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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mirror and Hourglass - Losing Dad

If I documented every memory I have of my Dad, this thing would be a proverbial Dickens novel and I’d probably never get it finished. For those of you that knew Dad, I know you appreciate these things even more, because you probably remember the silly puns and crazy nicknames, the giant man inappropriately dressed in booty shorts dancing around as “the Manglo,” the witty comebacks, the bitter beer face, and the ever-so-constant reminder of what you should never, ever do to a family of badgers.

Fast-forward to 2004, after years of watching his health decline and being unable to spend as much time with him as I wanted to because, as it does with all of us, life gets in the way and you always think you have more time.

My house burnt down in January that year, something that I’ll talk more about later. I had just suffered a miscarriage, and was pregnant again with my youngest daughter, though I suspected that I had lost her, too. I dreamt of Dad the night before he left us.

We were walking in a place that was somewhere between nothingness and a field of flowers, talking about various things (though I don’t remember any of them). All I remember from that dream is that Dad was younger and healthy again, walking with ease, but seeming very sad and trying not to let on. He touched my stomach and told me everything was going to be okay, right as there was a hard knock on my front door in the real world.

I vaguely thought, in that half-dream, half-awake state, that it was one of the girls from work coming to ask me to come in early to cover for someone. My sister’s voice floated in as my then-husband answered the door, something about Dad, and I laid there until my then-husband came into the room, staring at the ceiling.

I don’t remember what he said, just that my Dad had died, and I already knew that. I asked him numbly where my Mom was while my sister yelled at me from the living room to come on.
I used to pray for God to heal Dad, make him healthy again so that he could live the life he deserved to live. But Dad had told me once that some people live like candles burning at both ends, never meant to last long but burning brightly while they’re here.

I watched him become unable to walk, unable to care for himself, eventually unable to hold a coherent conversation for more than a few minutes. The last real conversation we had, I asked him how he was feeling. I don’t remember what he said exactly, just that it broke my heart as he looked at me with that warm, familiar sad smile and said bluntly, “I’m dying, baby.”

I’ve always been able to conceal my emotions from people – Dad was the exception – and this time was no different. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not.”

I started praying then for God to take his pain away – if He could heal him, that was ideal, but if He couldn’t do that, then take him home. Just make it stop.

As I walked into the hospital room where my parents were – my Dad laid out on a gurney and my Mom weeping beside him – I felt a pang of guilt at that prayer. I had essentially asked for my Dad to die. But then I remembered the disoriented conversations we’d had recently and the uncharacteristically helpless look he got in his eyes when he realized that his mind was not as sharp as it used to be and he was struggling to hold a simple conversation. I remembered in the years before how my Dad and I had talked about things like euthanasia, instances where “pulling the plug” were merciful and wishing life on someone in such horrible pain was cruel and selfish and how, after such conversations, I promised myself that I would never make a choice that would cause someone pain just to ease my own; so as I wrapped my arms around my Mom, I pushed down the guilt and thanked God.

He had answered my prayers.

It wasn’t the outcome I wanted, obviously, but He had made my Dad’s pain stop. He had put an end to my Mom’s obligation to care for someone who had never in his life needed anything from anyone, and her guilt and helplessness at not being able to fix him. He had spared us all the pain of watching my Dad completely disintegrate, and my Dad the shame of lying helpless as his mind and body unraveled.

It may seem tacky or cold for me to be so candid about this, digging up painful things and laying them out here for all of you to see. I promise you that this is as painful for me to write as it is for you to read. One of the universal truths of life, however, is that there is pain. There is heartbreak. There is loss and there most certainly will be things that seem so far beyond the realm of your understanding that you’ll question everything from God to your own abilities to prevent things that you know you couldn’t possibly prevent.

The easiest seeming thing in the world to do is hide. Bury the pain, put on a happy face, and pretend that the things that hurt you never existed – but they exist. They exist, and if you try to bury them, try to ignore them, they lie in waiting, gathering power and when they resurface – and they always do – they can destroy you; and you are the one who will have given them that power.

