Thursday, November 22, 2012

Remembering my Dad

November 30th will be the 4 year anniversary of my dad's death. Below is an essay I wrote about the weeks leading up to and after his death. I found that writing about it served as an excellent source of therapy.

Before my dad died he started seeing dead people and Sarah Palin.

“I brought him breakfast in bed and he thought I was Sarah Palin.” My mom told me over the phone one evening. She laughed, but I could tell that she was uncomfortable.

In the weeks before he died, dad would mention his father and younger brother as if they were in the room with us, despite the fact that each of them have been dead for over thirty years. Once dad pointed into the backseat while my mom was driving and told her that my grandfather was in the car.

“What is he doing?” she asked.

He shrugged.

According to his doctor, the hallucinations were normal, a side effect of the tumors growing in his brain, but I like to believe that those dead people really were there. In my mind, my grandfather and uncle were hanging out, their legs folded, while sitting on the couch or at the kitchen table in vacant seats. They were patiently waiting for dad to pass away so they could steal him from us. Around my dad, I felt like I needed to be witty at all times because he was in the constant company of ghosts. I wanted to wow them with my charming personality.

Five weeks before he died, my parents flew out to San Diego from Chicago. My mom wanted dad surrounded by family when he passed. They rented a house in Mission Beach that bordered the bay. When we went to tour the place, the landlady spoke to my father in a patronizing tone, as if he were a child. Her voice was high-pitched and sing-songy.

“My best friend has cancer too.” She treated my mom like they belonged to the same club.

I rolled my eyes.


When my parents made their cross-country move to California, my kids and I met them at the airport. On the drive to Lindbergh Field I spoke to the three of them earnestly.

“Grandpa isn’t going to look the same. He lost all his hair and he might be in a wheelchair. It’s hard for him to talk so he doesn’t say much anymore. He’s going to look very different but he’s the same on the inside, okay?”

They nodded.

That summer, the kids and I spent a month in Chicago at my parents’ home. My youngest daughter and my dad played hopscotch and drew pictures in chalk on the driveway. Wherever dad was, my daughter was somewhere nearby. In the mornings, she would crawl into his lap and eat off his breakfast plate.

We spent afternoons at the forest preserve. Dad had sword fights with my boys using fallen branches. On one walk, we spotted a large gray and brown snake coiled up in the bushes. Dad scolded Jacob for poking it with a stick.

On a particularly muggy day, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry downtown. At the coal-mine exhibit, the kids learned that canaries were once used to warn miners of toxic gases. The birds would stop singing. Sometimes they would die. Canary in a coal mine. The term annoyed me now. I kept wondering what dad’s canary had been and why we hadn’t noticed it.

Dad took me to Irish Times Pub a day or two before I was scheduled to go back home. He raised one of his thick eyebrows when I ordered a whiskey sour. Had he expected me to order a soda, I wondered. I didn’t know. He had never taken me to a pub before.

“Interesting choice,” he said. His brogue thicker than normal, the way it always got it the presence of other Irish people.

That day, sitting on stools, our reflections visible in the freshly waxed bar below us, I had wanted to ask him what it felt like to know that his death was imminent. Was he scared? I didn’t have the courage to ask nor did I want to acknowledge that I was in Chicago because he was dying. Instead, I listened.

He told me that a month earlier, while his sisters were visiting him from Ireland; he had forgotten where he was going when driving them to the airport. In a panic, he pulled over into the parking lot of a grocery store.

“I couldn’t remember where I was supposed to be taking them. So, I leisurely went around the store with a grocery cart picking stuff off the shelves until Anna begged me to hurry up so they wouldn’t miss their flight.”

He laughed. I laughed too even though I felt incredibly sad. What I really wanted to do, was reach over and hug him, but I didn’t. There were a lot of things I didn’t do.


At Lindbergh Field, I spotted my parents at the baggage claim. I sucked in my breath at the sight of my dad sitting in a wheelchair. His face was puffy from the steroids he was taking. He looked like someone else, a distant uncle with pasty skin. I glanced at my kids, gauging their reactions. I could see panic in my oldest son’s face. I squeezed Andrew’s hand and touched the small of his back. My mom smiled and waved. Andrew ran toward her followed by my younger son and daughter. Amelia, 4 years old at the time, plopped herself down in grandpa’s lap. She wrapped her tiny arms around his neck. She put her blonde head on his chest. He patted her back and looked like himself again. I was envious over the ease in which they accepted what cancer had done to him. I walked toward them while inwardly repeating: do not cry, do not cry.

