Posted by: jevcat | January 2, 2011

Losing Dad

Many of the readings in the daily lectionary the last few days have been about parents and children, and that, coupled with the fact that Wednesday, Twelfth Night, will be the 14th anniversary of my father’s death, has me thinking a lot about Dad, so here’s a longer-than-usual post about that time.

People tend to look at me strangely when I say I’ve rarely laughed as hard as I did the night my father died, especially those who know I really did love him, but it definitely was a strange, topsy-turvy mix of emotions that evening.

Mom had died in the spring, and, to our surprise, Dad did well initially, although it was a terrible loss to him.  Then in November, he was hospitalized with a bad infection, and we thought we would lose him right then.  But he rallied and was back at the nursing home where he had lived since a couple of years before Mom’s death by Thanksgiving.  He was still on an IV, so we were not allowed to bring him home, but a good friend had invited us to dinner so that we could spend the bulk of the day with Dad.

We loaded up my car with my home-made apple pie, a vcr machine, a performance tape from a show my brother had done, and Solomon, a wonderful border collie-flat-coated retriever mix belonging to friends, whom Dad adored and whom I was dog-sitting that weekend.  Solly brought a smile not just to Dad but to everyone who saw him, and we had a marvelous afternoon together, both that day and, less riotously, later in the weekend.  By later the next week, however, the fever had returned and Dad was non-responsive.

For weeks, I spent most evenings there, my brother coming on Sundays and, when his work and his location across the city permitted, other days, as well.  It was, needless to say, a strange Christmas that year.  By the first week in January, I was exhausted and skipped a couple of days.  The January fifth was a Sunday that year, and I didn’t even go to church, but spent some time with friends who were planning their wedding amid much healing (to me) joy.  That evening, I headed for the nursing home while my brother, unusually for him, did not, instead spending the time with another friend and her mother, who herself was in her last days in hospice care.

When I got to the home, they were much relieved and said they had been about to call me.  In those days before cell phones, I had no way to reach my brother, so I just went in and sat with Dad, whose breathing was rapid and filled with effort.  I held his hand, then climbed onto the bed next to him and put my arm around his head.  It had been weeks since he’d appeared to even know I was there, but I said all the things one is supposed to say to the dying:  that I loved him, that it was okay to go.  Nothing seemed to help.

Dad had loved Bach’s Passion Chorale, and the hymn O Sacred Head Sore Wounded had been running around in my head for days.  I began to sing softly to him, getting to the last verse:

My days are few, O fail not, with thy most gracious power,

to hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour;

that I may fight befriended, and see in my last strife

to me thine arms extended upon the cross of life.

At the last word he gave a long exhale, and all was quiet.  At first, I didn’t believe it.  I kept thinking, “Nah, things happen this way in movies, not in real life.”  Finally I went out to the nurse’s desk and told them.  A nurse came in, confirmed what I already knew, and said I needed to wait until the doctor came to sign the death certificate.

And that’s when the funny things started.  I looked at my watch and realized it was exactly the time I was meant to be at a friend’s for dinner, which we had planned to order in.  I knew she would be worried if I were late, so I scrounged in my bag for a quarter, found a pay phone in the hall, and dialed her number.  Now, what I need to explain here is that, in my friend’s building, the security intercom goes through the phone line.  So the conversation went like this, “Hi, …”  “Oh good, you’re here,” followed by a buzz as she pressed the door entry button and click as the receiver was replaced.  I was left standing in the nursing home corridor staring at the silent receiver, wondering if I had another quarter – and whether I should laugh or cry.

I found another quarter, re-dialed.  She answered, heard my hello, started to ask, “Oh, didn’t I buzz long en–” but before she could finish (and hang up again) I shouted “I’m not downstairs!”  and told her what had happened – not the ideal way to break the news to someone who was quite fond of my father, but …  She, of course, now felt horrible (actually, she says she still feels guilty) and insisted she would come be with me, although I told her she didn’t have to come.

She arrived not long after, with a bottle of Diet Coke and a package of rice cakes – all she’d had in the house and could bring without stopping on the way.  The doctor having by this time signed the death certificate, she came in to pay her respects, and we then we sat, swigging Diet Coke and nibbling nervously on rice cakes, while we waited for the funeral parlor staff.

