Tag Archives: death

“Be Careful What You Wish For…”

newpaper

I read the entire paper this morning – I mean, every section of the New York Times and some of the Sacramento Bee.

While being a caregiver can be deeply rewarding, every caregiver has her little resentments. My big one was never being able to read the paper before Dad took it over. When he stopped being able to read the paper in his last weeks, I was working too hard at caregiving to read. Reading the paper became symbolic of the freedom I lost as a caregiver.

Now, I have freedom, complete freedom to spend my mornings as I choose, reading the paper over a cup of coffee.

This morning I asked myself, “This? This is what you longed for?”

And I answered, “It wasn’t worth it. I’d trade a thousand mornings of reading the paper for a thousand mornings with Dad.”

 

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Seeing, Believing, Remembering, Trusting

St. Ignatius San Francisco

Yesterday my friend and mentor Jim sent me a short email: “Giving thanks for your Dad’s life tomorrow. HUGS.”

It didn’t surprise me that Jim would suspect that this is a time of reflection for me.

January and February were always hard months for Dad. I expected that he would ultimately pass away during one of those barren months. But each year with astounding speed, daffodil buds would proceed inch-by-inch out of the ground, quince bushes would blossom into their full fuchsia glory, and tulip magnolias would burst into flower. And Dad would say, “I think I might make it after all.”

This spring, finally, he didn’t. But as the spring roars along, I am grateful that Dad is at peace. And I am comforted by the memory of his smile (that “big ass” smile as I so indelicately put it during my remarks at his memorial) a few hours before he died.

I awakened this Easter morning fully aware that, finally, Dad has moved on.

By happenstance, my husband, Todd, and I were in San Francisco for the weekend, which gave us the opportunity to attend church where someone very special to us is the new pastor. Fr. Greg Bonfiglio, S.J., former president of Jesuit High School, was slated to lead the 9:30 Easter service at St. Ignatius Parish in San Francisco. The many pillars of the church were festooned with garlands of flowers, decorated with pots of yellow narcissus and encircled with large bouquets of forsythia.

Commenting on the gospel, Fr. Greg described how Simon Peter had arrived breathless at the tomb and peered in. Only when he saw the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face did he believe that Jesus was no longer there, and had risen.

“Seeing really is believing,” Fr. Greg said, “but this is a different kind of seeing. This is the kind of seeing that is open…”

I still struggle with faith and questions of what happens after death. My blog posts are full of questions. But in my father’s last hours, I saw him in communion with someone he loved. By the time he died, the journey of his last few months affected me in a visceral way and led me to greater openness in resurrection after death.

On the day he died, my brother Dean and I told Dad it was okay for him to go, that we would see him again, and that we would be fine. I had to let go and stop trying to prevent Dad from dying. I had to trust God that He would care for him.

“Seeing” leads to believing, and believing, to trust.

Fr. Greg Bonfiglio

Fr. Greg Bonfiglio

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A Year Past: Good Friday at the House of Mary

candles

On Good Friday last year, I found myself, quite by accident, at a place of Christian pilgrimage in Turkey. We were on a shared 30th anniversary trip with dear friends when our tour guide decided to make a second stop after our tour of Ephesus. From the rolling hills covered in new grass and spring blooms adjacent to the sea, our van wound up a hill, arriving at a hilltop surrounded by leafy trees and tall, whispering pines. The breeze immediately cooled us after our warm walk through the long marble promenades of Ephesus. Our guide, Yesra, had brought us to the House of Mary (“Meryemana”), where Mary was believed to have lived during the period that Paul was busy spreading the gospel to the people of Ephesus, which was the strategic heart of the Roman empire in Asia Minor. It felt… peaceful.

houseofstmaryThe house is a place of pilgrimage for Christians, but is also respected by Muslims who recognize Mary as the mother of a prophet. After people visit the small house built of rectangular stones, which became a chapel after her death, many light candles. There’s also a Muslim wishing wall where people tie notes with their prayers.

