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    Elisse on The First Year of Grief Is as…
    The First Year of Gr… on Postmortem
    The First Year of Gr… on A Eulogy for My Father
    The First Year of Gr… on Keep on Truckin’
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The First Year of Grief Is as Much Fun as You Think It Is

A year ago today at this moment, I was waiting for my father to die. I had recently returned from a trip to visit him and my family, and it was clear he wasn’t going to hang on much longer. I had pretty much said goodbye then, so I decided not to travel back for the death watch but rather wait for the funeral and to help with post-mortem errands.

The afternoon dragged on as I kept expecting the phone to ring, for The Moment to arrive. As I prepared to leave my office, my sister called. She told me he died, we talked a bit, and I hung up. I cried for two minutes, then, slumped in my task chair, stared at the walls and the stuff in my office. I’d been bracing myself, as if the moment I got the news I would bust through a barrier. It was more like my engine failed or my tank ran dry, and I just slowly, slowly rolled to a stop.

Conventional wisdom says the first year of grief is the hardest. Yeah, whatever. It’s a cultural lie designed to make life emotionally tidy and to create structure for Hallmark Channel movies. For me, there were easy moments of Yeah-I-know-Dad-died-but-it-didn’t-really-happen-right? as the idea sank in. I also had the benefit of my mother visiting for half of the year, and she, Doug, and I had some good talks about Dad and not about Dad. And there were plenty of oh-yeah-Dad’s-really-dead moments. Daily.

The only thing I might change besides, you know, resurrecting my father, is that I would have preferred to be there when he died. Or close by. Even on my way there. Losing my shit on a layover in Detroit seems preferable to plodding on distractedly in my office. I’ve had a year’s worth of work days to do that, and some days I still do. I didn’t have more to say to him. Maybe I wanted to be useful to my family. Mainly, I wanted to witness the event.

I wonder what it is about commemorating a year that feels important. I think I’m just programmed to acknowledge the day and my first full trip around the sun without Dad. Doug is better at ritual. He’ll help me think of something commemorative to do that’s just right, something small, probably involving ice cream and swearing at other drivers.

More Than Our Share

Doug made it sound as if we were going window shopping. “Let’s just see what dogs they have,” he said. I fell for it, and of course when he locked eyes with a little red-brown dog shivering on a dirty blue blanket, there was no way we would leave without her. The attendant clipped a leash on the little dog’s collar so we could take her for a “test drive.” The shivering, pitiful creature transformed, suddenly energetic, full of hope, barking loudly what in English would have been “Get me the fuck out of here!” Neither of us had cash or our checkbooks, so I drove to the nearest ATM to get the $40 adoption fee.

As we paid the fee and finished the paperwork, a woman left crying. The attendant explained that the woman’s dog was very ill and had to be euthanized. The woman sat in her car, next to ours, sobbing and inconsolable. I felt guilty as we left with our new, loud bundle of joy, but I wanted to get away from her and the warning she was giving us.

Me & Sophie enjoying babytime.

Taken shortly after we adopted Sophie in 2000.

So we can’t claim we didn’t know from the beginning that our time with Sophie would end, sooner or later. It’s easy to get lost in imagining that a loved one is immortal, and we did, but we also took her to the vet at the slightest indication of trouble. We’ve been dreading her death for the past eleven years. On Tuesday, the day came. Sophie had been limping for a month and had been tested and treated for various ailments, but her problems didn’t go away, and her pain increased.

As it turned out, I wasn’t with her. Two weeks ago, my father died after months of suffering from lung cancer. Doug and I both attended the funeral, but Doug sensed he needed to get back even though our dogsitter reported no problems while we were gone, and we hoped Sophie was on the mend. Doug had to go it alone, taking her back to the vet (she’d been so many times in the past month) and then to a specialist who identified a perplexing spot on her x-ray as bone cancer. There was no miracle cure, just painkillers that probably wouldn’t make things even temporarily better for her.