I was faking it, overly cheerful in my tone and movements. I wanted to be natural but I didn’t know how. After greeting them, I quickly excused myself to pull the car around for their luggage. When I made it up the escalator out of eye sight, I broke down sobbing. I couldn’t control myself. A business man with shiny black shoes stopped and put a fatherly hand on my shoulder. He handed me his handkerchief. It was crisp and blue. I was afraid of ruining it so I timidly handed it back. Even now I can picture him, the kindness in his face, the precise way he parted his thick brown hair and the wrinkles in his hands.

My family was gathered outside when I pulled up to the curb, Jacob with his disheveled little boy look—wrinkled shirt and dirty face standing next to my dad, mom holding Amelia, and Andrew’s lanky arms on the handles of his grandfather’s wheelchair. I composed myself. I helped my mom get dad into the car and loaded their luggage. I smiled brightly like one of those women in detergent commercials trying my best to appear carefree. Now I was the one that was unrecognizable.


Shortly after their arrival, Dad had to be admitted into the San Diego Hospice Center. He couldn’t swallow his food. When the two paramedics came to pick him up, they parked down the street. They wheeled him down our alley. A neighbor came out to see what was going on. They got a glimpse of dad in a bed with wheels. I wanted them to go back inside and mind their business.

Before that day, I had never heard the word hospice. It sounded like something that should be placed in the center of the dinner table. I imagined myself saying, “Please pass the hospice,” before sprinkling some on my mashed potatoes.
Dad stayed at the center for a week, maybe two. The timeline during that month is a blur in my mind. Every day after picking up my kids from school, we would drive to Hillcrest and park in the hospice’s narrow parking lot. Amelia would run into Grandpa’s room and hand him a treasure from her day, a colorful drawing scribbled in vivid blues and greens or a wood chip from her preschool playground. We would watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune on the TV above dad’s bed. Sometimes Amelia would swing on the tire swing located outside in the flower garden. When she swung high enough she could see the ocean.

Twice a week, the center provided art therapy for children. College students with clip boards asked subtle question of my kids while they cut shapes out of construction paper. They would ask Jacob who had a habit of shrugging, “What is that picture saying?” Shrug.

Their questions irritated Andrew. On the car ride home one night he said, “I just want to draw! It’s like they are trying to figure us out or something,” his tone was exasperated.

A woman with waist-length hair played the harp for my dad and a man with a golden retriever would often enter his room.

“Our patients and their families find animals soothing,” One of the nurses told me when I bent down to pet the K-9 on the top of its head.

My mom became friendly with the chaplain, a man in his early sixties who, according to her, was once a priest but fell in love. He was now married with three grown children. He missed the priesthood but loved his wife, he had admitted to my mother. It sounded like the plot line of a Lifetime movie. My mom’s ability to pry information out of people both amazed and humored me. I wondered what dad, a devout catholic, thought about the Chaplain. By that point he was barely speaking anymore. It was hard to tell how much of what was going on around him he fully understood.

The kids and I often ate at the hospice. I would pick up a pizza or Chinese food for dinner. On more than one occasion, crying families joined us in the community room. Groups of people sat sobbing nearby as we ate our orange chicken. Often, we overheard their frantic and tearful long-distance phone calls. People in the community room were constantly breaking horrible news to faraway relatives. I wanted them to pull it together or at the very least go somewhere private. Unaccustomed to public displays of emotion, my children were terrified by their behavior. They would stare at the grieving families with their mouths open.

Amelia wanted to know why the people at the hospice center were always hurt.

“What people, the ones in the hospital beds?”

“No, the ones in the bright room.”

“The community room?”


“They aren’t hurt.” I said growing alarmed by her thought process.

“But they cry so much.”

“They’re sad, Amelia. They are crying because someone they love is sick.”

“That’s weird.” She still did not understand.

There was something wrong with us. Why weren’t we behaving like the rest of them? Shouldn’t we be crying?


Some weeks later, after dad had been discharged, my siblings arrived in San Diego—Michelle from South Carolina and Roger from San Francisco. It was Thanksgiving. We knew it would be the last time that the five of us would all be together but we didn’t mention that. I was impressed over the ease in which Michelle communicated with my dad. Unlike me, she was able to shove past his sickness. To her, he was unchanged, the same old dad. In return he seemed lighter in her presence. I envied that. Roger was helpful and calm. When he saw that dad was unshaven he applied shaving cream to his stubbled face. He gave dad the barber-shop treatment with warm water and a hot washcloth. I think of the beauty of that moment often. I had never loved my brother more.

