Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Vigil for My Father

[I'm now back in Colorado, and after a week of getting the house and garden in order, I'm ready to finish the tale.]

On Monday, July 4th, Dad was cremated.

I can honestly say I don't remember what all we must've done on Monday, but I know that one fact for certain. On Tuesday we held Visitation Hours at the funeral home for dad.

Considering that I really had no idea why we "needed" visitation hours, it turns out that the second session was the absolute best part of the whole death ritual. Even better than the funeral itself, for me at the very least.

We walked into the oddly hushed room, where the walls were lined with ancient sofas from a time long gone. Just as uncomfortable now as they were when originally purchased, no one had ever sat on them for comfort or had time to get the seat to conform to their shape. I walked in with Eric, Cindy and Jason, but without the children. We had hired a sitter to keep them from lighting the house on fire and from expiring from utter boredom at such a decidedly child-unfriendly event. Random people populated the room, random photographs were strewn across a coffee table. In the back of the room, flowers were on display; huge bouquets of flowers from friends and family members, the bank where dad worked and friends from church. The displays were lovely.

Flanked on either side by the flowers was a console table and two photos of my father.

One was from his early banking days, he was probably just 30 and looked as if he'd just stepped out of a scene from Mad Men; stiff white shirt, dark tie, sharp black suit and glasses that brooked no nonsense.

The other was from just a year ago; 77 years old and wearing one of his ubiquitous sweaters and wool driving caps.

The two photos encompassed about 47 years of his life, but couldn't even begin to express all the living that occurred between one and the next. Yet somehow they managed to capture a little something about dad. Was it the twinkle in his eye? A bit of a smirk where another might've grinned? It's hard to say just what you saw when perusing these pictures, but you definitely understood that it was my father, your uncle/cousin/friend/husband.

In the center of the console table was the urn.

It was pretty, sitting there, lit with a quiet understatement and yet a heavy presence. Here lie the ashes of a man... It suddenly struck me that all that remained of my father was in that itty bitty steel vessel and it stunned me that all of him could fit in there. A lump formed suddenly in my throat and tears leapt to my eyes. The reality of the moment settled heavily on my shoulders, reinforced by the abnormal hush, the somewhat dusty scent, the ancient sofas and striped wall hangings.

It took me a moment to collect myself, catch my breath and find my words once more. Quiet greetings murmured to people I didn't know, people I should have known and cousins I'd never known about. We took a break for dinner (and yet more doughnuts) and then returned for the final set of visiting hours and the eulogy. In the second hour, the folks I recognized began to appear. They trickled into the room in groups of two or three; cousins, old friends from dad's Jamaica days, his school friends, his nieces and nephew. My family. My parent's community. The characters that all held memories of dad that differed from mine, slices of his past, pieces of his personality.

My kid sister (fun to still call her that, at 32 and a mother of 2 children) took to the floor and read the eulogy that she had prepared and had printed out in 18 point font. It took up three pages, not because it was just that long, but because the font size was that large just in case it became a tad difficult to see. Smart girl, that one.

She told us of early morning piggyback rides down the stairs and coffee shared with a 5 year old; Christmas stockings that were never large enough and overflow candy ending up in size 13 shoe boxes beneath the stockings. She asked us to remember him as he was, not as he became and not as a victim of Alzheimer's, because dad would've wanted it that way.

When she finished, she looked me in the eye and wanted me to take the floor. I wasn't ready yet, so I had Dawn (my older sister) go up instead.

Dawn spoke of dad's years as a track star and how he could still beat her in a race back when she was in high school. How he spoke of practice and working hard at your goals. Next it was my turn.

Being me, I didn't want to regale the crowd with my memory of dad whilst standing up. It was rather like being on a stage, minus the trappings of an auditorium and the comfortable seats. Instead, I pulled up a bench, since I wasn't certain if I could stand and speak or if the formality of it would bring me to tears.

