For those of you who read all through Dad’s Journey posts, when I was staying with him during his last days, I wanted to write a little bit more about the past week. It was a week ago, on the 5th, that he passed. There’s been a lot that I’ve been processing, so I thought I would do a true post-mortem, a share about my exploration of his life that I have discovered in the past week.
First, let me say that one of the good things that has happened has been that we, Doyle and I, have grown closer to my sister and her husband. She said “I feel like I understand you better.” I could say the same about her. She’s known me at my worst and at my best, and I’ve probably known her the same. I’m feeling freer to be me around her, and I think the same is true for her. In this sense, something new has grown out of dad’s passing.
The first day was just strange. I always thought it might be weird to be in the room with someone who had died. It wasn’t. In fact, it seemed rather (oddly) natural. The nurse came, an associate pastor that my father loved was there, and a social worker showed up. The TRU Hospice worker that had walked me through things, Jessica, was back on the phone with me and telling me “you did well.” It didn’t register. I felt like I had run a race and all the people who are supporting you show up after the finish line to give you water, help you walk it off. It still felt frantic. I thought at any moment that he might sit up and say, “just kidding.” I certainly expected him to keep speaking, in some fashion. It’s as if your brain just can’t turn off a life. It needs time to process.
After the mortuary attendants came to the house and picked dad up, it simply felt quiet. Peaceful. I sat on the couch and reveled in the peace. I was hoping he felt the same. There was an expectancy of…something… like an exhalation that came after holding your breath for so long. I wasn’t sure what to… do. So, I sat and waited for time to pass. I had planned on spending that night there because I knew we would have to continue to do more work there over the next few days. I think I asked myself several times, “what do I do now?”
After the last of the people left, including Doyle, I walked back into the house, closed the door, locked it, and said, “well, it’s just you and me, Dad. Well, and the cats.” I felt like I needed to talk with him, or whatever energy was left of him. I was a little numb and exhausted but read a little before going to bed. I slept a dreamless sleep.
The next day. The next day was about assessing. What is the measure of a life? What is one supposed to do when you have new things to care for? It’s like someone abandoned a baby at my door and now I had to care for it. These things were alien to me.
My sister arrived; she started taking down the pictures throughout the house, as well as mementos that said “dad was here.” Things started being sifted through, moved around, discarded, or appropriated. We took it slow, measured, thoughtful to some extent. Each of us took a room and the day went quickly. What to keep? What to discard? What should we do with x? What did it mean to us? What did it mean to him? It was a mental shell game, trying to find meaning in things.
I was staying, one more night, because we had the cats to think about and, well, more things to do. I wondered if my father was still “around” and I sat quietly on the couch that night, thinking of what he might think about what we were doing. There’s a sense that I wanted him to care; honestly, though, I don’t think he did. I think he had already moved on.
The next morning, as the walls were bare and the items started being packed up, the house felt plain. It felt as if it was a just-built tract home, the remnants of my father’s life were peeling away and little remained. I thought about what a life is, and what we leave behind. As creative beings, when our house is emptied, what will be left of us? For my father, it was us children. There were no photos, writings, books, paintings, or other “works” to say, “here’s my view of this earth,” or “here’s what I want to impart to the world.” My father was not a creative man in the arts but he did have a way with metal, steel, and gadgets. He loved to work with his hands at mechanical things. Doyle just recently said, “your father had a way with tools.” Sometimes it takes a different set of eyes to assess those close to you; I had never thought of my father in that way but yes, it was true.
All of this, of course, made me reflect on my own legacy. What was I leaving behind? How will history judge me? Or will it even bother? I do think there is a drive inside of each human being to create and in that creation, we enhance humanity. It may be a gift of art, or a gift of tool use, or the children we bear, or the material we bequeath. Is any of it better or worse than anything else? Probably not. What my father left behind was not art, not material things. He left a legacy of “can do,” of trying a variety of things and not being stuck in a rut or a hole. His walls might have been “Navaho White,” but his heart was as colorful as his ideas.
It’s hard not to judge your loved ones by your own standards and I have to say that perhaps for a good deal of my life, I did judge my father by my standards. It was wrong to do so, and hey, dad, I’m sorry that I did that. I should have celebrated who you are and what you were doing, and what you wanted to do. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree because I knew my father did the same thing with me. In the end, I will remember sitting quietly with him while we talked about old TCM movies and big band music and the Marx Brothers. Dad loved Hallmark Christmas movies and angels. Judgements, be damned.
All that is left now is the material hubbub that comes with closing out a life. These are the things that matter little and yet occupy so much time. I’ll take some time, look at old pictures, and perhaps create space in my own mind for the life that was my father, and help keep him colorful in heart and spirit. His birthday is coming up, on August 15th. I think I’ll make dad’s favorite, apple pie, and raise a cup of coffee (he didn’t drink!) in his honor. For those of you on the journey with me, feel free to do the same. And send pictures of your apple pie. Dad would have liked that. He would have laughed.
Dad’s Journey has ended now except inside of us. I hope you stay with me on mine and let’s share this life together.