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.)