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Jan 25

Death Be Not Tardy

Posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 in Daddy, Mom

I’ve now watched both my parents die and I have a few observations.

It’s a powerful experience being with someone as they die. Even as you sit in silence, it is very intimate and humbling.

No one really knows how to make it an easy experience for the person dying or the witness. Nevertheless, little comforts matter.

It’s an emotional road trip for  the witness. When I got the phone call from the nursing home suggesting that I come in, I felt all of the following: elation, fear, grief, relief, love, gratitude, anxiety, anger, love.

I placed elation first in that list because it was the first emotion I felt. No more tossing and panting and restlessness Mom was experiencing during her struggle to depart. No more frustration over the loss of a word or concept. No more waiting and worrying for me or for others who love her.

My more consuming feeling about death is that he can be a laggard. That’s where the anger in that list of emotions comes from. I’m not angry that death came, but that he seems to take his own time about it. Both Daddy and Mom were ready to go. Neither was scared of death. Both had a strong belief in heaven. Yet both had to wait days for him to arrive. Daddy did it quietly for weeks; Mom was in bed waving her arms trying to get his attention for days. I have a large chip on my shoulder about this. If I ever write a fantasy story in which Death appears, I’ll show him as easily distracted from his task, a little soft in the head, dragging his scythe along the ground; or he’ll be sitting in a bar somewhere watching a football game when he should be out releasing souls or oiling and sharpening his scythe.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it was my parents’ choice to go slowly. It gave their loved ones time to understand what was happening and complete a bit of grieving before they actually left us. They would be that generous. Or perhaps it was just part of their characters. They both taught me to use something up before replacing it. It’s because of their examples that I unroll the toothpaste tube and give it another long squeeze before I throw it away. And just like Mom, I wash sandwich bags and reuse them until they are no longer transparent. Maybe they both felt like they didn’t want to leave until they’d squeezed the last bit of life out the bodies they had been given.

Today, a day after Mom’s death, I’m willing to be a bit more forgiving. Mom would have forgiven a Death who stopped to watch squirrels at the feeder or stayed with another client longer than he should have because that client was scared. She was a patient woman.

Nov 17

A little about Daddy

Posted on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 in Daddy, family

I write about Mom to help me synthesize all the emotions and changing realities surrounding my relationship with her as it evolves during her dementia. I feel like I’ve neglected my father.

Right now, my father’s ashes are in a wicker basket covered with leather. They rest beneath a table in my living room. This seems appropriate because he insisted in dying in the living room and not the bedroom. I don’t think he liked being ignored, although he never tried to take up all the space in a room or dominate every discussion.

He’s also in my garden. I use his ashes when I plant bulbs. I think that’s why I have such a great bloom every spring. I like to feel his continuing contribution to my life. It certainly simplifies our relationship.

Our relationship was complicated by difficulties in communication. There’s a family story–told to illustrate the strength of my childhood temper–about how he whipped me with a real whip, creating welts, and I was too angry to notice. He never hit me after that time and I think I might have been his only child who never got a spanking. I think the experience embarrassed him and he didn’t have a lot of tools to use with me. Mostly he just had his lap, which I loved sitting on, even as a teenager.

He tried to teach me how to ride and I know he was frustrated by that experience. I think he learned by getting on a horse and riding. And I think that’s how my older sister learned. This did not work for me. I did not understand how I was supposed to grip with my legs until a few years ago after I took a tai chi class and learned the horse stance. He had a hard time explaining what seemed obvious to him. I have that exact same problem.

But I went on trail rides in order to be near him. I loved the way he smelled when his own sweat mixed with the smell of  horse sweat and leather and manure. (I get teary eyed just thinking of that smell.) Daddy was confident and  comfortable with horses. They trusted him. He had the same confidence when he worked with leather or tools. He just didn’t have that same confidence with people.

Daddy didn’t have much education. He tried to make it through high school, but had to work. His sisters could find work in town and continue to go to school. He found work on farms and had to drop out after attempting to finish tenth grade a couple of times. His vocabulary was less than mine. I recall arguing with him when I was in high school and he shut down completely, saying something about not being willing to argue with my words.

He was great at reciting old poems he learned in grade school. Or in making up words to a song. I loved sitting with him while he drove because out of the silence would come some crazy story or poem. Or he’d honk the horn and tell me he was honking at a little green bug in the road.

We communicated best while he was dying. I recall every sensation of lying on the bed with him and assuming he was asleep. He reached out and rested his hand on my head and then began to play with the curls on my head. His fingers were rather short and thick, but he could make delicate movements with them. I felt a tremendous rush of love from him in that action. I hope he felt something similar when I massaged his feet and legs and tried to ease some of the aches caused by continual bed rest.

I don’t feel like I knew him as well as I knew my mother. It’s impossible for me to imagine his childhood, his young adult years with little money and two children, serving on the front lines in WWII, or being a widower. I’m very interested in hearing my brother’s memories of him because I feel like we had different fathers in so many ways. Mine had 19 more years of experience and less hair, for a start. And he had the guidance of my mother in how to raise a child.

I can’t keep using his ashes in my garden. Mom wants to have her ashes mixed with his. I think he would have been very touched by that desire.