The absence of my father is such an odd reality. For 3.5 years, he was my primary focus. He was my purpose. His care, his survival, his wellness, his presence were up to me to preserve. A month and a half into life without him, I no longer go to bed worrying for his comfort and safety. He no longer suffers. He is safe. He will not call in the middle of the night requiring my assistance and care. He will never ask Alexa to ‘call Melissa’ again. My phone will never inform me that ‘Dad Needs You’ again.
I miss him. I’m glad he doesn’t need me. I had forgotten what that was like, until I started looking through old photos. There was a time, long ago it seems, when he could not only care for himself, but he also did a great deal to care for others. I’m grateful for the reminder that old photos provide. My swiss cheese memory invites me to live in the moment, rather than living in the past. I had been so focused on our current reality that I had forgotten about our past… his past.
My father was a man of integrity and unconditional care. Aside from our family, he cared about his beloved Unitarian Church community for 50 years, the wellness of his clients throughout 30 years of Vocational Rehabilitation for the State of Florida, for underprivileged youth in The Boy Scouts of America, and for those who beheld his visage and saw the manifestation of Santa Claus. But all of those things had fallen away over recent years.
He let go of his career at 62, when the stress of his job invited an increase in epileptic seizures. He let go of his Commissioner role with the Boy Scouts at 77, when his mobility challenges and a move to be near his daughter made release necessary. He let go of being Santa at 81, when December arrived and he was in the hospital and rehab after a fall. He let go of walking when he was 83, after the fifth fall in a week resulted in a broken hip.
Long before I ever dreamed of becoming his caregiver, when I was still in Elementary School, Pop placed an ad on an actual bulletin board in 1701, a local comic book shop, seeking others interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons (it was the late 1970s). My father was the Dungeon Master to a number of teenage boys (including my brother and cousin), who would later tell me stories of how the days spent with Pop in his scripted fantasy world were among their favorite childhood memories. He provided a safe space for a group of young people who craved a sense of belonging.
I love that my Dad was a geek. I never had to suffer through the annoying noise of a single sporting event. Our adventures included attending Star Trek Conventions (that’s what they used to call Comicon and the like, back in the day). I had a pair of Enterprise dangly earrings, and a color glossy 8×10 photo of Mr. Spock playing his lyre. We saw Star Wars in the theater, though I can’t say if it was opening day (I was only 8, after all). I can, though, recall being really WOWed by the opening credits, let alone the rest of the film – perhaps my first image of a ‘strong female lead’.
Sometimes, he went along for the ride on things that my Mom wanted me to experience. He stayed in the hotel room, after driving two hours from home for my benefit – while Mom and I attended my first concert (I was 9 years old). We were there to see Andy Gibb, live in concert. Oh, how I adored Andy. Oh, how I adored my Dad.
I wasn’t really a ‘Daddy’s Girl’, though it might surprise you. He and I didn’t really have much in common while I was growing up. He was always there, and I always knew I was safe and loved… but I think he and my brother had more in common, as members of the Central Florida Atari Club at the birth of home computers, while my mother was taking me to concerts and igniting my passion for travel.
As I reflect on the last few years of our lives, I feel enormously grateful for the gift of every little thing that transpired since 2014. My parents bought a house up the street from mine. My father’s mobility was in decline. In 2017, I left the corporate world and was later introduced to 72T, the IRS loophole that enabled an early retirement.
In 2018, I was fully present to recognize the signs of the need to step into a more active role in managing the lives of my parents. The prognosis of a friend with cancer led me to the discovery of a path of study for End of Life Doula. Dad started falling down and needing help up. I was able to be there. I was able to acquire the tools we needed to serve his needs. I gradually learned the intimacy and sweetness of washing his hair and helping him dress. I took him to every doctor appointment, every ER visit, every transfer into and out of Rehab for recovery from falls and infections.
In 2020, when he broke his hip and found that he could no longer stand or walk (which had long been a struggle), I asked him to let me care for him as he had cared for others throughout his 30 year career with spinal injury survivors. And… in 2021, this July, when I finally had a weekend of respite, and he decided he was ready to go to the hospital… saying to me, “I just don’t know how I’ll get out of here.” Well… we all know how he got out of there. Sigh…
Last week, I took Mom to lunch with her Salon group. These are a remarkable group of women from the church, where my parents have been members since I was 2. I seem to recall that they formed during the last Bush Administration, to share fears and frustrations about politics, among other things. Throughout the first year of Covid-19, before the vaccine, they met weekly on Zoom, to discuss current events, politics, and how everyone was surviving life in pandemic. I went along as her driver, but was invited to stay.
They had all been expressive about appreciation for the care I had offered my parents. I was asked if the online studies had prepared me and served me well in caring for Dad. The truth was, the actual caregiving seemed to come naturally. I had never been a parent, and I had never been trained in any form of nursing, but somehow, I acquired the skills I needed, in order to keep dad safe and at-home. Much of it was initially terrifying. I worried about failing him, a lot. But, when I had no idea of how to change a diaper for an adult, or how to get someone into a sling for the hoyer lift, Pop and I watched a YouTube video, and set to the task of mastering the art of whatever was at hand.
I do feel, though, that the End of Life Doula studies did serve me well. The required reading alone, helped me shift my perspective of death from something to fear to something to honor. I was consciously walking my father through the end of his days. Each day that I arrived to serve my father, I was fully aware of the honor and privilege I had to do so. That I was financially free to dedicate my time and full attention to his care was a blessing I woke and spoke gratitude for each day. Having the capability and desire to give him the love and compassion everyone deserves at the end of life was a gift to him, to myself, and to my whole family. There were times when the stress of it all was overwhelming, but I was very careful not to wish it away. Not to… wish… him away. But when it was time to let him go… I knew how to respect his wishes and had the strength to do so.
I had trouble finding tears during those difficult days. I suspect my consciousness didn’t want the universe to find me ungrateful. I often found myself aching for his suffering, rather than my own burden. With so many health issues and physical limitations, he was pretty much always uncomfortable. Either from osteoarthritis or neuropathy. It was difficult to witness his suffering without being able to fix it. All I could do was hold space most of the time. But now that he’s gone… the tears come with grace and ease. I cry daily, even if just for a brief moment. The release is a relief, and I almost hope it won’t stop. It feels good to feel.
His 84th birthday has come and gone… without him. The one month anniversary of his death arrived unbidden. Just like so many of my friends and loved ones who lost beloveds before me… we are facing a whole calendar of ‘firsts’ without him. Meanwhile, we wonder if we will find the files of stories he started writing for me a decade ago, after he, Mom and I attended a journaling workshop at church. I told him that I would love for him to write down stories about his life, that I might have when he was gone. Mom reported that he was really into that project, and when he couldn’t type anymore, he ordered software to help.
In recent years, I asked him if he knew where I would find those files, and he never had an answer for me. I did have a moment of clarity after he broke his hip (I’d always heard it said that people don’t live very long after this particular event), and recorded a couple of hours of him answering my questions and telling stories from long ago. I haven’t played them back yet. I’m a little afraid to hear his voice, I guess. I miss his presence too much. I’m not sure what his disembodied voice will feel like inside my broken heart.
I still walk up the street to my parents’ house… Mom’s house, a few times a day. Mom doesn’t require the same level of care that Dad needed, and she’s been trying to make me feel like she can do things on her own, so that I can have a little more of a life of my own. But, its hard for both of us to let go. We are still working on developing our new normal. I have noticed that sitting in his vacant chair feels unnatural to me, even though it is better for my neck and back to do so when Mom and I watch a movie. I am still holding space for him.
I have had canvas prints made and they now hang in her living room and mine, to ensure his image remains present, even when his body is not. I talk to him and ask for his support each morning and evening… reminding him to show up in ways that I can understand. I speak his name to the wind (Daddy-Daddy), and remind him that he is missed. And sometimes, I feel him near.
A month ago, I woke to find that my phone had sent two text messages to two different friends. They were likely messages I had sent, but never went through… but the timing and the messages informed me otherwise. The first one was to a friend who had asked how we were doing, and I replied about my gratitude for a little extra care Pop would soon receive. The second message was brief… “I love you more.” Without a doubt, my father found a way to communicate, in a way that I could understand, his gratitude for all I had done to care for him, and exactly how he felt about me.
Mom and I are slowly getting to the other side of phone calls and paperwork to ensure Dad’s death benefits for her are secured. As we do so, she is moving toward ensuring the same for my brother and me, when she is gone.
But we are being gentle with ourselves. There are days that one task is handled, and then naps are had. Mom reminds me that she could drop dead tomorrow, and I insist that would be very inconvenient… and I am pleased each morning to receive a note on messenger that simply reads: “UP”. Keep them coming Mom! I’ll wait right here.
Thank you for walking this path with us. We love knowing you are here.