Skies of blue, clouds of white…. and I think to myself….

My dad passed away on June 21st at 1:28 pm. I haven’t posted anything about it yet because I had to take some time to clear my head.
Part of my sporadic posting has been due in large part to his health issues, as he has been steadily spiraling downward in his battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for the last few months. So as I’ve been bouncing back and forth halfway across the country for a while now, well, blogging just hasn’t been of much interest to me. I’ll try to rectify that in the near future.
I drove home the weekend before to see him and scarcely got back to my apartment before I had to turn around and drive back a few days later. That first weekend he’d just had 10 liters of fluid drained from his abdomen and had finally gone on hospice care. So we moved him back home, knowing full well he’d never leave the house he’d spent the last 35 years in again. The doctor had guessed he might have another 3 weeks left in him which turned out to be a bit longer than the truth, unfortunately. We didn’t have the heart to tell him, though, because he was in good spirits about going home and having less pain from the massive fluid reduction, and was talking about “hoping to drag things out to February so mom can have my full pension upon retirement”. That’s just the kind of person he was, not so concered with his own well-being.
He was stubborn as usual, insisting on minimal help getting up the stairs and down the hall. Even though he could barely walk he refused to use the damn portable commode we had in the room with him, and refused to sleep in the hospice bed, preferring his favorite recliner. It was hard enough on him to let me help him get dressed after a shower. But the whole time he kept to his jovial nature, as always. Insufferable dry humor to the end.
So yeah, I drove home when things took a turn for the worst and he started getting opiates for the pain. I was already scheduled to catch a flight out Friday and get in just after midnight on Saturday. However, the hospice nurse said he had about 48 hours at the most, so I hopped in the car and left DC at 10:30 Thursday night for Illinois with cat in tow. I didn’t want to try to make a new flight after what happened with United’s computers the week before, air travel this summer has been a damned nightmare.
The last thing Bill said to me, over the phone from a drug-induced stupor, was “It will be so good to see you again”.


I got there just after lunch on Friday. Half my family was already there. I went into the family room where he was still seated in his recliner, except now there was no person there. He was unconcious from the medication and the pain, I don’t know maybe both. Mom had put a towel on him because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and his body lurched with every feeble breath. He couldn’t even keep his eyes closed, he was so slack. He had on the GWU t-shirt that he liked. Mom said he picked it out himself the day before, before the pain got so bad he needed the heavy-duty meds.
I had an hour with him. I told him not to worry anymore. I told him everybody was here, and we loved him, and he could stop fighting. I told him I would take care of everyone for him, and that he did everything right. I told him I was going to follow his example and try to be as good of a father as he was, someday. I told him that we were going to be all right and I would help look after mom. I told him a few other things the world isn’t privy to, the sorts of secrets sons share with their dads. Then I told him he could let go, to go to sleep.
His breathing changed after I told him. He stopped lurching. Got shallow, spaced. Over the next 50 minutes, things just slowed down gradually. I held his hand a bit, felt his pulse flutter and fade. His breathing stopped. I leaned in to put my ear on his chest, and he played his last joke by drawing one more sharp breath and startling the crap outta me. Then he was gone.
I don’t know if he heard me and let go, or if he was already gone and my arrival time was just fortuitous. What matters is that I was there and not stuck on a plane. He wanted me there. I told him what how I felt. That’s what he would’ve wanted.
His memorial service was simple, too, the way he wanted it. Have everybody show up, those who wished to could say a few words.
Over 250 people showed up for that one-hour memorial. He worked at State Farm corporate headquarters. He was so well-respected and loved there that they bussed people to the memorial in groups of 30.
At some point, he said to play “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. Then we went to a big Italian buffet. He was cremated. Those of you who know my mom and her strangeness will find it amusing that his last wish was to have his ashes scattered in the backyard, along with those of the dog (which my mom has for some reason been keeping in a tin inside our grandfather clock for the last 10 years). That was all he wanted.
My mom requested I give a eulogy. I didn’t know how to do that. Nobody else can appreciate the fact that I had the best father in the history of parenting. He was father to my cousins, in a sense as well, since their father died at the age of 41. He loved taking extended family and friends to Disney World so much that I actually got sick of the place. What does one say to follow up a life like that? I have reproduced my pathetic attempt below.

