death of a parent


There is this idea that floats around about adversity and tragedy bringing people together. That would be other people. People to whom I am not related.

It’s tempting to write specifically now about the melodrama surrounding Dad’s last days but another time. Suffice to say that my brother, CB has at last burned one bridge too many. He is stranded in a place that Mom and DNOS, especially, are fully content to let him be. He even managed to alienate BabySis, and since she has blindly worshipped him since childhood, I wouldn’t have thought it possible had I not witnessed it.

Did he step over any of my lines? Yes he did. He knows it. He has been extra careful with me all week because I am his only lifeline. I choose to withhold my charity from him for the time being. Instead, I carefully painted him into a corner and he was on the earliest plane back to Nevada this morning. I am still the oldest and I still, mostly, rule. However, I gave him money for the trip. I consulted with Rob first, because we had agreed not to be ATM’s for our dysfunctional siblings, but even he agreed that there was no good reason to be so cruel to CB.

“It’s funny but as a non-Christian, I am the most Christian person in the house right now where your brother is concerned.”

I was very angry with CB. His behavior while Dad was dying was appalling. What he said to me while our father’s still warm body was lying in the other room is not something I will forget any time soon. I am not one of those people who believe that grief is blanket permission to behave as one pleases. I heard many times during the latter part of my first year of widowhood that grief can cause a person to act out and that it was part of the “process” and therefore should be overlooked or at least tolerated. It was not okay, I was told, to call people on what amounted to shitty behavior for which a non-grieving person would be handed his/her soundly kicked arse.

That is bullshit.

Being in pain isn’t an acceptable reason to inflict it intentionally or to not apologize when it is done in a moment of thoughtlessness.

And there is no hierarchy of grief. Widowhood does not trump the loss of a parent, no matter the age of the child though, in the latter case, age dictates the level of personal responsibility expectations.

I really can’t say that I felt worse after my first husband died than I do now. The relationships I had with Will and with my father don’t compare. They occupy different spaces. I feel each loss in a different way with equal intensity. The point of view may change but the sorrow is the same.

I was not with Dad when he died. I knew it was coming but I chose to go with Rob and the two kids to McDonald’s for lunch. There is a play area there and, though all I can eat is the side salad sans dressing, I didn’t want the little ones around and I thought Dad might be more inclined to go if they, and me too, were out of the house.

It was a moment in time that hurt very much to give up, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

I went in to be with him when we got back. I had forgotten the waxen look a body takes on after death. The complete absence of animation in the face. Mouth gaping and eyes hooded and the stillness, the chest no longer rising and falling.

There were a lot of tears. It was easier this time because Rob was there to envelop me. It felt safe to cry and I have never in my life felt able to safely show my sorrow in such a manner. He was not a panacea but he was, and continues to be, amazing.

I helped the hospice nurse, A, undress and then redress Dad. Mom couldn’t. Neither could DNOS. I wanted to and was glad I was able. Truthfully, helping care for my father in his last few days was wonderful. Dad was not someone who said, “I love you.” Consequently neither was I for much of my life. His way was to take care of a person. Provide and do. That is why actions are so important to me. Words are good but without accompanying actions, they are meaningless.

“Dad didn’t say ‘I love you’ to me until just a week ago.” BabySis complained to me the day after he died.

Lucky you, I thought, because he didn’t say the words to me at all. He did love me. I know that because of the things he has done for me. For BabyD. For my late husband. I guess it would have been nice to hear the words, but he showed me in a hundred different ways and what more is there?

Taking care of him was a way to show him back.

It was hard. The death rattle was agony to listen to. I have written before that I heard the sound many times during Will’s hospice stay. He was in a six bed hospice for three months. One room had the same occupant the whole time but the other four changed over at least three times each during those months. I heard death rattling a lot. I saw death’s shadow more than I ever cared to. The sound, the look and the smell are all things I never wanted to encounter again. But I loved my dad more than I worried about the effect of his dying on me. I wanted to show him I loved him even though I could have simply said the words, which I did as well, and let someone else do the rest.

