Entries in death (5)


Part 5: The story of our lives

When I was training to be a therapist in graduate school, our first assignment was to write our autobiography. This was partly to see how we were shaped by the first system we lived in—our families. But I think an even deeper purpose was to show us that our very idea of who we are is a story, and one that we largely construct ourselves.

In the second year of graduate school we revisited and updated these autobiographies. I found that some things that seemed important to include the first year no longer mattered the second. Through the work I had done, some hurts had healed. My story had changed. Perhaps only a little, but those changes gave me a lot to think about, and led to many more small changes over the years.

With the death now of both of my parents I feel the need to update my story yet again. So much changes with their passing, not least of all my ideas about myself. I feel a strong urge to write, to make meaning of these events, to integrate this new information. Things change. Nothing stays the same. Even parents pass away. We will follow too, soon enough. Given this, what matters to me? Where do I want to put my energy? Where is this story headed?


My story of my life with Dad begins with a mixture of pleasure and discomfort. Especially as a little girl I have warm memories of playing together: learning to ski, playing hockey on the frozen lake, fishing for perch with worms we dug ourselves in the mud by the spring, playing Yatzee on winter evenings, or curling up with him on the couch to read the funnies. But I also have memories of being uncomfortable around him.

Dad was an unusual person. He had definite opinions that were often outside the norm. He didn’t communicate easily, though he talked a lot to the people closest to him, and he wrote voluminously on topics that he was wrapped up in. He wasn’t that good at empathy or seeing other people’s gifts—or if he was, he didn’t waste time expressing it. He was better at talking at you than with you, and if you wanted a conversation with him you’d better find a topic he was interested in.

Dad had strong principles and was a champion of truth, which meant he was bothered by the natural inconsistencies of government, religion, or people just trying to live together. And though he was usually pretty calm, his emotions were intense when ignited. When he got started on something that involved both his principles and his emotions, he was like a rat terrier with a rat—he just wouldn’t let go. There was an obsessive side to him that led him to spend years of his life trying to “straighten out” various disputes. And when he was involved in one of these issues, it took up all his time and all the space in his mind. As I said, he talked a lot to those closest to him, and one of the reasons Mom knit so much was to have something to do with her hands while he was talking to her about whatever dilemma he was immersed in. Mealtimes were dominated by the topic that was uppermost in his mind. And there are stacks of comb-bound booklets left in his office that are several feet tall (each), on disagreements he was involved in over water rights, government regulations, or religious differences.

Quite frankly, as a girl I was afraid of him, especially at the dinner table where his obsessions got aired as lengthy monologues or rhetorical questioning. My story at that time didn’t include any ability on my part to protect myself from his emotions and his need to work things out that were weighing on him, and I often felt trapped and voiceless. I mostly outgrew the fear (mostly), after a long struggle to develop my own answers and my own inner resources. In recent years I felt a lot of love for him—and also a growing realization of our kinship and how similar we were in our essential values—but even then it was hard to know what to do with him or how to express that love. 

Largely, this was because Dad wasn’t that comfortable with expressions of affection. At his memorial, a grandson told a story about his amazement when he actually got a hug from his grandpa—sometime in his 20’s. As a young woman, my memories of Dad expressing his appreciation are spare. I remember getting my first “grown-up” clothes in high school, a tailored gray suit-jacket and skirt, but when I wore it to show him, his only comment was, Well, you won't be doing any carpentry in that. As I tell this story now, it seems ridiculous that I couldn’t see that he meant this as a compliment, but at the time I felt offended and hurt. My story wasn’t big enough yet to include his kind of love.

This summer, when we stayed with Dad for three months, Tom and I lived in our trailer and would come into the house to share a meal with him, or read together, or watch the news or Lawrence Welk. Dad would head to bed around 7:30 and he and I had a ritual way to say goodnight to each other of reaching out and holding hands for a moment. At the beginning of the summer I would give him a hug, but somehow it evolved into this short hand squeeze, which seemed like just the right distance for both of us. I still remember the feeling of his hand, so roughened by farmwork that it felt like he was wearing leather gloves. I felt so loved by that simple gesture. And when I just let that into my heart my story changes again.

