Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Grief's hard work. I'd known that intellectually, but I've still been floored by how exhausted and predictably-but-unpredictably weepy I've been. My crying jags have decreased from once an hour to four or five times a day, which is, I guess, going in the right direction. I've been gamely tackling chores, but much remains to be done (notably a mountain of grading, getting higher by the minute).

Yesterday, my friend Katharine picked me up to run errands. She told me that she and her friend Pamela -- among the few people here who've met and shared meals with Dad -- have been praying for him. Pamela told Katharine she'd sensed Dad moving confusedly among a crowd of people, and that when she pointed him towards the light, he said, "Thank you." I'm a little skeptical of that, but it's still comforting. (If I'd sensed it myself, I wouldn't be skeptical at all, of course.) They're the ladies with whom I often knit on Thursdays, and this Thursday we're going to do a sort of knitting vigil for Dad, including music and readings. I'm very touched that they suggested this idea, and I'm sure it will make me feel better.

Katharine took me to the funeral home, where I gave the funeral director information for the death certificate, to be picked up from the Health Department later this week. (This is all computerized these days.) I asked if I could see Dad, and the funeral director said yes, so Katharine and I spent several minutes with Dad's latest incarnation. He was very cold, of course, but still recognizably my father, and I had a good cry and kissed him, and Katharine cried too, and it helped with closure. The undertaker told me that Dad's remains have been accepted by the UNR Anatomical Donation program, despite the edema in his left arm which initially made them think they weren't going to take him. (Pamela told me that her 90-something grandmother was rejected from an Anatomical Donation Program for being too old. Jeez!)

From the funeral home we went to the nursing home, where I learned that I'm getting a full refund of the extra money I paid last week. That was good news. Then it was off to the bank, where I closed out Dad's account. We ran an errand of Katharine's, stopped for a yummy Austrian-food-and-pastry lunch, which I bought for us from the cash Dad had given me before he went into the hospital this last time, and then took a shopping break at a yarn store. From there, we went to Dad's old apartment to collect mail (I found a note that I could collect a parcel of mail at the post office today), and then to my and Gary's bank so I could open a separate account with Dad's small pool of funds, from which to pay his outstanding bills. I saw someone who looked familiar in the bank waiting room, and realized that it was the nurse who'd been with Dad when he died, and who'd wiped the tears off my face later. We talked for a few minutes before the account rep called me into her office.

From the bank, we went to the assisted-living facility to start packing up the newer place. I started crying the minute I walked in, of course, and was virtually useless while Katharine -- and, later, Gary, whom Katharine had picked up from home when he got back from his hike -- packed and cleaned and organized. I kept getting distracted by papers and sidetracked by photographs and sideswiped by grief, and around 5:00 I realized I was exhausted and announced that we were all going home. There's a lot more to do in the apartment, but Gary and I should be able to get it done this week.

Dad's file cabinet contains not only a wonderful assortment of family photos, but also the logs of his epic voyage, in a none-too-seaworthy thirty-foot wooden sloop, from Chicago to the Gulf Coast in 1989-90. Fran was with him on that adventure, and among Dad's DVDs, Gary found twenty-seven minutes of footage of the raising of the sailboat's mast in 1991. This effort involved many large young men, a lot of beer, and tons (literally) of arcane equipment. Dad lumbers through the footage like a slightly roly-poly whitehaired bear, and Fran runs around delivering cold drinks. Gripping cinema it's not, but Dad's years on that boat were the best time of his life, so Gary and I made a copy to send to Liz.

I meant to get to sleep early last night, but instead got to sleep late, slept badly, and was a zombie until about 2:00, when I went swimming for the first time since Friday. I'm still exhausted, though! Yesterday I notified the VA about Dad's death; today I canceled Dad's phone and called his oxygen company to pick up the concentrator -- they'll get back to me when they've received the official order from the VA -- and went to the P.O. to pick up the bundle of mail and put in two change-of-address forms (in the craziness, I'd never filed one for the first apartment) to have all remaining mail sent to my house. Anyone who calls Dad's phone number will get a message with my number, too, so I don't miss any of his calls.

Everyone was very kind when I told them that my father had just died. Many shared stories of their own recent bereavements.