I don’t think I want to watch someone die of lung cancer again but judging from my siblings’ coughs, and their strange habits of taking a smoke break after watching our dad gasp, wheeze and hack up a steady stream of brown phlegm, I could easily be witness again.*

I would like to thank all of those who read and took the time to comment. I appreciate your concern and your friendship. I have more to write about but I am unbelievably tired and quite swamped with things that need to be done before we head for home. The exhaustion, I have to say, is every bit as awful as when one is widowed.

*I might be much more militantly anti-smoking from now on.


When cancer has metastasized to sites beyond its origin, they call it “stage 4”. In my dad’s case that means that the tumor in his lungs has either grown into the heart muscle or aorta or that the size of it and the effusion it has caused warrant the dire level.

In any case, he is 81 years old and already suffering from pulmonary disease and severe osteoporosis. He would not survive cancer treatment. They are discharging him from the hospital tonight.

When I talked to my mother, the lung specialist had just left, and the nurses were getting Dad ready for discharge. They don’t waste time. Mom sounded very matter of fact. I remember that tone. I used that tone a lot myself. I still use that tone when I talk about Will’s illness or death. I have cultivated it and it can be a very useful barrier.

I have tried to remember what it felt like that day, the one nearly five years ago now, when the doctors gathered in that tiny exam room just off the lobby of the neurology waiting area in Iowa City and told me that Will was going to die.

Only that is not what they tell you.

They give you the name of the disease. They tell you that it has no treatment. They tell you that things will progress. Sometimes they have a time-line. Mostly they try to exit the room as soon as they can.

The day they told me that my husband was going to die, my Dad was in the waiting area watching BabyD, who was truly a baby then – just fifteen months old. I was too angry to cry. Angry with the doctors for not knowing more about what was wrong so they could answer my questions. Angry with Will for hiding so many of the early symptoms of his illness from me. Angry that I was alone and too grown up to just throw us all in Dad’s car and go home with him.

And my Dad said nothing. He didn’t chastise me for my reaction that day. He didn’t judge me like so many people would in the care-giving and widow years to come. He just helped me get Will and BabyD to the next waiting room for more tests and then to the parking lot and our vehicles for the trip back to our house in Des Moines that would never be our home.

Aside from my Auntie, Dad probably was the most consistent supporter I had during that time.

I asked Mom how he was doing, but I could hear him joking with the nurses in the background. He is quite the flirt when he is in the hospital.

I wonder what it feels like to be told you are dying when you were dying already. It’s like double-secret probation in a way.

Later when I talked with Rob, I told him that I feel worse knowing he has cancer and is dying then I did knowing he was just dying of the pulmonary fibrosis. And it doesn’t make sense because we all knew he didn’t have much time left anyway.

The doctors say a year or less which is nonsense. Even Mom saw through that evasion. And the doctor balked at hospice. What is it with doctors and hospice? Why do they wait so long?

I called my Auntie. I left a message for CB. DNOS called me, and we talked a bit. Mom told me not to come yet, but I think she is still in shock. DNOS agreed and is going to use her professional connections to get the real scoop on Dad’s condition. It pays to have a social butterfly sister who used to work at the hospital lab.

I asked her how she was.

She said, “Fine.”

But she choked on it a bit and when I asked again, she told me she would call me later after she knew more.

DNOS would have made a pretty good NOS.


In every family there is a child whose designation is that of number one son. Girl or boy. Oldest, middle or youngest. Someone comes to earn this title over years of demonstrating grace under pressure, reliability, common sense and a sense of duty to those tied to him or her by the accident we know as “family”.

I have written a bit before about my father. He has a progressively terminal lung disease that has been stable for the last year but he is nearly eighty-one and his health is failing despite the relatively hopeful prognosis on the lung front from his pulmonary doctor in the spring.

He is a lucky man. He has nearly died at least three times in the last two and a half years. There is really no medical rationale for the fact that he has survived this long. And in my opinion, making the “old” half of old age is an accomplishment for which not all of us will be allowed bragging rights.

I knew it was coming and it still stabbed me a good one. Read Full Article