Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More Irrelevant Pictures of Beaches and Birds

My father died two weeks ago. I was at the opera, of all places, when it happened V. (formerly b&c) and I had gone to see Un Ballo en Maschera at the Kennedy Center. I had, as usual, slept through much of the first act and was looking forward to a period of post-nap wakefulness for the final two acts when I noticed people using their iPhones. I was so shocked by the possibility of AT&T reception in the Kennedy Center that I pulled my own phone out, and I saw that I had three messages: one from my mother, one from my sister, and one from my brother. "Well, shit," I thought.

The official causes of death were listed as prostate cancer and renal failure. He had not had too much pain until the very last days, and on the one hand, it is very good that he didn't linger. On the other hand, of course, it sucks that he's dead. I have a little bit of distance on it now, and it appears to be true that time heals. On the other hand, time is also what kills us all.

We had a memorial service for him the following Sunday afternoon, at his church in Bradenton. My sister sang, beautifully, and I marveled at her composure. My mother had asked me whether I'd like to sing, and I told her my voice was wrecked from the crying. My sister told me, "I'm an Army wife. We learn to process things quickly."

My brother, my sister, and I had all been to see him within two weeks of his death, and I think that we had all pre-grieved to some extent. That may have been helpful. Or not. At the very least, we all knew it was coming soon.

I spoke at the service, and I had to speak slowly, so as to be only a moderately weepy mess. It was one of those things that I did because I figured I would regret it later if I didn't. I had made sure to tell my father certain things for the same reason. Grief is enough to get through without piling on regret. I also thought that speaking would honor my father's memory and that it might be therapeutic for me. I was right, I think.

This is what I said:

My father spent a lot of time with us when we were young: he was very active in our church and he taught Sunday school; he helped coach our little league teams; he took us camping all over the country. But what I remember most from my early childhood is what a hard, hard worker he was, and sometimes when I was lucky, he would get a call from a store during the weekend, and he'd take me with him. We'd get in his big truck, which was full of all sorts of mysterious tools and equipment, and we'd drive a ways, and he'd fix the problem, and then we'd come home. It was awesome. My father always tried, very patiently, to explain what he was doing, but I was pretty young, and I didn't have his mechanical aptitude, so I didn't really understand. But even then, it was apparent to me just how conscientious and competent he was at his work and how respected he was by the store managers and other people he worked with. They knew that if he showed up, the problem was going to be solved.

I think I was about twenty and home from college one winter when my father was out on a call and suffered a severe injury that ended his career and subjected him to years of painful surgeries. For a long time he had trouble walking. I can't help thinking how difficult it must have been for someone so active to have had something that he liked doing and was so good at just taken away from him. But I never once heard him complain about it. And over the past year, I never once heard him complain about cancer or his other medical problems, either.

The only way I can understand my father's cheerfulness and peace and gratitude in the face of such adversity is to think that the only two things that Dad really loved -- the only two things that really mattered to him -- were God and family. I think he must have felt that if he still had God and his family, he still had everything that was important to him.

I guess that every little kid thinks that his dad is the best dad in the world. Over the years, I've learned from talking to a lot of people that a painful part of growing up is coming to the realization that your father isn't everything that you thought he was, that he has shortcomings as a parent. That was something I never had to deal with. On the one or two occasions when -- with great provocation -- my father got mad at me, he later came and apologized to me for having lost his temper. That was a great lesson for me.

My father was always such a kind and caring and supportive and just such a good man that I always have known, and always will know, that he was the best Dad anyone could have. And I am extremely grateful for that, and for him.

After the ceremony, my brother thanked me for having spoken and said, "I couldn't have gotten any of that out today."

I think I have learned a few things from all of this. I doubt any of them are especially insightful or even remotely original, but I'm going to write them down anyway.

It is acceptable, and even therapeutic, to cry in public, but you want to choose your venues carefully, if you can. I do not have such an exaggerated sense of dignity that I'm embarrassed about crying when I have good cause, but it can make other people uncomfortable if they don't know you, because they have no idea how to respond. V. offered to take me home after the second act of the opera, but I figured I would rather sit through the third act because you can cry in a dark theater and no one will notice. Also, crying at the final act of an opera is highly appropriate because someone's almost certainly dying on stage, either dramatically or vocally. I also wept copiously during a portion of choir practice that week, when we were singing something either very sensitive or a little bit sappy, depending on your point of view.

It is also a good idea to spend some time alone with your grief. I went into the office for a couple of hours on the day after my father died, and it was a big mistake. Everything was so recent and raw that the slightest expression of condolence was enough to set me off. I ended up closing my office door and taking care of what I needed to do in order to be out of the office for a few days, then escaping. It would have been better to call my boss, explain the situation to him, and then come in late at night for a few hours when nobody was around.

Moping is another appropriate form of grieving. I had a couple of days off where there wasn't much for me to do but make airline and hotel reservations and the occasional familial phone call. It was really better for me to sit around the house and not have to worry about retaining my composure and watch crappy TV than to try to go out and do something.

Distraction is good, too. YFU was with me the night after my father died, and we were both pretty tender, so I took her to her favorite Chinese restaurant. Then we went to see Scott Pilgrim v. the World. I was reminded of the time when I was still undivorced but freshly separated and out, and I fell in love with a man for the very first time, and he broke my heart, and after three or four days of unrelieved moping, I walked into a movie theater and saw Notting Hill and for two hours did not think once about my sad situation. Ever since, I have not been able to think ill of Julia Roberts (not that I am aware of any particular reason she has given me to). Similarly, I have no idea whether Scott Pilgrim v. the World is a good movie (I suspect it may be), but it was terrific at that moment. I did still manage to find Michael Cera annoying, however.

Talking about the person who died is especially helpful. It's also hard, but most effective therapies are not easy. It's a good idea to start with little things you remember, and to start with the people who are closest to you, so you feel safe. Over time, it has become easier to talk about Dad with people whom I don't know all that well but who want to offer condolences. Those things were impossible to hear in the immediate aftermath, but the more I've discussed it, the easier it's gotten, and the less painful everything has felt. Besides, people want to be remembered, especially if you remember them fondly.

All of the traditional things that people do are helpful, too. When I was younger, I really didn't much see the point of a funeral or memorial service. (I still don't see the point of an open casket service. Ugh.) And I thought that all that sitting around and eating was pointless. But being with your family and friends is both comforting and therapeutic. And to eat you have to cook, which gives you something easy to do. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my sister, and I found it immensely comforting. Hearing other people say kind words about my father at the service only reinforced what I already knew, but that reinforcement was balm.

Mourning is not a time for discipline and denial. If you want to take a thirty-minute shower, go ahead. Eat the cake and the ice cream and don't beat yourself up about it. When we were in Florida, a bunch of us took a trip to an outlet mall, nominally to get a few things that YFU and EFU needed for the memorial service. I ended up buying them a bunch of other things, too. Buying things or eating things or long showers don't heal your grief. Time heals your grief, and you're just buying time, and that is OK. Your normal responsibilities and self-denial will come back soon enough.

Similarly, you don't want to deny anyone else their comforts. When I talked to my mother late on the night my father had died, she told me that my father had been "called home" and that "God had finally finished polishing his crown." I spent a lot of time when I was in Florida having to smile in the face of evangelical Christianity at its most aggressive. Any number of people wanted to pray with me, and I let them. The prayers themselves don't make me feel better, but the intention behind them do, mostly. I actually took great comfort from listening to and singing the very Christian music at the memorial service, even though when the minister gave the call to salvation (as my father had requested; I did not respond: sorry, Dad), I thought to myself that it was all horse shit. The only time any of the religiosity bothered me was when it got exclusive. As I was explaining to the girls in the car after the service, I think it's great when Christians derive comfort from their religion. It's their insistence of evangelicals that everyone else is going to hell that bugs me. The mixture of "God is love" and "God will send you to burn in a fiery pit for all eternity" is really not helpful. Right after the service, EFU wanted to stop at a store to pick something up. There had been a brief, intense downpour during the service, and there was a rainbow as we drove up to the store, then another downpour. I drove up to the awning and let the girls out, then went and parked and waited for the rain to stop or lessen, and I thought about the rainbow and the story of Noah, and I thought, "Yeah, God destroyed almost all of humanity, but he sent us this pretty rainbow, so we're square, right?" I was angry for a minute, but it's hard to stay mad at somebody you don't believe in.

Walking on the beach is always good. I guess I've mentioned that before. We were set to fly back on Monday afternoon (I managed to get all three of us on the same flight to Baltimore, and then I got EFU a connecting flight on to Manchester. It was good to be together as much as possible.), so I got up early Monday morning and drove out to the beach for a brief walk. I only had a half hour, but it was really nice to be on the beach when the sun was low and the people were few and the birds were numerous. It seemed like a good opportunity to cast some grief off into wide open spaces. Moping, weeping, talking, spending time with family, diversion, self-indulgence, walking on the beach. Grief is a big thing: you have to throw anything and everything at it that might work.

Kind words, from any source, are especially helpful. It is amazing how sympathetic people can be and how even the simplest form of condolence can help you to feel better. Especially the condolences of people who've been through the same thing. I'm very grateful for all the kindness that I've received, and I hope that the entire experience will make me more mindful of the grief and suffering of others, and that I'll do what I can to lessen someone else's grief, however slightly, when the opportunity arises.


  1. Mounrning and grief are something to connect us with the lost ones. I remember a few months after my companion's father died, his widow, who is a therapeute, hold a meeting/ kind of party and all of the people there had to say something about him.
    I am sorry for your loss but you had the chance to talk to him about what is important. He was probably happy about it.
    I hope your mother can go through also.

  2. It's possible to piece together from this post, and the one previous, the picture of a good and loving family. I'm not surprised at your emotionality as I have long gotten the impression of you as a man who feels deeply. You spoke beautifully at the service -- he was lucky to have you as a son as you were to have him as a father.

    If you have those grandchildren I'm not all that certain it won't be difficult when the time comes.