Many of you have expressed concern over “how I’m doing”, because I haven’t been crying and I’ve seemed rather normal. I generally don’t cry much at funerals if the person has lived a full life, and I shed even fewer tears if the person is released from suffering. So I am happy, actually, for Bill, because he got both of those things on Friday. However, I am sad for we who remain and I have little doubt that I’ll be bawling my eyes out by the time I’m done here.
I am not a religious man. My father had his beliefs, but we never really discussed them. He had little use for the trappings of religion. He was a modest individual, and thus his beliefs were irrelevant to our relationship, indeed to all his relationships, because for the vast majority of the time he would subscribe quite earnestly to Matthew Chapter 6:
5″And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Outwardly, he was more concerned with the lives of his loved ones. Whether we had food on the table and clothes on our backs, and warm memories in our hearts. I believe that is best summed up in this short quip by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which he left on his desk at work.
A Successful Life
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”–Emerson
If Bill had one fault, it was that he didn’t espouse enough wisdom. Sure he would tell us how to get things done, but if there was one thing he knew it was how to live, and he didn’t really pass on those tips in much detail, preferring to lead by quiet example.
So I’m not going to stand up here and regale you with humorous anecdotes, which we’re gonna do all day anyway, or talk about how much we loved Bill, which we already know. Instead, I’m going to engage in a tradition from one of my Dad’s favorite sci-fi novels, Ender’s Game. It is called the “Speaker for the Dead”. The speaker’s responsibility, in lieu of a standard religious eulogy, is to try and sum up the wisdom and life of the deceased and pass it on, to be the voice of the deceased one last time to those who remain:
Donna was always the one for poetry and I usually let her do the talking. Well for once she’s going to shut up for a second and listen to me.
Go places. See the world you live in. Because unless the Hindus are right, you only come around once, and the world is a beautiful place. Don’t miss out on it. Family trips make memories that last long after your shiny sports car dies on the side of the road, and your children’s memories will outlast even you. It doesn’t matter if you drive to Disney World or the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, or Ruby Falls and Rock City. Oh yeah; take the whole family. And maybe some of your kids’ friends if you can swing it.
Challenge yourself to think about things in new ways, even if you don’t agree with them. At least then you’ll learn to understand where others are coming from. Make a mistake and learn from it, then you’ll understand even better.
Be good to yourself. Take time out to focus yourself and meditate, even if that means by throwing a heavy ball at a bunch of pins for hours on end. Listen to music, even if you can’t appreciate it like the experts and you have absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, like me.
Be good to one another. Tell a joke before every meal. Before you go blow a wad of cash on a shiny new car, ask yourself if you died tomorrow, would your family be taken care of? Would your kids face a bright future?
The world is a dark place, but we can make a little light for each other and keep on the path. You know the path because you’ve walked it with me in your heart, and anyway you can follow the trail of cigarette butts.
But I am done now. You’re on your own. You need to take care of each other. So quick–take an ember from my burnt out life. Hold it in your mind. Feed it so it shines bright, so you and your children and your children’s children will always be able to find the path in the dark.
Light the way.

Farewell Bill. Dad.
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14 Responses

  1. That’s heartbreaking and beautiful, and I can feel the love you and your father had for each other coming through in what you wrote. And what a beautiful picture. Thank you for sharing this with us. I am so sad for your loss; I know “time heals” but there is no consolation in that, and grief is sharp.
    A virtual hug from your Scibling, Zuska.

  2. What a moving story and a beautiful eulogy. My deepest sympathy for the loss of your father. He sounds like a wonderful person. I have not found that time heals that loss, but eventually it does take on more reflective dimensions. That is, memories begin to give comfort and enrich the present.
    I know many people who work at the State Farm HQ, and it’s a good community. For such a big company they keep a quality of humanity in relationships at work. it is touching that they felt the loss too.
    .

  3. My condolences on your loss. Good for you for having the cognitive wherewithal at crunch time to be able to make the decision to drive and not fly.
    It’s extraordinary what a difference in children’s lives a good dad can make.
    BTW, the hospice literature is full of anecdotal accounts of people making the transition shortly after receiving reassurances such as you made to your dad. See, for example, Kathleen Singh’s *The Grace in Dying.*

  4. “I leaned in to put my ear on his chest, and he played his last joke by drawing one more sharp breath and startling the crap outta me.”
    A true stay-with-you-forever moment — poignant and oh so rare. Cherish it, and be glad (like I have to tell you) that you made it home in time to see him off.
    You underestimate, I think, the power of sharing this kind of thing, even if you reckon you’ve done so chiefly for the necessary indulgence of seeking resolution and perspective. I read stuff like this and it means ten times as much as the titillating but mundane stuff we see and bandy about on these blogs.
    Thanks.

  5. “I leaned in to put my ear on his chest, and he played his last joke by drawing one more sharp breath and startling the crap outta me.”
    A true stay-with-you-forever moment — poignant and oh so rare. Cherish it, and be glad (like I have to tell you) that you made it home in time to see him off.
    You underestimate, I think, the power of sharing this kind of thing, even if you reckon you’ve done so chiefly for the necessary indulgence of seeking resolution and perspective. I read stuff like this and it means ten times as much as the titillating but mundane stuff we see and bandy about on these blogs.
    Thanks.

  6. My condolences, E.M.

  7. “I leaned in to put my ear on his chest, and he played his last joke by drawing one more sharp breath and startling the crap outta me.”
    Jeez that’s one weird fuckin’ flashback you just gave me 🙂 The exact same thing happened when my dad died. Scared me so much he damn near took me with him.
    My deepest sympathies.

  8. “I leaned in to put my ear on his chest, and he played his last joke by drawing one more sharp breath and startling the crap outta me.”
    Jeez that’s one weird fuckin’ flashback you just gave me 🙂 The exact same thing happened when my dad died. Scared me so much he damn near took me with him.
    My deepest sympathies.

  9. It sounds like your dad’s life was a gift to everyone who knew him. I’m so sorry for your loss, and moved by your gratitude for him. I hope you find peace and comfort in the coming days.

  10. Thank you for sharing that exquisitely painful and beautiful story with us. I am reminded of my own late father. Thank you for that too.

  11. I am sorry for your loss. I lost my father in February. I know how hard it is.

  12. What a beautiful and heartfelt memorial to your Dad. How lucky you all are to have his example, even with his life so sadly cut short. You and your family have my deepest sympathy.

  13. Brought a tear to my eye literally.
    Very well written, your family are lucky to have you.

  14. I have had to start and stop the reading of this several times over the last few days. It hits a little close to home… but I kept trying because it is very simply… beautiful…
    Both the writing and the heart of the writer. I am sure your father was very proud of you… he has every reason to have been. And I would guess he knew very well how much he was loved and apriciated by you, as well.
    You are (and have been) in my thoughts…

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