Tag Archives: Eileen Campbell

A Wish and a Dream Fulfilled

Fiftieth anniversary, 1991

In 1953, when my then-three-year-old sister died of leukemia, my mother and father buried her at Arlington National Cemetery, promising to join her after the two of them had seen their lives through.

Sixty years later, my family and I have now fulfilled that wish.

I don’t know quite how to explain the power of the past two days. It’s 1:15 in the morning, here in the nation’s capital, but I can’t sleep. Not yet. Not without telling a little bit of this story.

On Thursday, we gathered in the family greeting area in the Administration building at Arlington and were met by two representatives of the Marines, part of my parents’ honor burial. “Your father was a national treasure,” Colonel Steve Neary told us. He went on to recognize not only my father’s service, but my mother’s sacrifice as well.

The beautiful companion urn crafted by my brother Scott gleamed in the sunlight that cascaded through the windows, the grain dancing when you looked at it from different angles. The plaque read, “In our hearts and minds always, Scott, Bruce, Midge, Dean, Betsy.”

companion urn for Eileen and Henry

Arlington’s representative, Mr. Dixon, led us to the transfer point where a company of Marines, a contingent from the USMC Band, and a caisson awaited, drawn by six horses.

Two Marines moved toward the cemetery vehicle in such slow motion that time felt suspended. Fluid step by fluid step, they approached the drawer in the flag-draped coffin, and gently placed the urn inside. Because we created a companion urn for them, Mom joined Dad on the stately march to to grave site.

Drums led the way, followed by a company of Marines in lock step. Then the caisson, and then those family members who chose to follow the caisson on foot. We sat within view of Midge’s grave stone while the urn was placed on the pedestal. To our left, Col. Cabaniss, Commanding Officer of Marine Barracks, commanded the Marines.

The Chaplain’s remarks reflected his understanding of my parents’ story. He spoke of Dad’s valor in Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He acknowledged Mom’s sacrifices, and the value of their service to their country. In his prayers, he spoke of them being joined with Midge for eternity.

Seven rifles fired three shots each, a 21 gun salute. Taps played. I lost it.

Agonizingly slowly in the glaring mid-day sun, the Marines folded the flag, and presented it to my brother, who passed it to me. I held the perfectly folded triangle against my stomach, like a child.

One by one, the officers dropped a knee and extended their condolences to we four siblings, we adult children who carried through the wishes of our parents.

That night, the family gathered at Siroc Restaurant on McPherson Square. Food, family and wine: all the ingredients we needed to honor my parents’ legacy.

If yesterday was the fulfillment of a wish, then tonight was the fulfillment of a dream – a chance to viscerally demonstrate my parent’s legacy of love and service by attending the Marine Baracks’ evening parade as guests of its executive officer, LtC. Tom Garnett.

“It’s not a Disney parade,” I told the grandchildren and great grandchildren in attendance. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

Two hours of riveting ritual, unfolding at a stately pace, performed perfectly under the watch of Major Sarah Armstrong, Parade Commander, and directed by Sgt. Major Angie Maness. Dad and Mom, I’m sure, were smiling, to see two such accomplished women in these roles.

The graciousness of the Barracks, in inviting us – all of us – to attend the parade as their guests, moves me  beyond words.

And if that weren’t enough, we happened to attend the annual parade hosted by the Commandant and honoring the chiefs of all of the armed forces, and were introduced by Col. Cabaniss to the Commandant, Gen. James Amos.

Though I would do anything to change the reality of losing Mom and Dad, I know that celebrating their lives has brought us together. Some branches of the family had never met before this week. We experienced something rare, together. A dream fulfilled.


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Marine Corps Wife: My Mom’s Career

That's mom seated at bottom left, and Dad standing at upper right in 1959

That’s mom seated at bottom left, and Dad standing at upper right in 1959

Skimming through Mom and Dad’s photo albums from the late 50s, Dad is pictured at the pinnacle of his success in the Marines. While it was Dad’s obituary that carried the details of his promotions and assignments, in many ways his career was her career.

It wasn’t that she loyally followed Dad as Sarah followed Abraham. She was a woman with a mission. She kept the home front running and deployed her considerable social and organizational skills to the job of supporting Dad in the regimented social environment that surrounded officers’ wives.

Dad said he wasn’t keen on the idea of marrying in the tumultuous weeks that followed Pearl Harbor. Not that he didn’t love Mom. He did, passionately. But he was acutely aware of the potentially abbreviated life span of a Second Lieutenant in wartime, and he didn’t want to see her widowed.

When he shipped out in 1943, soon to join with the 4th Marine Division in the battle for Roi-Namur in the Marshall Islands, he left Mom at home with my brother, Scott, who had been born that November. When the war ended and he returned, he joked that he had to fight for his pants. Actually what he said was that had to fight for his pants every day of their marriage. When the war ended, he returned from the horrors of Saipain, Tinian and Iwo Jima to a home where Mom was comfortably and firmly in charge.

As Dad’s assignments took them from Quantico, to Washington DC, up to Kingston Ontario, back to Washington DC, and then across a country and an ocean to Honolulu, Mom packed and unpacked, settled kids in schools.

Each time they arrived at a new post, she paid a social visit to the Commanding Officer’s wife, calling card in hand, as expected. She joined the Officers’ Wives Club, and knowing Mom, she did an exemplary job of supporting their activities. She loved the social whirl that went with an officer’s life in those days, like the formal party in honor of the promotion of Leonard Chapman to Brigadier General.

In 1951, my Mom found herself running a busy household with a nine year old, a four year old and a one year old – oh, and Nana, her mother. Mom and Dad’s worst fears came to pass when little Midge was diagnosed with leukemia, for which there was no known cure.

As a mother, I can’t imagine how she coped, but it was in character for her to forge ahead, hoping against hope. My uncle, a hematologist-oncologist, came down from Boston to administer experimental treatments and oversee Midge’s care. To no avail. She died October 22, 1953, a few months short of her fourth birthday.

Dad’s orders to ship out for a solo tour of duty with the 3rd Marine Division in Gifu, Japan, were held during the last months of Midge’s illness. Mom had learned, as Midge lay dying, that she was pregnant for the fourth time.

On February 21, 1954, Dad wrote Mom from Okinawa while in transit:

Postcard from Japan 1954

Although it was lost in Dad’s move to California, I remember reading a lengthy letter he wrote from his tour in Japan, sharing the pain of their devastating loss, saying how he longed to be there to hold her.

When my brother Dean was born in April 1954, Dad said, “It was if the sun came out.” That may be true, but now Mom was alone, managing a household with an 11 year old, a six year old, her mother, and a newborn. She was on her own when she had Dean christened:

Eileen Campbell with baby Dean, flanked by Bruce and Scott

In a professional portrait she had taken the next year, her expression is serene but somber.

Eileen Campbell raising three boys, 1955

This summer, we will inter both Mom and Dad with Midge at Arlington National Cemetery. While visiting Washington DC this past week to make arrangements, I wondered if it was fair to put so much emphasis on Dad’s career. After all, the burial with honors is provided because of his service, not hers.

Then I realized that it wasn’t just Dad’s efforts that deserve the recognition. Like most military spouses, she earned it, too. Knowing Dad, he would be the first to say that Mom made it possible for him to do what he did.


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Seeing Mom Among the Flowers

A member of the Washington National Cathedral Altar Guild

Friday was my “Mother’s Day.” Mom, gone since 1999, felt so present to me all day. I came east to see my friend Sharon and the premiere of the documentary she produced about the author Elizabeth Spencer, “Landscapes of the Heart,” but also for a mission: I hoped to secure a date for my father’s and mother’s interments at Arlington National Cemetery.

Though it was Dad who I focused on during the past seven years, and Dad who died in January, the trip was about both of them.

After meeting with a representative at Arlington, I asked Sharon if she would mind visiting Washington National Cathedral. My mother always talked about it, and continued to buy the Cathedral’s annual Christmas cards long after we left Washington, D.C.

Washington National CathedralUpon entering the Gothic-inspired masterpiece, we walked up the center aisle and diverted to the right around a stage that was being prepared for a concert.

Like many European cathedrals, the nave and transept are embellished with small side chapels.

In the first of these chapels, below a round contemporary sculpture of Jesus’ face, stood a woman in a pink shirt and apron, stoop shouldered, slowly trimming the stems of lacy blossoms that she was using to complete the final touches on two symmetrical arrangements of pink lilies. Her salt-and-pepper hair was short, mostly gray, a little curly. Perhaps the last vestiges of a perm that was nearly grown out.

