Sunday, February 01, 2015

Natural Causes

On New Year’s Day I posted a rather audacious status update on Facebook that 2014 had been pretty great but 2015 was stacking up to be even better. 12 hours later I was calling my little sisters to tell them our father had passed away.  Be careful what you announce to the world I guess.

It seems he died peacefully. After years of sickness and spending way too many nights in a hospital, we found him in his own bed, snuggled up and comfortable after a nice New Year’s Eve conversation with the baby of the family. This day has been looming in our lives since the moment his kidneys failed a month before I left on my mission nearly 17 years ago. Somehow sitting there in his house, telling 911 that no, he wasn’t breathing and watching the nice, nice men from the mortuary cover his body, it still all felt so out of the blue. Nearly two decades of knowing someone could die lulls you in the security that actually he might not ever die.

The last few years my dad needed a lot of help. Physically, financially. My Salt Lake siblings took on big caretaker roles. I was able to write checks and spend a healthy amount of time feeling guilty about not being there. I don’t think I called him enough. I know I didn’t hang out with him as much as I should have. But this Christmas break I tried harder. I picked him up from dialysis and took him grocery shopping. I let him fill his cart with Christmas treats he probably shouldn’t have had but I’m frankly glad were some of his last simple pleasures. I took him to lunch the day before he died. We went to Rubio’s and he had a fountain Coke and a shrimp burrito. He had a hard time walking across the parking lot so I moved the car right in front of the door and it still took us awhile to get to it. He said his hands felt weird. He turned the heat full blast in my car and I tried not to get impatient with him about it. We talked about some good things that are happening in my life and he was his usual nice and supportive self about them.  There were many things my dad wasn’t able to provide for us, some things I resented for a good portion of my life. But the certainty that he was proud of me was never something I had to wonder about.

My dad wasn’t married and both of his parents and his only brother are all gone as well, so it fell to my siblings and me to clean out his house, plan his funeral, and tie up all the loose ends of his life.  There are six of us and we spent two days going through books and files and photos. Remembering a dad that some of us forgot, telling the little ones stories about a dad they didn’t know. My parents had been collegiate journalists and then owned a newspaper when they were first married so there were scrapbooks and folders full of columns they had written back when they were younger than most of us are now. We found photos of one of the bands my dad was in, back when he had cool hair and played the guitar and wanted to be a rock star. We found the campaign materials from the time he ran for State Senate, the poster of a tiny little Katie on his shoulders. The guy didn’t leave much of an estate behind but as we sorted through artifacts of his life, I felt grateful for the more esoteric things he gave me. I got some writing talent, a solid foundation of unconditional love, an example of faith that never wavered even when I think it maybe should have. I had a dad who told his daughters we could do anything our brothers could do. I’m sure my dad would have liked to see me find someone to spend my life with but he never once made me feel like my worth was tied up in my relationship status.

There are things about my dad’s life that were disappointing, I know he didn’t feel like he quite lived up to the expectations of his young dreamer self. In many ways my own adult life has been a reaction to that, I’ve been wearing myself out to make sure that I don’t get to the end and feel those same kind of regrets. I want to make sure I hang onto the lessons I learned from some of his mistakes. But in that week, as I spent time with all of my adult siblings and their lovely families, I really couldn’t help but think that my old dad did alright. He raised good people who are raising good people.

It is so hard to lose a parent. Period. I thought maybe because he was sick, and I am a full grown adult that somehow it was going to be easier.  I got to have my dad for a good long time but I find myself being sad about future things. Sad that if I get married, that person won’t know my dad. Sad that if I have kids, they won’t have a Grandpa Clifford. Sad that there are things I wish I had asked him that I didn’t. That I didn’t realize I would want to know until I couldn’t anymore.

Grieving has been a weird thing. I’ve been surprised at how physical it can be. I was in the grocery store this week, looking for a card and the “dad birthday” section caught my eye. Before I even realized what was happening there were already hot tears soaking my shirt. And I just stood there, not even trying to stop while I cried for a good five minutes. I was grateful that no one is ever in the greeting card aisle of the grocery store but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been betrayed by my own body the last few weeks.  I’ve tried to let myself feel it as fully as I can. I don’t try to cheer myself up. I don’t look for distractions. I’m grateful when someone asks how I am and doesn't get uncomfortable when I say that I’m just ok.

I also feel like I have also had an opportunity to learn some things.  Our little family experienced so much love and kindness and generosity this last month. There is a quote from Anne Morrow Lindburgh about suffering that I have always loved that keeps coming to my mind:

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”

I’m trying to keep my heart open, to take it all in so I can give back the strength that has so graciously been shared with me through all of this. 

Music was important to my dad. There is a cover of Jackson Brown’s “For a Dancer” that a dear family friend put on a CD for us many years ago that I used to listen to and cry myself sick worry about my dad. It’s now become incredibly comforting and feels like the right way to finish this piece.