In My Father’s House, Conclusion

The house looked all too familiar. My sister and my uncles had removed all the appliances and equipment brought in over the past few months that had never seemed to fit. His chair, his bed, are now as they’ve always been. I know better than his dog, who wanders the house looking up quizzically and runs to the patio door when he thinks he hears someone, but standing in the family room I still half-expected to see him when I turned around, or when I heard a footstep in the kitchen.

What I wasn’t expecting at all was to go into the grocery store or the gas station in the small town and see a black-bordered card by the cash register, announcing his passing. I’d forgotten how things were done in a small town where just about everybody knows everyone else. I’d seen, maybe, hundreds of these cards when I lived here but never pictured his name on them, let alone my own in the body copy. Later, driving some things over to the funeral home I was still taken aback to read his name and the times for the visitation and the funeral on the marquee facing the street.

My father passed away Monday night, October 29, due to … what, exactly? It’s kind of complicated, so I suppose you could say he died of “complications.” Was it the lymphoma he’d been battling? The chemotherapy itself? The realization that living with the pain only meant yet another day of living with the pain?

I saw him wasting away, of course. In June. In September. Was it only last December that we had all been together and so happy? Thursday morning, October 25th, my mom called me at work (I’d taken to keeping my cell phone on and with me even in the office) from the hospital where he’d been for a week, fighting a kidney infection; where he’d had another torso scan to check on the progress of the cancer. There was to be a consultation with his oncologist the next day, could I be there? How could I not. Plain, but unspoken, was the thought that they would say the cancer was still spreading and there was nothing more they could do. I took an early morning flight Friday, and arrived at the hospital just moments after they’d moved him from his room into the ICU. When I caught up with him he had an oxygen mask covering the lower half of his face, the straps making his ears stick out even further, his head bald as a newborn’s. Despite the oxygen his whole body fought for each breath, filling and releasing in a series of rapid convulsions. I took his hand and could feel his pulse through his palm.

My mother, my brother, my mother’s brother and I met with the oncologist. Good news: the cancer was stable, it had not spread further. Bad news: he had developed blood clots in his lungs from the chemo. This was dire. He might not live through the weekend. By the afternoon, however, he was better, breathing easier, able to talk, still able to understand. He thirsted, and I put the tiny sponge to his lips so he could drink. I, his first child, shared some news of his first grandchild, and the monitor showed his heart-rate spiking. “That … was … your … heart … then,” he said. Yes. Yes it was.

Saturday morning I held my phone to his ear so he could talk to my youngest daughter, Tiger Lilly; as always, he teased her a little. Saturday afternoon my brother and I picked up our sister at the airport, just 15 minutes from the hospital. Saturday evening my father and I said our good-byes. They were brief because there wasn’t much left unsaid between us. Sunday morning I had an early flight back to St. Paul because there were things I had to do, first. Then calling my mother when I got home, hearing he had asked to be disconnected from everything except what was dripping into him for the pain. Monday evening my mother was at his bedside, talking on the phone to my sister back at the house, saying that he had been breathing much easier for the past five minutes and was resting peacefully, and then, as she said it, he stopped. “Say good-bye to your father,” she cried, thrusting the cellphone toward his ear as the nurse rushed in. Then the phone was ringing at my house, and once again I was on the road, toward a familiar place that was never going to be the same again.

In a time like this you really appreciate the “commune” of community: prayers and condolences come in from friends, co-workers and the blogging community just as the food showed up at my mom’s house: hams, chili, soups, cakes, pies, more ham, doughnuts, fruit – the bread of life as friends and even acquaintances near and far stretch out their hands to hold you up. Some because they share your memories of the departed, all of them because they share the knowledge or the experience that this is a time common to all of us; this week it was you, last week or next week, them. I could feel the thoughts and prayers of those far away, nearly as tangibly as the line of those who brought the embrace of communal comfort: hug, pat, pat. Sometimes, three pats.

When I was younger I couldn’t quite understand why people went to visitations or funerals. You only had a few moments with the family before moving on, and wasn’t it hard for them to stand there having to greet all those people when they’d rather be off grieving somewhere in private? I’ve had a different understanding and appreciation, though, for the last ten years or so. “Paying your respects,” always sounded like such a cliche until I experienced how important and comforting it was to see and hear from people what my father had meant to or done for them; there were a lot of friends and family of course, and many, many people I did not recognize.

The funeral was a “celebration of life,” and several of my father’s friends from the Masonic Lodge and/or the golf course shared moving and often hilarious stories. Men of a generation not known for crying wept openly nonetheless. With tight lips and throat I somehow kept it (mostly) together through the eulogy I offered, perhaps because in a way I had been preparing for it all my life. After we rode out to the cemetery my wife, an ordained minister and police chaplain, spoke the scripture and the prayer and then my oldest daughter stood in the bright sunlight beside the casket and on that hillside in the great, open air absolutely filled every ear (and I hope every heart) as she sang a cappella, an old hymn:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

Related posts:
In My Father’s House, Part 1
In My Father’s House, Part 2
In My Father’s House, Part 3
Turning Toward the Mourning
Shifting the Sun

One Year On


One thought on “In My Father’s House, Conclusion

  1. Thank you John. (Genius level writing at it’s best, see Ben’s post if you haven’t already)

    I can relate to the questions about what really did kill someone you love–the disease or the cure. My niece, and goddaughter, died of leukemia at age 25. They found a donor and tried the bone-marrow transplant, but at the end all the chemo and everything else had destroyed her major organs. The beautiful little girl who use to bounce on my knee was unrecognizable as I went in to say goodbye for the last time. I sometimes regret ever going in; but, MM and I had taken her to the hospital initially, her parents lived in Vegas, when she had received the first report from the doctor that she had leukemia, and we saw it out to the end.

    MM and I still have all our parents, but they are late 70’s and early 80’s; this series you’ve put out is a gentle way for us to start preparing our hearts and minds for that time we lose one of them.

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