Twenty Years in the Making – A Song For My Father

I am sitting at the family piano in the living room of the house where I grew up. Aside from a few boxes, the piano is the only thing left in the house. Mom is moving into a senior apartment after 53 years in that old Victorian on Sherburne Street. I’ve come to play a song for her — a song that was seeded in that very living room twenty years before as my father took his last breath.

Many of us were raised by fathers from “the greatest generation.” They were great in so many ways. They lived through the Great Depression as children and World War II as young men. They built stable lives for their families with the help of the GI Bill, supportive wives, and hard work. Many of those fathers were also harsh and distant, probably suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and living in a narrow construct of what it meant to be a man. My dad was one of them.

Dad cut an imposing figure at 6’8.” He had a sarcastic streak and a need to have things go a certain way. Though both he and Mom worked full time, it was incumbent upon her to make sure dinner was on the table promptly by 5:30. If Dad got too hungry, his usually short temper grew shorter. My mom, my two older brothers, and I were finely attuned to his moods and eager to avoid his sharp tongue.

His nicknames for me when I was a girl were “klutz” and “dummy.” These heartless epithets stung the awkward, too-tall, whip-smart girl I was in those days. But the difficulties of those early chapters of my life aren’t the point of this writing. I tell them merely to set the context for the rest of the story.

In the spring of 1991, the back pain Dad had been attributing to a fender bender was diagnosed as untreatable pancreatic cancer. In the ensuing three months, he went through a dramatic transformation, both physically and emotionally.

As he lost weight and became jaundiced, he also became….gentle. My nickname became “Peaches” and the doors opened to amazing conversations, including one memorable one in the garage where I asked him to stay in touch after he died. Since then I’ve had many extraordinary encounters with cardinals as have many of my family members.

The time of his dying – which I’ve come to call “Our Summer of Love” — brought excruciating pain, deep healing, and (strangely) lots of laughter to my entire family. I remember one evening in particular. Dad had had a procedure to remove fluid built up in his belly. Once he returned home, the incision began leaking. I was dispatched to the little corner store where I’d had my first job to purchase disposable diapers we could use to stanch the flow. Mom was too exhausted to take on the task of patching him up, so up I went to his bedroom to see what I could do. The absurdity of taping a diaper to my father’s stomach caught us both by surprise. Suddenly this horrible moment in a heartbreaking process became hilarious. My jaundiced, emaciated father and I traded darkly comedic wisecracks and laughed like banshees.

A few weeks later in the wee hours of a rainy August night, he died in my arms. Mom and I were with him there in the living room. I felt strangely calm and present. The biggest, scariest thing – the death of my father – wasn’t scary at all. It was….beautiful.

Something opened in my life during and after that strange summer. A flood of songs began flowing out of me. Seven compact discs later, I am still writing songs. Right before the house on Sherburne Street was sold to a new family, I finished the song about my father’s last months and the lessons they taught me.

Thank you, Dad, for doing the best you could and for dying with such grace and generosity.

(You can listen to the song at the link below.)

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About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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8 Responses to Twenty Years in the Making – A Song For My Father

  1. Helen Gibson says:

    Thank you for sharing…I too had a Dad with a story, and a sadness that childhood couldn’t explain.  As always your voice and piano are hauntingly beautiful… Peace,  Helen Gibson (friends through Sarah MacDougall)

  2. Linda Lundquist says:

    Thank you Barb! As I have celebrated my first birthday without my Dad, and it being Memorial Day, it is more bittersweet in many ways. I was able to talk of spirituality, ascension, and many more heartfelt things the past few years as Dad was slipping away physically. His purpose was to make people laugh if he returned from the South Pacific with untold horrors locked into his heart…and he served his purpose well! Our warrior dads experienced so much they could never share…but I am so glad that you got the chance to say good-bye with such grace. Blessings dear one!!

  3. W says:

    You and I sing so much alike. I’m a little bit confused and pleased by that. I love your music. I love your tone. I hope we can meet some day.

  4. Oh, Darlin’, I don’t think I’d ever heard the whole story. Thanks so much – it’s a beautiful song.

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