For just a moment, she was my mother.

The woman in pink was an Altar Guild member, one of the stalwart legions of the Episcopal Church Women who do so much behind the scenes in fulfillment of their faith and commitment to the church, in camaraderie with one another.

My mind involuntarily summoned the smell of damp linens, starch and heat, a visceral memory of one of my mother’s monthly turns ironing the altar linens. Just as readily, I remember the scent of fresh-cut stems when she trimmed a gladiola, a rose, a peony, or greens harvested from our back yard for an altar arrangement.

In the sculpture above the altar, Jesus’ eyes are closed, but his head inclines toward her. I don’t know if the image is meant to represent him in death on the cross, or is meant to express sympathy for those who pray here. Blade-like rays extend beyond his halo through which a jagged hole is blown.

Washington National Cathedral's Christ Child statueLater I learned the chapel memorialized those who served and died in wars. Near it, a bronze statue of the Christ Child welcomes visitors to the adjacent the Children’s Chapel. The statue is the size of a six year old, its palms polished to a sheen from all of the touches to its outstretched chubby palms.

It felt meant, just as the whole week has felt perfect. Here is “Mom,” creating a striking decoration for the War Memorial, within the hour that we have confirmed a date and time for her burial along with Dad, joining Midge in her resting place. And there, next door, is the Children’s Chapel, with the child Jesus extending his arms in welcome.

My brother Scott sent this reply to a note I sent to my brothers confirming the interment date. “Has anyone thought about what day it is today? Nice that we got this confirmation on the 14th anniversary of Mom’s passing.”

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My brother Dean took Dad home


Of my three brothers, Dean is closest in age to me, just three years older. As he explained in his remarks at yesterday’s memorial, he and I knew the kinder, gentler version of Dad. Dad used to say that he and Mom raised Scott and Bruce, but he let us raise ourselves. I’m not sure that’s quite true, but he did perhaps trust the process more than he did when he was first a father. Here are Dean’s remarks:

“I would like to thank you all for coming today to help us remember and celebrate the life of my father, Henry Snively Campbell. I know he would be and, I like to think, is very pleased to see all of your familiar and beloved faces. I imagine his broad smile, and the warm greeting he would extend to all of you. On his behalf, I welcome you.

Today each of my siblings and I are sharing a few fragments of our memories of and love for our father. In some respects, my sister and I experienced a different father figure than did our two older brothers, so different in age were Betsy and I than they were.  Scott and Bruce knew the fiery, hard-charging, career-oriented Marine officer, a decorated WWII veteran who aspired to the Commandant’s mansion in Washington D.C., whereas Betsy and I were raised by a less rigid and more compassionate father. I believe that two events led him to re-balance his life outlook: the loss of his 4 year old daughter Midgie to leukemia in 1953; and his heart attack in 1962 that led to his premature retirement from the Marine Corps. I think these events made him re-consider what was most important to him in life; and it’s clear he decided it was his family.

My first memory of my father dates to the latter part of his Marine Corps service, during his post as Executive Officer at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC. I was about 4 or 5 years old at the time. Each Friday during the summer, an Evening Parade is held on the grounds within the barracks; the Exec is the parade commander, the conductor, if you will. In my memory of those parades, I see a marine platoon in spotless dress uniform, flawlessly conducting their silent drill with M-1 rifles, fixed bayonets gleaming in the twilight. The President’s Own Marine Band plays John Phillip Sousa. My father stands at the center, calling for the precise maneuvers in his full-throated, commanding voice.  You can imagine the impression that made on a 5 year old boy. He seemed about ten feet tall to me back then.

As I grew older, I naturally came to know him differently and more realistically, but the legacy of his Marine career was still much in evidence. He carried himself with an unmistakable grace and military bearing. He dressed smartly, and he spoke with authority, confidence, and courtesy. He modeled, more than he taught, the values and behaviors expected of a Marine, an officer, and a gentleman: respect; integrity; honor; courage; and commitment. I realize now more than I did during my childhood and adolescence that I tried to emulate him.  It was in this way that he taught me how I might become a man, poor student though I was.

Some of my most enduring adult memories of my father are of the times we spent together in his native eastern Washington, hunting chukar partridge in the hills high above the Columbia River near Bridgeport. The images are clear to me, as though they happened yesterday. This is my memory: on crisp fall mornings while it is still dark, we drive under bright stars from the river to the top of plateau, and out across the wheat stubble fields to our destination. We strike out before sunrise into the arid grass- and sage-covered land adjoining the cultivated fields. At the very edge of the Columbia gorge, we walk in the mist of early morning fog as it is driven off by the light breeze coming from the plateau. We move in silence, the only sounds coming from the snuffling dog working in front of us, and the crunching of the frosted grasses beneath our boots. The pungent smell of sage hangs in the cool morning air.  As the sun rises behind us in the eastern sky, we pause to stand at the precipice, looking out over the majestic expanse of the Columbia River gorge that spreads before us.  The hills across the river, many miles away, turn from dark to purple to tan as the sun climbs from the horizon. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that makes one feel humble and quite insignificant. I will always carry the memory of these mornings we spent together; and for me, he will live on within them.

I was truly fortunate to have been with my father in his final hours. 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. In the few days preceding his passing, he was often restless and wakeful during the night, trying to get out of bed, even though he had become too weak and short of breath to walk on his own. 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.”

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Henry Campbell and Madeline, 1950

Dad with little Midge, 1950

Today is the day after the day after Dad died. And it feels like a week ago. I slept, really slept, in a spare bedroom at my in-laws, a half mile away. I slept without listening for trouble in the night, and without awakening to catalogue the things that grow disproportionately in importance in my unconscious brain.

Everywhere I went today, the people in my life who had come to know my Dad cried when I told them he had died. Our family internist, Dr. Flaningam, called after work hours to extend his condolences and his compliments for the quality of life we helped Dad to achieve in the seven years since he moved to California.

We removed the medical equipment that helped keep Dad comfortable. As helpful as these things were — the commode, the hospital bed, the oxygen compressor, the nasal cannula, the air bed — I hated them. They represent the rudeness of old age and the torture of dying. I banished them to the garage and tossed out the bedding that served my Dad on his last day. I am still shaking my fist at death for taking Dad even though I know he wanted to be released and I wanted that for him.

Knowing that they were leaving tomorrow, my brothers began to sort through Dad’s things — his hats, gloves, socks, shirts, fishing gear, knives.  I know it made sense for them to choose things they would like now while they are together; Dad, if anything, was pragmatic. He had “good gear” and he would want to see it used. Irrationally, I just wasn’t quite ready for the divvying.

During the day, we reviewed a draft press release that I wrote describing Dad’s accomplishments in the Marine Corps. We picked over this detail and that, but in the end came up with an accurate history that we all could agree to. After we approved it, I sent it to a few newspaper editors.

As dinner approached, I was feeling pretty low. For the first time, I faced across the dinner table and Dad wasn’t there. Bruce and Dean were in his customary spot, the “defensible position” on the far side of the table. I started to cry.

Over dinner, we talked about Dad. The news release focused on the accomplishments that news media might find noteworthy, but what did we really think was the story of Dad’s life?

Bruce said that he felt he got to know Dad better after Mom passed away. “He became my hero,” Bruce said, not only for what he did in the war but for the extremely difficult things that happened to him. “I got to know who he was,” he said.

As we talked more, we concurred that Dad became more loving, gentle and non-judgmental as he aged. Scott said, “When I did something stupid, Dad would let you talk and help you lay out your alternatives. He’d let you pick your course of action, but once you did, he’d back you up.”

We all acknowledged that Dad changed after leaving the Marine Corps. As Dean put it, “Dad was incredibly career focused. He was so focused on achieving the next milestone that he didn’t have time to smell the roses… Once Dad set aside his ambitions, he reassessed what was important.”

We all know what was important to Dad in these last decades of his life. Mom was important…and we were important.

We haven’t written his obituary yet, but we are going to try to write about who he is, not what he did. I capitalized and underlined these two phrases:




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With Love, to the Last Breath


At 6 p.m. tonight, Dad took his last breath as my brother Dean told him that he loved him, and as I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, one of Dad’s favorites. To understand why my Dad loved that particular sonnet so much, you have to appreciate how he “fought for his pants” every day of day of his wonderful marriage to my mother. Not long before he died, his eyebrows lifted up, the way they would when he saw someone who delighted him, and his lips moved as if he were speaking to them.