For the past few days, I’ve been sobbing off and on like that woman I saw on Sophie’s adoption day. I haven’t cried like this in years, since the summer of 1994, when two of my friends died within two weeks of each other (but that’s a story for another time). Even after Dad died, I had a hard cry once or twice, but it just didn’t hurt like this hurts. He loved his cats like Doug and I love Sophie, so I know he would understand. There was so much happiness in our eleven years with her. More than our share. We were lucky, and now we’re greedy for more. Continue reading

A Eulogy for My Father

Tonight, my father’s family and friends gathered to remember him. Instead of allowing one person to attempt to sum up my father’s greatness with a single eulogy, we had a few of them.

My niece, nephew, brother-in-law, and partner all spoke, and so did I. A few of the guests spoke, too, including the best man from Mom and Dad’s wedding 53 years ago and a woman Dad hired 28 years ago who said she was closer to him than her own father.

Dad and I (March 2011)

Dad and I (March 2011)

Here’s what I said, including a few lines I stole from an earlier post:

Long before supposedly modern men carried “man purses,” my father carried one, and he had the nerve to call it what it was: a purse. He was being a bit ironic, maybe a bit feminist, but mostly, he needed a bag for shlepping his notebook, pen, computer, and who-knows-what-else. If he walked out of the house without it, he’d say, “Oops, I forgot my purse,” and he’d go get it, and all would be right with his world.

Whether nature or nurture, I inherited his purse obsession. Taking after Dad, I like a deceptively simple bag, especially courier style. When I flip back the flap, I want to see a plethora of compartments that would put a rolltop desk to shame. But I also want it to be easy to carry. And I’d really prefer to find it on sale.

Occasionally, Dad and I would go purse shopping together. He would point out an impressively durable snap, I would find a hidden compartment, then we’d ooh and aah, whether the bag was made of supple leather or ripstop nylon. Times likes these were the ones I enjoyed the most with him. Browsing. Shooting the shit. Exploring possibilities. I sometimes felt I wasn’t doing enough to entertain or impress him, but he didn’t seem to want much more from me. Whatever we were doing, he just liked to have some time with me.

I don’t want to misrepresent our relationship. I actually don’t have a lot of great memories of us from my childhood. He seemed pretty impatient with me at times and, frankly, wasn’t around much due to work and volunteer commitments. During the time we spent together, he explained mechanical things to me I didn’t understand, or that I understood but couldn’t do. He liked to take apart my toys and show me how they worked, but I couldn’t comprehend why that would be interesting.

We didn’t really hit it off until after I moved out and, when I was about 20, came out as gay. I’m sure I was pretty guarded as a kid, afraid to reveal who I was, assuming my father would hate me, disown me, or kill me. The funny, fortunate thing was that the truth actually set each of us free, and brought to life the father-son connection that lay dormant for years.

Openness worked well for us in the twenty-plus years since then, allowing us to find how we’re similar and to appreciate how we’re not. The inherent conflict I used to sense subsided into minor disagreements we would talk about but not dwell on, and a lot of agreement that I wouldn’t have believed was possible when I was a kid. He was still pretty quiet, both in person and on the phone. Having that time of shared silence meant a lot to both of us.

On a few occasions, he would get serious and tell me I could do anything I set my mind to. He pointed out my strengths and possibilities without setting expectations. He thought it was my responsibility to come up with my own specifics. Just because I had his name didn’t mean I had to be just like him. Some people don’t get that. They assume a son should be like his father in ways that are easy to see. If Dad expected that, he didn’t pressure me. He seemed to celebrate what makes me unique, and I don’t question he was proud of me. But he also enjoyed the little ways we’re similar. He loved that my signature resembles his. We both fill the available space with the “J,” “F,” and “B” of our first, middle, and last name, leaving a trail of jumbled supporting letters in between.

