both of their propensities for nurturing kids, you end up with a kid who believes an ideal life is real life. Kids instinctively know things, but they only know, about the world, the limits of what you teach them. Idealism is what I knew. That’s all I knew.
… do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. [I Corinthians 14:20]
For all of its good intentions in protecting us against the evils of the world and making us better contributors to it in the process, that staunch idealism led me down a path of unwitting self-destruction. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know the world was a much different place. I wrongly believed I could change it. I ineptly believed everyone was good. I naively believed the bad guys were those you read about in the newspaper, worlds away.
I would put my offspring in dreadful harms way because of my idyllic values. For all of the wonderful homemaking skills and love that my mother handed down to me, I was missing the most critical element: her unspoken street-smarts. I was not to be forgiven as readily or as compassionately as I forgave those before me.
We do the best we can with what we know and when we know more we do better. [Paraphrased, Maya Angelou]
I didn’t recall the gun incident until well into senior age. I’m not sure why I found it so easy to forget or why it came back to me then.
I often wonder if mother had had more of a voice maybe I’d have learned the harsher consequences of life when that would’ve made a difference for my children. Maybe it still wouldn’t have mattered. The “ifs” and “maybes” are not what is today. The lessons we take from those tragedies are the best we can hope to make of them. So often it feels like the lessons come too late.
Teaching good is the idyllic foundation upon which we must also temper the realities of bad. [Me]