Dad, this is for you and Mom, thanks to the Bard:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

Their love was rare, and they are together again. But, dear Dad, I will miss you.


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For a Brave Surgeon: Thank You, Dr. Kari Vitikainen!

Credit: University of Southern California

Today, I am mailing this letter to the surgeon who decided to perform my Dad’s third and final coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery in 1999:

Dear Dr. Vitikainen,

I hope you don’t mind me tracking you down through Bruce Wheeler, M.D., in Tacoma. I’m fairly sure you won’t remember me, but I wanted to track you down to thank you for the nearly 14 years my father, Henry Campbell, has enjoyed since you performed what we all knew was a high risk CABG surgery in April 1999.

I am sure that surgery as a specialty carries a fair amount of gratification. But I hope this letter will give you just one more chance to remember what a difference your skills made.

In my Dad’s case, you saw an 82-year-old man struggling with extreme angina who was in the hospital following a small heart attack. He had his first MI in 1962 and had already had two prior CABG surgeries. We all felt that nothing more could be done. But… his wife, my mother, was home with very late stage lung cancer. He hoped to be able to return home so that he could be with her in her final days.

You were also the surgeon who was able to repair the tear in my mother’s very friable lung in February. That repair made it possible for her to go home with hospice, which she did in late February. I remember fighting with the physician who was in charge of her care initially; he told me it would be “kinder for all parties if she just winked out in the hospital.” We felt differently. She was afraid in the hospital and we knew she would want to die in the comfort and security of her own home.

I remember sitting with Dad in the hospital, hooked up to a drip of nitroglycerin that was as strong of a concentration as possible. You came in and told him you thought it might be possible to consider surgery – that his heart function was quite strong. If he had enough veinous material that would work, and other indications turned out to be favorable, just maybe a CABG was possible. You explained that the surgery would be high risk. “What do you mean by high risk?” my father asked. You said that he had at least a 25% chance of dying due to complications from the surgery.

From my father’s perspective, he had a 100% chance of dying soon without it, and would not get to be there for my mother. He opted for the surgery.

We know that the surgery was difficult. It took five hours to open. When Dad was recovering, you explained to us that this surgery was unlikely to last as long as the others given the amount of blockages and damage to the heart that could not be repaired. You estimated five years.

My Dad is now in hospice, here at my home, almost 14 years later. He has had some great years in between.

Perhaps most importantly, he was holding my mother’s hand at the moment her heart stopped, the day after Mother’s Day, May 10, 1999.

In those initial years after Mom’s death, he lived in the family home in University Place. He continued to hunt with his friend, Bob. Eventually he felt he should no longer drive and he moved to Seattle near my brother, Dean. He had a major stroke in 2003 or 2004 from which the doctors at UW expected he would not recover the ability to walk. He eventually walked unassisted without dragging his left foot, and had a complete recovery. (In later years, he used a walker for balance, but you still could rarely tell he had any effect from that stroke.)

I moved Dad here in 2006 when he was becoming more isolated and it became more difficult for him to walk alone in the Seattle wet. I retired to have more time to spend with him in what we expected would be a short time ahead of him. Until this summer, we walked together at least five days a week. He had another small stroke while living here – this one affected his speech temporarily but the effects disappeared within days.

If you’re keeping score, that’s one major heart attack (1962) and two small ones, three CABG surgeries, one major stroke and two small ones.

We’ve had a lot of great times together. He’s continued to entertain us all with vast amounts of memorized poetry. He’s seen the family grow. Until 2010 we took him on family fishing vacations. He and I have traveled to the Monterey Aquarium for his birthday, and last summer, to Seattle for a family reunion. Although he had an assisted living apartment the past few years, he has spent about three-quarters of his time living at my house. And we’ve had many a pre-dinner glass of wine and convivial gathering.

He is very much “himself” although he is now quite weak and struggling with late stage congestive heart failure, and in hospice here with me. He expresses gratitude constantly for me, and for the team of people who help him. He continues to be a gracious, humble, loving man.

In 1999, when you performed that last CABG, it was outside the norm to consider surgery on an 82 year old man with a long history of heart disease. I just want you to know: that was a great decision.

We’re down to the hard part – the failing and the letting go, and it isn’t easy. But he is safe, and loved, and cared for.

As I review the times we’ve had with Dad, I could not help but think of what made it all possible: your initial decision. I just wanted to say THANK YOU!


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Saying goodbye

While my “other mother” was lying in her hospital bed at St. Joseph’s Medical Center 10 days ago, in between periods of stark awareness, my mind kept rewinding and fast forwarding. I rewound to a night thirteen years ago when my mother was in a different bed in St. Joseph’s, fading in and out of lucidity following procedures that first discovered her late stage lung cancer and then sought to repair a hole in her lung so that she could go home with hospice. But I was also fast forwarding, imagining the day that I will hold my father’s hand while he struggles to leave this earth. I think that’s how it is for many people: when we lose someone we love, we also think about the others we have lost, and those who we cherish and are losing.

I almost published this journal entry from February 16, 1999 just before I headed up to Washington state. When I returned Monday night, it was the first thing I saw on my desk:

Last night, I spent the night with Mom at St. Joseph’s Medical Center. Two-and-a-half weeks into her stay, following her diagnosis of lung cancer, she was for the first time completely lucid.

At about 9:45 p.m., Mom was looking at the ceiling. I asked her if she was thinking or looking at something. She replied that she was thinking.

Over the next hour, in quiet and measured tones, she said goodbye to me. She began by saying, ‘You’ve been a wonderful daughter.’ After a few minutes, she added, ‘You’re a very competent woman.’

I realized that she was beginning to say goodbye. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me but the words seemed so inadequate. I told her she was a wonderful mother — strong, loving and nurturing. I remember once, when I was quite old, that she had responded to my sadness by pulling me on to her lap in my Nana’s rocking chair.

I hugged her and apologized for crying. She said, ‘Why not?’ Then she said, ‘You are a beautiful daughter; now get some Kleenex and blow your nose.’

After a few minutes she said, ‘We’ve had a wonderful life together. Sons are special but there is something very important about a daughter.’  She tried to express her thoughts about what makes daughters different and struggled a bit with the right words. She said, ‘Daughters are more emotional.’ It seem to me that what she meant was that daughters are close to one’s heart in a different way.

I said to her that my brothers had been wonderful throughout her stay. I told her they had comforted her and been loving and compassionate. I told her that we had not left her in the entire 2 1/2 weeks. This seemed to surprise her. I added, ‘We didn’t think you would want to be left alone.’ She said, ‘You were right,’ and smiled softly.

She said that her grandmother was in her late 90s when she died and that she couldn’t remember how old her mother was when she died. Implicit in her remark was her consideration of the age she would be when she died.

‘It’s one of the hardest things you ever do to say goodbye to people you love,’ she said, ‘but it’s important.’

I asked her if she was worried. She said, ‘Not exactly.’ I said we loved her and would be with her every step of the way and that God was with her.

She asked, ‘How is your Dad handling all of this,’ glancing at her hospital bed and surroundings. I said that he was sad because she is so precious but that he was okay and taking care of himself. I said I would take good care of Dad.

She said, ‘I’m going to outlive your Dad,’ and then she added, ‘at least I think so.’ Then she reflected for a while.

I commented on her strength and said that we were raising another strong woman in Maddie. She agreed and added, ‘And Tommy is wonderful, too.’ I reminded her what she had said emphatically to Maddie that morning: ‘You know what? I like you.’

Finally I asked if there was anything I could do to make this easier. She said, ‘Well, one thing you can do is continue to be the marvelous woman that you are — competent, with a high level of activity, a very high level of activity. The world needs you.’

She drifted off to sleep. Not long after this was written, she did make it home with hospice. She passed away the day after Mother’s Day, on May 10, 1999. I miss her.


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My Dad wonders, “What’s the alternative?”

For Father’s Day, I’m putting together a digital scrapbook of sorts. I came across some notes I scribbled after talking with Dad in 2009. We had talked a little about the fact that he doesn’t live in the past despite some agonizingly painful memories, as when my sister died of leukemia at the age of four:

The past is over. And I can’t live in the future. So I live in the present. I have these distinct periods of my life. They’re almost separate lives. I wish your sister had lived. In my last memory of her she was in an oxygen tent, holding out her arms and saying, “Daddy help me.” I couldn’t do a thing.