In my memory, we were somewhere in Canada on a family camping trip, deep in the woods, roughly 27 years ago. Dad and I had gone for a walk away from the family and tent, down towards a distant lake. As we walked along through the forest, we kept quiet and listened to the jays calling overhead; the sound of leaves and small branches crunching damply underfoot; smelled that rich aroma of pine and decay and fresh air that permeates a forest; felt the breeze on our cheeks and we just were there, together. Just us. Quiet. Peaceful. Serene. At the lake was a single loon, calling. I called back and it responded as it swam. We called back and forth for awhile as my father watched me, quietly amused at my antics. As the loon swam out of sight, dad took my hand and we turned to go. Just a father and a daughter. Quietly together, far from home.

As I finished and stood up, I turned to my brother whose turn had come to speak. He had chosen to speak last for reasons of his own.

He started off well enough and then the tears overtook him. Seeing him struggle, I was overwhelmed with empathy and grabbed a handful of tissues for him, then stood beside him as he collected himself and carried on. I figured he needed to say whatever it was he wanted to tell this room full of folks who had come to pay their respects. So I stood there, with my arms around my not-so-little little brother who towered over me at 6' tall and supported him as he spoke. We may have our issues, he and I, but in that moment, he needed someone and I stepped up. I don't remember what he said, exactly, but I remember he was glad when he was done and shuddered in relief.

After we 4 kids were through, a small trickle of cousins and friends stepped up to share their stories.

One of my dad's nieces, Nancy, told us a story about how dad would visit and turn their entire house upside down.
That's Nancy, standing behind Mom and Joan.

He'd bring laughter and joy with him when he came to see his eldest sister and her brood. He baked a pineapple upside-down cake, doubling the batch which spilled out of the pan in its enthusiasm and then woke the kids to come have a slice, in the middle of the night. He made them laugh. He took them camping. He had them stay with us in NY while they were visiting or in school, or just passing through. I love their memories of him, so filled with life.

The stories continued from one person to the next. Words wrapped us up together in comfort; laughter burst forth sporadically and we passed the time together, if not happily at least meaningfully and joyfully.

Dad's oldest friend, Joan, was the last person to speak.

She told us of a terribly mischievous boy, forever hounding her and leaving her bruised, who somehow turned into a perfectly bidding boy at the call of his mother. She also explained, once and for all, that she was not, nor had she ever been, his girlfriend. The room rocked with laughter and mom, who had been sitting next to Joan the whole time, laughed long and loud and tightened her grip on Joan's hand.

Mom knew all the stories. She'd heard them all again and again.Over the years, mom had turned into my father's external memory deposit. She kept all of the strands of his past together in her head, since he couldn't anymore. And while she didn't say a word or share any of her memories of dad that day, she thanked each person that spoke in turn and warmed herself with their words.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Death Rituals

Eventually, after a few more tears were shed, the whole family walked out into the garden to start dealing with the matter at hand. Phone calls to friends and family members were made. Discussion about our desire to donate dad's brain and how to do it were addressed. The funeral home was contacted and the nurses were thanked for all of their hard work.

I flipped my Dark Humor setting to On. Tired of crying, I decided to try a different tactic.

My brother asked if we knew what kind of a funeral we wanted for dad and then suggested a Jamaican one. I couldn't let that slide and exclaimed, "What?! You want rum and fist fights? Awesome! Let's do that!"

Cindy then eagerly suggested a bagpiper, then Dawn suggested a trumpeter and I declared that we should do both for the thrill of it. Mom listened to us riffing back and forth and looked a little...perturbed. She was trying not to laugh, but she was also red eyed and trembling on the edge of crying again. I figured she needed a good laugh and kept being ridiculous. Pretty soon, I latched onto the phrase "Dad would've want it that way." and used it to support almost any idea we ran across.

Doughnuts? Dad would've wanted doughnuts. Story time at the funeral home? You betcha. Rum? Absolutely. Pie? Dad really would've wanted us to have pie. (To date, we still haven't had pie. We need to work on that.) And so we passed the time. Outgoing calls, incoming calls, a short round of discussion over whether the local University could have his body or not (By the way, did you know there are brain banks? If you, or someone you know, has a disease like Alzheimer's and wants to donate their brain to help continue research and eventually find a cure, you can donate just your brain. Or, if you'd like to help further medical research as a whole, you can donate your whole body.), we voted not to give them his body if they weren't going to use it for Alzheimer's research. After numerous phone calls my older sister, the nurse, found the right person to get dad's brain to and that bit was done.