Now, after his death, none of the past seems to matter much at all. It feels like some kind of artificial barrier has been lifted and there is just a field of love around me now from him. I spent so many years of my life cowed by him, then so many years developing the inner strength to be my own person with him. Then all of a sudden the whole story is turned upside down, irrelevant, and all that is left is this sensation of this warm presence behind me, all around me.

Our summer together was the rehearsal for this. My need to be right dissolving in the sprinkler-moving antics. My need to be helpful dissolving in his ownership of his own fate. My story of his lack of affection dissolving in my reaching out and having him reach back. 

When we left the farm, he dressed up in his town shirt and stood in the driveway leaning on the ski pole he used as a cane, watching us pack up and fold the trailer away. When we were ready to go, he and I had a minute alone while Tom got something out of the house. We stood silently for a moment, then as he heard the door to the house slam, he reached out, not with his hand, but with his whole body, and squeezed me hard against his chest in a tight hug. Then he let go, and through my tears, I could see that he was saying goodbye, probably for good. And in that goodbye, he was giving me the only real gift he ever had to give.

I go forward with my life, however my story unfolds, wrapped up in his eternal love.



This is my last post in this series on Dad's death. I have appreciated having a place to write where there are people out there receiving these words. Grief is both deeply personal and completely universal; it is something that you experience alone, and yet feels lighter for being shared. I am grateful for all of you reading this. Your presence means a lot to me.

And that reminds me of the joke that one of my brothers kept telling the week after Dad died.

There was a man who was at the funeral for his wife. Toward the end of the funeral he got up and asked, "Is there anyone who would like to say a word?" A friend of his got up, faced the congregation and said: "Plethora." Then he sat back down. The bereaved man teared up at hearing this and said, "Oh, thank you. That really means a lot!"

I think Dad would have liked that one.



Part 4: Polarities

Dad wasn't one to reach out. He didn't like the phone, and as he aged he wrote fewer and fewer emails. Over the past years I got used to long stretches of time without hearing from him. Now that life is starting to return to normal again after his passing, it is easy to forget that he is gone. It startles me when I suddenly remember—he’s dead. I come across a draft of an email to him that I didn’t send and realize that he will never read it. Or I imagine him sitting down to eat dinner where he has sat for the past 50 years, before realizing that not only is he gone, but so are the chair and the table.

Last month I was flying back to Arizona from Seattle and passed over Cascade Locks on the Columbia River where Dad worked for awhile as a young man. I always think of him when I am near this place and try to imagine his life here; or imagine how he would feel about this place now, so many years and miles away from those experiences. I feel a jolt in my stomach this time, as though I pulled on a rope and no one was holding the other end. These thoughts have always been a connection between me and my father, like I could touch him from wherever I was. Suddenly that connection is slack—and I feel as startled by that as if I had suddenly fallen backwards, the rope snapping toward me in a loose pile.

We have moved to another spot in Cascabel—a place that someone else owns—with a yurt, a screen room, composting toilet, and outdoor shower. It had been unoccupied for awhile and we have done some cleanup and repair. I keep catching myself wanting to tell Mom and Dad what we are doing. There is no substitute for a parent, not even other family members. And it is in the transitions that I especially miss their physical presence—those times when something in my life is changing.

There is something about watching a parent who seemed so fearsome when you were a child weaken in old age. An image arises of Dad walking across the lawn from his truck this summer at the Fourth of July party. A nephew of Mom's is visiting for the day and Dad has a home movie from the 1950's of a Christmas when this man was a little boy. Dad has his iPad in one hand and cane in the other, and has driven across the farm to my brother's house to show this video to his nephew. His frailness as he lists across the thick grass, the vulnerability of his eagerness to show the video, his slightly awkward social timing—all of this pulls at my heart, even now.

Part of me still feels shock and confusion about how a person who is part of the foundation of my life can suddenly just disappear, can be here one moment and gone the next. Part of me is still grieving. Most of the time, though, I don't think about it. Life goes on. I get busy, get swept up into daily life. And that makes the pain sharper, I think, when I am suddenly reminded of the absence.

A man at the rest area walks slowly at the elbow of his elderly father. My tears come suddenly as I watch them shuffle together toward their car.