Oh, this morning I also called the Anatomical Donation Program to find out where Dad's body is going, since the funeral director told me they'd be using it "soon," which doesn't fit with dissection by first-year medical students. The program coordinator told me that Dad's "remains" would be used in the next month, perhaps to train surgeons in new techniques or to teach flight nurses how to insert chest tubes. I wound up sobbing into the phone and blubbering, in one of the week's more surreal moments, "B-b-but I want him to be dissected by medical students! Because I teach narrative medicine at the medical school, and I want to go to the memorial service next year and hear what they've written about my Dad! Please, can't you make sure he's dissected by medical students?"

"We'll try," the woman told me, sounding slightly flustered, "but I can't promise anything."

I guess he'll be helping science no matter what, but I really do want him to be a first-year medical-school cadaver, in part because that way he'll be worked on longer and won't be cremated as soon. I'm not ready for his "remains" (oh, for heaven's sake, just say body or corpse, can't you?) to be burned up so soon. Weird and morbid, I know, but there you have it.

Oh, and here's another surreal moment. Before we entered the apartment yesterday, I wondered if Dad's poinsettia would be dead. The poinsettia was from church at Christmas: people donate them, and then they get given away, and our priest Sherry (the same one who came to be with us when Dad died) gave me this one and said, "I know you can't take it, because it's poisonous for your cats, but maybe your Dad would like it?" I accepted happily, because he loves red, and it's been on his windowsill ever since. I'd watered it once or twice, but was sure it must have died in the last few weeks, so I was delighted to see it still perky and red on the windowsill.

"Do you want a poinsettia?" I asked Katharine. "We can't take it, because of the cats."

"Sure," she said. But when she picked it up, an odd expression crossed her face. "Susan, this is a virtual poinsettia."


"It's fake. It's not a real plant."

"It's fake?" Someone donated a fake poinsettia to church? Jeez! "But I've watered it a few times!"

Katharine and Gary started giggling, and so did I, and finally Katharine, snickering, carried the pseudo-poinsettia into the hall and deposited it on a knick-knack table. My. Amazing things they can do with synthetics these days. Evidently no one at church caught on either, which makes me feel slightly less foolish.

In the middle of all this other stuff, I've also been paying Dad's bills, answering condolence notes (both handwritten and electronic), talking to friends and relatives on the phone -- my sister and I have been talking every hour or two -- and crying a lot. My psychiatrist called today, and so did the people who run the study at Stanford (both the nurse and the doctor).

Various folks have asked about memorial plans. We aren't having a service in Reno, because hardly anyone here knew him. Liz and I will do something with his friends in Ocean Springs, MS this summer or (more likely) next. Dad wouldn't want anything even remotely formal, let alone anything in a church. We have talked about memorial contributions, though. I actually had the wits to ask Dad about this the day before he died. Liz and I haven't set up anything official yet -- registering or whatever one does in these cases -- but if you have money burning a hole in your pocket (really likely in this economy, I know) and want to give to a worthy cause, Dad was a big fan of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which works against hate groups and teaches tolerance.

And, as always, thanks for all of the incredibly moving comments people have been leaving on my posts. As I said when I last posted, I've decided not to respond to them individually, but they mean a lot to me.

Thank you.


  1. Anonymous1:17 AM

    I've posted these words before, but I'd like to tell you again that you are in my prayers. I'd also like to second your father's admiration for the Southern Poverty Law Center. I don't have money to give them, but I'd like to suggest that they sometimes just need people to offer time opening mail and such.

    I'd also like to suggest that you're doing better with grief than I've ever done myself. As strong as my faith is, as distant as the loss of my Grandmother should be (she died at the ripe age of 87 more than 25 years ago), I had a terrible plotz when I moved recently and the movers broke the glass in the dresser she had as a child. Just the thought that she had gazed into that looking glass and seen features that I recognize in myself -- and that even that spotty old mirror can be broken and lost forever caused me terrible pain.

    I strongly suspect we're made to reject even the thought that lives (and the memories associated with them) can end, which I see as a form of proof that God's plan did NOT involve the grief we feel when we are parted from loved ones. Because of this belief, I especially applaud your desire to have your dad's body live on in the training of doctors who, one hopes, will soon take oaths to prevent as much pain and suffering as possible.

    There is something very sacred in that. And in knitting. Knitting binds together all manner of wounds.

  2. Hi. I was very happy to find your blog after all the beauty your books have brought me, & then I was very sorry to hear your father had passed. I hope you feel better soon & I hope he gets to be dissected by med students. I want to be dissected by med students too. I dissected a pig in 8th grade, & apart from the pig being dead, I thought it (the experience) was so neat I decided I wanted my (eventual) death to let people do something like that. I hope you feel better soon.


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