A humorous, optimistic blog about Food, Family, Friends and Faith

Archive for April, 2015

He Would Be Proud

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The cavernous white interior of St. Therese’s church was glowing in the late afternoon sun. He lay at the feet of Jesus in a humble pecan casket lined in white, dressed simply in a long sleeved shirt and black pants. The rosary beads we found at his bedside were in his hands, the Miraculous Medal and wedding ring he had carefully removed before they brought him to the hospital were back on him where they belonged. He will be buried with all three.

When we first stepped into the church, my breath caught in my throat. The only vivid color in the church was the blood red stripes of the American flag draping his casket. The funeral director had waited for us to arrive before carefully folding it back and opening the lid. That was the only moment today that tears filled my eyes, because I was suddenly so proud of him and so proud to be his daughter.

Dad was an Air Force veteran, serving in post-World War 2 Germany as a radio mechanic. Achieving the rank of Staff Sargeant, he received three medals during the course of his service, although we have been unable to find them. He didn’t talk too much about his military service, preferring to downplay his contribution, but he was a proud and responsible American. He voted in every election and was actively involved in the election process. He raised the flag in front of our house every morning, and lowered it every evening. He taught us how to respect it, fold it, store it, and dispose of it. He took us to Washington DC so we knew the capitol was a real place. We had reproduction copies of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence in our house and he made sure we knew who the Founding Fathers were.

Dad would have been proud to know that, on his final trip to the church he loved so much, he would be lying under the flag of a country he loved so much.

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Joy in Pain

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“Well, we all like things to be predictable, don’t we? We expect things to be safe and to keep on happening just the way they always have. We expect the sun to rise in the morning. We expect to get up, survive the day and finish up back in bed at the end of it, ready to start all over again the next day. But maybe that’s just a trick we play on ourselves, our way of making life seem ordinary. Because the truth is, life is so extraordinary that for most of the time we can’t bring ourselves to look at it. It’s too bright and it hurts our eyes. The fact of the matter is that nothing is ever certain. But most people never find that out until the ground suddenly disappears from beneath their feet.”
― Steve Voake, The Dreamwalker’s Child

Sunday night I called my Dad from the road. I had stopped for a break somewhere in Missouri, and just wanted to hear his voice. He sounded good. He was still in the hospital, but was fully hydrated, thanks to an IV line. His speech, which had been horribly slurred and difficult to understand, was clear. You could hear in his voice that he was tickled I was almost there, and would be there the next day. We exchanged “I love you”s and hung up.

I was stoked that he was sounding so good, and started imagining all the things we were going to do – playing cards, maybe making a puzzle, sitting and talking about Life, drinking a sip of port or scotch or beer. A sip is about all he could handle – he hadn’t eaten in over a week due to the tumors pressing on his stomach.

Climbing into my car at 3 am, exhausted after the previous day’s 1000 mile drive, I was determined to make the final push to Albuquerque and get Dad out of the hospital and back into his house. I had to pull over and close my eyes a few hours later, but I kept on going.

Then my sister called.

“Bad news…” uh oh

Dad had died in his sleep peacefully around 8:00 am.

I pulled off the highway – well, that’s sort of wrong. I didn’t gracefully put on my blinker and ease to a stop. I slammed on the brakes and swerved to the shoulder, winding up directly under the Exit 40 sign (Elk City, OK, if you’re curious). I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed big, heaving sobs. Then I texted the only person I could think of, and he called me back immediately and listened to me blubber. I have no idea what I said…

After we hung up, I pushed back the tears, texted a few friends and family to let them know what was happening, and looked at the road. I took a deep breath, sat up straight, blew my nose and wiped my eyes, and pulled back onto the road. I still had 7 hours to go and, damn it all, I was going to get there.

As I drove, I thought about impermanence. I thought about how none of us really knows from minute to minute what lies ahead, and the only thing we can do is be flexible and roll with life, grabbing it by the horns and living it. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, said,

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”

As that floated through my head, it occurred to me that my suffering was because of MY expectations about the coming weeks, and MY loss and how it affected MY life. I shifted my perspective to think about what his own death meant to Dad.

It meant that he went to see Mom on her birthday (yes, he died on my mom’s birthday).
It meant that she most likely greeted him with huge platters of homemade food and exotic cheeses and fruit and fresh, crusty loaves of bread – a feast to celebrate his arrival. I bet she even made a cheesecake.
It meant that he got to hold my sister Maureen in his arms again for the first time in 40 years. I can only imagine the emotion in that hug.
It meant that he could breathe freely and laugh again.
It meant that he could have a tall, cold German beer.
It meant that he could sit and talk with his mother and father. He never really knew his father, who died when he was only three.
It meant that his pain was gone.

When I started thinking about his death from that perspective, taking myself out of the equation, I became joyful. I cried again, but they were happy tears over the fabulous day he must be having. There were so many good things happening all at once for a man who sacrificed so much of himself here for so many people. How could I be sad?

