Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dear Dad - a thank you note

Dear Dad,

Today was an all-around dreary day. The kind of weather that makes you not want to leave the house, but rather stay in your sweats and immerse yourself in a good book while time fades away. Well, I braved the weather to leave the house all the same. I went Christmas shopping! Now I'm home, tucked in with Mr. Dog, candles lit, and Vince Guaraldi Trio christmas music playing on Pandora, and I thought I might start in on all my overdue thank you notes.

Ironically, this has been the worst year of my life and yet it seems like I'm constantly thanking someone for something. Twenty thirteen has been one huge lesson in gratitude. Even in death, and beyond, you are still teaching us valuable lessons. Last night I was driving IH35 and listening to a band I got hooked on in college called Death Cab for Cutie. You would have hated their music, more than likely, but their lyrics are like poetry for me and I'm always having new realizations or making new discoveries when I listen to them. It's "emo" music and I'm sure you would have found the songs very "self-indulgent," having no patience for that sort of thing. However, one song called "What Sarah Said" suddenly had a lot more meaning for me last night, one lyric in particular.

"love is watching someone die"

One of these thank you notes is addressed to you, Dad. And maybe not for the reasons everyone might think. As awful as it sounds, and as difficult as it is to say, thank you for letting me watch you die. Thank you for letting me a part of that phase of your life: the ultimate transition.

I have the courage to say this publicly, because I know you understand what I mean. And I know you would want others to understand it, too. I know death probably frightened you quite a bit, especially when it crept up so much sooner than we expected and with such ferociousness. But I also know that it probably intrigued you a little - just as all aspects of life so intrigued you. You could never do anything half-heartedly. If you had to participate in something, it was going to be to the fullest, and someone was going to learn from it. Well, we all learned from this, and we'll go on learning from it for the rest of our lives. In that way you made the ultimate sacrifice: wanting us to learn from your experience, even if it was the last thing you did.

In fact, in your death you probably taught me several of the most valuable lessons of my life, and some I can't even begin to fully understand just yet. I wish it hadn't been quite that way. I wish there had been other ways for me to learn, ways that didn't involve you leaving us. I wish that I had heeded more of what you had to say before the imminent threat of loss cast its dark shadow on our lives, and we had no choice but to listen, and listen closely. I wish I hadn't been so defiant, so scornful of your eagerness to share what you know. I wish I had been more loving, and patient, and kind. But one of the things I'm learning from you, and from all of this, is to Let Go. Let go of those regrets. Let go of those wishes that won't come true.

In those almost six months of saying goodbye, of letting go, I learned so much. I learned that what I put in my body can kill me - literally. I learned that what I eat can also have amazing healing capabilities. I learned that stress, negativity and anger can poison a person in a very real way. I learned that all the cliche things people say about family coming together in the face of tragedy are true and beautiful. I learned how quickly some once important things become so completely unimportant, and others, so previously undervalued, become so valued. I learned what it felt like to honestly, and 100% willingly, put someone before myself for the first time, ever. I learned what it truly means to "reprioritize your life." I learned what it's like to be angry at someone who is dying, even though it's not their fault. I learned about the massive amounts of ugly and irrational guilt caretakers will carry in their hearts. I learned to memorize things about a person I never want to forget. I learned how to talk to doctors and nurses, be a patient advocate, interpret scientific journals, ask the right questions, keep track of meds, and make judgement calls on zero sleep and in the face of heightened emotions. I learned the value in just "being" with someone. I learned when words are necessary, and when silence is enough. I learned when my opinion was crucial, and when support was more appreciated. I learned so much about myself, about our family, about the man you were, are, and how you will forever be remembered. I learned about legacy, the importance of a job well done, a life well-lived, and how we will all define those things for ourselves individually. I learned utter vulnerability: what you feel when you have nothing and yet everything to lose. And so much more.

And then in those last few weeks, oh . . . I learned so much I didn't really want to know, but which made me a better person, a more profound person. About what happens when you die. Like many of your lessons, "it was harmful, but worth it." Depending on my mood I am either very bitter that I can't ever retreat to my prior naïveté, or extremely grateful that I was given the "gift" of this whole experience. But I will never regret being with you till the end. I will never regret spending those five days with you, singing you songs, reading you letters, holding your hand, listening to your breaths, memorizing your heart beats, telling you how you impacted my life, saying my goodbye, and lovingly watching you die. I will never regret it because more than anything else in the world, that is what love is . . . I was there because I wanted to be with you. I was there because I knew you would have been there for me. I was there because I love you. Because love is being willing to watch someone die.

I thanked you in person for the father you were to me, for everything you taught me, for the life you gave us, and the sacrifices you made for our family. And now I'm thanking you for the exit you made, for choosing to spend your final days in your own home, for allowing us to care for you with our own hands, and for letting us be there as you slipped away. Thank you for waiting until we had all had our chance to say what we needed to say and what we wanted you to hear. Thank you for sharing that final experience with me, with all of us. Thank you.