It seems stronger somehow to hold back tears. Growing up, I thought that tears were weakness and allowing anyone to see those tears gave them a weapon to use against you. There’s still a voice somewhere in my head that tells me that, but believe me when I tell you that holding those tears in only results in one of two things; either the eventual breaking of the dam, which always hits at the worst possible time, or total numbness, which is neither permanent nor good for the soul. It’s okay to ensure that the timing is right or that the wrong people aren’t around to witness it, but it’s far better to face the pain and let the tears cleanse at least some of that pain.

I cried as I held my Mom in the ER, but those tears weren’t mine. Neither were the ones that fell as I watched my nephew crawl under a pew and curl up into a ball at the funeral home, or when my niece curled up in my lap and cried on my shoulder. I don’t remember the words that were said at the service or the obligatory things that anyone said to me when it was done, all I remember was walking up to the casket after Mom had okayed my niece’s request that it be opened and touching my Dad’s face. It was stiff, cold - inhuman. That wasn’t my Dad.

And that’s when it occurred to me that no, that wasn’t my Dad. That was an empty shell, no longer any use to that gentle, strong spirit that used to live in it, and that the tears that fell that day weren’t for him but for us. As I fought tears – my tears – walking quickly back toward the door of the funeral home, my baby kicked inside me. For the first time in weeks, I felt life inside me again, and I heard my Dad’s voice as he had put his hand on my stomach in my dream and told me everything would be okay.

And I knew it would be. Not easy, but okay.

When my family gathered at my Mom’s house that night and the weight of Dad’s funeral had lifted to give way to laughter and reminiscing, it hailed. We all heard it, some of us stepping outside to make sure we really were hearing what we were hearing.

Asking anyone who wasn’t there about the weather that night, however, brought a different story – it was a cold February evening, but there was no hail.

I’m on the fence about certain things paranormal, but I fully believe that our loved ones check in on us from time to time, and I know in my heart that my dad wouldn’t have missed an opportunity where most of his closest family was gathered together to tell us that he was still there. It was cold, so it might have been tears that he sent us that were frozen in their journey from Heaven, or maybe rain wasn’t heavy enough to catch our attention; either way, whether it was the gathering of family and love or a message from my Dad or just some freakish weather phenomenon, it meant something to us.

I wish I had visited him in that last week of his life, no matter how painful it was. I wish, when I was watching petrified as he danced up and down the entryway to the hospital, that I had joined him. I wish I hadn’t been too shy to sing for him, or waited until it was too late to put down all the things I appreciated about him. The last words I ever told him were “I love you,” but even that seems inadequate in retrospect; I wanted him to know that I didn’t really hate him when I was an adolescent and we butted heads every single day, I wanted him to know that I understood and appreciated every single action he took to teach and protect me, that I heard his voice in my head every time I had to face a difficult decision. He was my best friend, my closest advisor, my gravity, and I died the day he left us.

But I know he’s still here, because I’m still tethered to Earth.

I dance with him every time I dance with my girls. Every time I talk to them about life, he sits on my shoulder, whispering from the dearest parts of my memory. Every time I feel sad or lost or helpless, I talk to him and I know what I’m supposed to do. Every time I walk outside on a beautiful day or get a laugh when my girls do something crazy, every time I get to give or witness kindness, he is with me.

Everything’s going to be okay.

And so the lesson here is that the people we love only truly die if we let them. Memories shouldn’t be reflected on with pain and mourning but rather with joy, because every second we had with a loved one was a second well spent. We should be grateful for the time we get, because in some alternate universe that time and those memories might have never existed. We celebrate their lives and prove our love by living what they taught us – and everyone teaches us something.

So Dad, many, many years from now (hopefully), after I’ve driven my own children crazy and left whatever mark I’m going to leave on the world, I’ll see you in whatever world there is beyond this one.

I’ll bring donuts.
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