Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Lord called my dad home a month ago, after a long battle with cancer.

I don't want simply to eulogize, but it might help a little to talk about some of my experiences. I should be back to more regular posting soon. If I have any regular readers left, you'll probably be willing to slog through this post; if not, check back next week.

While he started to seem better--his colon probably finally healing from the surgery--around Thanksgiving, he began feeling significant levels of pain and his strength started to drop shortly thereafter, and he spent most of the last month in the hospital. For the last few days the focus was on pain management, and he slipped away during the night. The rest of the details don't matter.

Indeed, for days--probably longer--he'd lost so much strength that he had to stop and rest in the middle of a meal, not only because it was so hard to eat with his abdomen swollen as it was, but because the act of eating took so much effort. At Thanksgiving, though, he ate normally--enthusiastically--without stopping, with hardly even slowing down the way I have to with my second serving of turkey or mashed potatoes. Maybe his colon had finally gotten back to normal, but I wonder now if Thanksgiving was an apropos gift.

Whenever my sister and I would come home from school for vacation or a few days, he always made sure that our last meal together was a nice one. He called it "our Last Supper." Maybe Thanksgiving was supposed to be his "Last Supper" with us, and the return of his appetite was just the gift of one last normal family event.

For now, we're largely being carried by relief that he's no longer suffering, and by keeping busy with our respective jobs and taking care of post-mortem administrativa. My sister made the observation that it will be easier to miss him than to watch him continue to suffer. Despite the bureaucracy my mom's had to deal with every day since then, it's been true for all of us.

While we always held out hope--living the last few years without hope really would have been much worse, and it would have been ghoulish to say our goodbyes and make our peace with him and then simply wait four years for him to die--it was difficult to see one part of his life after another taken away. I don't know how frustrating it must have been to retire and finally have the time to do what he wanted, and to start on medication that robbed him of all sensitivity in his extremities, so he could no longer play music, or carve wood, or even enjoy food like he used to; to be too ill to renew his airman's medical certification so he could start flying again; to be too weak to go hiking anymore, or anything outdoors more than a simple walk around the block once or twice a day.

During all this, he never complained, and endured everything with patience and dignity. I know I complain about my work situation a lot--not here, so much, but there are a few things I'm trying to remember to look at as opportunities for growth--but if I'm ever given such a heavy cross to bear, I hope I can be even just half the lamb my dad was.

The funeral was the weekend before Christmas, and I was dreading sitting through that and the viewing the afternoon before, but both were much better than I expected. My dad was someone who always enjoyed life, so we all agreed it would be appropriate to have a joyful funeral mass. As I said last time, things of this nature are bittersweet, but in my mom's words, there's been enough sadness. It also helped that the priest had come to know my dad quite well since the diagnosis, and so could offer a homiletic eulogy that wasn't just a reminder to the rest of us of fire and brimstone or a skein of vague, saccharine platitudes. A friend of the family reminded us about the opportunity for spiritual growth we had, and while we all did take comfort in our faith, it was hard to see anything happening other than enduring more than any of us thought we would have to, or could.

The one other thing I noticed was that, both before and after, the most hopeless and emotionally raw moments were the ones when it was easiest to pray. Sometimes it was just throwing emotions up to heaven, sometimes it was the simple rhythm of formal prayers, but I felt a comfort in prayer that reminded me of my mom's comfort when I was young and getting my shots--she sympathized but knew that my brief suffering was necessary. There's probably a whole library of books that could be or have been written on the theology that can be unpacked from that, but at least right now going any deeper is beyond me.

Two things really made the weekend bearable. One was remembering that everyone else who came to share their respects were also grieving, in their own way, and for the most part it was much more sudden for them than for us, so it helped me to be more empathetic. The other was having the opportunity to see the impact Dad had on other people as a man. I've gotten glimpses in the past, but his being my father tended to overshadow everything. I realize that people tend to say nice things about the deceased to comfort the deceased's loved ones, but just looking at the people who came, I could see how torn up they were about it.

I've come to know some of Dad's peers to be exemplary men, men I even now look up to for their integrity and faith and personability. What I didn't understand before, what I was honored to realize, is that these very men looked at my dad the same way.

I would liked to have known him more in that mode, but I probably would have had to distance myself as his son a little bit to see around the relationship we already had, which I'm not sure would be a net gain for me. What I can do instead is see Dad as the man reflected in everyone around him.

As a fourth degree Knight of Columbus, he was entitled to an honor guard during the vigil at the end of the viewing the night before the funeral, and a color guard during the funeral itself. My sister observed that, while the pomp was really quite respectful and not gaudy like she expected, it was in the carriage of the few Knights who had known him since before he joined (including some of my role models) whose respect for the man really showed through; yet, when the casket was taken from the church and the ceremony was over, every single Knight personally reiterated his condolences to me and gave me a hug. These men are not the modern, overly sensitive type, and that kind of gesture is not consistent with a man simply doing his duty.

Okay, I don't really have a good way to end this post. I tried saying "Things have gotten back to normal, except..." but nothing sounded appropriate. We're getting along, life keeps on keepin' on, blah blah blah. There's catharsis in grief, but I don't know how to write about it yet.

No comments: