Sunday, March 22, 2009

Twenty-Four Hours

By the time I post this, I'll have known of Dad's death for twenty-four hours. It's been such a surreal day: I kept thinking, "What was he doing twenty-four hours ago? What was I doing?" Approaching 7:00, when he died, I became more and more restless, and finally hit on a ritual that calmed me. A little before seven, I lit a candle, started playing "Lark Ascending," one of his favorite pieces of music, and wrote in my journal. The entry turned into a letter to him about how much I miss him. The music and the writing carried me safely past the moment of his death, as well as the moment when hospice tried to reach me and couldn't. Writing this blog post will carry me past the moment when I arrived at the nursing home and found him, and then realized what had happened.

Last night I fired off a lot of e-mails to friends, and my inbox has been flooded with wonderful condolence notes today. I know I need to answer all of them (Emily Post, iirc, points out that this is one of the activities that carries us through grief), but today I didn't have the energy.

I should also answer each of the seventeen comments blog readers left me today, but I hope you'll all forgive me if I respond with a blanket "thank you." Each comment meant a great deal to me; I cherish all of them. So please consider that written seventeen times in response to each of your notes!

I slept horribly last night -- very predictably, I know -- and got up this morning feeling like I was underwater. I've had periodic crying spells through the day, which has dragged very heavily. Gary tells me that time moved more slowly after his own father died, and that's true for me now, too.

I've been on the phone with my sister almost every hour, and I've spoken to my mother and to various friends. My friend Katharine is canceling appointments of her own tomorrow to drive me around to the funeral parlor, the bank, the nursing home, the VA hospital, and so forth. If there's time, we're going to shop for yarn, and on Thursday evening, we're definitely getting together to knit. She said I should bring Dad's favorite music so we can listen to it.

My friend and colleague Chris, who'll be covering some of my classes this week, came over so I could brief him on lesson plans, and also shared some of his own experience from losing his first wife to cancer ten years ago. He told me the best way to deal with regret: by realizing that if we'd done the thing we regret not doing, we'd only regret something else we hadn't done.

I've had many regrets today: for things Dad didn't get to do, for things I think I could have handled better, and most of all for the fact that I wasn't there when Dad died. I wanted to be. I told Dad I wanted to be. He had other ideas. Everyone I've talked to thinks that he left when he did so I wouldn't see him die, but even if he was sparing me, I'm angry, because I didn't want to be spared, and I'm not really spared at all anyway, and how could he not know that?

The hardest part about last night wasn't seeing him lying dead, because he was peaceful and looked like he was sleeping. The hardest part was when the undertaker came and -- after gently asking me if I'd had enough time with Dad -- picked up Dad's body to move it to the gurney. Before that, he'd looked like my father, but when his limbs started flopping around and his head lolled to the side, he was no longer my father, but a husk. Maybe it's good I saw that; maybe it's closure. I don't know. The undertaker carefully arranged Dad on the gurney and wrapped a sheet around him. Before covering Dad's face, he said -- gently again -- "Are you okay with this?" I said I was; I thought I was, but when the sheet went over Dad's face, I started crying again. My father had turned from a person into a package. I kept crying while the package was zipped into a plastic body bag and wheeled out the door, but again, I'm glad I saw all that. I just wish I'd gotten to see the moment that led to it. I'm glad the nurses were there and could describe it to me.

Dad's donating his body to the medical school, so I know that more people will have the chance to learn about and benefit from his life. Every year the medical school has a memorial service for donor families, and the students read pieces they've written about their cadavers. I've heard it's incredibly moving, but only families are invited, so I've never attended one. Next year or the year after, I'll be able to do that. The medical students who learn from my father will, in a strange way, know him better than anyone in Reno except me and Gary, because he didn't have time to make friends here.

Sometime this week, my sister and I will work on an obituary over phone and e-mail. She can't come out here because she's taking care of Mom; there wouldn't be much for her to do, anyway. Instead of a funeral, we'll have an informal memorial service with Dad's close friends in Mississippi, but that won't happen until this summer at the earliest.