The question about whether we'd have an open casket funeral followed by cremation was stomped flat. No one within our family or among dad's friends needed to see dad like that. It was a situation where my silly little phrase was completely useful. Dad never would've wanted that. Instead we opted for immediate cremation. When the van came to take dad's body away, the nursing home staff lined up in the corridor like an honor guard. He'd only been there a few months, but they got to know him pretty well and everyone loved my mom who was there every single day he was in there. We thanked them, said goodbye, and then trooped down to the funeral home to make the last of the arrangements.

Never having lost anyone close to me before, fortunately, I was all at sea when it came to local funeral rituals. What are "visitation hours" used for? Who goes to those? Can't we just skip to the funeral and interment? Why are those are done separately? What about all of those scenes in the movies where herds of mourners are at the grave sites and the famous Dust to Dust speech is given? Clearly I had a lot to learn.

Oh, and in case you were wondering? Funeral homes are kinda creepy. Yeah, you say, you're not surprised, but when you come face to face with an ancient print of Little Bo Peep on the wall that screams horror movie ghost girl at you, you'll know what I mean. Antique furniture that you just know was bought when it was new in the 1800s, depressingly serious wall colors, quietly consoling artwork and the casket room added to the Creep Factor. It wasn't scary, per se, but kinda spooky. Sounds seemed oddly muffled.

As I mentioned earlier, my dad had been dying for a long time and yet mom never got around to choosing an urn. So when the director asked if we wanted to pick it out, we said yes and three of us trooped after him. Up a rickety set of stairs into what would be the attic, with its oppressive slanted roof, where several caskets were on display up on lucite Xs. It's important to note that when not in use, clear lucite Xs should be stored flat along a wall unless you want a 6' tall man, distracted by a room full of coffins, to put his foot right through one.

Oh, yes. Oh, yes he did indeed.

We stifled some laughter at my brother's expense and turned our attention to the shelf full of urns and a rotating display case full of...coffin bling.

I kid you not.

There, on a rotating rack in front of the shelf full of urns, was a selection of what was clearly meant to be coffin or urn adornments. There was an open mouthed bass; a plaque with trees and a lake enscribed with the word Dad; a flowered disc and other items that I can't recall since I was too busy trying not to giggle. Once Cindy made ooh-ing noises about the fish, all I could focus on was how to redirect her interest in case she got serious about it. Veto plans firmly in place, I turned my gaze to what would be the final resting place for my dad's ashes.

Turns out there are all kinds of urns available in all kinds of shapes, colors and sizes. On the way up the stairs, I had threatened my brother with a pink flowered box for dad's ashes and sure enough, there was one waiting. Instead, we all chose the simple stainless urn inscribed with a Greek Key. Dad would have approved. Another bonus: you couldn't attach any bling to it. Fish crisis averted! Decision made, we trooped carefully back down the stairs. My gaze traveled across caskets with pink interiors, fluffy cream colored pillows, engraved brass plaques that declared this to be Dad's Final Resting Place and lids carved with images of trees and deer. I was suddenly glad that we were skipping right to cremation. You can spend an awful lot of money on a tricked out box!

I'm pretty certain dad would've wanted us to save the money for rum and pie.

In the office once again, we finalized the text for the obituary (Those things can get pretty long!) that Cindy had been working on; arranged for cremation on Monday, visitation hours on Tuesday afternoon and the funeral and interment on Wednesday morning. As it turns out, there's a lot of Red Light, Green Light when it comes to funeral planning. Religious funeral? Church. Catholic? Funeral with eulogy. Not Catholic? Eulogy during visitation instead. Mass with service or without? Would the children do readings during the visitation service or the funeral? Readings needed to be on the approved list. I really had no idea.

Updated to add: Cindy reminded me about the Ashes Issue. As we were wrapping up, Cindy remembered to ask for some of dad's ashes to be set aside for scattering, per his wishes.

Cindy suddenly remembered that dad had wanted his ashes sprinkled over the Hammond River and asked the funeral director to save some. "Not a lot!" she added, hurriedly, in case he got the wrong idea. "Just some. A little." I looked at her oddly, a light dancing in my eyes and barely restrained myself. "What?" Clearly I was being a pain.

