Tag Archives: bereavement

Remembering One Year Ago

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

I awakened just before 5 this morning feeling anxious. As I flipped from one side to the other, my thoughts churned. Though I have plenty of things I could worry about and long lists of things I should get done, I can usually put those thoughts aside and go back to sleep. Not this morning. Why was I feeling unsettled?

Then I remembered one year ago. One year ago, I slept while my father’s nighttime caregiver administered hospice comfort medications at the maximum dosage.

I felt like I had hopped on a freight train that was speeding, careening, barely holding to the rails along a treacherous mountain route that cast dark shadows on our route. I held on, trying to avert disaster.

A week earlier, Dad had been on a plateau, as hospice put it. He was still getting to the table for meals, and we were still making forays for fresh air outside, albeit by wheelchair. I had begun to accept that he would not rally, as I had hoped when came on service with hospice December 20. The nurses had explained that he would likely decline in increments, alternating with periods of stability.

I was Dad’s life ring and he clung to me for security, never wanting  me to leave his side. When Todd and I went out to see a movie as a short break, Dad remained at the dinner table with the caregiver, not wanting to retire until I returned. There he stayed, exhausted, counting the minutes until I would return at 9 p.m. I was counting, too. After one brother cancelled his planned trip, I crossed off the days on my calendar until brother Dean would arrive that Wednesday.

Dad’s confusion increased. I sat next to him all day and surrounded him with pictures. At dinner that Monday night, he picked up the picture of my brothers on the kitchen table and said, “They were siblings, weren’t they?”

I broke out in hives. I wondered if it was a reaction to the antibiotic I was taking to resolve a lingering cough, or a physical manifestation of my own anxiety. First my palms itched, then the soles of my feet, then my scalp. As I sat talking to the hospice Chaplain, I furiously scratched my head, twitching from the attempt to stop.

After Dean arrived, Dad’s decline only accelerated. The afternoon of Dean’s arrival, I asked our new afternoon caregiver to make chicken cacciatore. The process turned out to be long and arduous, but the results were delicious. Dad ate heartily, displaying his best appetite in a month. The mood, for that eyelash of time, was celebratory.

But that night, the medications we had pre-dispensed for the hospice nurse weren’t adequate to control Dad’s shortness of breath and agitation. From 11 p.m. on, Dad awakened every half hour. The caregiver summoned Dean during the night to prepare more. At 6:45 a.m. Thursday, Dad attempted to get out of bed by himself, after three weeks of being unable to support his own weight. The caregiver intervened before he fell. Dad was exhausted by the effort.

On Friday, Dean supervised the final move of Dad’s belongings to my house. The afternoon was quiet, with Dad sleeping most of the time. His breathing began to sound increasingly liquid, although the hospice nurse had told us not to be concerned. Just the same, we arranged for a house call the next morning, while I would be out facilitating a strategic planning retreat and Dean would supervise Dad’s care.

When I left that morning, I told Dean to call me with whatever the nurse said. An hour and a half into the retreat, he called with the news to come home. Now. I bluntly announced, “I have to leave. My Dad is dying.” I called my son at school and asked him if he wanted to come home even though Papa might be gone by the time he arrived. He did. My brothers Scott and Bruce booked flights for hours later. As I sat calling family in the living room, I overheard my daughter comforting Dad by reading passages from his favorite poetry. I wrote about preparing. Dad was on his way.

That Friday night turned out to be Dad’s last.

Dean told the story of that evening at Dad’s memorial:

The night before his passing, he was too weak to come to the table for dinner, even in his wheel chair – so Betsy and I brought our dinner into his room. We set up a card table in front of his recliner, squeezed in next to him, and had a quiet time together. In retrospect, he was clearly starting to fade, although Betsy and I did not realize at the time how close he was to the end.  He was very sleepy during dinner, and seemed to be in a waking dream state: still connected to the physical world around him, but clearly seeing and responding to other things as well.  As we sat together, he looked at me with half-closed eyes and asked, “Dean, will you drive?” This caught me a bit off-guard, but I responded that of course I would. I wish now that I had had the wits to ask him where he wanted to go, but I did not. Afterwards, my first thought was that in his mind he thought we were sitting in our camper on one of our hunting trips, and that he wanted me to drive because he was too tired to carry on. What I’ve now come to believe is something else…. Our hospice nurse told Betsy and me that such restlessness is fairly common, and offered the belief that perhaps those close to death know they have somewhere they need to go, and are so determined to get there they will get up out of bed and walk right out the front door if you aren’t watching over them. Today when I look back on my father’s words, I think he knew it was time for him to leave, and that he wanted me to drive him there. I think he was asking me to take him home.”