For weeks after I got back from the farm after the memorial, whenever I meditated on my chakras the only one that was active was my first—the family chakra, group energy, belonging, community. All the rest of them were shuttered, dark, tiny lights buried somewhere deep inside. Finally, I got curious about this, explored a little deeper.

I find that I am staying on the level of the physical with my grief—I am not allowing my other feelings, which, once I look at them, are surprising, almost shocking. What my spirit feels about Dad’s death, what I have been suppressing, I can only describe as joy. A bright light encompassing me and everything around me.

It is like Dad spent his whole life—even as capable as he was—caught up in a tin can. And now all that energy is free.  It is as though a flame has been lit—both inside me and around me. I feel energy flowing through me that is not my energy. I feel held. Peaceful. Content.

Light and dark, risk and safety, autonomy and community—these polarities cannot be resolved one way or the other. Somehow they exist together, simultaneously. Somehow they negate each other and define each other all at once. Somehow we need both.

I am beginning to know this too about death—that the grief of the body and the joy of the soul are intertwined. I no longer believe I can deny one in favor of the other. They are both essential. I miss my parents deeply AND I am joyful at their presence. I long for what I used to have AND I feel new energy. There is no “but” anywhere in those sentences. They all exist together, all connected.

...the tree, the bark, the root, the fruit, the seed, the life that animates it all...


And then there is love. As I talk to a friend awhile ago I find myself saying to her, “I think part of what hurts right now is how much love I feel. It’s so intense—like a pain in my heart.” I am taken by love as though I have been struck by a wave on the beach. I feel love for my siblings, for my nieces and nephews, for my ancestors, for my friends and clients back in Seattle, for the people we are getting to know here in Cascabel, for the land and mountains and plants and rocks and animals. I find myself trying to manage this love, this pain, by limiting it—by understanding it or by restricting it to certain people. But it is like Dad’s death (and everything associated with it) released some kind of dam that kept me bound up in cause and effect, and beyond these individual forms we take for awhile is a universe of energy.

This is a little like the perspective of riding in an airplane. From that vantage everything seems elegantly connected, part of a larger pattern, beautiful.

But what happens when I come back to earth? Once landed, here come all the same old difficulties—irritations, frustrations, disappointments. People who don’t do what I want, suffering that is out of my control. I can feel this immense love one moment, then be hurt and angry the next.

Again, I remind myself, you can do both. The difficulties don't negate the love. And the love doesn't mean you ignore the difficulties. When I am connected to both I have both perspective AND empathy. I know that "all will be well" at the same time that I am willing to deal with what is here in front of me.

We are big enough to hold it all.


Part 3: The fertility of the senses

I hope you take time to feel all there is that’s offered because the fertility of the senses RIGHT NOW will not return. It’s precious. It asks for nothing but your presence. I have the sense that’s why we feel so tired when someone we love deeply dies—so we’ll float in the deep end for awhile and forget about exerting ourselves.

                                                    --Gail Baker(1)

Thanks to my friend for the reminder that with death comes some kind of opening—cracks through which we glimpse our inner life, or the hearts of our loved ones, or different dimensions of awareness.

I keep feeling that I am ready to return to my usual life, but one thing after another interferes. Most recently, I got sick enough to stay in bed for several days. Though I felt terrible, I also knew I was longing for time to reflect and write, and honestly just time to do nothing. It felt so good to just lie in bed and allow. To let everything flow through me. To just feel everything that has happened.


My brother asked me the other day what would I have been writing in my blog if I hadn’t been worried about what Dad would think? At first I don’t know how to answer the question. There is a little girl inside me squirming and stubbing her toe and mumbling, “Oh…just stuff…

Good grief! I think. Get a grip on who you are, lovely one!  This is an important question he is asking you! And maybe he really wants to know. Maybe your Dad wanted to know, too, and didn’t know how to ask. And, besides, whether anyone wants to know or not isn’t even the point. You know who you are. Speak up!

When I was young, my subjective inner world was hard to talk about. I lived it inside myself in my life with books, but my emotions, my personal will, my creativity, and my spirituality were all things that I felt cut off from in the outside world. It’s no wonder, when I think about it, that I became a therapist who could help people value those things in themselves. Our greatest gifts often begin with a wounding.