"You're worried you're going to get a big old bag of ashes to haul around, aren't you? A one pound bag of Dad." Horrified, Cindy began gesturing emphatically and attempted to explain. I laughed at the image of a gallon sized baggie of Dad being thumped down in front of her for scattering, but the director assured us that he understood completely. Second crisis averted! We were totally getting the hang of this!

Decisions made and one burning personal question answered (What happens in cremation if you have a metal hip? What do they do with it? Could you get it back if you wanted it?) for my brother,* we went home to mom's house. We all declared it was time for Rum.

Fisticuffs optional.

*No pun intended. Seriously. I even said it that way while we were in the office. Let's just call it a Freudian slip and move on, shall we?

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Final Farewell

After a fast shower and a leisurely brushing of teeth (mine had grown a bit hairy during the long drive), we left Eric behind with the children and drove off to see dad at the nursing home. We were assured he was still alive at this point and responding to others when they spoke to him.

Now, the thing to keep in mind about where we are in the Maritime region is that everything is about an hour away from wherever you happen to be at the moment. Want to go to mom's house from Cindy's house? An hour's drive. Want to go shopping? An hour's drive. Want to run out to the store and grab some milk? An hour's drive. So, going to the nursing home from Cindy's house was going to hour's drive. After I'd spent three days driving with a sense of urgency, you would think that another hour would be easy enough to bear, but that drive wasn't leaving me just yet. Not until I had a chance to see him would I know whether I could step down from Red Alert or not.

As we drove, Cindy and I caught up. We talked about dad, mom, and the miracle of getting my brother Ian to fly in. He would be arriving later that evening with his sweetheart, Deb. Mom was thrilled that he'd be there. We three sisters were convinced that this is what dad was waiting for before he could let go of this existence. The weather was lovely, so many degrees cooler than Colorado, and so much more moisture in the air that it was just a bit like swimming. We drove, reminisced and wondered if we'd make it in time.

As it turned out, we did. We pulled into the Centre and walked in through the security doors. Since some Alzheimer's patients tend to go on walkabout when not supervised they have a keypad lock on the door and large, serious signs about making sure the door was shut all the way and that no patients were lurking about, waiting to make a break for it. The building was surrounded by lovely gardens, maintained by a team of volunteers. I appreciated the lush beauty of it just as I appreciated how very different it was from the depressing look of the hospital in January.

We opened the door to the Palliative Care Room and walked inside. There, on the hospital bed was my father. Cindy had warned me, but there's really nothing you can do to prepare someone for what a loved one looks like at the very end of their days. He was a husk, a mummy, the bare essence of my father. His eyes were still the same, if unfocused and rheumy. He was so very thin, as if all his life had burned up while trying to hang on, just a little longer. Long bones exposed, his hands curled into stiffened claws, his cheekbones sunken in. I held back tears, because I wouldn't lose it just as I walked in the door. I could be strong, at least for a little bit longer.

I walked around the side of the bed to where he could see me and said, "Hi dad!" He worked to focus on my face; his eyes found mine. Did he know who I was at the very end? He did recognize my voice, somewhere deep inside? Did he think I was mom or Cindy or some long remembered relative? I don't know and it doesn't really matter. I remembered him and I had made it in time to say goodbye. Again.

I don't remember what I nattered about for a couple of minutes, but I do remember telling him that we'd had a very long drive. I then joked that I wish I could tell him that we'd flown in and "boy, were my arms tired!". At that old joke, he smiled. He smiled. He was still in there. He'd heard me and smiled at my stupid joke. At that point my ability to tough it out failed and I excused myself and walked out into the garden just outside his door. My face crumpled up and the tears came. Cindy hugged me, hard, as I cried. Dawn came up and wrapped her arms around us both. It was so awful to see him left as just a shadow of his old self; that huge, bluff, loud man we knew as our father. I cried for myself, for my father, for my siblings and our children; for all that we had lost, all that we'd had and all that he'd never been able to do. All of those things he'd kept on putting off until "tomorrow". A tomorrow that never came as all of his yesterdays were erased bit by bit.

