Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Essential thinking for reading Catholics.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Dad, 1934-2012

On April 25th, at +/-6am, after fighting Alzheimer's AND Parkinson' dad died.

From a stroke. (A rather in-character thing.)

It has been, among many other things, surreal.

Given the fact he suffered from both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's his death was something frontmost in our minds, but we expected more of that long, slow decline. (Dementia-wise, we was 80% gone, so we still had some time to go in that department.)
Earlier in my life, my dad and I didn't have an eye-to-eye relationship. Not something worthy of a book or film, but we had not-infrequent moments of friction. We had different personalities, and not always compatible ones. He had reached some rather lofty pinnacles on the strength of a forceful personality and it drove him crazy I didn't respond to that personality the way he expected me to. My sister was the one of us he "got" the best. He simply didn't know what to make of me half the time. I think it frustrated him he didn't know how to "reach" me.

As he was diagnosed and progressed downward, those moments became fewer and fewer, and I am infinitely grateful for that.

When you have someone in your family with a terminal anything, the sword of Damocles in your life is That Telephone Call.

My mom called my wife at 6:18am. My wife immediately erupted into wracking sobs. Freudians say men marry their mothers, and I, having got that backwards, married my father. My wife and my dad adored each other. I used to joke that marrying my wife was the only thing I had ever done of which my dad approved unreservedly. Believe it or else, of all the people whose reaction was especially difficult, my wife's was by far the worst. In fact, my mom was pretty much holding it together until my wife showed up and turned up the waterworks.

I also used to say, after having gotten married, that my wife had four parents and I had four in-laws. It is no exaggeration to say my dad loved my wife deeply. Which, in case you're keeping score at home, is the better of the various options.

Anyway, upon hearing the news, I logged in and informed all the various people (there were tons, but 3-4 emails sufficed) of the sad news, got dressed and went to my parents' house. When I got there, there were eleventy police cars and two of the big ambulances. Paramedics and police were scurrying around, filling paperwork busily.

(My father would have noted acidly that these days you can't even die without filling out government forms.)

His body was still in the hospital-style bed where he slept the last two years of his life. The doctor told us that by the symptoms, it seemed very likely he had suffered a massive, fatal, stroke.

Little by little, police and paramedics filtered out, and the funeral people were called. My mom sat by his bed, staring absently nowhere, caressing his forearm.

Not being Wired That Way, I had never seen the body of someone who has just died. Don't recommend it much, truth be told. The blood that is pumped around the body stops circulating and begins to collect downward, draining the face, etc. of color. A green pallor results. I suggest you avoid.

We then had to begin to make Those Final Arrangements. We deferred to my mother for decisions. After all, this was the man with whom she shared 55 years, triumphs and defeats and joys and worries and hopes. Her husband, her call.

Closed casket or open? I said closed, so it stayed open. Which church, St. X or St. Y? How's the Mass going to go? Etc. (Memo: Leave, in writing, EXACTLY, down to the last nano-detail, how you want yours to go. I can very easily see disagreements during bereavement turning hideous. More on my preferences later on.)

On the closed casket thing, although people were too polite to say so, I was right. When they "prepare" your body, it  simply does not look like you. It just doesn't. People look down and, instead of remembering you, they think to themselves "What the HELL did they do to his nose?"

In my case, this, bizarrely, turned to be a blessing, because that didn't look like my dad. That looked like a wax statue of my dad as done under the guidance of a relatively competent police sketch artist. I don't know if I could have held it together had it looked like my dad; as it was I managed to do pretty good at the composure thing.

Not flawless, though.

Around noon, the funeral people hauled off my dad's body, my mom and wife went to the cemetery to prepare the burial site, my sister went somewhere to micromanage something to the Nth degree, my brother-in-law went to help arrange travel for distant relatives and friends and I was left alone to go home. So I stopped in noon Mass. Praying for the repose of my dad's soul struck me as a noble and capital notion and precisely what he would have wanted and one of the very few things I could do that was the way he would have wanted it, rather than something someone thought of as "nice."

(For these purposes, I shut down. I realize my way of coping is via humor -- and VERY dark humor at that -- and that normal people would not see things in that light to just shut down and let everyone do what they're going to do anyway. Like the Penguins of Madagascar said: "smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.")

After Mass I returned home and showered and, as I was drying my face, I spontaneously burst into sobs. For maybe 10, 15 seconds. I was struck by both the brevity and intensity, and that -- other than the odd, brief, choking up -- was that. I miss my dad, and I realize the admittedly long-shot miracle for which we had been praying for was never going to materialize. I know he was a PITA very often, but I miss my dad. I know he was "almost all gone" for the last two years, but I miss my dad. For all his cantankerousness, obstinacy, intransigence...he was wise and kind and pathologically honest and unfailingly decent. And I miss him.

Not really sure what happened to Saturday.

I swear I could see it knocking on my door but next thing I know, it's Sunday. Damned if I can see where it went. May have something to do with loitering in PJs all day, trying to soothe some ravaged spots in my heart. Trying, desperately, not to have the recurring thoughts of "Wow. Dad's gone." Or imagining that I'd visit my parents' house and his hospital bed is not there; that his nurses, who developed a fierce affection for him, aren't there chatting with him; that he won't hear Joey's voice and, in a clear baritone, call him over -- Joey was the last person my father always recognized -- to ask how school was going.

