One year on

I was wearing my dark charcoal-colored suit at church Sunday and at one point as I reached my left arm across my chest I could feel a stiff piece of paper in the inside pocket of the jacket. I didn’t need to reach into the pocket to see what the strange weight over my heart was; I already knew it was the notes I had written to myself for delivering the eulogy at my father’s funeral. The notes have been there every time I’ve worn the suit in the past year and I just haven’t gotten around to taking them out.

My father died on October 29 last year so we didn’t have to wait too long to start marking the significant passages: first Thanksgiving without him, first Christmas without him, first wedding anniversary, first golf season, first Father’s Day, first birthday — all without him. The holidays early on weren’t too weird. Sure, they were strange, but his passing was still so new and close to mind that we were still in the bubble of grief and relief that surrounds you in the aftermath of a wasting disease. The December wedding anniversary would have been their 51st and as the day passed it was amazing to think how blissfully unaware we were of what was in store while we celebrated the 50th.

The other times during the year I didn’t dwell so much on the thoughts as they came, other than to take a deep breath. This past week, however, has seemed to crawl by and many times I have stopped to think, “last year at this time, I was answering my cell phone in the middle of an office party” or “at this time on this day last year I was in an airplane” or “I was at the hospital”.

And on Wednesday it will be one year and I will think of the hectic day I spent 365 days ago trying to tie up enough loose ends at work, knowing that I was likely going to be gone for a few days. I will not be able to remember what it was that I was working on that was so important, but I will remember laying back in my recliner at home, wondering if I was ready (and not for the office) and I will think about the phone call that came that evening, and of Faith coming home and me not being able to say anything to her, and not having to say anything to her because she could just tell.

And I will think about pieces of paper in the breast pocket of a suitcoat, and how sometimes even a casual movement will remind me of a certain stiffness over my heart that is likely to remain awhile longer.

Related posts:

In My Father’s House, Part 1

In My Father’s House, Part 2
In My Father’s House, Part 3
In My Father’s House, Conclusion
Turning Toward the Mourning
The Knowing (April, 2005)

Shifting the son

Shifting the Sun

When your father dies, say the Irish,
you lose your umbrella against bad weather.
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh,
you sink a foot deeper into the earth.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Canadians,
you run out of excuses. May you inherit
his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the French,
you become your own father.
May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians,
he comes back as the thunder.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,
he takes your childhood with him.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the English,
you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,
your sun shifts forever,
and you walk in his light.

by Diana Der Hovanessian,
from the book “Selected Shorts”
published by Sheep Meadow Press.

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
In My Father’s House, Conclusion – yet to be posted.

Turning toward the mourning

Turning Toward the Morning
by Gordon Bok

When the deer has bedded down
And the bear has gone to ground,
And the northern goose has wandered off
To warmer bay and sound,
It’s so easy in the cold to feel
The darkness of the year
And the heart is growing lonely
For the morning

Oh, my Joanie, don’t you know
That the stars are swinging slow,
And the seas are rolling easy
As they did so long ago?
If I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
That the world is always turning
Toward the morning.

Now October’s growing thin
And November’s coming home;
You’ll be thinking of the season
And the sad things that you’ve seen,
And you hear that old wind walking,
Hear him singing high and thin,
You could swear he’s out there singing
Of your sorrow.

When the darkness falls around you
And the Northwind comes to blow,
And you hear him call your name out
As he walks the brittle snow:
That old wind don’t mean you trouble,
He don’t care or even know,
He’s just walking down the darkness
Toward the morning.

It’s a pity we don’t know
What the little flowers know.
They can’t face the cold November
They can’t take the wind and snow:
They put their glories all behind them,
Bow their heads and let it go,
But you know they’ll be there shining
In the morning.

Now, my Joanie, don’t you know
That the days are rolling slow,
And the winter’s walking easy,
As he did so long ago?
And, if that wind would come and ask you,
“Why’s my Joanie weeping so?”
Wont you tell him that you’re weeping
For the morning?

Now October’s growing thin and November’s coming home. I’m thinking of the season and the sad things that I’ve seen.

In the morning I’ll be turning south, toward what was my father’s house…

What you realize

What You Realize When Cancer Comes

You will not live forever—No
you will not, for a ceiling of clouds
hovers in the sky.

You are not as brave
as you once thought.
Sounds of death
echo in your chest.

You feel the bite of pain,
the taste of it running
through you.

