My dad died one month ago today, December 24, 2016, at 87 years old. The one month is arbitrary but it’s what we humans do: use a calendar to note important dates, to measure them in some way. Grief, of course, cannot be measured. I am one of those grievers who does well in the short-term, keeping busy, then lets the grief sidle in, companionably at times. and like an air-sucking punch at others.
At my last visit with Dad, we held hands. He was transitioning, as the hospice folks say, moving from life to death in measurable ways: opening and closing his eyes, murmuring and gesturing to things the rest of us couldn’t see, able to swallow until he couldn’t, sleeping yet not sleeping. Seeking eternal rest, perhaps.
I wasn’t with him when he died. I wasn’t with my mom when she died, 13 years before, on December 25, 2003. I don’t think either one would have known if I was there or not, since both were taking palliative meds that alleviated pain and consciousness. I’ve read things about how folks found it a blessing to be with loved ones when they died. I don’t know.
Before Alzheimer’s had firmly entrapped his brain, Dad used to say that he hoped he’d die in his sleep: just go to sleep one night, and not wake up in the morning. And that seems to be what happened. After we buried Dad, I later learned we had coincidentally buried Mom and Dad on the same date, December 29, 13 years apart.
At the funeral at St. Mary’s Church in Danvers, Massachusetts, I said this about my dad:
A good and faithful servant has returned home.
My dad was a good man. You may know him from Peabody, where he grew up on Swampscott Ave, and was a proud graduate of the Peabody High Class of 1946.
He went on to Boston College, studying business administration with the Jesuits, commuting every day, working various jobs. He deeply valued his Catholic education and his Catholic faith.
His adult life included serving in the United States National Guard, Yankee Division, working at GE in Lynn, and spending time with family and friends. He and my mom loved their neighbors on Evans and Lenox Road in Peabody, and had a lot of parties and get togethers. Some of you will remember my dad playing the piano, playing the drums. And singing: Danny Boy, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Vaya Con Dios, It’s a Sin To Tell A Lie.
We moved to Danvers when I was in first grade, and the tradition of great neighbors and parties and bridge games continued. Dad worked hard, and was a wonderful provider for his family. He and Mom were active here in St, Mary’s parish, in the Mr. and Mrs. Club among other volunteer activities.
In fact, Dad was a volunteer throughout his life, with the Big Brother organization, and with the Boy Scouts. When he retired at 65 years old, he became a lay chaplain at the Essex County Correctional Facility. He used to say that some folks wondered why he would help out there, with people who had committed crimes and were to be punished. For Dad, though, this was just part of his life of service to others. He believed in redemption, and in the potential of everyone to do good in this world. He helped with the Mass there, and ran popular parenting classes. He knew that many, when they were released, would be back in the facility, but remained faithful and hopeful for them. The jail named a Volunteer Award after Dad, among his proudest honors.
And at home, he and mom played cribbage every night for years. He had a Manhattan every night. Dad enjoyed that Manhattan, and often won the cribbage games with Mom. When they switched to Chinese checkers, though, Mom would often be the winner.
When Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001, never having smoked in her life, Dad was her devoted caregiver, right to the end. She suffered quite a bit as a result of the disease, and Dad helped with her medications, her oxygen tank, and praying with her. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in August of 2003, and Mom died on Christmas Day that year.
People used to say to Dad how sad it was that Mom died on Christmas Day. He used to say Well, that meant that he was never alone on the day she died, that he was always with family and friends.
And now Dad passed away on Christmas Eve. He missed Mom terribly, and now they are together again. And I won’t be alone on the days they died, but will also be surrounded by family and friends. What a gift.
Dad was a humble man, a person who always stepped up to help, whether it was his high school reunion committee, whether it was taking his beloved brother to meetings, or answering the phone in St. Mary’s rectory, or sending a carefully chosen card with a warm note for his grandchildren on their birthdays or for school accomplishments. He loved us all so much—my mom, his four grandchildren, his great-granddaughter, all of his family. He loved us all unconditionally. He lived his faith humbly and vibrantly.
How do we best commemorate, honor, mourn, and remember? I have no wise words, except maybe this: never miss a chance to tell others you love them. I am leaning on my loved ones for consolation and understanding. I am moving back to the projects and tasks I’d left undone and need to do. I am remembering many happy, wonderful moments, and am practicing being focused in the present. I take deep breaths. I remember and smile through tears.
We are all in this life together, even when we are apart.