Thursday, October 19, 2017

Now That It's One Year

(Song: One Year/artist: Feist) 




May 12, 2017

Well, I did it, y'all. I survived the first year of life without my dad, and all the painful reminders that accompanied it. Father's Day, summer in my hometown, Thanksgiving, December 11 - his birthday, Christmas, New Year's Day, my birthday...and finally, the first anniversary of his death. And while I thought that would be the worst "first", the others that preceded it, made it wistful but not abjectly painful. Turns out, my birthday was the worst first.  My dad always sang "Happy Birthday" to me when he called every year. He had a distinct and beautiful voice. The realization that there will be no more phone calls from him felt like a continuous stab in the chest. For the first time in 42 years, I felt no joy on my birthday. 

The whole first year was a "this time last year" retrospective. 
This time, last year:
...I knew it was bad and that his time was finite.
...his pulmonologist recommended in-home hospice care.
...he said, "Tonight's one of those nights I just wish it would all end."
...he moved to his local hospice facility.
...he woke up after sleeping for almost two days. It seemed like a miracle. He was lucid and wholly aware that his two-day nap was a sign that he was at the end of his life's journey. He was finally at peace with dying. I took him outside where we listened to La Traviata in it's entirety. He reached for my hand and said, "I'm really going to miss you." We both cried, then laughed, and I told him how much I love him. It was the last time I saw him alive.
...I spoke with him on the phone for the last time. I assured him I was going to be okay and that he shouldn't be afraid. 
...a stranger from my father's church called to tell me my dad had died. It was after 11, but before noon. I was alone in my kitchen. I bellowed the most guttural, primal howl and fell to the floor. The absolute shock of a call I knew was coming. You're never ready for it. 
...I delivered a eulogy that I wrote with my dad's knowledge, blessing and collaboration. 


My last day with Papa.

The morning of my dad's memorial, I woke up at dawn and walked to the end of the dock  to watch the sunrise while I listened to all of Mozart's Requiem. My father loved Mozart. Mozart's Requiem was his go-to when he was feeling particularly black. I stood there for 57 minutes, in one spot, letting the sun and my grief soak me while the music filled my ears and drowned the sound of my sobbing. My own private funeral. 

Who needs church when you have this?


Right after my dad died, my  friend Holly, who lost her mom tragically early, said, "Your dad is with you. Just look for the signs."  Three months later, I was back in Georgia visiting a girlfriend and her husband. While touring their new neighborhood, we stopped in to visit one of their relatives - a man named Hunter. At first glance, one might surmise that Hunter spends most of his time on the water. And that would be correct. The burly, sun-soaked commercial fisherman, with his thick southern drawl, looks every bit the part. But he also happens to be an extraordinarily talented pianist that learned everything by rote. I asked him to play for us and he happily obliged. He played a medley that began with Debussy's  Clair de Lune.  As it faded into a new selection, I immediately recognized the beginning notes of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini (Op. 43 - Var. #18). A favorite of my father's. My dad introduced that piece to me via a music box he gave to me on my 10th birthday. I don't know if Hunter knew I had just lost my dad, but he definitely didn't know that that was one of my father's favorite pieces. I heard Holly's voice in my head. "Look for the signs." And though tears were streaming down my cheeks, there was so much joy in my sadness. 

I snapped this shot of Hunter before the flood of tears. 

Before he died, my father asked my younger brother to make peace with me. As kids, we never got along. Okay, we hated each other. Ours was not an easy or [overall] happy childhood. Our parents divorced when we were very young so we never experienced a stable, two-parent household. We struggled financially and were painfully aware that we were poor. Divorce - especially living with a single father in the 1980s - and poverty in our affluent hometown made us...different. As Jeannette Walls wrote in her jarringly familiar (minus the alcoholism and squatting) memoir The Glass Castle, “Once you go on welfare it changes you. Even if you get off welfare, you never escape the stigma that you were a charity case. You're scarred for life.” In addition to the shame of poverty, we were fearful of our dad’s volatile mood swings. Though we knew we were loved, our dad suffered bouts of intense depression that was terribly confusing for kids. He was completely unaware of how frightening it was for us to live each day not knowing if he was going to come home and greet us with hugs, or sit in his car in the driveway for an hour before coming inside to demand complete silence (from little kids...) while he sat alone listening to ear-piercingly loud classical music. The mood of our father was the mood of our home. My brother and I hated our circumstances. We turned that hatred on each other when we should have been each other's protectors. Too young to understand that our father's depression wasn't our fault - or his - or that being poor didn't make us unloveable.

I probably did something mean to my little brother right after this was taken.

Over the past year my younger brother and I have spoken extensively about our shared and separate childhood experiences. (Our older brother is on the autism spectrum and not wired for in-depth emotional analysis.) Even in his darkest moments, we idolized our dad. Though he was a complex and deeply flawed human being, his children were his greatest joy and there was never a doubt that he loved us with his whole heart. Now that we're adults and both parents ourselves, we can acknowledge and forgive the shortcomings of our father while still giving ourselves permission to love him as only his children can. We are the sum of all his best parts. Our father's death freed us from the misplaced anger and resentment that robbed of us our childhood bond. My brother is the one person in this world that completely understands the intricate mix of emotions that surround our father's memory. I deeply regret that we weren't allies in the trenches of our difficult childhoods, but enormously grateful that honoring our father's dying wish has given new life to our relationship. 

"What better measure of what you were doing here, than what you can leave behind." - Peter Gabriel, Make Tomorrow