Dad is home now. I miss him. But I am glad he is free.

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The Year-Agos

Figgy Pudding 2012

I started writing this post yesterday, and then I received an email from my brother Bruce about how he was brought up short when he reviewed his holiday card database and realized he would not be sending a card to Dad this year.

Little static-electricity jolts triggered by seemingly meaningless moments constantly zap you the first year after losing someone. Last year, addressing holiday cards was a necessary but unremarkable task. This year, it’s a reminder.

A year ago Friday night, December 6, I dined with two girlfriends friends in Seattle and strolled the Figgy Pudding outdoor caroling event snugly bundled up in matching winter white hats, mufflers and gloves. I felt full of holiday spirit, braced by the cold air, a little buzzed from the cocktails we shared over dinner. I never suspected that Dad’s decline had already begun.

My brother Scott, who was caring for Dad at my house, called the next morning to say that Dad was unable to urinate and in extreme pain. What should he do? At the doctor’s urging, he took Dad to urgent care where they removed over one liter of urine.

When I returned to Sacramento that afternoon, Dad was significantly weaker. He’d had a recent bout of extreme shortness of breath and then pulled a muscle. With the bladder problem, there was no question of him returning back to his assisted living community. By Tuesday, he was in extreme pain again, unable to urinate. He was sent home from the ER with a catheter that we hoped would come out after a week.

I was frantic. The catheter gave him a sensation that felt like urinary urgency, so he tried to rise every 15 minutes or so. If he was not watched at night, he would attempt to get up for the bathroom and fall. 

Ten days later, he stopped being able to walk.

My world had transformed from light to dark. From an evening lit by sparkling decorations, cheeks blushing pink from the cold, lilting carols soaring in harmony, I sat by my father’s bedside, worrying.

Instead of making me sad, that turning point reminds me that a year ago, Dad was still here. A year ago, I had every reason to expect he would recover from this latest health setback. A year ago, I knew Dad would feel better when the winter lifted and spring bloomed again.

Today I leave Seattle, headed for home again. The house is already decorated. Dad’s room will be orderly and quiet. When I walk in the house, I will remember that it was the beginning of Dad’s final decline. The hard part is over. He is worth remembering, worth loving and worth every moment spent comforting him.

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An Address Served by Prayer

Eileen's angel

Yesterday’s email carried this message from my brother, Bruce. I know just how he feels:

I finally started my holiday preps by digging out the Christmas cards and printing out my Christmas database lists. As I begin the task, I am suddenly brought up short by Dad’s name and his address at the Chateau. After Mom died, I always sent him a card to help him keep the holiday spirit, and I continued that after he moved to Sacramento. I always sent the card to him at the Chateau, and sent his gift to him care of Betsy.

Seeing his name reminded me of this annual rite, and forced me to acknowledge once again that he has moved on, to an address served only by prayer. Momentarily, I felt guilty about deleting the entry, as though he would be dying once again, taken aback. I thought about leaving it alone. Then I felt his presence in my heart and knew he would want me to move on, and remember him in the uplands of heaven.

In the end, I deleted the entry, along with the one in my cell phone. Merry Christmas, Dad, and thanks for raising an optimist.

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Completing the Circle

I’ve had some powerful experiences in the past two weeks. Some would call them synchronicities. Others would call them mere coincidences. Whatever they were, they gave me a feeling of connectedness, a feeling of being remembered even though I am (I think) too much of a skeptic to believe my father is sending me messages from the great beyond.

The night before what would have been Dad’s 97th birthday, I was flooded with reminiscences of prior celebrations, memories I captured in Birthdays Remembered. His actual birthday was a travel day, filled with last-minute details and a losing battle to cram nine days worth of clothing into a carry-on.

Around 1 p.m., I wrote an email message to my three brothers: I know we all know what today is. I’m sure we’re remembering it in our own ways. I can’t think of Dad’s birthday without thinking of all of you, and I wish we were together somehow. But I am with you in spirit and somehow, I think Mom and Dad are with US in spirit.

A few minutes later, I received an unexpected call from Kline Memorials, the company that was creating a monument for my father’s, mother’s and sister’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery. Back in September, we completed some forms requesting approval for its installation from Arlington. Kline’s representative told me that the granite marker had just been installed. On Dad’s birthday.

After my trip to the Northwest, I side tripped to see (or as I liked to say, “meet”) a piece of art that I asked an artist-friend to create a painting as a way to remember and honor not only my father, but my mother. After Dad resided for so many years in a bedroom in my home, I needed to reclaim that space, to remove the telltale signs of Dad’s final weeks, to re-imagine it as a welcoming space for guests and a sanctuary for me.

That’s asking a lot of a painting.

What this very personal memorial is not is an attempt at “closure.” I’m not trying to conclude anything, least of all my relationship with my father. He and I had no unfinished business.

A painting was a way to literally put myself back in the picture with my mother and father, at a time when our security was both threatened (by my father’s heart disease) and protected (by their fierce brand of love and family loyalty).

My artist-friend followed my journey with Dad long before I thought about asking her to create a painting. Though she was inspired by a bit of free verse I wrote for her last spring, The Kingdom of the Wing Chair, I immediately saw details that she had pulled from past blog posts and conversations. Books of his favorite poets, for example, sit on a shelf behind the central image, a wing chair.

Since my verse had mentioned that a Spaniel was often seated next to Dad’s chair, she decided to include a Springer Spaniel. My Dad always loved Springers, great family dogs with good noses for hunting upland birds. Our first was Boot, an unusually large male with a head shaped like an anvil, who was just as hard-headed. Boot was followed by two litter mates, Katie and Beall. The dog in the painting looked just like Beall, with her white “feathers” extending from her legs and her eyes locked on to a spot where Dad would sit.

Only I never mentioned a Springer in my verse, just a Spaniel. My friend took the liberty of including a Springer because she needed a pattern to balance the bold green and red solids in the painting.

When we went to dinner, I asked her about the meaning of a gold ring tied to a string and hung from the book shelf so that it dangled next to the chair. “That was to put your mother in the picture,” she told me. She used the iconic image of a gold band since she didn’t know what my mother’s wedding ring looked like.

“You mean like this?” I asked. From my left hand, I removed a thin gold band I’ve been wearing since Dad died. The inside is engraved, “E.D.C. to H.S.C. 26 Dec. ’41.”

We talked about how painting is more than a one-way conversation.

“It’s a circle,” she said. “And the circle is only completed when the viewer brings their experience to it.”

Circles don’t need to close, and they are never broken.

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Fishing for Family

Bruce, Me, DeanSince January, I’ve thought and written a lot about the inevitable shift in my family relationships. In the days immediately following Dad’s death, I told my brothers that I wanted them to include me in their fishing trips.

One of my brothers immediately noted, “But you don’t like to fish.”

I told them it wasn’t really about the fishing. I knew that they had always connected through hunting and fishing. We are three brothers and one sister… three fishermen and one non-fisher person. I figured that if there were going to be future gatherings of family, they were most likely to happen around the activity that brings them together. My request was noted.

This summer, my brother Dean called to invite me to join a trip on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. With a lump in my throat (that’s what happens when the dog catches the bus), I joined Dean and brother Bruce on September 2, when we put in at Warm Springs, OR, for a 4 night floating-camping-fishing expedition.

Dean’s led this trip dozens of times, most often using his own 13′ raft, and Bruce has often participated. I was jumping aboard a trip with a lot of history, joining men with well-established habits.

What happened wasn’t really what I expected.

I imagined it kind of like a movie: after attending to the necessities of the day (breaking camp each morning, making camp each afternoon) and a long day of fishing and floating through dramatic volcanic canyons beneath blue skies, we’d contentedly kick back in our chairs and fall to talking about Dad, or Mom, or the burial, or our families. It would be a reverie of memories, longing and love.

I was right about the talking, but wrong about the quantity and the topic. The sporadic conversation centered on fish, insects, stars, geology and fish. Did I mention fish?

For example, did you know that Gary LaFontaine extensively studied caddis fly behavior underwater and designed the Sparkle Pupa fly to imitate rising nymphs (read more)? Or that they work so well because the sparkly antron fibers successfully imitate the gasses that build up under a real pupa’s shuck?

That makes me sound unappreciative. On the contrary. It was just one more life experience where you go looking for one thing and find something completely different, something all the more beautiful because it was unexpected.

I learned a lot. I had to confide that I’d never set up a camp, and I needed to be shown a lot. It turns out that Dean has quite specific ideas (inner smile) about how one does things. When you’ve made this trip as often as he has, you have long since figured out the optimal menu, way to organize a camp, method of packing a boat, and even how to do dishes (wash them with environmentally-friendly soap in one container, rinse in a second basin of hot water, and dip a third time in a basin with a few drops of Clorox for good measure). I also learned a lot about fishing, although the one that I hooked was by complete accident when the fish saw me pulling the line up to recast it (I’m told I got him on the rise).

I also was awed by the majesty of the canyons, river and sky of the Deschutes. How had I missed this? Within the first hour, the walls of the canyon rise up along side the river. The first few buttes stood back at a shy distance, their rising brown hillsides topped with rocky red crowns. In front of them, green water streamed serenely by. As we floated past rock gardens — shallow bars with water only inches deep — every rock gleamed in the crystal clear water. The canyon walls crept closer, and erosion revealed their geologic story of volcanic pressure, uplift, ash explosions, hot flows and cooling into a myriad of shapes, colors and textures.

The Deschutes near Warm Springs OR

Some lent themselves to flights of fancy, the way cloud formations beckon us to see images in their ever-changing shapes. Bruce thought the lone rock below looked like the head of an Argonath. I found myself remembering Dad being wheeled down the hospital hallway for an MRI reciting from Shelley: “My name is Ozymandius, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Ozymandius?

Small islands straddle the center of the river between the off-limits property of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation on one side and the many public campgrounds on the opposite shore. As we pass them, Bruce and Dean remembered their fishing luck on past trips; one island was so favorable they referred to it as “our island.” We tied up at one that could be circumnavigated on foot, revealing tree roots that waved in the water like red hair.

Tree roots in the Deschutes River

We did not go unnoticed as we floated down the river. Wild horses on the reservation stopped their slow stroll as they came down to the water to drink, the stallion keeping us under observation to make sure we posed no threat. Great blue herons heard our approach, crouched and flared out their five foot wide wings to beat slowly upstream ahead of us. Mergansers dove, kingfishers cried their piercing call and ospreys whistled and chirped, circling high above the river. We counted 43 osprey during the course of our trip. At one point, a young buck cautiously approached the river’s edge while Dean cast just 30 feet away.

After the sky flamed from orange to fuschia to grey, the nights were even more magical. With only the background noise of the breeze, the Milky Way made such a perfect, broad arc over us that I could imagine a circle of spray paint continuing past the horizon both north and south, cinching the earth beneath us like a belt. Thousands of stars blinked into view revealing constellations, many of which I’d heard of, but never identified. Each night, I watched shooting stars through the netting of my tent and listened to the chorus of crickets and the thumping of bugs trying to penetrate the thin layer of nylon between them and me. I started to bargain with God: “I’ll go to sleep if you show me just one more shooting star.” And each morning, I awakened to an orchestra of birds calling as the sun poured down the brown hillsides behind us, often punctuated by the cry of a frustrated osprey as it flew reconnaissance over the river.

