My sister Ally, never one to mince words and even more, not one to forget an event like ‘burying our father 17 years ago…..on Valentines Day, in a blizzard, in a little country church cemetery’ texted (me) us sisters something along that line last Friday, on Valentines Day. I will admit, I have been so busy that the 17th year anniversary of losing our father February 9th and then his burial on Valentines Day (2003) escaped me.
Of course, some of you may read that title and think our humor off key and yeah, truth be told that is exactly what defines us as dad’s children. There was no one that had better dry, sarcastic humor than my dad.
When I got Ally’s text I couldn’t help but laugh because along with the text, “happy dead dad burial day aka happy valentines day” came two GIF’s….
I went to show a few co-workers the texts and GIF’s (giggling, of course thinking my sister hysterical) and was met with a combination of “do I actually laugh at this?” and the obligatory “Oh, I’m sorry….I didn’t know your dad was dead”…. (much less buried on Valentines day, just go ahead and say that too!).
I guess I am to blame for the Valentines Day burial so many years ago. I made the final decision but it involved several layers in making the decision (weekend, family traveling, other church commitments the church had)…..
This is always awkward. I’ve learned to hate euphemism’s about death. The idiosyncrasy always outweighs the reality in these situations. I have tried to use every alternative to define his death, my brothers death and my mothers death in such a way as to help the other person feel as though they didn’t just open up some deep dark void of despair. “It’s ok” I always say, “it was a long time ago”….
It’s weird though. It’s like a rite of initiation into a club that you never wanted to be a part of, yet we will all be unwilling members at some point in our lives. I just got there a bit sooner than most.
I always get weirdly excited when I meet someone who also has a dead parent or sibling. It’s not that I am glad for their loss but more so the knowledge that I know they “get” the loss of losing someone. I have to stop myself from seeming overly passionate to hear their story, try not to be too excited at the revelation that this person and I now share an intimate, horrible connection known as the “dead dad club” (or dead parent, dead sibling etc).
I think the thing that is even more weird for me is realizing just how many people do not understand that type of loss. In my naivety I assume that everyone understands that part (the end part) of life. When I listen to people share their stories about their aging parents and life decisions regarding nursing homes and long-term care options, I feel a sense of being cheated. Dad would be 82 this year September. What would he be like, I wonder? Still kicking around the farm tinkering on this or that? Or would we also have to be deciding those things for him? We got shafted on having elderly parents and even more shafted on growing old with our eldest sibling.
Daren died first. It was 1985 and like all sad, tragic stories he was here and gone in a blink of an eye, lost at the age of 22. That sucked. It still sucks.
Then dad died at the age of 64 after a short, dramatic, hellish 6-month battle with lung cancer. There are no words to describe watching this man that was always larger than life to me slowly wither away to someone I barely recognized in his casket. One of my last memories of him was watching him as he was in the bathroom, through the crack in the door (he was starting to get slightly confused from his liver shutting down and I was afraid he would fall) and seeing him stop and just stare at himself in the mirror…..I wondered what he was thinking? Did he even recognize himself?
Mothers death came a few short years later, also lung cancer. By this time though we were all pretty much numb to death and simply went through the motions.
At the time, I being one of the eldest, was only in my early 30’s, with both parents gone.
We were ‘orphaned’ as a young family. That changes people. That changes perspective.
I began mourning first my dad’s death, then mother’s long before they were gone. I mourned that they were leaving us, as they deteriorated before my eyes. The toll of that type of grieving, prolonged and inevitable grief is debilitating. People don’t understand that kind of grief, though we make the effort to. I believe it’s called ‘caregiver grief’, though its difficult to talk about that type of grief as openly. Perhaps that’s why I connect with people who have known the same type of loss. Dad’s death was so different from mothers in that I felt like time both warped by and stood till as we quickly and slowly lost him over those 6 months. Mothers death was surreal, like “we just did this” type of thing. Oh wait, we had just done it. I felt extreme guilt for wanting her death to just be “over already”. The sadness I felt when I learned of their illness was so different than when they each died. The end brought relief, and intense guilt for feeling that relief. The interim had proved too much and that sadness from the emotional limbo of time both warping and standing still while they were dying took its toll on each of us. So meeting people that have experienced that same loss brings about this euphoria that for a brief time someone else understood, truly understood “our” kind of loss.
But there was more to our experience than just losing our parents. Growing up life had been….difficult. Its not worth describing it or detailing out our family dysfunction, I mean lets be honest, we are not the only people to experience a failed childhood. Instead what became so very difficult was realizing that it wasn’t just about losing our parents, but it was more about the realization that their deaths closed a chapter of our lives that would never be complete because of their untimely passing.
Could we have healed as a family with more time? That was a question that would never have an answer.
In my late forties, I experienced my first bout of anxiety (something I had hated about my own mother, as I thought her weak) and found myself on anti-anxiety medication…..and sitting somewhat reluctantly in front of a “shrink”.
[shrink] Tell me about your life…..
[me] There’s not much to tell…..
[shrink] Okaaaaayyyyy, so then lets start at home. Any stressful issues there?
[me] Not really….
[shrink] So everything is good at home?
[me] yeah. (stare down) Well, I mean yeah…..I mean mostly….I mean my husband has cancer, my son has a mental illness….but you know, things could always be worse….
[shrink] Ummm…ok… Do you have a support system beyond your homelife? parents? siblings?
[me] Yeah….I mean my parents are dead, they’ve been dead for years……and my oldest brother died years ago in a car accident but I’m very close with my other siblings……
[shrink] She stopped typing notes into her computer, turned to me with moist eyes (great, I’m going to have comfort the therapist I think) and said, “You’ve had some hard life experiences”.
[me] I guess I have. I guess we have.
Before dad died he told me to “take care of things….take care of everyone…Your mother will need help…and Chad is still in (high)school….and Lonny will need help….and……”. I stopped him and told him not to worry and I assured him I would see to all of it. I took that quite literally and for a time I lost myself in the process. Running away seemed easier but one can only run for so long before life beckons us back to the person that we have always been.
I won’t lie. I want my dad back, I miss him the greatest. I would love to see him just one more time to tell him that we are okay. That for a time after he passed I held things together but then I lost my way. But the beautiful thing that happened is that everyone else held it all together when I couldn’t.
But now I’m back.
And dad….well, his life and his death has been the glue that holds us together as a family. For all of his failings he taught us beyond measure to love one another.
“Be good to your brother/sister for they are your siblings forever” he said to me more than once as a child.
He was so right.
Happy Valentines Day dad.
Ally, as much as February 14th is bittersweet for you, I believe it to be beautiful and meant to be that on a day that we are meant to honor those we love, we laid our first love, our dad to rest.