The funeral folks arrived, we were ushered outside into the hall, the man who had shared my father’s room for the last week or so was wheeled out, as well, and the door closed.  As we stood in the hall waiting, the roommate began berating us for gold-bricking.  We tried to explain we were not staff but relatives of his deceased roommate, but, as he suffered dementia, this was not a productive effort.  He threatened to have us fired.  We looked at each other:  “Okay, now what do we do?”

Then the door opened, and the funeral folks wheeled out:  an empty gurney.  Puzzled, my friend and I looked at each other, then into the room, where the bed was empty, then back at each other.  She asked, “What have they done with your father?”  We turned back again to the gurney as it turned the corner toward the elevator, and noticed that, just below the surface on which someone would normally lie, was something that almost looked like padding on the underside, presumably a receptacle for the deceased.  We turned back to each other yet again, the roommate still yelling that we were lazy and yes he could, he would have us fired.  Our eyes met, and it was just all too much.  We started to laugh, helplessly, doubled over, leaning against the wall, and wiping the tears from our eyes at the same time.

Later, clearing my father’s few belongings from the room, we found ourselves laughing again, probably because we didn’t know what else to do, as the roommate, once more ensconced in his room, shouted that we were stealing his things.  I don’t remember what, if anything, we finally had for dinner late that night.

There was more laughter and tears a few days later on the day of his wake, people talking about Dad, his specialness, his love for Mom and us, and groaning as his favorite bad jokes and puns were repeated yet again.  We also talked (and laughed) about his complete lack of color or fashion sense, which drove Mom to distraction and had left her practically in tears at times and had led to much discussion between my brother and me as to what to bury him in.

Dad had had a passion for Hawaii from having been stationed there during World War II (I may be the only person in the world whose childhood bedtime stories came from Michener).  My parents had always meant to go back so he could see it again “when we get a little ahead.”  They never did get really ahead, and when his health began to fail, Mom made the decision to raid a good portion of her small and only recently acquired retirement nest egg to take Dad back to Maui.  (I was blessed to get to go along as driver and luggage handler.)  Partially disabled by then, he’d still had a wonderful time, and come back the proud possessor of a Hawaiian print shirt whose background color was a cheerful plum (it was the least loud thing in the store and Mom had been able to exert some influence).

We really wanted to bury him in it, but figured Mom would come back to haunt us if we did.  Then I had a brainstorm:  he had a pullover sweater my brother had given him that was a grey heather with threads of plum mixed in.  We could bury him in the pullover, of which he’d been very fond, with the Hawaiian shirt underneath, only the collar showing – hopefully not enough to register on Mom’s now-heavenly radar.

Before the first session of the wake, the funeral folks had shown us their handiwork for our approval – a situation that always baffles me, as does the American way of handling death in general, and I am never certain what the appropriate response is.  We made some sort of generic approval noises (“He looks okay considering he’s dead” did not appear to be quite right) and began greeting friends.  In the quiet after the dinner break, however, I went to stand by the casket, remembering him, when my eyes fell on Dad’s wrists, where just a hint of plum Hawaiian print peeked out from under the pullover cuff.

I grabbed my brother, yanked him over, and pointed, speechless.  He followed the direction of my finger, did a double-take, and looked back at me.  After a moment, very hesitantly, he asked, “Ummm … wasn’t that a short-sleeved shirt?”  I nodded.  We stared for a minute, wide-eyed, first at each other, then back at the cuffs, then back at each other.  We had evaded Mom’s sense of propriety (no haunting) but, apparently not that of the funeral folks.  The evening session began with the two of us holding on to the prie-dieu in front of the casket to keep from falling over laughing.  (Try explaining that to your nearest and dearest.)  We spent the rest of the evening dragging people over, pointing, and watching reactions.  Dad would’ve loved the absurdity – and probably did.

Sometimes we’ll still picture some distant future archaeologist trying to figure out what late-twentieth-century burial custom involved cutting the sleeves of the deceased’s shirt and pulling them down to make cuffs …

Dad, Mom, Me, and "The Shirt" on Maui


  1. You’d told this story to me, in person, but it’s even better in writing. And I like getting to see The Shirt! This is a wonderful tribute. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. I agree–
    what a tribute!

  3. I’m still chuckling over the roommate and gurney. I’ve been a hospice chaplain and never saw a hideaway like that. Wonderful. Keeps the residents from freaking out, I guess – or waxing philosophical. And the sleeves! What a story! Thank you for including a pic of the three of you. It makes the story so very real to me. I’ll smile for a long time over it.

  4. You and I started blogging at about the same time. Nice bit to know.

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