My father died last week . . . at 94. His left behind 3 living children, 10 grandchildren, 17 great grandchildren — and a boatload of complicated emotions.
To be honest, this a tough post to write. It’s so much easier to be funny than painfully authentic but writers need to say the hard stuff, too. And what’s harder, more precious, more frustrating and intrinsic to us as humans than family?
Since the night my dad died, people have expressed heartfelt sympathies I felt unworthy to receive. I’ve struggled to reach inside to the depth of grief that losing a parent brings. Maybe losing my still vital husband so suddenly anesthetized me to old age’s inevitable end, even in a parent. Or, just maybe, the empty, numb feeling is self-protection from a hurricane of emotions just waiting to be unleashed when I’m least expecting it.
If that tv sitcom. Leave it to Beaver, (does that make me old?) was truly an icon of a normal family, we’re all screwed. Life out of central casting is not real life, but I suspect we all secretly want a teeny bit of that warm, fuzzy family picture. Instead, we peel through layers of frustration, hurt, love, and longing that surface with a vengeance when the main players of family of origin are gone. We may not recognize those layers as grief, but they can define it just the same.
When my mom was alive, my dad hated talking on the phone but he certainly made up for it, in spades, the last 13 years. Though conversations were rarely about how I or my family was, he was at long last verbal. He now depended on family for needs my mother hovered over and finally seemed to enjoy (tolerate may be a better word) the ‘kids’, including the oldsters who lived 2 hours away. (If there was any doubt that my husband loved me, I have just to remember our bi-monthly parkway pilgrimages. Muttering through road rage, a body protesting often from cancer side effects, he still took on legendary shore traffic – for me. That’s love) After he died, I continued the trip until a police call reporting my dad seeing 9 people dressed in khakis and red shirts (think Jake from Allstate) made it necessary to move him someplace both nearer and safer.
Welcome to assisted living. Just picturing how I’d feel when it came time to trade my own house and car for a 2-room studio far away from where I called home for the last 20 years, twisted my heart. But having your parent’s care solely on your shoulders is layered with many emotions, even in the happiest, Hallmark families. Out of three kids, I was now the only game in town so, along with being critical dad’s go-to, choosing the right senior living facility was the could best I could do. We were suddenly both stuck and we both struggled to make the best of it. Like I said, it’s ‘complicated’.
Kermit said, ‘It’s not easy being green’ — ditto the family scapegoat. My parents were intrinsically good, thoughtful people but difficult, and at times even toxic. Today my baby sister, one of the two who shared ‘favorite’ status, and I laugh at the wild inequities of our family dynamics. It was only during these last years, as I finally heard the words ‘I love you’ returned on our nightly calls, I know I could have rocked being ‘the favorite’.
To the unsuspecting outsider, our family of five was a Hallmark card. Stretched across a first row pew at church, we were just your normal American family. And who knows? Maybe we were, if dysfunction is the norm. We all had our place in the family but those spots were often fluid. Like chess pieces, we moved in and out, up and down, according to moods, myths and insecurities. The name of the game was playing one against the other and it worked – a lot. One day, years ago, my sister and I caught on and promised that no matter what, we’d keep each other close. That was no easy feat but although she moved two states away, we’ve kept that promise.
When the second parent dies, we are all left to find our way through emotional cobwebs while realizing the grown-ups in charge now – are us. The buck stops here. Armed with our AARP cards, gray hair (beneath the blonde) and senior citizen discounts, we are literal orphans. Raw feelings come with the package. Separating present from past isn’t easy. We can’t magically erase it; we can only try to rise above it. It’s been said that losing both parents forces us to take a good look at the emotional legacies left behind and decide which to keep and which to discard. Choose well.
Hateful words, crazy actions, all that happened in childhood is not always exorcised by age – theirs or ours. Still, as my dad mellowed in his last years, my feelings did as well. Will I miss the Pepto Bismol runs, the pleading to put in his damn hearing aides or sorting through the plethora of junk mail calendars and labels that piled up every day? Maybe not. But knowing I will never speak hear his voice or see his number come up on caller ID at 6:30 promptly every night, will settle in with a thud. Of this I am sure.
For a restauranteur/entrepreneur, you would have sworn my father was born with banking genes. He had a genius for good investments and taught us to always save half of whatever we earned. That admonition alone saved me many times, especially as a single mom. He combined a florist with a gift and bridal shop, and morphed a service station into a liquor store. Now that’s what I call possibility thinking. I was reminded, these last days, of my father’s penchant for photography. I can faintly remember him behind the camera, clicking away at our small faces before retreating to his very own darkroom to develop the prints. As paparazzi grandma, it seems I’ve inherited the gene, as has my son whose photo eye has surpassed mine, closing the circle. My kids understand now that pictures, once only a ‘cheese-y’ annoyance, are all that’s left when people are gone.
Going through reams of pictures, albums, and clippings I see images of a man I never knew. Someone with laughing eyes, mischievous looks and a clear sense of humor. There was no evidence of a hole in the wall made by a fist or the ham sandwiches we ate that Thanksgiving after the golden turkey went the way of a shattered platter. I really like this man in the pictures; the sweet man people saw in the assisted living center and my grandchildren saw in the old, frail person who smiled with amusement.
People who know without question they were adored and treasured, feel only pure grief at the death of their parents. They know they will never again be unconditionally loved in that way again. Those who have not had that experience often feel that flavor of love for the first time through their own children. Sometimes what seems like overwhelming grief may not be just about what happened, but what could have been. Still, no matter which childhood was yours, you will grieve and at, points cry though the tears may not come in order. They may be shed for sweet, priceless memories or the want of them. They may come in an unexpected rush of love. The truth is, fierce unconditional love, even if it’s not what you had, can still be something you give.
Whether your family guideposts were soft and tender or barbed wire, they will shift and change after your parents are gone. We will feel the absence, the void where the last, first piece of us was. Old forgotten moments, hurts, tenderness, regrets and love run through us in an endless loop. We can forever long for parents who were proud of us and showed it, who listened to us and loved us unconditionally – or we can be those parents to our own children. Whatever we choose, generations still disappear and the chess pieces rearrange on the game board of life regardless. As we watch our parents age, we see the portent of what we will become when our own strength and vitality leave. At each loss of senses, balance, and thought, we can’t help but know we are next in line. (my nephew already reminds me I’m now the ‘matriarch’. Yea, me) Every day I walked through the nursing home’s doors, I was reminded that I, too, will diminish, in one way or another. Now we are the ‘elders’ and our day will also come. Sorry, no one escapes. And while death doesn’t always bring closure, it does allow us to remember the past, honor the good, remember every bit of love we can – and pass it on every day.
We can turn forever on the Ferris Wheel of emotion, unable to get off the endless ride or we can forgive our parents, reinvent them or accept them. Grief is never simple. It’s not one size fits all. It’s not going to be easy but we each have to figure out how to go forward because it’s the only choice we have. As odd as it sounds, these last surreal years with my father were the best we had. The ghosts were never gone but they weren’t sucking up all the air. The past lost much of its power and for the most part, I made the best of the present.
Maybe this is a tribute to my dad; maybe it’s a promise to be the best I can be. Maybe, in the end, only love survives.
I love you, dad.