It was three days after Thanksgiving, when my dad died. He didn’t get out of bed for our holiday meal—a deep-fried turkey that my father-in-law and brother had prepared out on the beach under a canopy. People on bikes and rollerblades commented on how good it smelled. We had stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, yams, and apple pie, most of which had been provided by my local Catholic parish in a large basket, left at my doorstep with a note that read, “Seamus—we are praying for you.” I wondered if the people of Ascension Church even knew the proper way to pronounce my father’s name. Probably not, so their prayers didn’t count, I concluded.

My brother-in-law and his fiancĂ©e came to the beach house for Thanksgiving. Lauren was overdressed wearing high-heeled Louboutins and a skirt suit. At dinner she made a face when she saw that we would be enjoying our dinner at a picnic table. With napkins, she lined where she intended to sit. My mom reenacted the prissy manner in which she did this later that evening. The two of us cracked up. If dad had been aware he would’ve of scolded us and repeated his famous phrase, “If you don’t have something to say, don’t say anything at all.”

The Saturday after Thanksgiving Roger drove back to San Francisco with his family. When he left, he acted as if it were just another day far removed from tragedy. I found his calmness alarming but also soothing. My sister had a flight home that day, too. She was hesitant to leave. She put her luggage in her rental car and came back inside several times to announce to no one in particular that she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave. My mom convinced her that it was time to go.

”We’ll be fine,” she said. “Don’t worry!” Michelle was sobbing when she walked out the door. She knew she would never see dad again. I felt she resented me because our dad was dying in my city instead of hers. I wanted to apologize or say something to ease her sadness but nothing came to mind. I let the moment slip away.

Dad died the next morning shortly after a priest from a Pacific Beach parish administered the last rites. He was a young man with stiff brown hair and dark eyes. He didn’t offer any words of condolence before leaving. He was in a rush; probably had a busy schedule of masses that morning. I wondered if the reading of one’s last rites had become routine to him. When dad’s breathing became extremely labored I asked my mom if I should read the Bible to him. She seemed horrified by this suggestion and said no. I did anyway. I pictured dad 25 years earlier. He was kneeling, his head bent, and his hands clasped together. My sister and I were next to him, our elbows resting on our double bed, while we recited Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers before dad tucked us in. I wanted to acknowledge all those Sunday mornings he woke me up for mass.

I was holding one of dad’s heavy hands when it happened. It was clear we were losing him. I told him how much I loved him and how extremely blessed I was for having him as a father.

My mom, who was holding his other hand, said something too. I remember thinking that they were the most elegant and heartbreaking words I had ever heard, something that could be printed in a book and kept on nightstand. When I try to remember what it was that she said, the only thing I can recall is how beautiful she looked. When he stopped breathing, the grief I felt was painful. I didn’t feel sadness, anger, or peace. Instead, it felt like something inside me was broken. Everything hurt.

The kids were outside playing. Through the living room window I could see them building an elaborate sand castle. Amelia wore a soft pink dress. I remember thinking that I would have to give her dress to Goodwill. I never wanted to see it again. I was certain it would trigger sadness too deep to tolerate. I called them inside and told them what had happened.

“You can go in and see him if you want. You can say goodbye.” Immediately I realized the absurdity of my comment. I wanted to take it back. How would they say goodbye when he was gone?

They went in his room for a minute and looked at him. Amelia waved goodbye. They filed out to continue building sandcastles on the beach. I felt a burst of anger over their nonchalant behavior. Why weren’t they crying? Didn’t they care? They were robots, I thought. Not my kids.

My mom went into dad’s room with warm towels to wash his body. She shut the door behind her. I sat on the coach wondering if I would ever be as strong as my mother. I wanted to be in the room too but couldn’t bring myself to help her. I wanted to touch his face one last time.

In the days that followed mom and I cleaned out the beach condo. She placed dad’s belongings in black trash bags to be given away. I was appalled by this. Why was she getting rid of his things so soon? I pulled out his soft Polo sweatshirt and a t-shirt that smelled like him. I gave the black leather jacket that he wore on special occasions to my husband. I brought the rest of it to my kid’s school for a rummage sale. I hoped to see a dad, dropping off his kid, wearing something belonging to my father. I never did.

Friends offered to bring over casseroles or babysit but I couldn’t bear the idea of being away from my kids. I needed to be in their constant presence. I didn’t want people coming over. What would we talk about? Would they expect me to cry? I knew it would be awkward.