Following the telling to friends
comes a silence of
felt goodbyes. You come to know
the welling of tears.

Your children are stronger
than you thought and
closer to your skin.

The beauty of animals
birds on telephone lines,
dogs who look into your eyes,
all bring you peace.

You want no more confusion
than what already rises
in your head and heart.

You watch television less,
will never read all those books,
much less the ones
you have.

Songs can move you now, so that
you want to hold onto the words
like the hands of children.

Your own hands look good to you.
old and familiar
as water.

You read your lover’s skin
like a road map
into yourself.

All touch is precious now.

There are echoes

in the words thrown
before you.

When they take your picture now
you wet your lips, swallow once
and truly smile.

Talk of your lost parents
pulls you out, and
brings you home again.

You are in a river
flowing in and through you.
Take a breath. Reach out your arms.
You can survive.

A river is flowing
flowing in and through you.
Take a breath. Reach out your arms

“What You Realize When Cancer Comes” by Larry Smith, from A River Remains. © WordTech Editions.

In My Father’s House, Part 2

A childhood memory: waking up in the pre-dawn winter hours to the muffled thrumming of my father’s car warming up in the driveway. In my mind I can picture the clouds of crystalline exhaust illuminated by the back porch light. I would lie snug in my bed and listen to the sounds of my father preparing to go to work: his step (the heaviest in the house) in the hallway, the jingle of the dozen or so keys on the big ring on his belt, the clink of a coffee cup being set down on the counter; finally the closing of the back door to mark his passing. It was familiar and unremarkable, and I would go back to sleep.

When I awoke again my mind was filled with my own thoughts and plans for the day. In this time my father owned his own business and was rarely home for supper. My brother and sister and I would eat with our mother, and go about our evening routine. I would often be in bed again when I heard him return. There would be the sounds of my mother frying him a steak, and of talking; their voices distinct, but not the words. Sometimes the tone was obviously my mother reciting the sins of the day, and if they were heinous enough, we would be summoned from our beds for the promised retribution of When Our Father Gets Home.

As a father now myself, I understand how this had to have been as unpleasant for him as it was for us.

During this time our father was a seldom seen force in our lives, operating outside our understanding, toward ends unknown. We would see him mostly on Sundays, and there was a feeling of awkwardness as if none of us were quite certain about how we should act. And yet there was always food on the table, a comfortable house, and clothes for every season, even though we gave little thought, or saw little connection, to how these things came to be.

It wasn’t until I was 11 or 12 and old enough to go to work with my father that I really started to get to know him, and learn what a just and wonderful man he was. I admit he never seemed to be at a loss for things for me to do: pick up rocks and litter, sweep the drive, clean the restrooms for the rest of the workers and the guests. As I learned more about how to please him, my responsibilities and privileges grew. I came to know the special feeling of joining him in the early morning while everyone else was asleep as we got ready to go to “our” work.

In My Father’s House, Part 1

The day before Father’s Day this year I happened to be parked at the far pumps at a BP gas station and convenience store in Ottumwa, Iowa, filling up. As I squeegeed my windshield I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see a large pickup rock to a sudden stop in front of the convenience store. It wasn’t the sound of the approaching truck that had caught my attention, however, but the not-so-muffled shouting coming from inside the cab.

A man was yelling at a boy, waving his arms and perhaps throwing some litter around. Outside of several f-bombs it was hard to make out what was being said, but it was a one-sided exposition. I casually and automatically looked away as the man got out of the truck, continuing the barrage. “Happy Father’s Day,” I thought, as he stalked off into the convenience store, my own thoughts suddenly dizzy in my head. A couple of minutes later I hung the nozzle back on the pump, and made my way toward the store as well. I had to walk in front of the truck on my way. Not wanting to embarrass the young man further I glanced sideways at him through the windshield and was impressed to see that, though tears were rolling down his cheeks, he had his head up. I turned my head fully toward him, made eye-contact, and winked.

I hope what was communicated was encouragement, a friendly contact and a silent assurance that things will get better.

Yeah, I’ve been there. My own father’s temper has been known to be … expressive. I absorbed my share of it growing up, though I can’t remember now any particular incident or cause, no more than I remember a particular thunderstorm. I mean, I know there were thunderstorms when I was growing up but I don’t remember any specific ones. What does come back to me now, however, is a time when I was in second or third grade and my dad was trying to get his business launched, working long hours away from the house. He must have felt some need to spend some time with me, however, and out of the blue one Sunday afternoon he took me for a special treat: to play miniature golf. I don’t remember where my brother and sister were, but I’m sure I was delighted that I was the only one to get this attention. The problem was, it was an especially hot day and the putt-putt course was laid out on what seemed like acres of cement, none of which could have been very far from my head given my height then.

