Grieving: Remembering My Father's Death
I have written often on my own blog and on Facebook about the lessons my father taught me. As with most kids, while growing up I’m not sure I can say that I was impressed with his wisdom. I was always in awe of his work ethic and I never doubted for a second that he loved me, but I don’t recall thinking that he was a particularly wise man. As the years have passed, however, I understand so much more so that today I have no doubt that he was the wisest man I have ever known.
His wisdom was of the practical variety. He was not an educated man for he dropped out of high school as a sophomore during the Great Depression to earn money for his parents. His forte in the wisdom department had to do with everyday life; he lived by a code of honor that today I find very refreshing. He was staunchly loyal to friends and family, generous to a fault, believed that you earn your respect by respecting others, was the backbone of our family and my best friend.
This Hub is for my dad and most definitely for me as well.
It’s funny how some things from many years ago are still so clear in my mind and others I can barely remember. I was thinking of a kid I bowled with when we were fifteen. His name was Steve C. and I can clearly picture him in my mind. I didn’t know him well; we really only saw each other once a week, on Saturdays, for the two hours it took to bowl in league play. He was a quiet kid, rarely spoke and rarely looked directly at you when he did speak. I remember he had a deformed left hand that he was very self-conscious of and I remember he was a pretty good bowler.
One Saturday we were bowling and we were entering the second game of the three game set when Steve grabbed his ball, approached the lane, and collapsed on the floor. I clearly remember the ball bouncing away, his head loudly crashing off of the hardwood as he went into convulsions and foam formed around his mouth. His eyes rolled back so that all you could see was white and he continued thrashing about as the feeling of complete helplessness overcame the rest of us on his team. Steve had an epileptic fit that morning and he recovered thanks to some immediate assistance by the owner of the bowling lanes. Steve and I remained friends for several years after and saw each other on occasion, but that image stayed with me as the years passed and I silently prayed I would never see that kind of thing happen again.
And then I did.
On January 9, 1969 I was home from college for the weekend. My dad had not been feeling well through dinner and the early evening. We were watching The Tonight Show together when he slowly got up and headed for the bathroom. Seconds later I heard a loud crash and I rushed into the bathroom to find my dad sprawled in the bathtub. He was half in, half out of the tub, thrashing his arms and legs, eyes rolled back, foam and drool at his mouth. He was having a heart attack. I ran to the phone, called 911, then raced back into the bathroom and held his hand. The force of his grip was so very painful as he held onto my hand in his last moments. I couldn’t look at his face, so distorted in pain and abhorrent to me, so I looked away, felt his life leaving him, and told him over and over again that I loved him.
This was the man who sacrificed everything for me as I grew up, made sure I went to college even though we really couldn’t afford it, made sure I had good clothes and money in my pockets and played catch each night with me. I was ashamed for years after his death for not having the courage to look at my own father as he died. I had never related those moments until I wrote my blog and now again in this Hub.
What did I feel when my dad had a heart attack and was dying in my arms? In truth I didn’t feel much of anything other than anxiety and shame. Adrenaline kicks in at a moment like that; you are so caught up in the moment that there is an absence of feelings; for me, though, I distinctly remember shame for not being able to look at my father while he was dying and anxiety because it seemed to be taking so long for the paramedics to arrive although I’m sure it only took them five minutes to get there.
Afterwards nature’s built-in protective device, shock, kicks in and you sort of sleepwalk through the next few days. After coming home from the hospital where dad was officially pronounced dead I comforted my mother until my sister and her husband arrived at which time I curled up on the couch and immediately drifted into a fitful sleep. I woke up the next morning and comforted my mother as best I could and then began phoning relatives. I was sort of on cruise-control, not really thinking, just doing what I felt needed to be done. My body was moving, decisions were being made, but very little thought was happening and feelings had been tucked away in some private chamber inside of me. I do remember thinking I needed to be strong for mom, that she didn’t need to see me slobbering in front of her.
Straight through to the funeral, rote movements, doing what I needed to do…phone calls, accepting condolences, taking care of business, preparing to return to college and making sure mom had someone to stay with her while I was gone. Then I was off to college once again, doing my studies, going through the motions of living, coming home on weekends to take care of mom, an intense feeling of emptiness inside like my guts, heart and soul had been ripped out that January night. I tried to be funny, to make my mother laugh, to be good-natured and strong and reliable, all the while pushing the darkness down inside where it couldn’t do any damage and couldn’t derail me because after all, I had a job to do, to be the supportive, loving son who could be counted on. And yes, there was resentment over that fact, that I wasn’t allowed to grieve, that I had to be strong, that suddenly I was the supporting pillar in the family, that I was too young to have to take care of my mother and pay bills and make weighty decisions.
I finally wept that summer over my dad’s grave and slowly, ever so slowly, life returned to me. There was not one moment when the pain lifted. It was rather a very gradual, one small increment at a time, process until one day I woke up and realized that I hadn’t felt lonely or empty in a few days, that I had smiled a bit more in recent days, that I didn’t feel quite so lost that week.
And life returns, eventually, for all of us who have suffered a loss; one day you can’t quite remember the sound of your loved one’s voice, and of course the tinge of guilt that accompanies that realization, but also, with it, a feeling that you have weathered a violent and damaging storm and managed to survive, because the death of a loved one is about survival for those left behind. It is about letting the natural process happen and eventually moving through the damage and pain and coming out stronger for it.
My mother never did come out the other end. She was never quite the same after January 9, 1969. She went through the motions and tried so hard to act naturally, but something inside of her died that night along with her husband. So, in fact, I lost a father and a mother that night and was left with…..memories.
I have learned in the years since my dad’s death that death should not be faced alone, that the least we owe each human being is to provide whatever comfort we possibly can in their final moments. I will be ready if it should ever happen again. I will look at them and provide strength and compassion. I owe them that as a fellow human being, and I also owe it to the memory of my dad.
If any of you have lost someone recently I have no words that can ease your grief. We all must go through the process. It is painful beyond belief and it seems that it will never end, but that process in itself is a reminder of the fact that we were lucky enough to have loved someone so much that their passing was indeed painful. We were lucky enough to have spent valuable time with that person, to have shared in their laughter and their wisdom, to have been the recipient of their love. It’s a hell of a price to pay for love, but the alternative is to not love and that, to me, is unacceptable