Unlike my mom and I, who can battle when necessary, Dad didn’t like conflict between us. We settled into a quietly intense way with each other. We could talk about difficult things, even painful things when necessary, but he wanted us at least to be on the same side even if we weren’t always in the same place on everything.

Dad had plenty of close calls in his life. He survived a fire when he was a teenager, a motorcycle accident when I was a kid, and, most recently, prostate cancer. Some might use these stories to create a myth of my father as an invincible hero. While it’s true Dad was strong, I’m much more interested in how he was a person who experienced joy and pain, someone I’ve loved even at his, and my, weakest moments. He carried me along so many times when I needed his help, and as I grew up, he showed me he loved me by trusting me to do the same for him.

If he needed me, he’d let me know. When I came back to visit in March, Dad was already looking pretty worn down. We were waiting to be called in for his appointment with his cardiologist, and the waiting room was full. Mom sat next to him, and since there was no chair on his other side, I stood next to him. I felt him take my hand. I asked if there was a problem, if he needed something. He shook his head, looking relaxed, content. The last time he’d held my hand–well I don’t remember; maybe when he helped me cross the street as a little kid. Otherwise, we’ve touched mainly at hellos and goodbyes. It was the best feeling. I wanted everyone to look at us, to witness the gesture, to feel all that I felt it meant, and we held on until they called his name.

Postmortem

I feel a little guilty for cheering on my father’s death. It’s what you do when someone lingers on after months of suffering with no hope for improvement. When more time only promises further deterioration, it’s time to go. As of a few hours ago, he’s gone.

Over the past few days, as his death has been clearly imminent, the ubiquitous question has been “Are you okay?” I appreciate the concern but I’m sick of the question. What answer is acceptable? If I say I’m okay, I’ll get accused of denial. If I say I’m not okay, people will keep attempting to make me okay when what I want is to just feel this experience as honestly as I can.

Losing someone I love and like as much as I do my father is not okay, not in the least. But months ago, when he was diagnosed, I accepted it would happen, and I accept now that it’s done. Besides a little bit of shoulda-ing and coulda-ing, I’ll move on, and I’ll miss him. Not a fucking bit of it is okay, but I’ll do it.

At the moment, the best thing anyone can do is not try to touch my pain, not tell me how to feel, and not compare my experience to theirs, at least not right now. I’ve been through this kind of thing before. I know the drill enough to know what I need. I’ve cried and will cry again. I’ll ask for help when I need it. I’ll remember some silly thing Dad said, and instead of just chuckling to myself, I will probably tear up, but I’ll still laugh. And if somehow I got the chance for a couple more decades of taking him for granted, I’d damn well grab that deal.

Meanwhile, no casseroles, please.

Keep on Truckin’

Mom stomps off from the salesman. I’m already out in the lot looking at cars. She rushes past me with the salesman gaining ground.

“I guess she doesn’t want to talk to me,” he says, chuckling and letting her go on. I wait until she’s out of earshot and apologize. Mom thinks this is effective strategy in the car-buying game, but rudeness won’t get any of us very far.

Mom test drives an SUV. The saleman attempts to make conversation, and she undercuts him. He patiently continues to tell her about the vehicle’s features, and I jump in to keep the conversation going. Back at the dealership, she relents a little as we do a lot of waiting, but her tone sharpens again when he tells us they’re going to offer us $3500 less than we’re expecting for the truck she’s trading in. My father’s truck. It’s an insult, Mom says. The salesman rationalizes that their customers don’t want trucks, that there’s a much smaller profit margin on their new vehicles than at other dealers, blah, blah. My sister and her husband, who know more about these things than either Mom or me, said to hold our ground and not take a penny less.