Now I treasure my subjectivity. This is how I know who I am and what matters to me. It is the root of my unique contribution to the world. It is the rich variability between people we need as a species. And it is those subjective experiences I am wanting to talk about here today.


Five days after Dad died, my sister sent me a text with the quote from H.D. that ends the last post I wrote before Dad’s death.

            …last night

      was the first night that it came,
      the distant summons, the muted cry, the call,

      and my bones melted and my heart was flame,
      and all I wished was freedom and to follow…


And she brought tears to my eyes by writing, out of the blue: This quote from your blog sounds like Dad saying goodbye.


The night before Dad passed, I lay awake unable to sleep. As I lay there I could feel my body quivering and shaking slightly with the anxiety of knowing he was in the hospital, of my rush to make travel arrangements for the next day, of trying in vain to relax and get some rest. At some point—late, and very unexpectedly— there was a feeling as though a tremendous wing of joy had passed over me in the dark. Then just as quickly as it came, it was gone, leaving me with my own anxious restlessness again.

I have no idea what this was. All I can say is what it felt like. And I say this knowing that it may only hold meaning for me. But it felt to me like some kind of presence. It felt like Mom waiting for Dad. Like the energy of all our loved ones out there waiting for us. Like Dad recognizing this was there for him.

If you knew my Dad, you would know how big a leap this is to make. If you knew how much of his life he spent arguing against the offenses of religion, the way that it has historically separated us from each other, the violence done in the service of specific beliefs. Yet Dad always believed in love, and knew that there is power in love. He didn’t often talk about it, and his love was often obscured by his strong personality, but it was always there at the center of who he was.


When I would visit for a weekend when we were caring for Mom at the rehab center, Dad would spend the night with her and I would drive in from the farm house in the morning to replace him for the day. One day as I was leaving the house, I noticed that he had left a lawn sprinkler on overnight. I thought he might have forgotten about it, so I shut it off when I left, not realizing that if the pump was still on without any sprinklers running it could ruin the motor. When I met Dad that morning and told him about the sprinkler he got mad at me and hollered at me in the hallway of the rehab center, “You have to trust me!” This startled me and hurt—especially because I was trying so hard to do the right thing—and though I could understand why he was short-tempered, his reaction upset me for the rest of the weekend.

At first when I thought about it, the idea of me trusting him seemed ridiculous. We were all stressed, and he was 90 years old and had been forgetting all kinds of things—I would find the stove on hours after breakfast or the water running after he had left the bathroom. And he wants me to TRUST him? On what grounds? I felt like shouting back at him.

But that statement stuck in my head, and over time I got curious about it. Did I trust Dad? What does it mean to trust someone? Was he talking about something deeper than his lawn sprinkler? I started using that as a kind of barometer for my actions in the last years that Dad was alive. What would I do right now if I did trust him?

One day last summer I happened to hear Dad throwing up. When I came to the bathroom door and asked him how he was doing he admitted that he wasn’t that keen at the moment. He had taken some old supplement that had been open for awhile and he thought that had disturbed his digestion. But when I asked him if he needed any help, he said that he didn’t. Just let me suffer on my own, was the gist of his response. Ok, Dad. I will trust you. And I went off to bed.

Or when I took over moving his lawn sprinklers this summer when he got too unsteady on his feet, I thought I would just go figure it out on my own, but Dad had all the details down to the inch—where to place the sprinklers, how large to make the hose coil when I was finished, what order to move the sprinklers in. Everything had its place and its purpose. In the past I would have felt constrained and offended, but pretty soon I realized that I could just trust him. And as obsessive as his system was, it did actually work. All the lawns got watered in a short amount of time. His hose never had those annoying kinks in it. And after I started trusting him I could relax and follow him around as he showed me exactly where to place the sprinklers, and just enjoy doing something together with him.

I am finding that his request to trust him doesn’t end with death. As we are cleaning out the house and I am deciding what to keep and what to throw away, I start hearing those words again in my mind. Only this time they aren’t angry. Now they are kind. Warm. Comforting. Trust me, I hear. Which now translates into: It’s ok to let go of things. What needs to be done will get done. I have taken care of the things that were important to me…save what you want and get on with your own life.


