Tag Archives: loss of a father

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 Kingdom of the Wing Chair

I knew that when Dad died, it would be hard to have a room in my home that was so linked to him in my mind. I didn’t want it to be a mausoleum nor did I want to purge it of his presence. I want it to be a sanctuary where guests are welcomed but where I can still retreat to remember the last seven years that he lived here. My big idea is to have a friend create a painting that honors my memory of him. And as time has gone on – now four months since he died – I realize there is no way to create something about Dad that doesn’t include Mom. Though they were strong individuals, they were that rare couple that becomes a single entity through the strange chemistry of attraction and the catalyst of shared experience.

When I initially imagined a painting, I thought about it honoring my parents as I knew them at the end of their lives. But now I picture it drawing upon a long-ago period, a period when they were the pillars of my world, and I was small.

I don’t write poetry – at least I haven’t in years – but somehow thinking about the painting prompted this:

It should have a wing chair in it.

We always had wing chairs.

It was where Daddy let the stress of the day ooze out of him

While he read the paper, sipped a scotch on the rocks,

And maybe another.

Sometimes his hand would rest lightly

On the head of one of our spaniels,

Who sat stock still for his attention.

It was where I sat on his lap.

Where he read to me about the Land of Oz.

I wanted to be like Ozma who rescues Dorothy

From the terrors of the disturbing Wheelers.

People shouldn’t have wheels where hands and feet should be.

But then Daddy’s shouldn’t have heart attacks,

And dogs shouldn’t bite you in the neck,

And Nana’s shouldn’t die.

I wanted to be brave.

Sometimes Mom would stand next to the chair,

Her hand resting lightly on the wing

The hand with her wedding ring

Loose at her side.

Smiling as a present was opened,

Laughing at a joke,

Meeting Daddy’s eyes and sparkling.

Sometimes he would look at her and quote something

About a barge with purple perfumed sails and love-sick winds.

Next to her I could smell the delicate scent of her bath powder,

Which she applied with a fluffy puff that made me sneeze.

There were fights sometimes, and those scared me.

Mother’s voice rising, then father’s, and mother’s right back.

I knew bad things could happen to parents,

Would it happen to mine?

But when it was over it was over.

But nothing bad ever seemed to happen in the kingdom of the wing chair.

It was sacred space.

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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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Seeing Dad at the Marine Barracks’ Evening Parade

(Then) Lt. Col Henry S. Campbell, Gen. Pate and Gen. Leonard Chapman

As my plane ascends quickly out of Reagan National Airport, through the mist that hangs over Washington DC on this cloudy spring day, it banks steeply to the right, providing brief glimpses of the tree-lined suburbs below.

My mind is cycling just as rapidly through images from this past week and especially the last two days.

Last night, seated next to an older man in the VIP section at Marine Barracks’ evening parade, we approached the end of the 90-minute spectacle of Marine precision. Pass in Review had just concluded after the Marine Corps Band, Drum and Bugle Corps, Alpha Company and Bravo Company had marched smartly and precisely in front of the evening’s honorees and Col. Christian Cabaniss, Commanding Officer of the Barracks.

“There he is,” my seatmate Larry said. Looking up to the tall parapet, above which the reproduction 15-star flag snapped in the rapidly changing wind, I saw what he noticed, a lone figure in a red Drum and Bugle Corps uniform. The lights on the parade ground darkened and a spotlight lit the bugler. The crowd rose, and waited.

So slowly that it ached, the bugler blew the haunting refrain of Taps. I wondered who Larry was remembering, afraid to look in his direction lest I catch him welling up for friends lost in the Vietnam war, his first combat operation.

Though my Dad was here 55 years ago, when the evening parade was a “moonlight innovation” (as the newspaper described it at the time), he was a phantom by my side the whole evening.

Major Sarah ArmstrongBefore the parade, in the Drum Room of Center House, I chatted with Maj. Sarah Armstrong who was manning the log of drinks served to active duty personnel of the Barracks. Her demeanor easily toggled from a relaxed chat with the visiting daughter of a late Marine Colonel — socially at ease, articulate, with a ready sense of humor winking under the surface — to a direct gaze and ramrod straight bearing when greeting the Commanding Officer.

Photo credit: USMC, Marine Barracks Washington 8th and I Facebook page

I told the Commanding Officer that, as the youngest of my siblings, I had no memory of the Barracks. The silent drill that I remembered was a demonstration performed at home by my father with an umbrella. The umbrella did not always fare well for the experience.

Col. Cabaniss said that his youngest daughter seemed less than impressed by his position in the Corps. She was more likely to “Oh, Daddy” him than his eight year old, who liked the idea of giving orders. “Sir, she even orders me when she visits,” added Major Johnson.

As the reception progressed, I superimposed my father upon it. He was there, standing and smiling in the direction of Gen. Pate. On the other side of Gen. Pate stood Gen. Leonard Chapman, then Commanding Officer of the Barracks and later Commandant.

In the photo, Gen. Chapman is smiling broadly, looking directly at the camera. Given his rank and position, he cannot be a man to trifle with, but the warmth and welcome in his face is striking.

Dad looks a little less relaxed, but you can tell he likes these men under whom he serves. Respect and admiration shows on his face, but so does affection.

Having grown up outside the shelter of the Corps, this is one of the things that strikes me: the obvious affection between the men and women I see around me.

In corporate life, we may develop deep and long-lasting friendships. We learn to behave as a team. Inevitably, we work with a few who set us on edge.

I know from my Dad’s stories that there were men he didn’t like and men who didn’t like him. He once reported for duty to his new Commanding Officer (not Col. Chapman) and was greeted with the statement, “I didn’t ask for you.”

But I know he loved many of the people in the photos. It was in his eyes when he spoke of those he admired.

I saw the same mutual respect and warmth in the relationship between Col. Cabaniss and the current Executive Officer, LtC. Tom Garnett. In response to my question about how he came to be Executive Officer, LtC. Garnett said that he had previously served as Col. Cabaniss’ XO and was asked to join him in that role again when the Col. was given command of the post.

When I left Center House that evening, LtC. Garnett was standing by the door. I thanked him for his hospitality and told him how deeply the event had affected me. I told him I appreciated meeting Col. Cabaniss and could see why he would be pleased to be his XO, not once, but twice. I added, “And I can see why he is lucky to have you.”

He raised his index finger to his lips, smiled and whispered, “Shhhh.”

These are men and women who train together not just for the ceremonies that are a major part of the mission of the Barracks, but for survival and success. The officers I met had a common thread in their service history: Afghanistan.

I grew up in the time before 9/11, during a long period of peace. My generation had never been called upon to defend our freedoms. Most of what my generation knew about warfare came from movies and video games. It took becoming a parent to make me realize the vulnerability of the men and women on the line of fire, someone else’s sons and daughters.

I once asked Dad how he could have had the bravery to run toward enemy fire. He answered, “You do it for the guy next to you.” Your brother.

Here at the Barracks, you meet people who have been chosen to uphold the legacy of the Marine Corps, a storied history, ultimately, of military successes against terrible odds. The ribbons on the Marine Corps battle flag, presented during the ceremony, is a graphic reminder of each of the campaigns in which the Marine Corps has fought since the beginning of the country.

As the Marine Corps Hymn says: “… First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean: We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine.”

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A Man of Action Lives On

scream/photo by YnR under CC license

It happened in an instant. I had just picked up my brother at the airport and we were cruising in the center lane of I-80 headed east, just past Norwood. Explosion. Dust. To our right, a white pickup truck was suddenly 10 feet up the embankment of the overpass, tipping precariously, almost flipping. Then back down, bouncing twice. Landed, disabled, jutting into the far right hand lane. In those two? three? seconds we passed the woman in the truck, screaming so loudly that we could hear her through my nearly sound-proof car windows.

“Pull over!” Dean said, pulling out his phone and starting to dial 9-1-1. Then he opened the car door and prepared to walk back to see if the woman was safe,

My brother is the kind of guy you want next to you in the crunch. He didn’t hesitate.

This morning, the moment is still vivid in my mind. This morning, it occurs to my Dad must have been like that, the kind of man who would instantly be there for his Marine Corps brothers in a dicey situation. I am reminded daily that Dad isn’t really gone. He lives on. In us. We are his legacy.

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Everyday Moments

outside my bedroom this morning

Here’s what I didn’t do when I first awakened this morning: I didn’t wonder to myself if Dad was awake yet or whether this might be the morning that I found he had slipped away.

And last night, I didn’t begin my bedtime meditation asking for God to release Dad and take him home.

And at dinner time, as Todd and I dined outside for the first time with the arrival of balmy BBQ weather, I didn’t watch Dad’s eyes as he admired the growth of the redwood tree next door, or listen as he launched into, “Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to th’ rooky wood.”

Losing someone you love is a big change, even when it’s expected, but what I notice most are the small things – the everyday moments that have taken new shape.

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