Tag Archives: father

The Empty Place

My father Christmas 2012

On my son’s last night in the country before moving to Japan, I served cake at the kitchen table.

“That’s weird,” my son said.

I looked at him for explanation.

“It doesn’t seem right to serve food at that place.”

I followed his gaze to the slice on the far side of the table. It took me a beat or two to understand. My father’s place.

The far side of the table gave my father the best vantage point on the household comings and goings, and the brightest natural light. My children sat across from him; my husband to his left. I sat at his right hand.

He is there even when he isn’t.


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How Dad Survived

Dad holding Midge's hand 1953

Dad holding Midge’s hand 1953

I have often wondered how my father survived a dysfunctional family, the horrors of the war, the loss of his nearly four-year-old daughter to leukemia, the sudden end of his career for medical reasons, and finally the loss of his wife after 58 years of marriage. Any one of those experiences would have damaged most people.

But Dad wasn’t most people. Perhaps my vision is clouded as his youngest, his only surviving daughter and, for seven years, his caregiver. Maybe the magnetic attraction I feel to ponder his bigger-than-life story is a father-daughter thing. Whatever it is, I’ll take it. Dad has been gone for 14 months and I still learn from him every day.

I was there when Mom died, at the moment her heart finally gave out at the end of a three-and-a-half month struggle with late stage lung cancer. He was steadfast at her bedside, holding and stroking her hand, looking in to her eyes and telling her he loved her and would see her again. She died connected to him.

In the hours and days after that loss, Dad felt that severance as an open wound. He did not know how he would survive it. We all knew the survival statistics for men who suffer the loss of a life-long mate.

As he reflected out loud about their life together, he asked, “How can I live without her?” Over time, within weeks, that rhetorical question subtly changed. It became, “How can I live without her?” And then, “How will I live without her?”

In his questions are clues to Dad’s survival strategy.

With the first question, he assessed brutal reality. Can I survive this? Do I want to? Can I imagine life without Eileen?

Slowly, the “how” came into his inner dialogue. Dad the planner began to emerge. He began to focus on what lay ahead even if it was as simple as assembling the groceries for the four meals he said he knew how to make. He was a realist, and not an escapist. He began to imagine making it, in a world without Mom, day by day. His image of himself was eminently practical: a guy who would rise around seven, make coffee, feed the dog, read the paper, prepare some oatmeal, do some chores, go for a walk, have lunch, take a nap, read a book, make dinner and retire at ten after a few TV shows. Thrown in there somewhere was the endless maintenance of his collection of hunting guns, and perhaps a few calls to line up skeet shooting or fishing junkets with one of his sons or his friend, Bob.

After the massive heart attack that forced his retirement from the Marine Corps, I imagine that Dad’s view of his future self changed radically. He was in his mid-40s, a guy being watched for higher command, a Colonel with all the right prior postings. That guiding occupational dream drove him.

After finding himself out on the curb, his motivation changed. Everything, everything in him aimed at the seemingly insurmountable task of recreating a professional career that could support his wife and four children, none of whom had yet completed college.

“Be clear about your objective” was more than a military tenet. To Dad, it was a commandment. After keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table, his number one goal to secure our education.

Pursuing his objective left little time for leisure. What time he had went to connecting with the outdoors, a source of succor throughout his life. Wading the banks of a promising trout stream or crunching through the stubble of a shorn, frozen wheat field in search of pheasants was his idea of a vacation. Whenever possible, he would share that transporting experience with his children.

Although his dream had been sacrificed, Dad never expressed bitterness. Mom wasn’t above assuming a little high dudgeon about what would have happened if Dad had been able to continue his career, but her comments were never a complaint or rebuke. Dad could easily have looked at his abrupt departure from the Marines as a failure, but I never sensed such a deflation in his self-esteem. A door closed, another had to open. Had to, to educate his children. His sense of self worth was tied up in taking care of us, not stroking his own ego.

A recent Scientific American Mind article described the work of psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which sought to identify universal values that might guide one’s life. Constructing them as a compass:

At the north is a universalistic orientation, which includes tolerance… and self-directed thought. To the east are hedonism… and personal achievement in the eyes of others…..Moving southeast, one can find dominance…. To the south is a believe in the importance of security and safety…., and to the west are humility and caring….  