Cindy congratulated me for making it that long without crying. Then we walked it off a bit by wandering around the garden and admiring the plants, so lovely, lush and exuberantly alive. Peonies bursting open like slow motion fireworks, hostas with leaves the size of platters. Mom came out, traded off with Cindy and walked with me. She was all choked up.

The thing you need to know about my mother is that she hardly ever cried when we were kids. Apparently these days, tears were never far from the surface. All of those years of being calm and cool had dissolved as her husband of 44 years faded away. I always figured that since he was 12 years older than mom that he'd pass away first, but I never imagined it would be like this. Mom cried a little as we walked and talked. She felt guilty for all the things she should've done. That she should've spent more time just sitting with him when he asked her to. I told her that I often felt the same way about the twins and Caitlin, but that someone has to wash the dishes, do the laundry, sweep the floor. She'd done a fantastic job taking care of dad, all by herself, for all of those long years. She had no need to feel guilt for what else she might've done.

No one could have done a better job of taking care of dad than mom. The doctor expressed his surprise and deepest admiration for all of her work. That he'd never seen anyone as advanced in Alzheimer's in such excellent shape when dad was checked into the hospital in January. He was still ambulatory, he could still speak and eat on his own. I reminded her of all this and told her how strong she was, how proud I was, how heroic she was for taking care of everything. She amazed me.

Now we waited for my brother to arrive; we expected Ian and Deb to arrive at 11:30 pm that night. Dawn, Cindy and I were convinced that dad was hanging in there for mom who was holding him through sheer willpower. Making him wait, just a little longer, until Ian arrived. A steady stream of mom's choir friends came by with cookies, bars, sandwiches and fruit. Time slid by, slowly and steadily, as dad went in and out of a fitful sleep. His labored breath sounded as if he was scuba diving; bubbly and thick. His final bout with pneumonia would be his last.

Finally, Cindy and I drove off to pick up my brother. We warned him that it wasn't pretty. We told him it was going to be hard. I may have used the term "mummy", my black humor was the only thing between me and constant tears. Even with that preparation, he was aghast at what he saw. The last time he'd seen dad was for the twins' 3rd birthday party. That man was long gone. He cried. We cried to see him cry. Mom cried from happiness that he'd finally made it. Dad woke up a bit for mom who asked him to say hi to Ian. He got agitated, although we don't really know why. Was he in pain? Was he tired of listening to all of our voices?

We walked out into the garden to give dad space and told Ian how glad we all were that he'd made it in time. That he showed up.

Sometimes that all it takes. Just show up. Be there for the people that need you.

After awhile, we went back to Cindy's house to sleep. I had had 2 hours of sleep in the last 40 hours. As we drove, I tried to stay awake for Cindy, who was driving. Tried to keep her awake so that we didn't get into any untoward meetings with deer upon the road. I blinked in and out of consciousness as we drove. I passed out entirely when we crossed over the river on the ferry. I felt drugged, heavy and uncoordinated as we climbed up the stairs and into bed. How much longer did dad have? Would mom call us if he passed away in the middle of the night? During our drive home? Early in the morning?

First thing in the morning, Cindy called to check in and dad was still hanging in there. Around 2 pm, mom called. Dad's breathing had changed to agonal breathing. The end was very near. We needed to get there ASAP. We flew out the door and broke every speed limit between here and there. When we arrived, I recognized that sound. Those final breaths. We talked to dad for just a bit. We each said goodbye. Strangely enough, he seemed to be mouthing something. Was he trying to say something to us? What was he trying to say? Cindy swears it looked like he was saying, "Mom. Mom. Mom." over and over again. I couldn't disagree. Was it possible he saw his mother? He tried to reach out, but was too weak. His hand fell back into his lap again.

Mom, Ian and Deb weren't there. Mom had run home for a quick shower; Ian was off washing the car as mom had asked and getting lunch. Was washing the car the funereal equivalent to tearing bedsheets and boiling water?

Cindy was concerned that dad may have been in pain and called one of the nurses in. A pair came in to help readjust him to ease his breathing and give him another shot of morphine to keep him comfortable. As they left the room, one poked her head out the garden door and told us that if we needed anything at all, to call for them. I think she knew, right at that moment that the game was up. We went back inside and stood beside the bed. I recognized that he was fading away at last and that he wasn't waiting for mom and Ian to return. My eyes filled up with tears and a lump formed in my throat.

