Thursday, May 20, 2010


My father died on the 8th of April and I’m beginning to realize that this grieving ground is where I’m going to be for as long as it takes.

The details that keep coming back to me are strange—for example, I looked at his hands in his final days and they weren’t my father’s hands—they were swollen beyond recognition. I think of the last words he spoke while he was still conscious, when my sister came into the room and he said, “I can’t stand this, Fance.” The image of him attached to all that medical equipment haunts me. I want to remember him talking and standing tall in an ironed white shirt. I want to remember his voice.

In the beginning, in the first few days after his death, I was in shock. Although for nearly two weeks before he died I was running back and forth from the hospital, and day-to-day I witnessed his situation becoming more and more desperate, when the end came I could not quite comprehend the finality. I was with him when he died. I closed his eyes and held down his eyelids until they stayed closed. I was there when the doctor marked his time of death—1:31 p.m. I wept and pleaded with God to take him gently, to lift him into heaven with his final breath. I think about leaving the hospital, walking with the chaplain to the staff elevator, and how I tried to stay in control so I could drive home safely, thinking that I had just seen my dear father for the last time and knowing that life had just changed forever. Yet it’s impossible to take in the reality of it all at once.

In the early days and hours after he died I did what I needed to do. I contacted the funeral home, called family and friends, wrote an obituary for the newspaper, and began to compose his eulogy. Then I withdrew for a couple of days. I turned off my telephone, worked in my garden, and took a long hike along the Potomac River. I was exhausted and I needed solitude. My grief was so great that I could not cope with anyone else’s grief. I couldn’t even bear hearing myself say the words necessary to tell anyone else about his death.

His funeral Mass was held less than one week after his death. I didn’t listen to the words of the hymns or to what the priest was saying. I blocked all of it out to steel myself to deliver the eulogy. I kept thinking that I wanted Daddy to be proud of me and I wanted to deliver a message that honored what was important to him. I made it through the eulogy without breaking apart. My voice cracked only once when I talked about his long marriage to my mother. And no one but me even noticed that my voice cracked.

And on Tuesday, five weeks after the funeral, we took his ashes to Arlington National Cemetery for interment. I thought I was in control, I thought the reality had sunk in enough that I could be gracefully sad. But I wept again, sobbed. Seeing him honored for his years of service in the Coast Guard, seeing them fold the flag and present it to my mother, hearing the bugler playing Taps and the loud 21-gun salute piercing the misty quiet, seeing my brother Steve solemnly carrying our father’s ashes to his final resting place in the wall—all of this made it so real, so final.

Today has been the first day of my life with my father finally laid to rest. The services are over, the guests have gone home, the flowers have dried up. My dad is gone and life is supposed to be back to normal. It doesn’t feel normal. He’s not here and I miss him.

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