As entranced as I was by the natural beauty of the area, I really noticed things about my brothers.

I watched Dean walk upstream to fish. I love to watch my brother walk, as weird as that sounds. He conveys preparedness in every fiber. It’s visible in the set of his face, the tension in his arms, and the way he plants his legs as he moves purposefully forward. He has such a sense of purpose, a guy who know’s where he’s going and what he’s going to do there. When he sits, which isn’t for long, he’s usually (as my Dad would say) “working the problem.” When we were en route to Maupin to pick up a rented boat from Deschutes River Adventures, his face reflected concern about making it on the river in time to set up our first camp before dark. Even more serious was his expression when approaching White Horse Rapids. His intensity of expression reflected the responsibility he felt as organizer and river guide. Once he met the challenges of the day, he was finally at ease. Dean is such a rock, and I love that about him.

Dean

Bruce’s demeanor is and always has been more relaxed, even graceful. There is a gentleness to him, in his stance and in his voice. His walk is loose and his movements, fluid. He stood up and demonstrated casting back and forth, side to side, until he popped the fly right in front of a big trout. It was almost like watching a dance as his weight shifted from side to side. Of course, I teased him and said, “Can you do that again?” (He obliged.) Bruce loves to share his passion for things, and his passion for fish may be unsurpassed. Although he had plenty of time to fish on his own, he seemed to really want to guide my progress as I attempted to lob or roll cast. As bad as I was, he never seemed frustrated or irritated, using the same, calm voice to direct me.

That voice brought me right back to being five or six years old, when he patiently illustrated a poem about an elf sitting under a mushroom cap umbrella. I still have the drawing.

I watched as he caught the biggest fish of the trip. “Are you getting this?” he asked, knowing that I had my camera in hand. After the fish was released, he showed me how his hand literally shook in excitement. Bruce is such a geek, and I love that about him.

Big trout on the Deschutes

On our last night in camp, after being chased off the river by a dramatic thunderstorm (complete with hail, 40+ knot winds and horizontal rain), I summarized my experience for my brothers, telling them that the trip was different than I had expected. Dean asked, “What did you expect?” I shared my little fantasy about deep talks under the stars.

“Oh no, we don’t talk about relationships,” Dean said, “This is a guy’s trip. We do stuff.”

One brother was missing, and that made me sad. His absence made me wonder aloud on the first night, “How are we going to stay connected as a family?”

The next night, Bruce replied, “I’ve thought about what you said. We’ve learned some things. We’re better off together than we are separately.”

We as a family are moving forward, perhaps in fits and starts, but making progress.

Hole in the Wall campground

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After: the Pull of Family, Redefined

Circa 1960 - Dean, Scott, Betsy, BruceJust before flying to Washington DC for the burial, I laughed when my son and I passed through the New Age vortex that is City of Mt. Shasta on our drive with his belongings back to college. “Amorandre’a” promised “evolutionary transformation sessions and workshops transforming the Body Mind to the level of the Atom.”

I’m remembering the “stick and ball” model of a testosterone molecule that my son had to create in 7th grade. The atoms (balls) of the model had to be connected with bonds (toothpicks) that shaped them into the angles dictated by nature: straight lines, angles and tetrahedrals. The shapes aren’t created by logic; the atoms are propelled and repelled into relationship with one another.

In the absence of Mom and Dad, we are forming new bonds across family units, relationships that seem to have an agency of their own.

After Dad died, one of the big questions that seemed to float in space before me was, “Who is my family now?” The phrase, “Friends are the family you choose,” implied to me a corollary: that family was something I could choose to define. I now think that was too simplistic.

My brothers and I are very different. We look different, we have different temperaments and we grew up in different eras. Mom and Dad’s life experience changed the way that they parented by the time my youngest brother and I entered the picture, so effectively we grew up with different parents.

In the months that have followed Dad’s death, I have increasingly felt that my brothers and I belong together, that they belong in my life and I in theirs. In the Marine Corps, you receive your “standard issue,” the equipment that you are expected to maintain. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you. My brothers are my “issue.” I am theirs. We don’t get to exchange. We have to discover and value each other as we are.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about our weekend in D.C. – with 20 of us present – was the way that new relationships took shape.

Some of us were just plain new to each other. My nephew remarried and the weekend was the first opportunity his spouse and step-children to meet our clan. My brother’s fairly recently adopted teenage son is finding his way into the family, something that’s new to him after spending most of his life with foster families.

Family members’ messages popped up on Facebook:

The only thing I regret about my life is not having all the people I love in one place. Goodbyes are hard, so …let’s just say see you later.

one thing i hate: one day your having fun with family the next day you have to enter reality again grrrrr 

finally home whoooooo!!!!!!!! happy but sad to leave family 

At Washington National Cathedral Sunday, the jumping-off point for the sermon was a discussion of family. The Dean of the Cathedral, Dean Hall, said he was skeptical about the nuclear family; the Hebrew Bible, after all, unfolds like a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner (remember Cain and Abel?). Though the family is the structure we’ve developed for mutual support and nurture, it “contains all of the contradictions of what it means to be human.” He went on to say that family alone cannot sustain us, that Jesus alone offers us a community, “a table where all are welcome and equal.”

Mom and Dad left us all a legacy, a multi-faceted legacy of the things they so obviously believed in, through their actions. One of the most important things they stood for was family.

They felt present to me throughout the long weekend that followed the burial on Thursday. I felt their smile as they watched us stumble our way toward one another.

This message, from my niece, said it best:

A wise man once gave me advice that changed the way I thought about life. He told me that family is the meaning of life. He said to me that try as we might, most of us will never do the sort of things about which great books are written. In time, the world will forget all but a very few of us. But in the hearts of those we love, lies our chance to be remembered. 

The wise man was my grandfather. I thought of his words today as I watched the faces of my family gathered to remember. I can’t help thinking that my grandparents’ story isn’t over. They may be laid to rest among heroes, but theirs was not a war story. It was a love story, and it’s one that is still being written.

The pen is in our hands now. Let us remember well, and may we never stop writing. 

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Cracking Open

By Hectonichus (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bereavement can be strange.

It’s been more than four months since Dad died. Immediately after his death, I was bone tired, contemplative, somber without being sad. Having a day stretch ahead of me felt like a balm. I could think what I wanted, feel what I wanted, do what I wanted.

For a time after that, I ran away, though not consciously. I had a backlog of people I wanted to spend time with. It was suddenly feasible to visit them rather than ask them to visit me.

It no longer feels strange not to be caring for Dad, nor unsettling when awareness comes suddenly upon me that I am no longer his caregiver. I’ve stopped startling when I realize I can be without my phone as my constant companion; I can take a walk without carrying it, or go to the movies without it turned upside down against my knee, on silent mode, so that I will feel any urgent texts or calls. We can eat dinner when we want, and linger at the table for as long as we want. I’ve stopped listening for the click of the brakes on his walker, mentally following his path to the john during the evening and night to make sure he safely settles back into bed.

I am untethered. But now I feel directionless. And I am restless.

I’ve known restlessness in the past: intellectual restlessness, physical restlessness, even sexual restlessness. This restlessness has a different tenor.

I am pent up, ready to do something, something else, but what? I have the attention span of a squirrel. (Which, when combined with ready access to Google, can be downright dangerous. I just learned, for example, that a squirrel has an attention span on normal things of about one second and about four minutes on acorns and nuts.)

I want to hike. I want to learn to sail. I want to create a template from the strategic planning I’ve been doing for nonprofits. I want to write.

I know that I am fortunate to have this time of freedom. When my mother died after four months in hospice, my employer at the time was clearly unhappy with me; that “take all the time you need” turned into “get back in here and start generating revenue!” I was thrown back into a political maelstrom at work, settling in to a new house, and worrying about my newly widowed father.

Time to think, feel and figure things out is a luxury. Time is something I’ve never had much of. It makes me uncomfortable.

An old friend who specializes in organizational development used to say, “Break down, break through.” I have disassembled the pieces of my life and am looking at them like so many Legos, wondering what to build.

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