As sad as Liz and I are right now, we're glad we can concentrate more fully on Mom.

My uncle (Mom's brother) called today, and I had a nice long talk with him. And someone from Dad's assisted-living facility called. She told me that she wishes all the residents' families were more like me. "You were your father's best and strongest advocate, and he knew it. There's very little more you could have done for him."

That was good to hear, but of course I'm still haunted by what "very little more" I could have done, and whether it would have made any difference. I'll never know in this life, most likely, although I've been half-praying for a sign -- or something I can interpret as a sign -- that Dad's happy somewhere now. I asked my sister to share any dreams she has about Dad, and promised to do the same.

Twenty-four hours ago, I'd known for fifteen minutes that he was dead. There. I'm past the first day.

I've been wearing his watch -- ludicrously huge on my wrist -- since last night, and I'm wearing his favorite shirt-jacket, too, a fuzzy plaid thing that makes me look like a scarecrow, but makes me feel wrapped in warmth. Tomorrow, probably, Gary and I will start packing up his apartment. There are some things of his I know I want, and others my sister wants.

My sister sent me a lot of great photos of him. I'll post them sometime, but not tonight.

Peace be to you all.


  1. Dear Susan, I lit a candle for you all at service at the Episcopal Cathedral tonight. Am glad you reached out by blogging to take the sting out of that first, one-day anniversary. I think it is always harder if one wanted to be there, but wasn't. Just don't be mad at YOU--you couldn't have known.

    I am a weird chaplain in that I often help transfer bodies to the gurney and sometimes help prepare the bodies as well. If indeed the body is creation and God found it good, then these are sacred moments even though the essence of a person is no longer in that body. I hope in time you will feel glad that you were there.

    Prayers of course still ascending.

  2. Oh Susan, it's no use telling you not to torture yourself with regret. I too wanted to be with my mom, and she went while I was in church on Sunday morning, taking communion. I can't help thinking she did it on purpose. There's no where she would have wanted me to be more than in church. But I wanted to be with her. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  3. I don't suppose it helps at all to say that all your feelings are normal?

    As to wishing you were there, and not wanting to be protected by your dad, I've seen dying people wait way beyond what we thought possible for that one person to show up...and I've seen other dying people who, the family having sat vigil for days, waits until they go out for a breath of fresh air to pass.

    If it helps at all, think of it not as him sparing you, but his needing to wait until you were not present to hold him on this plain -- your going home for a little bit allowed him to do the letting go his spirit needed: you gave him a clear path.

    We have two great passages in our lives: birth, and death. Not surprisingly, they have much in common, including the fact that we have little to no control over them. Just like a pregnant woman cannot tell her babe when to leave her body, a loving family control their loved one's passage out of life. I believe these great transitions are something we can witness, but the details are between the individual spirit experiencing it and God.

    Continuing thoughts and prayers for your whole family.

    Hug Gary, hug a cat, laugh, cry, remember and celebrate your dad's life as makes the most sense to you.

  4. Susan, it's good that you're doing all these things...blogging, wearing his stuff, listening to music, and being with friends who knew him. Sharing helps so much! Thank you for doing so and please keep on doing it. And Thank God for Gary who's just gone through this and is there to be a helpmate to you! Yesterday during the blessings at church I received for one for you and your family.


  5. I'm here this morning because Lee told me of your loss, Susan and how hard you were taking the death of your father. There is little more that I can add to the comments left so far, except that the grief will ease into warm memory and then you'll keep him alive for as long as your heart beats. I love my mother seven years ago, and still I see her face and hear her voice so clearly that I am not sure why it is that I can't pick up the phone and call her. I do everything always with the thought in the back of my mind, Mama would like this...the pain of her leaving is far behind me, and the warmth of her love for her family wraps me like a sweater. It will be that way for you, too. Let your friends comfort you, that's what friends do. I'm sure your Dad is reunited with long ago family and friends and is quite content where he is...
    God grant you Comfort and Peace

  6. Anonymous7:18 AM

    Dear Susan,

    I am so sorry to hear the news of your father's death - I gasped aloud when I read of it here in Rochester yesterday morning, but could not get my computer to transmit a message until now. I am so glad that so many people have written so promptly to share their experiences and offer you their support.

    When I read your blogs about how your father died in hospice while you were eating dinner at home, it reminds me of the stories I have heard from another friend whose father died at home while my friend was out having dinner with friends. I don't know why it happens that sometimes the people we love want to leave this life while we are not looking, but I do believe that they continue to love and care about us in their new life with God. And whatever we may regret about what we did or did not do in the days before they died, I also believe that they know and appreciate the depth of our love for them more fully in God's presence than they ever did before.

    I said a prayer for you and your father and your family in church yesterday morning, and I will continue to pray for you as you move through this grieving period.

    Peace be with you and yours,


  7. Anonymous11:53 AM

    Peace be unto you as well.

    I've been reading your blog since well before your dad got sick, and I've cried many times because you have been so eloquent in expressing the human face of our struggle with mortality. Today, I don't know what to add except my constant belief that God's will is better than anything we could ever hope to plan or control.

    No, that's not true. I have one more thing to add. Parents often talk about the difficulty of controlling their children's actions -- but I learned a long time ago that parents have much more influence over their children than kids can have over their parents. Trying to control ANYTHING your parents choose is harder than herding cats.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that you have impressed me as having the most loving, most Christian approach to your father's illness that I have ever had the privilege to read. Having said that, I hope you'll remember that Christ said,

    "Place my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls, because my yoke is pleasant, and my burden is light.”

    I have every faith that Christ has taken on your father's burdens now.

    God bless you, Gary, Liz, and your mother.

  8. Anonymous5:21 PM

    We don't know each other, but I've been reading your blog for some time. I just want to tell you how much your love and respect for your father touches me. From everything you've written, the man lived well. I fervently hope you find peace and comfort in your memories and the love of family and friends in the coming days. JB

  9. Anonymous5:50 PM

    Susan, like JB, I've been following your blog for many months. You've been so generous, to share with us your experience of caring for a dying parent. I'll be in your shoes in a few years, and I hope that I can be as caring and brave as you have been. You are like a light in a dark place.

    Thank you.


  10. Anonymous6:28 PM

    Susan, I'm so sorry.

    Airedale Lover

  11. I wept. Then I left you a message here.

    You are, as always, in my thoughts and prayers.

  12. Twenty-four hours
    a year, a lifetime
    a fold in space
    a wrinkle in God's palm.

  13. You say "I've been half-praying for a sign -- or something I can interpret as a sign -- that Dad's happy somewhere now." We did have an odd occurrence after my Dad died (2007) which I wrote about here:

    We were with my Dad when he died - he just slipped away quite peacefully. We didn't get to the hospital in time to be with Mum, but she was on The Liverpool Care Plan for the Dying, so had been sedated for some days. I am still haunted by how terrible Mum's last days were, and am very grateful to my wonderful Counsellor who has helped me to remember the happy times as well as the awfulness.

    Your Dad was immensely lucky to have you to care for and advocate for him.

    Thank you for sharing your time over the last day with us.

    I found organising the Funeral was of help. It was the strangest thing when Dad died, completely unbidden the hymn "For All The Saints" just sprung into my mind, so we sang it at the Funeral.

    Will be thinking of you and your family.

  14. My prayers are with you and Gary, Susan. from nyc all the way to nv.

  15. Just a checkin note to send love and prayers. Everyone reacts differently--if you're at all like me you may feel so exhausted you feel as if you are walking through honey... Thinking of you and Gary and etc.

  16. Susan, I visited your blog for the first time in half a year. I'm incredibly sorry about your Dad's death. Peace be with you.

  17. To Susan the daughter, having lived through my own father's death, I wish you peace. To Susan the chaplain, please know that sharing your experiences has been helpful for others who have been there.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.