Virginia Woolf’s father died tragically and early, when she was in her 20’s, and though she was devastated at the time, she reflects in her diary much later that if her father had lived it would have been the end of her literary life. "No writing, no books;--inconceivable." (3) I have to say that I recognize her feelings. I am thankful for the years I had with my parents—that they got to know my husband, and saw me become part of my community in Seattle and find work that I loved. But I am also grateful to be so young when they died. I feel like there is possibility for me to focus on my own life and my own calling—and perhaps specifically on writing. I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have written so much since Dad died. There's room for books now that there may not have been room for before—at least not inside my own head.

But the expansion I am feeling isn’t only about not having the extra duties of caring for an elderly parent, or the loosening of old identity. I have also had the sense—first after Mom died, and now also after Dad’s passing—that when someone close to us in our family dies, it makes something available to us. It feels like there are “family resources” created by the lives of my ancestors that are stored up for me to use, and that when a person passes, the key to those resources is passed on to the next generation.

I don’t even really know what I mean when I say this, or how to put it into words. Anything I say is certainly meant as the finger pointing at the moon. But it feels like there is some kind of reservoir of love, patience, kindness, wisdom—certainly way more than any person showed in their actual life—that is available to me now to draw from, and that I will pass on when I die.

So their passing gives me this gift. Not only the gift of time and space, and the perspective to see myself more accurately in relation to them, but the gift of support. As I am quiet and listen, I can feel energies coalescing around me in new ways. I am surprised today to realize that what I feel, even in the midst of sadness and grief and uncertainty, is power. The power of knowing who I am. And the power to create from that.


I open one of the books of poetry that I bought recently in Fruita and read:

      In the depth of the ground
      my soul glides
      silent as a comet (4)

Yes, I think. That is how it would be for Dad.


(1) www.gailbakerartmaker.com
(2) p. 61, H.D., (1972). From "Sagesse" in Hermetic Definition. New York: New Directions.
(3) p. 17, Virginia Woolf, quoted in Tillie Olsen, (2003). Silences. New York: Feminist Press.
(4) p. 217, Tomas Tranströmer, (2006). the great enigma: new collected poems. Translated by Robin Fulton. New York: New Directions.


Part 2: The Dig

When Mom died nearly four years ago, Dad didn’t move any of her belongings. Her shoes stayed next to the door, her pillbox on the table, her clothes by the dryer. He just went on living around them while his life piled on top. So with his death, one of our first tasks was to clear out their home, which meant going through both of their things at once.

My parents have lived in this house for 50 years—my brothers and sister moved here as teenagers, but this is my only childhood home. After so many years of stasis, the house and its contents felt like a tightly compressed ball of energy. When Dad died, it was like a fuse was lit, and all that energy exploded immediately in all directions. Keepsakes went out the door with children and grandchildren. Bags and bags went to thrift stores and recycling. But the majority was ready to be released as heat and light, and we filled an entire farm truck (twice) with things to be burned in Spokane’s waste incinerator. There was something so right about all that accumulated history and memory being turned into electricity, about clearing the house of the old to make way for the new.

As we cleaned, it struck us that we were conducting an archaeological dig. The top layer was composed of the remains of Dad’s last years alone since Mom died. This layer was mostly things that were clearly disposable: junk mail, old birthday cards, broken sprinkler heads, grocery lists, medication fact sheets, dried up pens and paper clips and popsicle sticks, and all the other little odds and ends that accumulate from daily living. In the parts of the house that he didn’t visit much, this layer consisted of a thick coating of dust.

Below that were the remains from Mom’s last couple years of illness before her death—foot braces, medical bills, memory books from the nursing home, pill bottles, well-worn clothes with her name written on the collars in permanent ink. And below that was a poignant layer of disorganization before we recognized that Mom’s mind was deteriorating. Books on the floor next to the bookshelf. Emails printed out but not filed. Unanswered letters and half-finished projects. I find in a wastebasket a particularly painful note marking the exact edge when Mom suddenly went from her capable self to no longer being able to write an email or care for herself. The note mentions an upcoming concert, then reads: “My condition is deteriorating noticeably. Katie is coming to go to the appointment with the neurologist with me.” This is her rehearsal for one of the last emails she wrote. And this is the only piece of paper in her garbage can. Before that she emptied her can regularly; after that she never used it.


When we skim all this recent history off the top, run the vacuum, and dust everywhere, suddenly the house that I remember when Mom was around is there underneath, still intact after all these years—the same tablecloth, the same memorabilia on the mantelpiece, the same piano music and books and pictures. It is a shock to realize how much the house had changed slowly into “Dad’s house” and to find this familiar place below.

Then we dig even deeper, past the recent history into closets and drawers where we unearth each of our childhoods. First mine—as I was the last to live there—in the puzzles and projects in the dining room cupboards. A replica of a saber-toothed tiger skull that I was chipping out of plaster. Colored plastic strands for braided bracelets. A pelican half-carved out of a bar of soap. Magazine pictures pasted onto scraps of plywood. Bits of lichen and seeds and dried flowers and shells.

Then the life of my siblings appears. In the filing cabinets there are folders for each child of their artwork, grades, school pictures, hospital records for tonsillectomies, and a packet a memorabilia from each birth. There are music lessons, the Learn to Draw with John Gnagy art set that they all drew from together, electronics kits and science fair projects, a row of my sister’s tennis trophies, window sills full of my brother’s pottery from a class he took in college, a quilt that my brother and sister-in-law made that is so well-worn from years of use that Mom had given up patching it. And for all of us, skis and ice skates. Pull toys and blocks. Caroms and Monopoly and Space Shot and Pit. Giant ancient flannel sleeping bags and army surplus camping gear. And the yarn and patterns from all the sweaters and blankets and socks that Mom knitted over the years for children and grandchildren.

Below that we find their life before children. Letters and photos from graduate school. A collection of scientific papers from the lab where my mother worked while Dad was studying physics. A box of unused wedding gifts. Photos of college ski trips. Biology notes, textbooks.  Then younger still—4-H ribbons, a red metal horse, a monkey that climbed a stick when you shook it, a little Japanese box with a secret drawer, a tiny candle stub, some “Willkie for president” pins, a pair of steer horns, an old bell with a strap small enough that it must have gone on a lamb.

We dig and sort, clean and cry, share memories and frustrations, and haul box after box out of the house. The sheer volume of information is overwhelming. I feel dizzy with it all, as though I am living in a house of mirrors and I can’t find the passage out. I am not even sure who I am grieving for anymore. Who just died? Is it Dad? Mom? The house? My childhood?

But as we uncover hidden stashes, sort closets and drawers—as room after room slowly empties, I feel like the house is breathing a sigh of relief. It is coming into the present. Soon it will be a place where the current farm owners can live and work. And at the same time, my ideas about my parents are coming into the present as well. My picture of my parents as people is filling in. Now that they are gone I can see in the reflection of their belongings more of who they actually were, rather than just my ideas about them. It’s so clear in this dig through the past that they lived for forty years before I showed up, and that all of my experience with them—all those events that are so fraught with significance to me—are just one small part of who they were. And if this is true of them as people, how much more true it is of them as souls, whatever that connection is to the vast fabric of the universe.


After two whirlwind weeks, I fly back to our trailer in Arizona. Two weeks of very little sleep left me physically tired, but more than that, I felt profoundly unmotivated. A good part of my energy still seemed caught back at the farm, 1500 miles away. Though I felt a sense of freedom in the first days after Dad passed, I didn’t have any plan for moving forward. No longer do I have to wonder whether I will be needed to care for him. No longer do I have to hope he won’t break a bone or wreck the car or burn the house down. And yet all I wanted to do was curl up around my memories and hide.

It has taken me a few weeks to get my feet back under me. It’s like I have been whirled in a blender and my ideas of who I am have been tossed around and broken apart. It is not an entirely unpleasant feeling, but I am still waiting for the present to coalesce again—waiting for the new reality to feel real.


Part 1: "May we have your father's grace"

Marynard A. Cutler (1923 - 2018)

After almost 96 years of life my father passed away on December 3, nearly a month ago now. As I start to write this, I feel a wave of sadness, as I always thought of Dad when I composed a post. Though he almost never said anything to me about my writing, he was a fan, and I know he read every word. His greatest compliment was when he commented once that he didn’t know how I could put all those words together in the right order. He wondered (in his usual understated way) “If someone took all the words from one of your stories and mixed them all up in a box, could they make something like this out of them?”