I love you, always and forever.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dear Dad - the most wonderful time of year

Dear Dad,

We are moving quickly towards Christmas. "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." It really is my favorite time. You were often so "bah-humbug" about  the festivities, but I think you actually enjoyed the holiday. I will let myself believe that. I know you liked having us all at home, whether it be when we were little, on break from college, or flying in from out of state. Even though you grumbled, I believe you enjoyed the full house, the molasses cookies, and particularly the cold weather.

Since it's gotten cold we've had to learn how to make the fires in the woodstove. So far we've all failed to make a "roaring" fire the way you did so easily, according to mom. The day after your party a little bird was trapped in the woodstove. It sat looking out at us through the glass. In trying to rescue it, it flew out of the stove and past me out into the big room. Susanna and I went running to open the doors and third floor windows. It flew back and forth a few times, perched on the railings as though trying to make a decision, and then right out into the open air. Free.

We are all looking for signs of you. It's not hard to project symbolism onto experiences like a little trapped bird. It's comforting to think of you as still here, even if it's not in the shape or form we knew so well. It's just another way we are muddling through The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. You are both everywhere we look, and yet nowhere to be found.

I love you, always and forever.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Dear Dad - 2 months

Dear Dad,

It's hard to believe it's been 2 months since you left us. I say "left us" because that's truly what it feels like. It's pretty easy to imagine you're somewhere on an extended vacation (ha!), and might be home any day. When I'm at home - your home with mom - it often feels as though you might be just outside feeding the chickens or weeding in the garden. It's still surreal and unfathomable that you're just not here anymore. I mean, I can't really wrap my mind around what that actually means.

I've felt this overwhelming need to talk to you the last few days. It's the first time since you left that I've really taken the time to just miss you. To accept what it's going to be like with you not here. I've tried really hard to forget those last few weeks, to put the final tumultuous 6 months of your life out of my mind, to celebrate all the good things about your 60 years and my 28 as your daughter. But I'm not forgetting you. I think about you everyday. Yesterday as I was "carrying" my suitcase down the stairs I let it bang on each step. I knew you hated the abuse to your pretty floors, and I was really hoping I'd hear you shout at me to "pick the bag up!" Of course, you didn't. It felt kinda good to be rebellious, but it's not nearly as satisfying as when there's someone to rebel against.

We made thanksgiving dinner and sat around your beautiful table on Thursday. Our first holiday without a patriarch. Again, it was just plain weird - like we sat down to dinner before you were home from work or in from the evening chores. I've realized over the last two months how much you both blended into the landscape and demanded a significant presence all at the same time. You were always "there" with your commentary and lecturing, even when we pretended to ignore or overlook it. Tim sat at the head of the table, and Samson at the other end in his booster seat. It was hard not to see you there, in your normal place. I knew you would have had nice things to say about the food, and I realized for the first time how much pleasure that always gave me when you appreciated something I made. Probably because I know you have high standards, but mostly because, no matter how often we disagreed, I really do like to please you and make you proud.

We celebrated you one week ago today. Last Sunday we gathered all our family, your closest friends, and loyal customers, and we tried to pay tribute to your life. In some ways, it was a very happy occasion. It was so good to be hugged and held and reminded of what you meant to everyone. People came from all over. Your cousins you hadn't seen since God knows when. Old family friends who had fallen out of touch. Nieces, nephews, basketball alumni, neighbors, people I'd never met. At one point there was a line of people to sign in at the guestbook backed up all the way down the stairs of the pavilion. People waiting, in the cold, to leave you a message and pay their respects. You never would have believed you were "that cool" to draw such a crowd. In the bitter wind and freezing temperatures it was warming to stand on that stage and look out at a sea of people, all crammed in together, all there for you. 

Tim served the homebrew - the same recipes you two made for our wedding. He labeled your milk stout "St. Christopher." Margaret sang with the awesome jazz quartet. Susanna put together a slideshow that gave us a moving and hilarious visual timeline of your life. People enjoyed Virginia's tamales, bratwurst that Uncle David grilled, and a mediterranean buffet put together by my friends the 2Tarts. Susan whipped up some pretty native flowers. Lisa, Mike, and Chuck all spoke about you. And I guess I orchestrated things... big surprise, huh? I know. I'm a Bossypants, like you. We all came together as a family to honor you (with only a little bit of drama and flaring of tempers). I'm just sad I never got to do this for you while you were still here, knowing how much you would have appreciated the chance to see all those people. I have to believe that you still experienced it, though, just in a way that is beyond my earthly understanding right now. It was a beautiful and amazing event, and I will never forget it.

I'm looking for you everywhere. I'm listening in my heart for your words of wisdom. I promise I'll write when I feel the need to talk. Maybe we can have the conversations we were never really able to have together in this life. Maybe we'll agree more now that the conversation is somewhat one-sided. :) Maybe you'll let me get the last words in...

I love you, always and forever.