A related study by Ravenna M. Helson, Ph.D., of UC Berkeley divided women into four groups over the course of their lives: seekers, conservers, achievers and “depleteds.” “Conservers valued tradition, family, security and hard work (the south of the compass). The achievers wanted both personal growth and the ability to excel at what they did (covering an area along Schwartz’s compass from the north to the east),” Scientific American Mind reported.

Those who identified as “conservers” were the most content.

Dad knew who he was, even as he worked through jarring crises. He knew what he wanted, even as his goals changed. He did not waste time longing for things outside of his practical reach. And he knew what he wanted to leave behind.

He never talked about his legacy, but if he had, it would have been for the four of us to have satisfying lives with children or people we love, acting with integrity and ready make a difference – however small – in the lives of those around us. Nothing grandiose. Nothing impractical. Just an immutable sense of self in service to others.


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Holding Hands

Holding on to love

The first thing my estranged cousin did when I met her was ask to see my hands.

Elizabeth took my hand in hers and looked at my finger tips. “They’re like mine,” she said.

I had never met Elizabeth. I didn’t even know she existed until she or her brother — I don’t remember which — wrote Dad a note after my mother’s obituary was published in the Yakima paper. You may not know us, the note said, but we are the children of your brother, Ed.

The year after Mom died, I took Dad to Yakima – a last chance, I thought, for him to see the old family home, connect with a few childhood friends before they were gone, and meet his niece and nephew.

Inspecting her fingers next to mine I saw no resemblance. Her fingers were delicate and tapered, capped by long nails that extended in white tips. Mine were of a sturdier sort, not ugly, but not something I would ever show with pride. I smiled and said nothing.

Elizabeth was looking for a connection, physical reassurance that she was a Campbell, like us.

My father had no doubts about her parentage. He accepted that Elizabeth and her brother were his niece and nephew. Family resemblance shone in their features. Though he loved his brother, who had so tenderly overseen the medical care of my sister Midge as she struggled with childhood leukemia, he could not understand how Ed could deny paternity. That rejection — the events leading up to it and following it — were part of the heritage of dysfunction that stemmed from their father.

I imagine that I am holding my father’s hand. Though he complained that they showed his age, I found them handsome. While Elizabeth’s fingers were thin and tapered, his were straight and square. His nails were near-perfect rectangles, the white base of his nail beds almost a straight line. The tips were filed to conform to the shape of his finger tips: neatly squared.

Mom and Dad often held hands. Especially when traveling in the car, he would reach over and clasp her hand. Her hand would linger in his.

As a teenager or young adult in the car with Dad, he would occasionally do the same with me. My hand would lay encased in the warmth of his. And it made me acutely uncomfortable. I had gotten to that age when physical affection, for more than brief moments, was awkward. If I snatched it away quickly, would it signal that I didn’t reciprocate his affection? What was the soonest I could gently withdraw my hand without seeming ungrateful?

By the time Dad moved here, Mom was gone. His primary physical connection was severed. Once Mom died, almost no one held him, rested their arm around his shoulder, reached over for the familiar three pats on the knee. Dad always said that we are a three pat family. Not one, or two, but three.

I had a special privilege as a daughter. Though my brothers hugged my Dad, and might rest their hand on his shoulder, they faced the added limitation of male-to-male contact. Or so I guess.

As I drove between my Dad’s assisted living community and my home, I often reached over and clasped his hand in mine. We would drive that way for a few miles, separating when I might need both hands to navigate an intersection. I no longer squirmed. I would feel the warmth of our hands together and think of the love that flowed between us.

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Birthdays Remembered

Just now, my fingers hovered over the keyboard, not quite ready to land. If I don’t write about it, if I pretend that tomorrow is just another day, maybe it won’t be real: one year since my Dad’s last birthday.

I have a parade of Dad’s birthdays marching through my head. There was his 87th birthday when he had a speech all prepared beginning with, “Four score and seven years ago….” That was the last time I tried to faithfully match the number of candles to his age.

Five years earlier, Dad’s surgeon had emerged after an eight hour cardiac bypass operation with the good news that the procedure was a success, and the bad news that he expected this one, Dad’s third, would last only five years. When we gathered the family for his 87th, the five year timer had gone off. We faced the possibility, even the likelihood, that Dad would die within the year.

We drank a lot that night, liquid accompaniment to the many toasts, stories and recitations of Dad’s favorite poems. In the midst of it, Dad cocked his head, raised his glass and looked directly into my eyes. I think of the smile in this picture as my smile. He would purse his lips gently, the way I do when I’m about to cry, and the corners of his lips would lift. He held that pose, for one beat, two, three. That gaze remained on his face for as long as I wanted to look back. To me, it said it all.

Scan 2

Two years later, Dad moved permanently to California. The word went round before every birthday: you should come, it might be his last.

When someone’s death is predicted for nine years running, it starts to become comedic. We began spreading out family visits to provide Dad with something to look forward to. Two years in a row, I turned Dad’s birthday into a road trip, taking him to Monterey to enjoy an ocean front room and a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

As Dad gazed up at the aquarium’s 28 foot high tank, the pale blue light of the tank washed over him. He seemed to drink in the majesty of the display before him: swaying fronds of kelp, swirling sardines, cruising fish. Its beauty moved him.

Dad and me at the Monterey Aquarium 2010

By his birthday last year, his 96th, much of that joy had slipped away. His rich, brown eyes had faded, and it was harder to rise to the occasion of a party in his honor, even a small one. He was quiet, though he enjoyed his lamb, and of course there was chocolate cake. He always had room for chocolate cake.


I could not envision celebrating his next birthday with him. And I was right.

This year, there’s no Pendleton shirt wrapped and ready, no bacon-and-eggs breakfast planned, no chocolate cake in the refrigerator. For most of the world, it will be just another day. But for me, it’s the first birthday that wasn’t.

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What makes caregiving so hard?

I thought I knew what hard is. Hard was being nine months pregnant, diagnosed with pregnancy induced hypertension (ankles bloated to the exploding point), and getting ready to present the first full-scale consumer awareness study to the hospital system execs for whom I worked. Hard was working full-time, while trying to be a good mother of  a one-year-old and  studying for my M.B.A. during nap time and at night. Hard was working a full day with two hours of commute time on either end.

Being responsible for someone who needs your help and care, it seems to me, isn’t exactly training for the Olympics. But it can feel that way sometimes.

My Dad doesn’t need assistance with the basics. He dresses himself, puts his hearing aids in, eats independently, and has the toileting thing pretty much under control. My caregiving gig is a lot easier than many.

I think what’s hardest for me is the emotional burden – dodging obstacles, holding others up who worry from afar, and coping with the no-end-in-sightedness. I am constantly anticipating problems and talking steps to circumvent them, for example, clearing my Dad’s path of trip hazards and pre-emptively clearing dishes so that my he will not take it upon himself to do so, toodling from the breakfast table to the counter with dishes in both hands (and thus without either cane or walker). When a medication stops working and needs to be adjusted,  I run the gauntlet of conversations with doctors and care staff, trying to get accurate information about the situation (clarifying, clarifying, confirming) and calling and finally badgering someone into changing medical orders.

Dad is unstable enough that my brothers now worry from afar. I understand their vigilance, having felt just the same way when home in California during my mother’s four month hospice period in 1999. When I report setbacks, which have been more frequent during the last month, I get messages from my brothers asking if this is a crisis and whether they should book flights. I know their messages are code for, “Do you think he could die?” I try to reassure them. Understanding that you are going to lose someone is to begin grieving. I know they hurt. [Brothers who read this: this is not a complaint. I really appreciate your increased vigilance.]

We’re not there yet. Several times of late I’ve been asked what I will do when “this period is over” (code for “when Dad is dead”). I don’t know. I can’t plan. If I get my head in the future it will be even harder to manage the day-to-day. So I am actively avoiding long term planning.

Right now my whole world is the next two weeks, in which I hope we will stabilize Dad’s underlying congestive heart failure condition so that his weight swings and shortness of breath resolve, at least until the next unsettled period.

This shouldn’t be that hard. But some days it is. Fortunately, today is not one of them. So far.


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