The Dead Dads Club

momdad

CRISTINA: “There’s a club. The Dead Dads Club. And you can’t be in it until you’re in it. You can try to understand, you can sympathize. But until you feel that loss… My dad died when I was nine. George, I’m really sorry you had to join the club.”

GEORGE: “I… I don’t know how to exist in a world where my dad doesn’t.”


CRISTINA: “Yeah, that never really changes.”

The passage is from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where the character, Cristina Yang, is giving her blunt comfort to a colleague who has just lost his father.

I was reminded once again of my membership in this club last night. I was attending a workshop and the session was devoted to reflecting on our “childhood attachment relationships.” The questions on the worksheet asked us to think about from whom we received comfort and support as children, how we had come to define that love and support, had we ever felt unsafe, betrayed, etc.

I was a little stuck at the beginning, my memories of childhood being fuzzy at best, but the more I spent time with it, the more I came back to my father as having been my primary source of warmth, trust, and stability. I’ve written about him before here, but what brought me back to him, besides the workshop, is the increasing number of friends and relatives who seem to have suddenly become members of the club.

It’s one of the things that truly sucks about aging is the increasing number of funerals one must attend to support young friends who have lost their loved ones or for contemporaries who have succumbed to the vagaries of time and age. And every funeral is joyful, or tearful, or awful, and all of them leave me feeling guilty about my happiness over continuing to wake up every morning. Every one of them is a reminder that I will be the featured guest some day.

But sitting in the workshop, thinking about my dad who I lost in 2008, I felt sad that I don’t think he ever knew that he was my chief source of “comfort and connection” the entire time I was growing up. As good as our relationship was, neither of us was very good at articulating our love and affection for each other. It just wasn’t a Waldron thing to do.

dadasleep

He taught me the value of an after-work nap!

I sometimes think my dad lived a “small life” because I only remember his years as a father and sometimes forget that he grew up as the son of an itinerant baker who took the family from small town to small town, from North Dakota to Montana, setting up shop and trying to scratch out a living.

My grandfather, Lee Waldron, was absolutely beloved by my sisters and I, but I learned long after his death that he was a binge drinker and would disappear from the family for days at a time and then return and not drink for months when he was younger. My dad never once complained or even made reference to how difficult his life must have been with such instability.

full_3470_109854_MiniDoilyTatting_2

By the time I knew my grandfather, he had traded alcohol in for his ever-constant coffee and cigarettes. His other addiction was to tatting, a delicate kind of crocheting that he picked up somewhere and plied constantly, producing everything from simple doilies to large and complex tablecloths, one small piece at a time.

My dad’s “small life” included serving in World War II in the Navy spending much of his time in Guadalcanal but also stopping in Greenland and other far-flung locations.

My memory of him though was simply that he was the kindest, funniest person in my life. I believed he re-filled the ocean every night with the garden hose because he told me once that he did. I remember how he laughed off the time that I kicked a hole into the wall of the garage when I was expecting to be in deep trouble. I remember how he was the only one that I wanted to tell about my first real kiss.

dadhappy

It still kills me to think of his last few years being full of pain and his struggles with dementia. He deserved so much better. He was a good man.

It kills me that I didn’t tell him that every day. He brought joy to the people around him. He worked hard his whole life and served his country when called on to do so. He took care of his family and loved his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. He was the kind of man that every man should strive to be.

And guys like him don’t get any awards. I should have told him every day that he was my role model, that he was the reason I had succeeded as a teacher and (I hope) as a parent. It kills me to think that he may have died not knowing just how special he really was.

Maybe that’s why I related to the actor J. K. Simmons’s Oscar acceptance speech this year when he, with little context, urged the crowd to, “call your mom, call your dad. If you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call ‘em. Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell ‘em you love ‘em, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.”

Jack Waldron was a man to be thankful for.

dadmarkerII

Advertisements

Writing the Eulogy

img734

 

My mom passed away on June 12 at 11:50 PM. I was at her bedside when she passed. That’s a moment I’m not ready to write about, but the experience of writing the eulogy for her funeral was a significant moment of reflection for me. The italicized portions are excerpts from the final draft of the eulogy.

Formally, I wrote this on June 20, two days before the funeral, but in truth it had been rumbling around in my head for months, and I was struggling. Truly warm, positive memories of my mother simply were not imprinted in my brain. She wasn’t a bad mom, just an intense woman who thought keeping everything clean all the time was her most important mission in life.

As my sister and I spent a mind-numbing week dealing with funeral preparations, I sought her out, her memory of our childhood being so much better than mine. I came to find that she likewise was having trouble remembering Leave it to Beaver moments from our early years:

When my sister and I sat down to talk about this eulogy both of us felt some discomfort over not being able to recall many warm anecdotes about mom from our childhoods.

 Oh, there was the time when she was playing with us all in the back yard pool, and ran to answer the door at the front of our house clad only in her bathing suit where she was greeted by one of our parish priests who was out visiting parishioners. That may have been the moment when her hair began turning gray.

But I think my mom struggled a bit with motherhood, exhibiting a certain rigidity and devotion to cleanliness that we messy children could never quite achieve. I attribute at least some of that to her having been raised by a strict and demanding father.

 We both agreed that dad had been a mellowing influence on her and that she evolved over time, especially as she embraced her role as grandmother:

But if she had some challenges as a mom, she was lucky enough to pick the perfect mate, my dad, Jack Waldron. My dad’s innate kindness and his unqualified love for her, certainly softened her rough edges and helped her become the loving woman that most of you knew. Down to his final day, my dad, the man who knew her best, referred to her as “my angel.”

As a grandmother, she lavished care and love on her five grandchildren. When the kids didn’t want to go to school, they would pretend to be sick just so my mom or dad would pick them up, watch The Price is Right with them, and spoil them rotten for the whole day. Mom rarely missed a softball game or soccer match and all of the kids got chances to accompany mom and dad on camping trips.

Then in sorting through her stuff, I came across the picture above and was just startled by her radiant beauty, a nursing graduate at 25. That picture seemed to show her so full of happiness, energy, and plans for the future. It is exactly the way I want to remember her, and it made me wonder why some of that had gotten lost on her way to motherhood:

In going through old photos I discovered the picture of my mom as a radiant 25 year-old woman, just graduated from nursing school that you may have noticed in the lobby of the church. My mother loved nursing and attending to the needs of other. For over 25 years, she did so in hospitals and in doctor’s offices. To me, that picture embodies the spirit of love that she shared not only with her patients, but also with her friends, and within the church community.

 While the last three years with her at the board-and-care home were painful and torturous for me, every person who worked with her or attended to her would comment to me on how sweet she was and what a beautiful smile she had and how happy they were that she was there. This was even when she would growl out demands for food and keep them up all night, insisting on walking around the facility or sitting up in her chair at ungodly hours. Three of her attendants were there at the funeral and were weeping throughout

In her last three years at her boar- and-care home, the attendants, the other residents, the extraordinary ministers from Santa Sophia that brought her communion every Sunday, all spoke to me about how much they loved spending time with my mom. This was true even from the beginning when she was prone to break into her own peculiar renditions of “Amazing Grace” or the “National Anthem” her own personal favorites. There was a love and light inside of her that everyone responded to, even as her body and her mind began to fail.

I decided to end on a fanciful note, thinking that, if there were a heaven, my dad might well have been enjoying the bachelor life for the past seven years. I looked up toward the rafters of the church, and raised my voice as if I wanted to be sure my dad could hear:

Dad, if you can hear me up there, I’m giving you a heads up. You’ve had a seven-year vacation, but mom is on her way to re-join you. So you’d better get someone to run the vacuum around and wipe down the kitchen counters—twice. Oh, and have them put an extra chair out on your back porch where I’m sure you’ve been watching the sunsets by yourself for all these years. Your angel is coming home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mortality: It’ll Get You Every Time

momdad

Earlier, I mentioned my mom’s dementia and failing health. Just recently, the bout of pneumonia that she suffered was like a body blow to her already compromised immune system and since she has returned to the board-and-care home, whimsically named “Raquel’s Rose Garden” after the administrator’s daughter, she has remained in a state of semi-consciousness.

Her condition led me to enroll her in a hospice program so that she could receive all of her medical attention in the home along with all of the other services hospice supplies. Those of you that have had experience with hospice know how incredibly helpful it can be. I suddenly felt that I no longer had sole responsibility for every medical decision, but instead was a part of a team that was going to do everything that we could to keep my mother comfortable through her final days.

Now that we are in the system, I wonder why I waited so long. However, their glossy handbook told me why right off the bat. Early on, it reassured me that, “Often, hospice is not started soon enough because people consider it a “last resort.” Sometimes a physician, patient or family member might resist a hospice referral because they think it means they are surrendering and there is no hope. Hospice is not about giving up.” Dang. Wish I’d read that sooner.

This was exactly my dilemma as I considered if this was an appropriate move. I felt like I was calling it quits as far as my own responsibility and somehow doing her a disservice. I know better now.   I met with the doctor on Saturday morning and, with all of the proper disclaimers and qualifications, she suggested that my mom probably has no more than a month to live.

My mom is 92. She was married for over 60 years with a wonderful man, had three pretty great kids, five grandchildren, and a career as an RN. She has had a good life.

When I would come home depressed from my nearly daily visits to see her at Raquel’s over the past 3 ½ years, my wife did not understand my reaction. She thought it was a matter of my having unrealistic expectations, that every day I went to visit thinking, “she’ll be better today.”

The opposite was true. Every visit meant watching a loved one in decline. There were no good days, at least not in my mind. Every day was a step in the direction that has led to where we are today. The utter inevitability was not only depressing to watch, it reminded me of my own mortality, of how I was essentially on that same path. Depressing I know, but continued exposure to all of this got me thinking this way.