I don’t know how long we played, but at some point I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. I didn’t know heat stroke from heat rash then but I was definitely sick and my dad was definitely scared. He got me off of the premises, carrying me to his car and laying me down with a wet handkerchief on my face. We went home and he put me in front of the window a/c unit until I recovered. I’m sure he felt bad that his great plan to spend some time with his son had almost ended in disaster; I know I did, though for different reasons. I remember the concern on his face, however, at a time when I might have expected him to be angry.

Another time when he could have gotten angry and didn’t was when I was 16 or 17 and we were anchoring a mobile home. He was steadying the 4-foot anchoring rods in their crosspiece while I swung the 8-lb. sledge to drive them in. At one point I accidentally clipped the upper part of his ear with the handle of the hammer as I repositioned myself for another swing. It drew blood but no explosion, though I’m sure he didn’t like it. (Which also reminds me of a time when we were trying to level and anchor a trailer on the side of a steep hill near Steelville, Missouri. He wouldn’t let me get under the unit as he delicately worked with hydraulic jacks, concrete blocks and wooden shims along the underframe. Just as he was placing a shim and lightly tapping it into place with a hammer a sonic-boom rocked the valley. I had heard of greased lightning up until that time, but I had never seen it until I saw him crab sideways out from under that trailer!)

Family lore has it that my father’s father was known for a volatile temper. I saw a little of it growing up, but other than a couple of years when he lived near us I wasn’t around him that much. Most of the accounts are from stories my uncles would tell at family gatherings. Most folks today will accept that a temper can be passed on to each generation whether by nature or nurture or a spiritual manifestation. Whichever, my father received his inheritance and passed it on. My brother and I heat up about as quickly as he did, though expressing it is an indulgence that I have tried hard to limit and thankfully haven’t seen it in my children.

Anyway, I survived with minimal trauma and with greater memories such as the ones I’ve just described taking precedence. I don’t know what the future holds for the young man and father I saw in Iowa, but I hope the incident was an isolated one that one day will be acknowledged yet set aside in favor of ones happier and more plentiful, for both their sakes.

As I entered the store I tried to think of something to say to the father; something encouraging, in just a few words, that might give him a different perspective. I could come up with nothing in the moment and even now, months later, I still can’t think of the perfect sentence to calm the situation and allay my own fears. My fears were not for the future of that family, or that whatever I said might provoke an additional outburst. My concern was that in speaking to that father I might end up telling him why I was in Iowa that day and telling him where I was going and why, and that neither of us would want to hear that outloud.

You see, the reason I was standing in that gas-station was because my daughters and I were on our way to Missouri to see my dad as a Father’s Day surprise. He had been feeling sick for weeks and experiencing a lot of back pain. Though we could barely breathe the word, our family was concerned that cancer had returned. Thoughts of the past and the future had been folding themselves constantly in my mind during the drive. If it was cancer, would he need chemo? If he needed chemo, would he put himself through that ordeal or — after what had happened to friends of his — say, “To hell with that”?

He was surprised and pleased to see us when we got there, twisting stiffly in his swivel chair to see what the dog was barking at. He got up for hugs all around, his golf shirt stretching a little around the bit of gut his cardiologist had been after him to lose. He didn’t look much different since I had seen him back in December, but I could tell he was in pain from a fractured vertebrae and the subsequent bone biopsy he’d had the day before. We talked some over the weekend about the pain and the possible implications, but tried to keep things light and positive. The test results would be back on Tuesday, I was heading back on Monday.

The girls and I stood around him and prayed before we left. He acquiesced, but it felt to me as if I was throwing a saddle on a newly busted bronco for the first time. I have personally seen and experienced great, even miraculous, results from prayer, and have prayed many times for people, standing on scripture and faith, the words usually come easily as I follow the leading that comes. This was harder, though; so much I wanted to pour into it, so little that seemed to want to come out. Through the long drive home I took some comfort from the knowledge that it is the power in the words, not the eloquence that makes the difference. We arrived home Monday night.

Tuesday brought the word. Lymphoma, stage four. He would start chemo on Wednesday, no fuss. “Let’s get it done.”