Dawn stood across from me and held dad's hand. She told him it was OK and that we'd take care of mom for him. That it was time to go. That it was OK to go. Cindy stood next to Dawn and couldn't believe it. I was nodding that yes he was going, then he had one last breath and I shook my head no, but then there was that long, last, slow exhalation and nothing more. After a moment of stunned silence, we held each other tightly and cried. Our tears fell freely at that point.

Gone. All gone. So quietly. Peacefully, even.

We pulled ourselves together just a bit and I asked what time it was. Roughly 4:05 pm. Dawn called mom who was terribly upset that she wasn't there. We figured dad was waiting for her to leave so he could go. Sneaky, stubborn dad. There was a problem, because Ian wasn't back yet. We didn't know where he'd gotten off to, so Cindy jumped into the car to go collect mom and bring her to the nursing Centre. As we waited, the nurse came in to verify my father's death, to check his vitals, and to set the funereal gears into motion. Just a few minutes later, my mother and brother walked in (My mother's house, fortunately, was not an hour away from the nursing home.) and cried. My mother kissed my dad goodbye.

My brother kissed my father on the forehead when he thought no one was watching and whispered something to him.

It was over at long last and we had all made it. We were exactly where we needed to be.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Race Cross Country

My sister Cindy called me at 6 am on Monday morning, June 27th, and told me my dad was dying.

Since he was in the final stages of Alzheimer's, he'd been dying for a long, long time, but this was it. She had called a month ago and said we were getting close to the end, but this was the final curtain call.

We had planned on going out mid-July, but I had made it very clear to both my mother and Cindy that if anything changed that we'd drop everything and come out earlier. A month ago, they said we should just continue with our current plan. Monday morning, everything changed. Dad had had four bouts of double pneumonia since January. Four times he was dosed with antibiotics and three times he bounced back.

Not this time.

I answered the phone, voice rough with sleep, to hear Cindy's voice choked with tears. "You need to get here. Soon."

Suddenly, our leisurely search for a house/plant/cat sitter plunged into full gear. Mountains of laundry were washed; e-mails mailed; plans made; friends contacted.

All of the plants that I'd grown from seed that were still on the back deck needed to be dealt with before we left. Tomatoes, bell peppers, basil, and parsley needed to be rescued. I couldn't just run off and let them die. At some point I would be back and would regret it if I didn't take a few hours to pot them all up. It was also something to focus on instead of freaking out while all of the laundry whirred in the washing machine and dryer. Something to keep busy with instead of sorting through memories of my father. I asked Eric to buy me 3 large bags of potting soil, two more very large pots and set to work. Later, I'll be glad I did it, I assured myself.

Finally, at 1:30 pm on Tuesday, we were ready to go. I'm sad to admit that a great deal of yelling occurred as we rushed the kids into the car. One of the main reasons we bought the minivan, in all of its hugeness, was to make this very trip. Trying to fly was prohibitively costly: well over $6000 for all five of us and there was no way I was going to go alone. I knew I'd need my support system. I also knew my mom would want to see everyone. So we yelled. We hollered. We packed. I baked 2 dozen muffins for the trip and finished writing up my Taking Care of Hatchetville note to leave for my friends who were watching the house.

Then we hit the road.

We drove for 12-14 hours the first day and slept in a hotel somewhere in Nebraska. We repeated that long day of driving and slept somewhere in Pennsylvania. On Thursday, we hit the road around 10 am local time and drove forever. Eric was beginning to flag after about 12 hours, but my urgent need to be there kept me awake and sharp. I drove through the night. Through upstate NY, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and finally saw the sun rise while flying through Maine.

Just before the border into Canada, I stopped and let Eric take over. It was 5:30 am and I had just driven us to the edge of my ability. Now we only had an hour and a half to go to get to Cindy's house. I had slept for a total of 2 hours in the last "day".

At 7:30 am we pulled into Cindy's driveway and knocked on her bedroom window. "What does it take for a girl to use the bathroom around here?!" I called to my befuddled younger sister. She was amazed we'd made it there that early. We checked in with mom and my older sister and dad was still hanging in there.

Waiting for us.

Waiting to say goodbye.
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