Whatever happened to Saturday evaporated in the raw, stinging, effort to not think along these lines. Whenever the odd forbidden thought entered my mind's perimeter, I would dispel it by counter-thinking how painful his penultimate days were. His last few months were slashed by hallucinations he was falling, and him tearfully calling for his "mommy." His brain function was impaired to such an extent that quite often swallowing was a hazardous event, since choking was not unlikely and neither my mother nor whichever the nurse on duty at that moment were strong enough to lift him to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

His palate -- irony of ironies for a man whose violin d'angre was as a wine taster and reviewer -- had also degraded to the point that anything short of sucrose-sweet was perceived as venomously bitter.

Over the last few weeks whenever I stopped to visit him, he was always looking down at the ground and then immediately looked up, his face inevitably cast with a look of bewildered surprise. "Who is THIS now?" seemed to be the intermittent thought his mind was transmitting to the best of its moribund abilities. I always entertained him with brief conversations of "I saw [former partner of his firm] and he sends greetings." or "I'm sending that paperwork to the Division of Corporations." or "We're having a meeting with the investors to see if we're all on the same page."

That sort of thing.

It's both a trope and a truth that he's not suffering now, that "he's in a better place." Cold comfort today, but one likely to warm up as the weeks and the shock and the grief sublimate into the mundane, workaday realities to which we must all return.

The Funeral Mass was said by a lifelong -- I used to joke "they were fetuses together" -- Jesuit priest friend of his. He held it together, even though I know it was tough for him. Obviously, not everyone held it together. My niece and TFBIM were each a rocket-hot mess. My BiL, who otherwise is as Spartan as they come, surprisingly was practically Italian in his emotions. Joey, looked as though someone had taken all of the stuffing out of him, his eyes welling at selected moments, but he wanted to comfort my mother and, at the age of 14, did his manful best to maintain an even strain. He spend the downtime of these last few days pacing with a Rosary in his hand, praying for his grandfather's eternal rest. Davy, in his own way, tried to be a comfort, distributing tissues as if he was a commissioned agent in the Tissue Sales Force.

My sister had pretty much run out of tears, and my mother ran out just prior to the Mass, prior to the casket being closed, when she kissed his forehead and asked him to wait for her. She then slumped in her seat, broke down for a good half minute, muttering "I can't do this, I can't do this..." with the whole of her grandchildren embracing her quietly, not knowing what to do or say or even if there was anything to be done or said. Then she stood up, dabbed at her eyes, and said: "OK. I'm done crying."

The Mass was a blur to me. I only remember snippets and snatches and sections. Joey read from the
Book of Wisdom (3:1-9) as he had practiced it, not wanting to let his grandfather down by eaither stumbling. I remember staring at the ceiling, breathing deeply, as certain phrases ("...have fallen asleep in the hope of the Resurrection...", etc.) made my eyes start brimming hotly. I focused on innocuous architectural features. I counted curlicues, yellow flowers. Whatever.

The homily spoke about Catholic faith, and specifically my Dad's. I was stunned to hear from the pulpit how approvingly my dad spoke of me, as this was news to me.

That was close.

Afterwards, as my sister was issuing instructions at length, and explaining the rationale for the instructions issued at even greater length, I was conducting a brief census of who was there. In these circumstances, we are always surprised by who shows up and who doesn't. Those who surprised me by their presence I will regard with fathomless gratitude and affection. A lot of these folks had no compelling reason to be there, and they were not even remotely expected to, but came they did anyway. I am grateful for, and to, them.

At last we got to the cemetery. Towards the back, underneath a spreading umbrella tree -- a tree which my dad always hated, FWIW -- my dad had selected his plot. Ever practical, he got it all the way in the back that, when others were being buried, nobody would step over his gravesite. The hearse stopped, and all of us pallbearers took hold of "our" handles and hoisted, placing the casket on the mechanized bier which would lower it to the earth. We all assembled, as the priest sprinkled Holy Water and committed my father's body back to the dust whence we all came, I thought I was not only going to lose it, but lose it in such an Olympic, epic, Homeric, way that many generations from now, children would recount the incident in song and adults speak of it in hushed, reverential tones for all time.

And then.

My Guardian Angel directed my gaze towards the cemetery director, a man in his late 50s whose hair and eyebrows had been dyed a very ridiculous dark auburn, and badly at that.  (So badly dyed, in fact, that I could clearly see the skin beneath had been stained and tinted by the hair dye.)

The tonsorial tragedy which had befallen this unfortunate, looking as though someone had liberally laced his shampoo with both burgundy and black shoe polish, was the balm my ragged system needed so very desperately. I stared fixedly at him, as he was ideally situated so that staring at his impressive black-cherry shellac coif gave casual observers the impression that my gaze was resolutely upon the priest as he recited the final prayers. There were a few stifled sniffles of genuine emotion, but I realized I'm going to hold it together. I'm really going to really hold it really together.

Sometimes, the littlest things prove the greatest blessings.


  • At 11:48 AM, April 30, 2012 , Blogger gnelson said...

    That was beautiful, Joe. (if this were paper, there would be tear splotches on it) Phew, I've been there enough times to know what you're talking about. My husband and my bothers all say that men relatives should be allowed to build the coffins and dig the graves like in the old days. So when my grandma died, that's what they did. And then filled in the hole. Thanks for sharing this. I'm sorry for your loss. You're in our thoughts and prayers. Gretchen

  • At 1:45 AM, May 13, 2012 , Blogger Amateur's Wife said...

    I feel for you. Loss is not a stranger to me, and... I really understand. There' just nothing that one can say that sounds right. Words prove themselves false. Yet, that's what I've got. God Bless you.


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