The Knowing

I unexpectedly found myself in a hospital emergency room last Wednesday. Of course, just about everyone who finds themselves in an emergency room does so unexpectedly since it’s not the type of event that typically makes it into your dayrunner. (“You want to get together at 10:00? Sorry, that’s no good for me – I’m down for cardiac arrest then. What does the following week look like for you?”)

In this instance, however, the element of surprise was not as great since the ER staff was focusing on my father, who was already scheduled for heart surgery later in the week. I had arrived at my parents’ home the night before in anticipation of the surgery, so I was there in the morning when my dad woke up feeling very weak and couldn’t catch his breath – the result of what would turn out to be fluid building up in his chest due to his failing aortic valve. My mother had called the EMTs and he was taken to the regional hospital nearby where his immediate symptoms were quickly brought under control by the ER team and we all began breathing easier.

The shock was greater for two other families who were also gathering in the ER that morning. One was the family of an older man brought in as a result of a stroke, and the second was the family of a teenaged young man who’s truck had crashed into a tree.

The “children” of the stroke victim were all adults and I imagined that their expressions suggested they knew something like this was going to happen eventually but they would have been happy for it not to have been today. Having been through strokes in our own family I knew what was still in store for them and wondered if they had an inkling yet of the nature of the life changing experience that had just introduced itself to their family.

For the family of the young man the shock was even greater and ultimately more complete as he was soon pronounced dead.

From the relative comfort of my family’s situation I still had cause to ponder the seeming randomness of three lives and three families coming together at that time – all within 50 feet of each other but each in our own world as three destinies were parceled out: you live, you die, you limp.

The doctors decided to move my dad a day early to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis where his surgery was to take place. My mother and I went back to the house to get my things and pack what she’d need. My folks live in the same small rural Missouri town where they grew up and where they are still surrounded by family and many older friends with whom they have many shared experiences. On the way to the hospital we stopped to top off the gas tank and while at the gas station my mom saw some friends, one of whom had already had the same surgery my dad was having. Mom filled them in on the change in plans and as the group was standing together I saw what I took as a look of knowing pass between them that I chalked up to the shared procedure.

On the day of the surgery I saw the same look of knowing on the faces of my dad’s older brothers, his sister and sister-in-law as they arrived in the waiting room and greeted my mother. The words they used were appropriate, but the looks they gave her – and the look she returned – were so meaningful and even tangible that I knew that was were the real communication was taking place. Since his brothers had had heart attacks and by-pass operations I at first attributed the look to that experience, yet I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

I thought about it as we waited and then a deeper understanding came to me. The knowing did come from shared experience, but it wasn’t the experience of the surgery itself. It was the bond of a generation that had been young together, raised their families at the same time (often in what must have looked like a large, rolling pile of kids), sent the kids off and simply went on getting older. It was a knowing that acknowledged this wasn’t the first hospital waiting room they had gathered in, and that it wasn’t going to be the last. Only today’s outcome was unknown.

They and their friends have gone on to a time in their lives still largely alien to me and my generation. As I’ve grown older I’ve lived the things they’ve lived and come to understand the things I didn’t grasp when I was younger, but perhaps I thought that as an adult I had come to know it all. They each, however, have buried at least one parent, have marked the illnesses and passing of friends and family, felt the stiffness in their own bones. They move slower now, but what was the point of hurrying in the first place?

I suppose it is my own self-centeredness that causes me to think my parents belong to me, overlooking that they had their own brothers and sisters before I was born, and see more of their siblings now than they do their own kids, with two-thirds of us scattered across the country. Theirs is a shared history before and after my generation, with all the hopes and fears, ups and downs, affection and annoyances common to us all, and a shared experience of aging who’s only consolation may be that you don’t have to do it alone.

We waited, prompting our uncles for the old stories from their growing up that we in turn had grown up hearing, listening again to the tales of the tricks played on their little brother and the times where they probably should have died many times over.

On schedule the surgeon came out and called my mother, brother, sister, sister-in-law and I to one side and gave us the news that the operation had gone perfectly. I turned to give the thumbs up to the rest of the family when the relief crashed over us like a wave, making me weak in the knees. Our small group huddled together, shaking, almost as if we had received the worst possible news instead of the best. The rest of the family gathered around, touching us and offering congratulations and then withdrawing, knowing we’d need some time to ourselves – and now that I think about it, probably needing some time themselves. They, too, had survived and were moving on, still ahead.

But I know things now that I didn’t know before.