We filed in to the quiet chapel where nuns in habits kept vigil by the small altar. For most visitors, it was a short visit: a solemn one-way walk through the small interior followed quickly by an exit into the small courtyard. I stopped in the chapel and knelt at one of the small wooden prayer benches. And I cried. I prayed for my Dad, who was in failing health. Although I am not Catholic, I prayed for Mary to intercede on his behalf and relieve him from the suffering of congestive heart failure and the grief that only the oldest know after their spouses, parents, and friends have gone before them. As I left, one of the nuns silently approached me and handed me a candle.

lightingcandlesOutside, I saw the glass-enclosed stands of candles implanted in sand. I prayed again, as did my friend, Lisa.

Many candles and many prayers later, my Dad was released. I will never forget the look of greeting on his face those last few hours. Dad, this is a good Friday, a better Friday, knowing that you are at peace, even if I miss you every day.

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On My Trip I Took A…

cappadocia

When you lose someone – expectedly or unexpectedly – many supportive people and institutions come forth with suggestions about what to expect. They want to do what they can, say what they can, to help you heal.

The information from hospice is, well, informative: After the death of a loved one, “The resulting grief is a normal and natural response to loss. The struggle to adjust may be difficult and one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives.”

Over two months has gone by and I’m still in no rush to understand or “process” my experience. The only frame of reference that makes sense to me is traveling. I don’t have a destination in mind. I’m not trying to achieve a state of “healed” or “recovered,” in part because I don’t feel damaged or unhealthy. I’m just going.

When my son, Thom, took off Monday on his four-month study abroad program, I found and shared this poem with him. It spoke to me of my hopes for his experience, but it also helped me to recognize that journeying is a pretty good metaphor for this thing I’m doing.

It also brought to mind an old game we played with our children. We would go back and forth, adding to an ever-lengthening alphabetical list of ever-crazier things that had to be remembered after the phrase, “On my trip, I took a…,” until someone lost by forgetting. (On my trip, I took an apple, and a boat, and a curmudgeon, and a diary…)

I’m on my trip. And I’m not alone. I’m taking the love of my family and friends, the beauty of nature, the inspiration of art, a trunk full of memories, the still-palpable presence of my father’s spirit, and faith.

For the Traveler

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

~ John O’Donohue ~

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The Voices in My Head

I’m hearing voices, but don’t worry about me. I’ve only been home three weekends since Dad died on January 12, and only this week has life begun to coalesce around a new normal. I’m back to my usual exercise schedule, working on a consulting project, and reconnecting with friends and colleagues.

But it’s quiet enough for me to recognize who’s missing. About a week ago, I learned of the unexpected death of a dear family friend, a woman I first met in 1981.

The first thing that came to mind was her voice: her rapid-fire, nearly breathless way of embracing one with her exclamations of appreciation. No one talked like Char.

Now, as I sit quietly in my living room – Todd’s out, Maddie’s on her own in her apartment, and Thom is almost 5,500 miles away as he begins his study abroad – it’s the voices of loved ones that echo in my head.

In the morning, I still half expect Dad to holler from his room, “Hey Bets, I’m up!” Gravelly and damaged by time, his speech was still arresting when he could summon the breath to support his vocalizations. Much farther back, I remember how badly he startled nearly-five-year-old Maddie when she tried to cut her newborn brothers’ spiky hair. In his best parade ground command voice, he exploded, “PUT. THE. SCISSORS. DOWN!”

And my other mother, Ann. I can still hear the remnants of her Floridian childhood in her soft, kind voice as she asked, “How is my other daughter Betsy?”

Farther back, I hear the bubbling-up belly laugh of our old family friend Patsy. She was so tickled when, for a summer job, I went door-to-door in Seattle explaining the merits of the city’s pilot recycling program. “You’re in gar-BAGE,” she would say in an intentionally affected accent, before unleashing a laugh that started as a chuckle, rumbled up and grew exponentially in volume until her whole body shook. It was infectious.

Certainly I remember their faces: Mom, Dad, my “other father” Terry, my “other mother” Ann, Patsy, and now Char. But what keeps them present in my mind and heart are their voices: their wonderful, distinct way of expressing their affection as only they could.

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I’m not done

Celebrating a friend's 50-year milestone birthday

Celebrating a friend’s 50-year milestone birthday

My father had several pet peeves when it came to American usage. When asked, “Were you in the military?” he would answer, “No.” He was a Marine, which to him was not at all the same thing. He also did not like being asked, “Are you done?” when someone wanted to know if his plate was ready to be cleared. “No,” he would reply, “but I am finished eating.”

I’m not done either. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have reached out to me since Dad’s death on Jan. 12. Many have thanked me for sharing my journey on The Henry Chronicles. But I am still very much coming to terms with Dad’s death and this new void in my life, and by extension, not done writing about this experience.

After Dad’s death, I pushed the “play” button on my life. I accepted every invitation and added a few junkets of my own. Since January 19, I’ve been to Seattle/Tacoma twice, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, Napa, Palm Desert, and Marin. I’ve been part of my niece’s Bat Mitzvah, a 5-day birthday celebration for a 50-year-old, and a 3-day birthday celebration for a 70-year-old. I’ve been gone a full month out of the past two months.

Without planning to do so, I ran away from home. And grief.

Grief isn’t a terrible thing to me. The more that someone is worth loving, the more they are worth missing.

I am still running in to people who do not know that Dad passed away. When they express their sympathy, I find myself saying, “He was 96,” as if to say that because it was expected, I’m not sad about it.

As much as I have enjoyed the visiting and celebrations I’ve been part of, it’s time to stay home. It’s time to remember and reflect.

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Scott speaks to Dad’s exemplification of Marine values

scottdad

My eldest brother, Scott, 15 years senior, kicked off the family remarks at my father’s memorial on Saturday. He spoke from notes rather than full text, so I’ve done the best I can to recreate them here:

My Dad was, quite simply, the finest man I’ve ever known. He was always a rock for everyone in the family, and his passing has left a void that will never be filled. The family was very fortunate that he was a major part of our lives for so long.

If I were to describe my Dad’s character, I would say that he exemplified the core values of the USMC:

Honor,which means to display the highest ethical and moral behavior; of abiding by an uncompromising code of integrity; and of respecting others. The quality of maturity, dedication, trust and dependability commit Marines to be responsible and be accountable for their actions; to fulfill their obligations; and to hold others accountable for their actions.

Courage, which entails the mental, moral and physical strength expected of all Marines. It carries them through the challenges of combat and helps them overcome fear. It is the inner strength that enables a Marine to do what is right; to adhere to a higher standard of personal conduct; and to make tough decisions under stress and pressure.

Commitment is the spirit of determination and dedication found in Marines, it leads to the highest order of discipline for individuals and units, and it inspires a driving determination to achieve a standard of excellence in every endeavor.

Dad displayed an abundance of all these qualities throughout his life.

But Dad’s most important achievement was of a more personal nature. Dad did not have a particularly happy relationship with his father, although he did not talk about it much until the latter years of his life. He made a deliberate decision to break that cycle and to be the best father he could be. Several pivotal events in his life may have influenced that decision: marrying our mother, Eileen; combat in WWII, the death of Midge, their first daughter; and his heart attack in 1962, which forced his retirement from the Marine Corps.

He was a romantic in the complete sense of the word, with a deep love for his wife and family. There were almost certainly times during WWII when he wondered if he would come home alive. If he had not, I’d be his only child, and I would not have the same brothers and sister.

After Ken Burns’ series about the Civil War aired Maj. Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, I shared it with Dad. He told me that, had he been writing in the 19th century, he might have written a letter very much like this one:

July 14, 1861

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure — and it may be one of some conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done.

If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter.

I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows — when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children — is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last hours, perhaps, before that of death — and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar — that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been!

How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours — always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

Sullivan

Major Ballou perished at the first battle of Bull Run.

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