I started the grieving process long ago, but my reactions now are complex and confusing even to me. In our time at Raquel’s I’ve been through the death of three residents. Each one delivers a shock to the house. Most of the caregivers have been with my mom the entire time and the administrator and his wife are both kind and attentive to her. There are only two other residents right now and the three of them have been together for years. Even the hospice nurse has attended other patients and is well known to every one.

I worry about all of them because I know they are already feeling bad about losing my mom. I know that my grieving will be quiet and private, but I’m happy to know there will be others to share the pain with. I am better at being a source of comfort than I am at accepting the comfort of others.

It’s just tough having watched someone, for over three years, journey towards death in exactly the way we all hope to avoid.

Grieving in Teaspoons

momdad

When it comes to grief, I often feel there is something I am missing.

I watch my friends and relatives deal with the loss of a loved one and often they are drenched in sorrow, tears, depression, and anger. I just passed the sixth anniversary of the death of my dad, and I have lost some friends and colleagues about whom I cared deeply. In fact, as I enter my 60’s, I find myself attending too many funerals as social events. However, in watching the grieving of others, I have been surprised (so far) by my own sense of detachment, as if I’m failing at grief.

My dad, Jack, was a wonderful man. He gifted me with his sense of humor, an indispensible tool in my experience as a teacher, and he lived his 86 years with a sort of joyful kindness and a true affection for others, especially his grandchildren. When we gathered for his funeral, the same comments came up over and over. No one could remember ever seeing him angry. No one could remember him uttering an unkind word toward another person.

As a child, he came to know the things I cared about and made sure I got to experience them. He was never a sports guy, but he could see my interest grow. So he made sure I got to see the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine (unfortunately a guy named Joe Moeller was pitching that day instead of the great Don Drysdale or even greater Sandy Koufax). We made regular trips to Westgate Park where the minor league Padres played their games. We experienced hockey, professional basketball, and the Harlem Globetrotters together. When Bill Cosby broke on the scene, and I began to memorize his comedy routines and perform them at Scouting events, he surprised me with tickets to see him live on stage. I am positive he would never have spent that money on himself just for his own enjoyment.

My dad’s last three years were difficult ones. He became increasingly crippled by arthritis and was in constant pain. Dementia began creeping in. He kept punctuating conversations with phrases like, “I bet you never thought you’d see your old dad all crippled up like this” as I’d help him into the car on the way to endless doctor appointments. More and more often, even at holiday gatherings, he began to express his desire for his life to be done with. Hearing every one of those woeful comments was a moment of grief for me.

He passed away in the hospital, sneaking away suddenly and quietly. He woke up in the morning, began teasing the nurses and talked one of the pretty ones into helping him with his morning coffee. He got on the phone to my mom to find out when she was coming in to see him and took time to tell her once again how much he loved her. And then, when no one was looking, he died. It was May 2, 2008.

I expected to have a wrenching, emotional response even though he had been through three years of suffering, and we had had numerous close calls during that time. Instead, I found myself consumed with the details of his funeral, keeping an eye on my mother and my children, and in writing a eulogy that would give him all the credit he deserved.

That emotional response never came for me, not entirely. My good friend Stephen noticed it and told me, “You can’t just be the tough guy through all of this. You have to allow yourself time to feel it.” But it just wasn’t there. Not then.

The first time it hit me was in June. I was on a walk through the neighborhood and mentally working on a “to do” list, and it hit me that it was almost Father’s Day and that I needed to be sure to get by the store and pick up a card for……oh, yeah. I didn’t need to do that. I would never need to buy a Father’s Day card again. Suddenly, his loss began to feel real.

In September, I was chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year, a truly memorable recognition, at a televised, gala event at the Balboa Theater in San Diego. In accepting the award, my thoughts went right to him and how proud he would have been to see me receive that award. He was never the kind of father that I had to work to impress or please, but someone who always gave me the confidence that came with knowing that my father believed that I had already exceeded every expectation that he could ever have for me. I missed him there, on that stage that night.

One of the most trivial, but most painful moments came when I grew tired of seeing “Mom and Dad” on my cell phone every time I had to call my mom. It was inaccurate. Dad was gone. Dad was not going to answer.   I needed to delete my father. Every press that removed the “and Dad” felt like a rejection and a betrayal.

Even today, I will catch myself thinking of an odd encounter or a pleasant moment and how I need to get on the phone and call my dad and tell him the story. And then I catch myself in mid-thought and lose him once again.

I began to realize, early in the process of writing this, that not only does everyone grieve differently, but that my reactions to grief are packaged all around the history and circumstances of the loss. There are potential losses that I refuse to even think about much less write about. I can’t begin to imagine how crushing they might be.

For now, in my way, I still grieve for my dad. This grief continues to be doled out to me in teaspoons, painful ones. Perhaps the next one will be a tidal wave.

dadmarkerII