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  • On the death of my dad February 21 5AM

    "If you want to see Dad before he dies, you need to come now."

    Kent, the oldest of my three younger brothers, gave me the courtesy call. He was in WA State where the rest of my family live.

    I was driving in a pouring winter storm from San Francisco to the central California coast. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life and the final car load of a horrific comedy of a move.

    I was beat, broke and not in the mood. "Are you sure?" I shouted into the phone over the beating rain.

    There had been several emergencies in the previous two years and Dad always rallied.

    "No one expects you to come." Kent reassured me. "I'm just letting you know. And yes, I'm sure."

    "OK." I said, "I'll see what I can do."

    For the rest of the trip, I weighed my options. Would I be sorry if I went, or if I didn't? Did I really need to see him? I had made one or two visits since his entry into the dementia care home. It broke my heart, and we hadn't been close for over 30 years. What did it matter if I saw him die?

    Plus, my tiny little cottage was filled to the brim with boxes. Did I even know where my suitcase was? What would a no reservation ticket to WA cost?

    The weather delayed all flights for most of the day and I spent hours waiting to get out of California.

    One of dad's brothers and two of his sisters raced across WA state a day earlier than they planned due to his condition.

    It was difficult for all of us to watch him struggle to breathe though they had him on hourly morphine and said he was feeling no pain.

    His wife was exhausted and devoted. I called/emailed Mom to keep her up on what was happening as the whole thing was hard on her too. Especially because she couldn't be there.

    He had a very strong heart and it kept him going through the first night I was there. The next day he was noticeably gray and we all felt he would go that day but he hung on and his siblings arrived that morning.

    We all took Ruth - wife - to lunch and left Kent to sit by his side. He called Mom while we were gone and put the phone up to dad's ear so she could say goodbye. Kent said dad's breathing changed when she spoke.

    That night our family gathered in his room. Dad's sister Mary asked her brother Glen to sing a hymn. We are all pretty good singers. Glen said he'd sing if Mary would join him. What began as a duet swelled to a chorus as we all joined in. We found some books of old hymns in the care home - Mark knew where they were from attending a few services there with dad.

    Our family sang hymns for an hour or more in his room. I never would have guessed I could remember so many of those old church songs. It had been over thirty five years since I'd darkened the door of a church.

    Kent, of course, knew them all and started each one for us. I can barely remember when he and I used to sing duets in front of all the churches we attended. I was standing near our brother Mark and his beautiful tenor was heart rending. At one point Mary turned around and looked at me and Mark and said she had no idea any of us could sing and how stunned she was by our voices. I reminded her that it runs in our family. She too has a beautiful voice.

    It was late and the sound of our carol spread throughout the floor. Staff stopped by to say that all the residents - including they - were touched by the choir in dad's room.

    We felt as if we were ushering him on his way. It was a strong and healing experience.

    Earlier that day Ruth and I had been accidentally left alone with dad. She brought up our relationship and we had a rather pointed conversation which ended with her saying she was sorry and that she really had no explanation for what had happened and why they never wanted to see me or my sons. We only had about 15 minutes and there was more I might have said but we hit the high points. Including that I wasn't sure I could ever forgive her for having a hand in denying my children a grandfather.

    After our singing and when it was time for us to leave, Ruth sat next to dad as I bent down to kiss him for what I knew would be the last time. I kissed his fevered brow and then unexpectedly and unplanned, moved from dad to Ruth and simply kissed her cheek. She broke down crying and whispered 'thank you Launa'. I knew then that this was part of his reason for hanging on and I knew he would die that night.

    I just let go of the only grudge I ever clung to. It was truly weird. Letting go created this empty open space in my heart and I filled it with love and care for her. The love and care I had wanted to give and receive for so very many years.

    Dad died that next morning at 5. We all got calls and rushed back to be together and to support Ruth. Her children were out of town and one was very sick. So we, the children of her husband that she had so carefully and fully excluded from her life, were her only family.

    I stood over his gray, open-mouthed face and thought, so this is what death looks like.

    When the irritating mortuary guy came to get dad's body I stood up with Ruth, held her from behind while she signed the release so she would not fall and so she could feel supported in every way.

    She could not stay while they took him and walked down the hall in her stocking feet to a gathering room. I grabbed her shoes, coat, purse and followed her.

    We sat for awhile and acknowledged that Dad was likely waiting for my forgiveness to die. She said 'you have no idea how appreciated you are'.

    I suppose this was the closest she could get to affection at that moment.

    Ruth and I often held hands that day. My family, who clearly saw what was going on and absolutely knew it was completely out of character for both of us, pretended all was normal. They didn’t raise an eyebrow. They didn’t ask. They didn’t tease. They didn’t double take. At least not in front of us.

    We all went to breakfast after and as we were parting she said to me: 'we could have been this close all along.'

    Just then, Mark, who was standing behind Ruth, gave me a double take. Who knew what I was going to say?

    Ruth blinked several times, waiting for me to answer.

    Out in the distance, coming toward me I heard the sound of a tsunami. A huge angry wave was on its way. It carried all my self righteous hurt and anger. All my reasons roiled there, bodiless heads carried on the waves, screamed out all the things I wanted to say:

    This is all I ever wanted from you. You denied yourself the best daughter you could have ever had. I would have been here for you so many times if only you’d allowed it. My children don’t even know their grandfather and now they never will. My father died to me over 25 years ago. You stupid woman.

    For a brief moment, I listened to that roar and I acknowledged to myself that my feelings were valid. And then I watched – standing there looking at Ruth as she waited for me to say something – as I left my body and a miniature version of myself walked around a scaffold that encircled my frozen form, she open up the front door to my heart and then went around and reached through my body and opened up the back door. I watched that wave full of destruction as it bore down on me and my heart. And I let it all go straight through me.

    Not to say I didn't feel the force of it. I did. I staggered a little. But the fullness of it... passed through me.

    As the foaming rumble moved past and out of the room, I heard myself say : 'I'm sorry we weren't.'

    The odd thing? That was the truth. Behind all my anger and hurt. That, right there, was the truth I had never wanted to say.

    She said she would call from time to time. It will be OK whether she does or not.

    I am finally free from the burden of that destructive anger and hurt I carried for so long.

    There is so much truth in the saying that cleaning up the past makes way for the future.
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