Mom and I went to the funeral parlor near SDSU to sign paperwork. Thick brochures filled with caskets were fanned out on a table. I thumbed through them. They wheeled dad’s body out. I can’t remember why. Maybe for us to inspect his embalming? He may have been covered by a sheet but I can’t remember. My mom sobbed when she saw him. I remained unmoved. That wasn’t really him, I told myself. He was long gone. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the timing of her breakdown. Why was she crying now? I went upstairs so mom could be alone with her tears. I was ashamed of myself for not reacting. I was the robot.


On the flight to my dad’s funeral mom was seated next to a good looking older man. Before landing at LaGuardia, he handed her a neatly folded piece of paper with his phone number on it. “I know it may be too early, but just in case you’re interested. I thought I’d try.”

“You still got it going on!” My sister and I teased. Inwardly, I was furious. She must have sensed this because she said, “No man could ever take your father’s place. He was one of a kind.”


The first time I cried publically about losing my dad was when I saw him in his casket at the wake. He was wearing a suit I didn’t recognize and his face was different. I had a hard time believing that the body I was looking at had ever been his.
The oddest part was sharing a room with his corpse. Every time I looked at the casket I swore I saw him moving. It appeared as if his arms were twitching. My cousin’s son, who was 3, kept shouting,” Get up! Get Up! Why isn’t he getting up? What’s that guy doing over there sleeping?” She was mortified and kept shushing him. It made me laugh and remains my favorite memory of that day.

We all ate dinner together afterwards in the clubhouse of my grandparents’ townhome. The food was buffet-style. I found myself wondering where my dad was. I kept looking for him in the buffet line or wondering if he was in the bathroom. It was hard to adjust to the idea that we were all there and he wasn’t. I spent the whole day searching for him, something I would find myself doing often after that day, during events he should’ve attended.

At the funeral service the next morning, my grandmother sang loudly and out of tune. eMy sister shot me a look and we both laughed so hard that my uncle thought I was sobbing “It’s okay honey,” He whispered to me. That made Michelle laugh even harder.
When it was all over, they carried dad’s casket outside. The recess bell at the church’s school rang or maybe it was the bell signaling the end of the day. I can’t quite remember. A large group of children stood in awe, staring up at my dad’s shiny coffin. They stopped jumping rope and playing basketball. They looked in wonder at us in our Sunday best as we filed somberly out of the church. The priest had failed to remove his microphone from the service and we could hear him loudly shrieking at another priest for allowing us to carry the casket out for all the children to see.
In our limo we all laughed over the terrible timing of our exit.

“Those kids will never forget sharing their recess with a dead man,” I said.

“That priest needs to take a chill pill.” My brother added. We laughed so hard that I had tears rolling down my face.

At the burial the next morning my Grandmother, on my mom’s side of the family, was gulping back heavy tears. It made my stomach feel sick. I wanted her to stop. When they lowered the casket into the ground I visualized my dad inside kicking and pounding his fists in an effort to get out. I couldn’t get that image out of my brain. I wanted to go home and watch movies and take a long bath. I wanted to stop picturing my dad being buried alive.

I still say things like, “I’m going home to visit my parents.” Or, “My parents live in Chicago.” Because I cannot bear to think of my mom in the singular when she always been part of a unit. I have a hard time referring to my dad in the past tense.
I find myself missing him in the most mundane day to day occurrences like in line at the grocery-store behind a man of his same build, or when I take my daughter to the park and I see a grandfather lovingly bend down to tie his grandchild’s shoe.
Other times I am filled with overwhelming sadness when I see elderly couples knowing my parents will never have the same luxury.

Recently, my mom sold the brick, two-story house she and dad bought when I was a baby. It was too big for her. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to sleep in the same bedroom she shared with my father for all those years. Still, my sadness over the sale was intense. It made everything final.

In the summer when I was home for a visit, we drove past our old house. The new owners took down the gazebo my dad built in the backyard. I craned my neck and could see a bike in the garage where his collection of tools had once been. Our bedrooms, I imagine, are now occupied by young children. A different couple is sleeping in my parent’s room. It bothers me.

I imagine at some point I will get accustomed to all the changes. I’m getting there. I can now drive south on the 163 towards the 8 and not cringe at the sight of the San Diego Hospice Center. I can drive past the Cancer Survivor’s Park on Harbor Drive without developing a lump in my throat.

When I look at dad’s death from a distance I can see beauty in it. I like to think that my mom, brother, sister, and I are suffering from the cancer version of Stockholm Syndrome. Cancer wreaked havoc on our family but I can find the grace in it. I loved my dad so completely and appreciated him more thanks to his illness. In a sense it drew our family together. I choose to view my father’s death as a beautiful tragedy because that is the only way I can accept what happened to him and attempt to move on.

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