My father had a hard time with his mother. He was always in contact with his parents and they all lived in the Portland area their whole lives. I think he wanted to be a good parent because he knew he didn’t get the kind of emotional support that he needed from his parents. But something about being raised the way he was made him unsure at the same time, not confident that he was doing parenting right, not fully able to let go and be honest with me and my siblings, never able to say “I’m sorry” or show weakness. Death opened up this big door for me and I feel like in a few ways, I know my father more fully and cohesively now than I did when he was alive. The pieces of how his childhood affected our parent/child relationship became clearer. I started to see how complicated it was to be raising adult children while he was managing a very difficult adult child/parent relationship himself. As a family therapist I feel enriched by learning more about our family dynamics and history in this last year in a way that people are not open to talking about unless someone has died. But no one in the profession really wants to know personally even if there is benefit in being able to empathize with others, because it means you have to walk that hard road yourself. In addition to the family piece, I heard many stories at his funeral and in the week before the funeral as visitors came to my mom’s house from his friends, coworkers, old high school buddies, etc. I was starting to see that there were things that everyone knew: he loved people and hearing people’s stories, he never complained about his cancer or aches and pains and almost to a fault did not let others be burdened by his pain, he loved his family and loved telling others about family events, and he was a very ethical man and worker. There was so much freedom for me in knowing that others knew this too.
The day that he died we were called at 3 or 4am. We were asked to meet my mom at the house... the worst request ever. That meant there was an emergency that couldn’t wait until morning, and that meant that he wasn’t being rushed to the hospital. I had stayed up the night before researching furniture on the internet and I nervously told Donovan about all the strange Craigslist discoveries I had made, trying to put out of my mind the urgency, the car ride, the possibilities. We were both in our pajamas. I could tell Donovan was really concerned by the look on his face and by a few things he said to try to snap me out of my chatter, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be and I didn’t want to until I really knew. I remember having this urge to yell at Donovan once we got within a mile or so, JUST GO FASTER. But I didn’t say anything, I knew it was crazy and that nothing could make it better. I ran from the car when we got there and my brother in laws were both outside looking sad and saying I should go inside. From there I can’t remember anything. I think my mother told me he died and I yelled some questions back at her very harshly and she held me while I cried. At one point the funeral home was called and we were given a chance to say our goodbyes to his body before they came. I hated to see him dead but I sat there for a long time. I thought, in my denial and fear, that I saw him breathing and that there was something we could do. I tried to tell others but they told me I was imagining it. I remember after that sitting there and thinking how very strange it was that he was not looking back at me. I had never sat with my father before and tried to make eye contact and gotten back a distant stare. In the following days I asked questions about everything, and I was stuck on what could have been done to avoid his death that night. Although when I thought about it I knew that if he had lived it would eventually happen anyway.
That first day I saw his clothes folded up from the day before with his change in his pocket. I saw all the food he liked in the fridge and felt strange when I sat down in his favorite chair as a few guests arrived at the house. I think I went into a frozen mode. I called everyone in the phone book on my mom’s behalf and told them the news and how to contact us about funeral information. The first call was hard but after that I became fine at it. I was surprised at how childish some of these big parental figures were when I spoke to them on the phone. I was surprised that they needed me to say he is in a better place without pain; they needed to be sad and told that it was okay. Somehow this was easier than seeing someone a year later who had not heard the news (an acquaintance of ours from my elementary school days). She simply asked “how are your mother and father?” and I cried, not knowing what to say. I eventually got out that my dad had died a year earlier but I felt embarrassed that it made me cry right there in public. It was fresh all over again.
The numbness and dark cold feeling lasted that whole week after he died. I saw my most favorite sight in Portland and the only thing I could think was that my father loved and served this whole city (as a PGE worker) for his whole life and because of that I wanted to leave. I remember feeling so sad for a few days and then the first time I laughed I was in the car with my sister and I felt bad for laughing. How could I laugh again? My emotions were all over the place, and I was not myself. My mother tried to reach out to me once at the funeral home saying “you never got to grow old having a father” and I shut her down with no remorse; I didn’t even ask my husband how he was doing until days later; I broke down uncontrollably at a family dinner and didn’t stop crying for over a half hour. I lived in this weird week where time was not real and where I wanted to change it and go back one week so badly. I didn’t want the funeral to come because I wanted to process it all. I wanted the space to think. But eventually it did come. And the funeral ended up to be so very comforting. I saw others pain and loss which was so unique from mine and I realized I was not the only one hurting. It was a celebration for me to laugh and cry and to remember with a big room of other people who all had their own stories and experiences with him. I especially wondered how his mother felt being there or his older cousins and aunts and uncles, those who remembered him being born and a young child only to die at 53.
For months I was stuck on what he didn’t get in life by dying young. He was such a hard worker and wanted to enjoy retirement and never got there. I was stuck on the injustice of death. It added fuel to the fire that in the company that he was so devoted to, several other men in his line of work (working on high powered electricity lines) also got cancer but the company did not take responsibility for the cancer or deaths. I did think about eternity in the early days after he died, but having some distance from the grief I can see that his experience in heaven is far greater than any unfinished or unfair thing that happened on earth. I thought those things then but I couldn't really understand it like I do now with some distance.
When I think about what all this experience has given me I think it has made the circle of life more clear to me. I can see how family patterns can be passed down from generation to generation and how fragile the human spirit is. I can also see that there is so much to still want from life here on earth, that nothing is perfect, and in knowing that, it’s pretty freeing because we can hope in God and not this world and can look forward to our time with God, our communion, after we die. I think my dad really loved his family although he couldn’t always show it, and I think, praise God, because when we get to heaven all of those inadequacies and worries and fears and self doubt and unfinished parts of our inner person will be complete in God. How very beautiful. I am so glad my father has that and can be free.