So we go to a different dealer. The salesman there seems young and like he might be learning on the job. But he’s just the right amount of chatty for Mom. She goes easy on him, laughing with him a little and giving him advice as if he were her grandson. But the trade-in offer is even lower. If anything we’ve expected this offer to be higher because it’s definitely a truck dealer. Getting the minimum amount is crucial so Mom can afford to make the payments. But the truck is also worth it. It’s in good shape. The only reason my sister and I want Mom to trade it in is because it’s for work, with dual rear tires and an enormous tool box. Dad loves his truck, but he won’t be able to use it anymore. And while Mom has no problem driving it, the warranty expired a few years ago. Dad’s not able to work part-time anymore, and now they have his medical bills on top of everything else. If the truck breaks down, she might not be able to afford to repair it, and it’s their only car.

Mom understands, but she’s held off to spare my father’s feelings. It’s taken her many months to get up the nerve to go car shopping. Having little patience for car dealer manipulations, she lets her displeasure rip. The salesman wants to know how much we want and where we’re getting our numbers. I can’t tell if he’s confused, concerned, or both, but he seems to sincerely want to understand our position. Just as we’re getting somewhere, my sister calls, so I rush out and tell her what’s been going on, feeling a little bit bad about leaving the guy with my angry mother. My sister wonders if the estimator doesn’t realize the truck has a diesel engine, which adds to the value. I rush back in to pass along what she’s told me. Continue reading

Late Stages

It’s the little moments that matter.

One day, when I was about five years old, I heard the door bell ring. My father had taken his motorcycle around the block to road test a repair. He’d told me to stay in the house, keep the doors locked, and not let anyone in. He’d be right back. I’d heard him drive off only a few minutes before. But I was five. I couldn’t see outside, and I wanted to know who was there, the insistence of the rapidly ringing doorbell undermining my father’s command.

I turned the knob and struggled to open the door, as a butler must feel opening the front door of a grand estate. On the front stoop, my father stood, breathing hard and shivering slightly. One sleeve of his grimy, weekend t-shirt was ripped apart, and his jeans were torn away in various places up and down his legs. The holes revealed bloody wounds, and drying blood trailed from his scalp down his face, down to his neck in some places. Red seeped through cotton and denim. Life seemed to be oozing out of him. Even though he was standing there, eyes open, I assumed he must have been dead.

As he opened the screen door, I backed out of the way, afraid to make a sound as he stomped past. I can’t remember what happened immediately after that. He probably went to the bathroom to tend to his wounds. I’ve lost the part of the story between feeling frightened and then, later that day, learning that he’d lost control when his motorcycle skidded on cinders. When I started riding a bike around the neighborhood a few years later, I had the same problem, only I knew to anticipate dangers like that. I had much to learn from, and even more to learn about, my father, who’d come back to life.

*****

Dad had survived death at least once before. When he was 13, while staying with his grandparents, he was filling a lawnmower with gasoline and, somehow, the gasoline ignited. The left leg of his jeans caught fire. His grandmother ran to him and smothered the fire with her apron, but not before he’d suffered third-degree burns on his leg, and resulting in second-degree burns for her. If she hadn’t been nearby and moved so quickly, Dad might have burned to death, and I might not exist.

His recovery involved the healing of his wounds, of course, but he also had to learn to walk again. He was not a patient patient. He snapped at people who tried to help him. His grandfather had to give him a talking-to. Dad got the message. He cooperated, healed, walked. The episode became a powerful memory that stayed with him.

*****

I’m not, as some people might assume, thinking about all of this because of Dad’s recent diagnosis: lung cancer, stage four. Sure, he’s on my mind more lately, but the past weaves itself into every moment. The present serves as a filter.

Some people would, and perhaps will, use these stories to create a myth of my father as an invincible hero. He’s strong; he’s always been a fighter; etc. And while all of that’s true, I’m much more interested in my father as a person, who experiences joy and pain, someone I’ve loved even at his, and my, weakest moments.

*****

For my first 20 years, I thought Dad must have been ashamed of me. He stayed busy with work and volunteer activities. During the time we spent together, he explained things to me I didn’t understand, or that I understood but couldn’t do. He liked to take apart my toys and show me how they worked, but I couldn’t comprehend why that would be interesting. And I was a huge sissy. Continue reading

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