On the other hand, I also worried about what he would think of what I wrote. My life is quite different from his and I have tended to keep a lot of it to myself around him. This blog pushes my comfort zone about sharing my inner world. Would he judge my choices? Would he understand what I was doing? Would he think I was nuts?

So as I write, I feel an odd combination of loss and relief. Though in a way I feel freer to speak my mind, there is a hole out there where he used to be receiving what I sent out. I had gotten used to him being there like a light in the night showing me the edge of the world I lived in. Now that little light is dark. I feel the emptiness where it once was.


There's so much in my heart since Dad's passing. My mind is a log jam of thoughts and feelings. Where to begin? I realized today that I didn’t have to fit all my thoughts in one post. That helped. And with the pressure off, it was clear that the first thing I wanted to talk about was his actual death.

Both of my parents were capable, intelligent, independent farm people. Mom, however, became incapacitated at the end of her life by small strokes and a series of falls and broken bones. She needed full-time care for her last two years of life, and spent many months in a rehab facility.

Dad never wanted to go to a nursing home or even have someone care for him in his own home. He said to me once when he was younger that he would crawl around on the floor to take care of himself before he would have some stranger come into his house to help him. And the thought of going to any kind of retirement home always made him grimace like he was in pain. Though he would gladly accept help from his children in his later years, even that was always on his own terms.

Over this past summer when I stayed with him he was clearly declining. He tired easily, was often dizzy, and would occasionally collapse without warning. Though he could still take care of all his daily chores, his world had shrunk down to the house, the iPad, and the television, with an occasional drive on the farm roads to see what my brothers and niece were working on. 

After Tom and I left in September I think he was about the same, but later that fall he started letting my brothers know that he was ready to die, and even looking into what hospice provided. Then on December 2nd my brother found that he was having some small seizure-like episodes. He had also thrown up and just wasn’t feeling well, so in the evening my brother took him to the emergency room. When he got to the hospital they found that his heart rate was very low—I believe the doctor’s comment was, “How can you be talking to me when you have a heart rate of 35!”—and that he would need a pacemaker to survive.  At first Dad was uncertain about what he wanted. What would the pacemaker do for him? Was it a good idea? His sons were uncertain how to advise him. So much seemed like it hung in the balance. What was the right decision? And who would make it and how?

Sometime in the last three years I had read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande—one doctor's exploration of how to help people do what is really important to them at the end of their lives, and his critique of how and why the medical professional sometimes fails to achieve that. It seemed like the doctor who attended to Dad on his last trip to the hospital must have read the same book, because his ability to help Dad with this decision was noteworthy. He spoke directly to Dad, not to my brothers who were in the room with him. He made sure Dad could hear and understand him. And he asked Dad very specific questions about what really mattered to him. If Dad contradicted himself he would simply point that out and continue to patiently hold space for Dad to make his own decisions.

Further tests had showed that Dad’s heart had been damaged by a heart attack. And the doctor’s careful attention to him allowed Dad to take that information in. At some point in the conversation, Dad became very clear. No pacemaker. No surgery. It was time to let nature take its course.

Dad was moved to a room where he could receive comfort care. I was able to say a few sentences to him on the phone, and when one of my brothers left for the night Dad was still arguing with him that he wanted to run the remote control himself. A couple hours later he drifted off to sleep. The next morning he gradually stopped breathing and died.

Dad wasn't someone who shunned medical care. He had a quadruple heart bypass in his 70's as well as surgery for prostate cancer. Just in the past few months he had had some cancerous skin growths removed from his face. He got angry with my brother when he recently tried to help him fill out a form specifying what kinds of medical care he would and wouldn't want in an emergency. "That's what the doctors are for!” he shot back. “They are supposed to make those decisions!"

But he knew what he wanted, and he knew when it was time. For him, life was not worth living if it meant moving out of his home or being helpless. He wanted to be able to cook his own turkey loaf in the oven and play ping pong even if he had to hold onto the table with one hand to steady himself. He took every opportunity to live a long life, to enjoy working and playing, but in the end he didn't grasp at it. He was able to open his hand and let go.

As a good friend wrote to me after Dad's death: May we have your father's Grace.