It struck me that, as emotional as Dad is, he has been – and is – a very practical man.  He does what has to be done.  When memories are too painful, he doesn’t dwell on them.

A few days later, we talked a little more.

“I’m getting to be an old crock,” he said.  I commented, “You do so much better than most people your age – you’re hardly an old crock.”  Then he said, “I hope it doesn’t shock you, but I look forward to being with your mother again.”

Now, Dad and I had talked about his concept of faith and God many times in the past, and he had expressed regret that he couldn’t quite believe in God, much as he might want to.  Further, he found it unfair that my Mom, a woman of so much faith in God, would express fear of death when she was in the late stages of terminal lung cancer.  So I said, “I take it you do believe in an after-life.”  He replied:  “What’s the alternative?” I’ll take that as a yes.

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The hole in my father’s heart that only my mother filled

Saturday would have been my mother’s 94th birthday.  She meant to be that old – maybe older – because she saw herself in the mold of “Han Han,” her grandmother who died well into her 90s.  Han Han always said of illness, “Just make up your mind and throw it off by morning.”  That advice worked for my Mom throughout most of her years, but not against the dementia and lung cancer that led to her death in 1999.

It is because of my mother’s death that I am so conscious of my time with my father.  But to think about my father without my mother is to consider the unimaginable.  From 1939 on, Hank and Eileen were an item.

Every couple has its stories.  My Mom and Dad had the story of their meeting, the story of their first big row, and the story of the marriage proposal.  “That first day, she walked into Dr. Pedelford’s Browning class, dressed to the nines, on Brooke Fink’s arm,” my Dad would recount.  “Two weeks later, she walked out on mine.”   Getting ready for a Gamma Phi dance, my Mom learned from a visitor that Dad still had his fraternity pin on a girl in Yakima.  When Dad arrived to collect her, she handed him $5 for train fare and told him not to return without it.  And then there was Eileen’s cable in 1941 that said she had received Dad’s marriage proposal and was headed East by train with her mother so that they could be married.  Only my father swears he never asked her.  “She married me,” Dad always says.

My mother was a force of nature, not given to feeling sorry for herself or others.  She would have made a great litigator, and wanted to pursue law, but her attorney-father declared that there would be no female barristers in the family.  She took what life threw at her as the wife of a Marine, through the separation of war, and her daughter’s three year battle with leukemia.

On her birthday, what I remembered most was not her formidable strength, but her passion for my father — or rather, the passion they had for each other.

They had the kind of relationship that was a universe unto itself, the world of Hank-and-Eileen, a union forged with heat, strong and impermeable.  In the days after my mother died, my father recalled some of their intimate moments like movie images, how she looked with the glow of moonlight on her body.

My father often said, smiling, that he fought for his pants every day of their marriage.  My mother wasn’t one to back down in a fight, and their fights were loud.  They faced off like two cowboys following a common code of honor.  I never heard them insult one another, or dump pent-up resentments.  And when the fight was over, it was over.

Whether it was grief, illness or anger, my mother moved on.  If she worried, it didn’t show.  To the best of my knowledge, she wasn’t one to dwell on what she couldn’t fix.  She let things go.

But she never let go the fierce passion that she felt for my father.  It’s still evident in the photo above, taken after their 50th wedding anniversary party.  Mom didn’t just look at Dad; her eyes locked on to his.

When my Dad quotes Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra on her barge, I always imagine that he sees my mother in his mind’s eye:  “For her own person/It beggar’d all description: she did lie/In her pavilion — cloth-of-gold of tissue–/O’er-picturing that Venus where we see/The fancy outwork nature….”

He was fascinated by her, but under no illusions that she was perfect.  I also thought that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 brought to mind my mother for him:  “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/That music hath a far more pleasing sound:/I grant I never saw a goddess go,/My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.”

My father’s love for my mother held the conflicting elements of her personality — her thorniness and her love — in perfect homeostasis.

I once asked my father if he had ever strayed outside their marriage, since no doubt he had the opportunity with unaccompanied tours of duty.  He said, “It was never worth the cost.”

I miss my mother.  But my father misses her more.


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