So, despite my loss, I choose to rejoice over the fact that I had this lion of a man in my life for 51 years. I rejoice that he was my father, and taught me through his actions about honesty, integrity, morality, compassion, and love. I rejoice that I was privileged enough to witness his passionate focus, his sacrifices for his family, his determination, and his ability to overcome heartbreak. I rejoice to know he is walking somewhere, fingers intertwined with my mother’s, whistling as he goes.

Sleep well, Dad. See you in about 40 years…

Divine support

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.” – Paul Coehlo

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When I made the decision to spend time with Dad as he transitions from this life to the next, I was not prepared for the speed at which his illness would progress. News of his diagnosis came this past Tuesday, and I felt that getting there on April 13th would be soon enough. That gave me time to put my belongings in storage and get to Albuquerque. After talking to his parish priest on Thursday, who told me how weak Dad was, I moved up my departure to Sunday (Easter). This morning I got a text from the deacon who checks on him every day. Yesterday he was hospitalized because he was unable to get out of bed. Depending on who you talk to, he was either unconscious or sleeping when the deacon arrived. So he was brought to hospital next door where he refused medication of any kind.

Stubborn Irishman…

He is on IV fluids, and will not be released until Hospice care has been arranged and there is someone in the house with him all the time. He is frustrated that he is not home, and I am frustrated that I am not there yet.

This morning I went to the bank to let them know that I was relocating temporarily to New Mexico until Dad’s illness had concluded. Silly me forgot that one of the assistant managers is a former student and Facebook friend of mine. She came out and said everything would be taken care of and I just had to let her know when I got back. Then she hugged me and told me to take care. It was all I could do not to burst into tears right there in the bank. I choked out, “It’ll be alright, right?” and she responded quietly, “Yes.”

There has been such an outpouring of support for my sister and I over the past week. My heart is full of the love and compassion that have been directed toward us. I know that, as difficult as the coming weeks may be, I am not alone; there are hundreds of hands holding me up when I feel like falling. It is in those moments, when I am at my most raw and unprotected, I know that I am catching a rare glimpse of the divine in my friends and family. Each smile, each kind word, each hug, and each look of concern are windows to the Sacred and give me untold courage and strength.

Thank you. Just thank you.

The Decision

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” – Pema Chödrön

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My dad has cancer. There, I said it. He doesn’t just have some small, localized, fixable cancer. He has the kind that spread all over his internal organs, insidiously invading his whole body. There are tumors hanging on his insides like ripe fruit on a tree, but this fruit can’t be picked. There’s no way to operate and remove his cancer. It dangles, tauntingly, putrefying on the branch, destroying everything it touches.

So we have begun a waiting game. He, waiting for the inevitable reunion with my mother, my sister Maureen and his next adventure in a place unknown to us. Me and my sister Kat, waiting for the inevitability of losing a man whose presence has always been steady and unfailing.

The writer Jane Green, in her book The Beach House, said, “Nothing in this world happens without a reason. That we are all exactly where we are supposed to be, and then the pieces of the puzzle have a tendency to come together when you least expect it.”

There is truth here. Decisions made by a family member living close to my father, the breakdown of my marriage, the independence of my daughter, a contractual obligation that I move out of my apartment by the end of June, are all pieces of my puzzle that, when completed, reveal a perfectly clear picture of what I need to do in response to my father’s diagnosis. I will be moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the duration of his illness, which according to the doctors is expected to be between three weeks and three months. I will be vacating my apartment, putting my belongings in storage, and hitting the road with only the desire to make my father’s last weeks on this earth joy filled and loving.

This was a remarkably easy decision to make. There is, despite my poor skills at keeping in touch, nothing more important to me than my family and friends. I routinely forget to send birthday cards, frequently forget to update my family on changes in my life, and don’t have the best track record for staying in touch. However, that just means I’m a poor communicator, not that I love any of them with any less than my full heart.

It is my hope that this blog will afford me an outlet. It is a chance to chronicle my father’s journey as well as my own journey toward becoming a more whole, compassionate human being. I would like to talk about the lessons I learn, the things my father teaches me, and small moments of each day. I would like to share the joyful and loving moments, and the moments of heartbreak as well. I will share his humor, his stories, and reveal the lion among men that he is. My father has lived an extraordinary life, one that is part of a lineage that has its roots in Ireland’s County Roscommon. I am honored to have the opportunity to share the end of his life with him.

This is going to be a fairly raw journey, to pretend otherwise would be to lie. I have to remember, however, that there is still much joy to be had in my father’s life. There is still much living to be done, and so I will help his failing body accomplish what his strong soul still reaches for… And Life goes on.

“Before us great Death stands
Our fate held close within his quiet hands.
When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine
To drink deep of the mystic shining cup
And ecstasy through all our being leaps—
Death bows his head and weeps.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke