Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Death of My Father

I've been putting this off for quite some time, but I realized that doing so is making me feel worse. It's hanging over my head, an impediment to the grieving process. I need to purge. I need to do this.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the subject of death. More than a few are uncomfortable with the subject of my father, as you can see from that email I got a few weeks ago. So rest assured, I will take no offense if you choose to skip this post.

I'll be honest: it's been hard to write it. I've worked on it in pieces, over the course of nearly two months
It's a very long post, so again, I'll take no offense if you choose not to read it.

But for those of you
who wondered what happened...here we go.

First, I want to explain the family dynamics for the benefit of those who don't know me personally. My
father had been married eight times. He had four children with his first wife, my mother (she died of breast cancer in July 1998). I am the oldest. After me is my sister "Ellen." Up until Dad's death, Ellen and I had not spoken in over five years. We do not get along. After her is my sister "Leah." She and I are very close. Finally, there is my brother "Kirk." Kirk is currently incarcerated in the state of Florida. I have not spoken to him in a number of years, either. Then there was my former stepmonster, who died three years ago. My father raised her six kids as his own, including my sister Lisa, who died two weeks after Dad did. The others are all boys. I do not have relationships with any of them. I also have a number of half-siblings and other stepsiblings via the Parade of Internet Wives, none of whom I associate with for varying reasons.

My father struggled with diabetes and alcoholism. He had cirhosis of the liver, COPD and Hepatatis C.

I woke up at 5AM on March 26 to the sound of my cellphone and my sister Leah's ringtone ("Family" from Dreamgirls). She has been quite ill lately, having recently been diagnosed with Crohn's Disease. I have been very worried about her, especially as her doctors were also evaluating her for MS, thanks to me (note: her MRI and other tests came back clear, so no MS for Leah, thank God!). So although it is my custom to ignore calls that wake me up, because it was Leah I answered the phone.

My father was dead. He had been found in his bedroom, having apparently fallen out of bed. The police had been called, and were at his home.

My nine-year-old neice, "Amanda," found him. My father had been raising her for the vast majority of her life, owing to my sister Ellen's inability and/or disinterest in doing it herself. Of her three children by three different men, she is only raising her youngest. For now, anyway.

I told my sister to go to Dad's house while I contacted the police. I first called his house, hoping to speak to his lifelong best friend and roommate, "Mitchell." A strange woman answered the phone. "Who is THIS?" she demanded. "I am Rick's eldest daughter. Who the hell are you?" I hear the phone being dropped, and then Mitchell's voice. "Oh, Angel, I am so sorry. I am so sorry," he kept repeating. I could not get any information from him; he was beside himself. Frustrated, I called the police and was directed to the sargeant in charge at my father's home.

There was evidence of "quite the party" having occured the night before. Police removed four tubs of medications (some his, some questionable) from the home. I was told that as his next of kin, I needed to make some decisions, foremost of those was where to send his body when the coroner released it. I gave him the name of the funeral home in Dayton that always handles my family's arrangements.

I then spoke to the coroner, and asked him what had happened. My father's blood sugar was over 300, indicating that it had probably been closer to 700-800 at the time of his death. His blood alcohol level was four times the legal limit, and a half-empty can of beer was on his bedside table. It appears that he woke up feeling ill, and attempted to get his blood sugar monitor from his bedside table. While doing this, he fell and died. Ultimately, what killed him was a "toss-up." His heart stopped, due to either insulin shock or alcohol poisoning...quite likely a mixture of the two. He lay dead on his floor for somewhere between four to six hours before my niece discovered him. He told me that legally speaking, there was no need for an autopsy, and one would only be performed if I so requested. I did not.

I then called Leah back, to let her know what the police and coroner had said. While I was on the phone with her, Ellen arrived. Leah asked Ellen if she'd like to talk to me, and she declined. I told Leah that I had to see my doctor in order to get my pain prescriptions, but would leave for Ohio immediately following the appointment. She asked about the funeral arrangements, and I told her that my next call was to Martin's.

George Martin Funeral Home has always handled my family's funerals. George had been friendly with my late paternal grandfather. I contacted them, and told them my father had left instructions with me that he wished a simple service, and then to be cremated. He could not be cremated, or the funeral scheduled, until I arrived and signed for them. I told him when I expected to arrive, and we made an appointment.

Suddenly, I was left with nothing to do. I had done everything I could do from 2500 miles away. I sat down with my husband and wept.

By that time, my kids were waking up. I intended to take a few moments to collect myself and then sit them down and explain what had happened. My husband was already beginning to chart a route for the three-day car trip.

Then the doorbell rang. It was the police. Ellen had called them and told them to come to my home to "notify" me that my father was dead. This is how my kids found out their grandfather was dead. I have no idea why Ellen did this; she was very aware of the fact that I already knew (as illustrated above). She knows I have a special-needs child who is very sensitive. Why she did this, I will never understand.

She gave the police her cell phone number with instructions for me to contact her. I did. She did not answer the phone. After about a half hour of attempts, she changed her voice mail message: she did not want to talk to anyone. She did not want to be involved in the arrangements. She wanted to be left alone.

I was very angry with Ellen, but had bigger issues at hand. And in all honesty, making the arrangements and doing all that needed to be done would go a lot more smoothly without Ellen involved, so her self-imposed exile was a blessing in disguise. I needed to get moving, get the packing done and get on the road. But first, I had the doctor's appointment to be dealt with.

As longtime readers of this blog know well, I have three prescriptions that can't be refilled like my other medications. By law, I have to pick up the written prescriptions at my doctor's office every month, requiring me to call a week in advance to the Rx Dick. Every six months, I must have an actual face-to-face appointment with my doctor in order to get the prescriptions. Unfortunately, this month was my required appointment. I couldn't go to Ohio without my meds, couldn't get them without the written prescriptions, and couldn't get the written prescriptions without the appointment. I tried in vain to get them to give me an appointment earlier in the day (it was a 3:30 appointment) or to just give me the prescriptions, in light of the family emergency. The receptionist assured me that neither were going to happen.

Jonathan decided to use the hours we had until the appointment to take the car in and get the oil changed and so forth, in preperation for the rather grueling trip from Oregon to Ohio. I spent them arranging for the house/cat sitter and cancelling upcoming appointments, as well as finishing the packing.

Preparing five people (3 of them kids) for a long car trip and a stay of indeterminate length isn't the easiest thing to do in a short period of time while under a great deal of pressure. The phone never stopped ringing. My sister, my aunts, various other persons---it was a deluge. I begged everyone to just WAIT until I got to Ohio and we'd get everything all worked out. I had been assured by Martin's that there was nothing of an urgent matter from here on out; they could wait for me for weeks if need be. Certain members of my family had difficulty understanding this. They were driving my poor sister crazy with all the calls and messages that had to be "immediately" forwarded to me. Every little detail was debated over and commented upon, every decision questioned endlessly. Over the next few days, I longed for a tape player with the message, "I understand and I'll take care of it as soon as I get to Ohio" recorded on it that I could simply push a button and have the message relayed while I saved my breath. I understood the grief and urgency they were all feeling, but I had done all I could from 2500 miles away. I also understood that some of them would rather make the local call to Leah and then have her call me, but they couldn't seem to get it through their heads that Leah had just been diagnosed with Crohn's. The doctors had yet to get her meds just right, and she was very sick. On top of all that, she has a three-month-old nursling to care for. I was afraid they'd make her sicker with the incesstant calls and demands. Everything else could WAIT until I arrived. What was so hard to understand about that?

One of the bones of contention was the obituary. Many members of the family wanted me to simply email the info to the funeral home so the obit could go out as soon as possible. I had other ideas. I wanted the obit in the paper only a few days prior to the funeral, at most. I had good reasons for this. My father had accumulated more than his fair share of enemies, none of whom I wanted at this funeral. Everyone who really loved him, anyone who actually cared about him, already knew and would get plenty of notice as to the date of the services. I hated that I had to consider the posibility that there were people who would come to the funeral to either start trouble or prove to themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the old man was really dead. But I am a realist, and I knew that by limiting the advance notice of the proceedings, I would hopefully also limit any undesirable persons or behavior.

Finally, it was time for the doctor's appointment. I told my new doctor, Dr. Forthright (I still haven't come up with a good nickname for her yet), what had happened and that I didn't mean to be rude, but I just wanted my prescriptions and get on my way. I needed to get on the road. Every moment that separated me from Ohio was one moment too many. I had this terrible ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I needed to get the hell of out Dodge, the sooner the better.

She asked me how he died. "He drank himself to death, he died a stasistic." I told her, choking on tears. "Thirty-five is so young to have lost both parents," she replied. I just nodded, took my prescriptions and we were on our way.

We took off, all five of us crammed into our midsized car. The calls continued, unabated. I was actually relieved when we entered the Rocky Mountains and were out of cell phone range for a few hours.

Jonathan was amazing on the trip. He drove for hours and hours, fueled on bad gas station coffee and a desire to get us there on time. His zeal led to a remarkable incident in the state of Colorado.

We were driving through a small town at around 10PM when we were suddenly pulled over. The officer came over and asked for his license, registration and proof of insurance. Because we'd packed so much in the car, including the glove compartment, we couldn't immediately find the registration. When we finally located it, the officer told us we'd been driving about 8 miles over the speed limit. Jonathan explained that my father had died and we were trying to get to Ohio, and the officer cut him off. "I only partially stopped you for the speeding," he explained. "Up ahead, there has been a significant rock slide. With you folks having kids in the car and in an obvious hurry, I wanted to warn you. It's a big mess up there. You folks would be a lot better off spending the night in a hotel in town."

This was bad news for us. This particular town was home to a fancy ski resort, and it was almost spring break. The chance of finding accessible, affordable lodging seemed damn near impossible.

But the officer had an idea. He had a friend who worked the evening desk shift at a nice--and accessible--hotel. "Follow me," he said, and we all made a U-turn and went back the way we'd come. When we pulled into the hotel's parking lot, our hearts sank. This was quite a ritzy place. We had no choice, really; we were getting out of a ticket and avoiding a dangerous drive by staying here. I said a little prayer as my husband and the officer went into the lobby.

When my husband came back, he was grinning from ear to ear. The officer's friend had come through, and we got a room for $60, plus an additional $10 for a rollaway cot for my son. It was typically a $200 room! My prayer had been answered.

The room truly was gorgeous. We had a view of the mountains that was nothing short of spectacular. And after all that driving and catching catnaps at rest areas, the big soft beds were quite welcome indeed (not to mention the shower). And not only did we get the room at such an amazing price...the manager told us she would leave the jacuzzi and pool open longer (it was due to be closed in a matter of minutes) just for us if I felt the water would help my MS. I was so touched, I left them a letter letting them know just how much their kindness meant to me at a time when I surely needed it. God sends you angels sometimes, when you really need them, and He gave us two in Colorado. My unending gratitude to them.

Our final day on the road, Jonathan drove for over 19 straight hours. When we rolled into Dayton, we had an hour to spare before our appointment. And we spent that hour in a way my father would have whole-heartedly approved of: eating at Marion's Piazza. That was my father's favorite. When I was a little kid, I didn't even know there were any other pizza restaurants in Dayton! And every time we came to visit, my dad would take all of us to Marion's to celebrate. Sitting at his favorite of the local chain's eateries (the one in Northridge), I was filled with nostalgia. I could almost see him, sitting at his favorite table near the photo of Jerry Orbach on the wall, waiting for his steak sandwich with pizza sauce and banana peppers.

I met my father's sister, "Annie," at the funeral home. I had never had to make funeral arrangements before. When my mother died, my grandfather handled it. My job was simply to call her many friends and the few family members who didn't know. I now have a true appreciation for all he'd done, and I am forever grateful.

Walking into Martin's was like taking a step into the past. So many of my loved ones had funerals in this beautiful building. I thought about my paternal grandfather's funeral, about when they played taps (he was a WWII hero; served in Okinawa), my 7-month-old son saluted. I thought about my mother's funeral, the room so overflowing with mourners that it was quite literally standing room only. And I thought about the last time I was in Ohio, five years ago, attending the funeral of my uncle who had died unexpectedly. How wonderful my dad had been, during these hard times. And now I was back, and it was my father I was mourning here in this building so familar, so respected.

Almost immediately, I discovered that my mantra "WAIT until I get there" had been pretty much ignored. Leah and I were opposed to a viewing. My father wanted a very simple service, and that's it. The funeral home would have allowed the kids, grandkids and sisters to have a small private viewing prior to his body being sent to be cremated. But again, certain family members were opposed. By the time I got there, the viewing was a done deal and to my shock and dismay, it doubled the cost of the funeral.

I would have cancelled the viewing, had it not been for the fact that those certain family members had made that next to impossible. You see, when a viewing is held for a person who will be cremated and not buried, what they use is a "rental casket." A special insert is placed into the casket; these are one-time use objects, meant so that no one else's body had been in there before (something that was apparently of great importance to many families). Due to my father's unusual dimensions (he was short, very overweight and had a large upper body from years of being a stone mason), they had to special-order a casket and insert for him. Those certain family members had told them to go ahead and order it, and I'd already been charged for it. Naturally, it was non-refundable. So it made little sense to cancel the viewing.

I refused to let that bother me. After all, the family members were trying to be helpful; it took a few days for the special order to arrive and they were attempting to save me time and effort. I just wish that when I said WAIT, they would have WAITED.

If you've never handled funeral arrangements before, you're in for an eye-opener when you do. There is so much paperwork involved, so many details to attend to, all during a time when you are emotionally overwhelmed. So much to sign, so much to arrange. There was paperwork for the cremation, for the services, for the obituary.

I also had no idea how much obituaries cost. Ours listed all four kids, all ten grandkids and all six sisters. I also felt it important to mention his work (he was a construction supervisor for years, and I wanted two of his favorite Dayton landmark creations mentioned: the Dayton Daily News building and the Salvation Army Rehabilition Center). There was also mention of his service in the Army. This sounds like a lot, but the obit was actually average-sized when compared to others in the paper around the same time. Final cost? $190. And although we paid almost $200, they made several mistakes, the worst being that my father served in Vietnam. He did serve during the war, but he was stateside. We have a number of Vietnam vets in our family, and we didn't want to dishonor them.

When the obituary came out in the paper the next day, my phone nearly blew itself to the moon and back. The errors were upsetting to many family members, especially the Vietnam one. So I tried to contact the newspaper to see if it could be corrected. I was transferred at least a half-dozen times, before finally reaching a woman who was short, cross and downright rude. After berating me for several minutes (including demanding to know the name of the person who transferred me to her, and her becoming irate when I didn't have that answer), she finally told me, in a huff, that she shouldn't be talking to me at all anyway. Even though I paid for the obit, the funeral home faxed it in and therefore they were the people who put it in the order and the only ones she could talk to about any "so-called mistakes." She implied that it couldn't possibly be their SNAFU; it must be the funeral home at fault! She then hung up on me. Gee, what a lovely individual to put in charge of dealing with people in MOURNING. And although the funeral home did in fact call them per my request, no changes were ever made. I ended up addressing the problem in my eulogy.

My next big surprise is how cremation is handled. First, they had to make sure the right person was taken to the crematorium. Then they asked how many boxes we wanted the ashes in. My aunt immediately said, "Three." I was shocked, and asked who we were purposefully leaving out. "Kirk. After all he did to your daddy..." I replied that if we were going to leave Kirk out, it made no sense to include Ellen. It was now my aunt's turn to be shocked. Apparently, Dad never told anyone in the family about all the times he had to clean up Ellen's messes or how she quite blatantly either stole from him directly or used him as some sort of talking, breathing, easy-to-manipulate ATM machine. Ellen was always his clear and admitted favorite, and it was obvious that he had portrayed her to the rest of the family as someone she most definately was not. And regardless of anything Kirk or Ellen had done, my father had (and loved) four kids.

I ordered four boxes.

Having never had to make funeral arrangements before, I assumed that cremation was a quick and simple process. It isn't. First, I had to sign permission for the cremation. Then, I had to sign a paper saying that to the best of my knowledge my father had no foreign objects in his body that might explode. I told them that other than the bullets, no. I was assured the bullets and bullet fragments posed no risk. The worry was about items including batteries, such as pacemakers. I was then told that it could take up to five days or more to cremate him. First, there was a list and there were two or three people ahead of him on it. Secondly, no one can ever be sure how long a particular person's cremation will take. My father, being a bigger man, could take longer than what was average, but you never know. Each person is very individual in these matters. I was told a story about a body builder who, because of his exceptionally large muscle mass, took days and days to cremate. I was encouraged to be patient. I told my husband I had absolutely no intention of leaving Ohio without my father's ashes.

On the day of the funeral, I arrived at the funeral home first. I was the first one to get there, and the last to leave. It seemed appropriate. There were a few last-minute details to tend to (including working out a hand signal for the Elvis songs: one in the beginning, one right before the eulogy during a moment of silence and prayer). I also wanted a few moments alone with my father.

He looked so bloated, and he had bruises all over one arm (likely a result of his insulin shots). I could see no sign of the bruising to his lip the coronor had reported to me; Martin's had come through on their promise to make it disappear. Leah had bought some clothing for him: a lovely blue polo shirt and a pair of pants. I worked hard not to cry; I was officiating this funeral, and I couldn't do that well if I had a throat swollen and hoarse from crying. Ever a realist and a pragmatist, am I.

Soon, people began to arrive. Leah made a beautiful collage of photos of Dad from over the years: Dad as a young boy, Dad with me as a baby, Dad with his biker friends, Dad with my mother, Dad with my stepmother. Many, many photos. It was a big hit; many people made wonderfully positive remarks about it. I made only one contribution: a photo of my brother Kirk. That way, he was still a part of these proceedings, even though he could not physically be there.

Speaking of Kirk, the chaplain at his prison was tremendous. Kirk had been moved to the hospital ward (they were afraid he'd try to hurt himself) and the chaplain was making a point of being there for him and offered to do a prayer service. I was touched, and I am grateful for his efforts.

I was surprised to see my godmother "Nadia" and her mother "Ava" at the funeral. She had been my mother's best friend since they were in diapers. They were like sisters. I have a soft spot in my heart for Nadia. When I had called her to tell her that Dad had died, she told me she was sorry for my loss, but had no intention of attending the funeral. "You know how I felt about your dad," she told me, and I did. She had every reason not to like him. When I saw she was there, she hugged me and said, "I thought about what your mom would want me to do. She'd say, 'be there for Angel,' and so here I am." I don't think I could ever articulate how much that meant to me, and how much strength she lent me that day. Thank you, Nadia.

As the guests began to arrive, I marvelled again at how families generally only get together at weddings and funerals. I saw relatives I hadn't seen in years. Many I did not immediately recognize. I did find slight amusement in the fact that no one seemed to have a problem identifying me. Once the family punk rocker, always the family punk rocker.

Jonathan was just wonderful throughout the day. He took over a small room and brought toys, snacks and videos for the younger kids. Over and over, people praised me for his efforts. I know many of the mothers greatly appreciated it. "Yvonne," my brother's ex-girlfriend and the mother of his son, "Leo," also helped out in the "kids room." As it was the day before Easter, she also made Easter baskets for all of my dad's grandkids. I was overwhelmed by her generosity and thoughtfullness. With all the stress of the funeral, and not to mention the fact that I was staying with my Jewish in-laws, I had all but forgotten Easter. Yvonne, you have my everlasting gratitude for making sure the Easter bunny didn't forget my kids this year. You will always be family to me.

I made a point of spending some time with Leo, and he told me he felt a great sadness that he never got to know his grandmother (my mother died when Yvonne was pregnant), and he didn't get to spend as much time with his grandfather as he would have liked. I let him know that if he had any questions, or just wanted to talk, I am only a phone call away. My brother is missing out on one great kid. And the resemblance is nothing short of uncanny. When I first saw him, I felt like it was 1990, at my maternal grandmother's funeral, and the boy in front of me was my little brother.

When Ellen arrived, I attempted to tell her how the service was going to be conducted. I was doing it in a slightly unorthodox way; I was going to open the floor to anyone who wanted to speak, and then give the eulogy (it is usually done the other way around). This was my attempt to contain any damage that might occur as a result of someone speaking in a hostile or unkind way. Again, I hated this necessity, but the realist in me knew it had to be done.

Ellen didn't want to hear it. When I asked her if she wanted to speak, she said, "Of course I do!" in such a way as if to say that it should go without saying and I was an idiot for even questioning her. She was in the company of an older gentleman she introduced to me as a "friend of Dad's." The man immediately corrected her and told me he "didn't really know" my father. No one in the room knew who this guy was, and Ellen felt no need to explain. She snapped at me several times when I attempted to talk to her, and I tried to keep my cool. I did, however, snap back when she was monopolizing my father's casket and little Leo wanted to see his Papaw. To her credit, she instantly moved so Leo could have his moment to say goodbye. A number of people noted that she did not seem altogether sober. She looked tired to me, but what do I know. I had not layed eyes on her in six years.

One of the saving graces of this period of time was my dear friend Sonya. Without her, I don't think I could have made it through this ordeal. She and her boyfriend, along with one of her sons who is a friend to my son, came to the viewing and funeral and did all they could to help out. After the wake, they took my son Phoenix with them for the evening, as there was a birthday party for a teen boy in the family and they'd kindly extended an invitation. He was 16 at the time, and whatever helped him get his mind off this tragedy, even for a short time, would be good for him in my opinion. Phoenix spent a great deal of time with Sonya's family while we were in Ohio, as he is close to both of her sons. When I introduced her to my godmother Nadia, I told her, "She is my Nadia," referring to the close, sister-like friendship my mother and Nadia shared. And I meant it.

Ellen and the Old Man sat down in the seats in front of Sonya, her boyfriend, her son and my son. Ellen had never met Sonya and did not know she was my friend. Ellen then proceeded to make nasty comments and a number of jokes at my expense, mostly about my wheelchair. Many people at the viewing heard her remarks. Although it was hurtful that she was making fun of my disability during our father's funeral, the truth is she was making herself look bad, not me. In fact, her behavior throughout the funeral disabused many family members of the illusion my father had fed them concerning my sister. They were, finally, catching a glimpse of the real Ellen.

I officiated the services, and did the best I could. One of the employees at Martin's told me I'd done a better job than some of the ministers who've done it for a living for decades. It was nice of him to say.

The two Elvis songs Dad requested were played: "Amazing Grace" and "Peace In the Valley." The latter was also played at my mother's funeral, by her request. In the end, the only things my parents had in common were four kids and a love for the King.

When the flag ceremony came, it was presented to my son, my father's oldest grandchild. Ellen took off in a huff, nearly knocking my son to the ground. She later said she was "running to the bathroom, feeling sick." I do not believe her. She didn't look sick. She looked pissed.

Throughout the eulogy (which I will post here at a later date), Ellen rolled her eyes repeatedly and even looked to Leah with a "can you believe this shit, do something to stop it" look on her face. She did not take part in the processional with Leah and me.

After the eulogy, my father's sisters came up and said a few final words. Annie said, "We've always been the seven of us, now it's just six." I replied, "I'm sorry, everyone, but I have to correct my aunt. There will always be seven of you. Only now, one is looking over the others."

The funeral was over, and as the room emptied out, my sisters and I took once last moment to be with him. It was then I finally cried. I wish my brother could have been there with us. Oh, Kirk. Let this be the catalyst of change in your life. I can only hope, and pray, that it is.

When last I saw Ellen that day, it was in the hallway of the funeral home. I was given a large bag which contained the guest book, extra tracts and thank-you notes. Ellen saw this and became furious. "So what do I get? Nothing?" She then stormed off and left with the Old Man. She did not come to the wake, which was held at Annie's home. As far as I know, to this day, she has not contributed one dime towards the funeral expenses.

The aunts took the flowers from the service and went to the cemetary where many of my family members are buried, all in the same area. The flowers were placed on my mother's grave, my grandparents, my great-grandparents and my older sister, who died at birth. I took two daisies myself for my usual last-day-in-Dayton tradition: I visit my mother's grave and my friend Micah's grave on my way out of town. I laid one daisy down for each.

Towards the end of the wake, I was coronered by my father's sisters. They wanted to know about my MS. They acknowledged that this wasn't exactly the best time for the subject, but they had no idea when they'd see me next and a number of relatives were concerned. Dad refused to talk about it to them, and after seeing me visibly sick and with both a wheelchair and with a cane, they had some questions and really needed the answers.

For many years, I have been deeply hurt about how my father behaved concerning my disease. When it first happened, I asked him to tell the other members of the family so I would not have to talk about it over and over and over again (my family is very, very large). But the next time I visited Ohio, I found he had told no one. I was upset, and when I asked my father why he did not tell anyone, he just shrugged his shoulders. When my disease went progressive in 2003, his response was, "Well, you knew there was a chance this was going to happen, no use crying about it." I was shocked and wounded by his cavalier attitude. I felt he simply didn't care. When we would talk on the phone, he spent most of the time venting about his own health problems. He never asked me about mine, and if I volunteered information, he would divert the conversation back to him and his health issues. I felt frustrated, and disrespected. It angered me that he didn't seem to care. It stung that he wanted me to care about his issues, which were largely self-inflicted (had he followed his diet, taken his meds regularly, and quit drinking and smoking, most of his health problems would be under control). I had done nothing to precipitate my disease. I was bitter, and I felt unloved. I felt he considered his issues to be far more important than my own. It was a large stumbling block in our relationship.

After talking to my aunts, I realized I may have completely misunderstood him. It wasn't that he didn't care; rather, he was in complete denial. It never occured to me that this was a man who had already buried one child, and perhaps he couldn't bear the idea that his oldest surviving kid was seriously ill. Apparently, when people would ask him for details concerning my health, my father would tell them that doctors are "wrong all the time" and would not discuss it. I completely underestimated him. I thought he didn't care, when it's quite possible he cared so much he simply couldn't face it. Oh, Daddy. I am so sorry. I wish I'd known. Or at the very least, given you the benefit of the doubt.

As a result of my father's refusal to discuss the subject, many of my relatives were completely shocked to see me in the scooter at the funeral, and to see me so visibly and clearly sick. I saw the looks on many of their faces. It was also clear that the aunts had been charged with finding out the truth and dispensing that knowledge to the rest of the clan.

I was upfront with them, and answered all of their questions. As regular readers of my blog know, I am very comfortable discussing my secondary-progressive multiple sclerosis and MS-related trigeminal neuralgia. I am realistic about the odds and what may or may not happen in the future. The days when I tried to fool myself or got weepy talking about it are long in the past. So I told them the truth, and also told them that I consider myself, in many ways, to be very fortunate and blessed. I could have 20+ years left. I'll see my kids grow up, and God willing, I'll be at their weddings and hold my grandchildren. So many people out there are sick and would give anything to have 2 years, much less 20 years! I've also gotten so used to discussing MS--both in person and on the net--that it is almost a speech by now: first I talk about the different kinds of MS, then I explain my kind and what the odds are that it will go primary progressive, I explain how my siblings are at a slightly higher risk of getting it but it isn't genetic and they have little to worry about. I tell them about how there is no cure, but lots of different treatment options. I talk about the symptoms and the meds and what my day-to-day life is like. And much like a speech, when you given it as many times as I have, you've got it down flat. They seemed much more at ease after we'd talked. I wish I'd done it years ago.

I was the last person to leave the wake. My husband and I spent a great deal of time talking with Annie and her husband, Lenny. It was bittersweet.

While my father was alive, I often felt cut off from the rest of the family. Many people wanted to distance themselves from my dad, and I don't begrudge them that perogrative. I'd have done the same thing myself; did, in fact, do the same when I moved to Oregon. It was understandable, but as a child and even as an adult, it felt unfair. We were the babies that got thrown out with the bathwater.

I have been to many, many family functions, including other funerals. This one was different. For the first time, people extended to me their phone numbers. Their email addresses. A desire to stay in touch. They no longer had to fear my father. The bathwater was gone, and the baby could finally stay.

A few days later, I once again met Annie at Martin's. We filled out papers for the Army to send Dad's little gravemarker. Annie and I agreed to have it laid down next to my grandfather's Army marker, at my grandmother's feet. It seemed appropriate. I was then given two large bags with small, green boxes inside. My father's ashes.

I made arrangements to meet both my sisters at Leah's house (also giving me the opportunity to play with Leah's new baby). I chose to keep Kirk's box, in the hopes that someday he straightens his life out and asks for it. If that never happens, the box will pass on to Leo.

While at Leah's, my aunt "Helen" called and asked if we three girls would come over and help clean out Dad's house. Most of the work was already done, but there was still stuff to do. We agreed, and went to the house.

I was shocked. The house was filthy. All my life, my father was a neat freak, borderlining on OCD. He showered twice a day, and insisted the house was spotless. We weren't even allowed to open Christmas presents until the breakfast dishes were done and the kitchen and dining room were spotless. But apparently, since my stepmonster's death, my father had just given up. He didn't care anymore. The alcohol took over and he didn't have the strength or the desire to stand in its way anymore.

Since my father's death, a number of people were purpoted to be "taking care" of my dad. There was Mitchell, his best friend amd roommate. There was "Amy," the mystery woman who answered the phone so rudely the day Dad died (and who completely disappeared after his death). There was my aunt Helen, who lived across the street from my father, and finally, there was my sister Ellen. But by the looks of the house, it didn't seem that much of anyone was taking care of Dad.

I was forbidden from helping clean, so I just sat in armchair and talked to the others as they worked. Ellen cleaned out the fridge and cupboards, taking the food for herself. I did go through some of Dad's papers from his desk, a chore the other family members considered appropriate for me to do "in my condition." Amongst these papers were a number of prescriptions, written and never filled. And it was then that I'd heard about his will. I never saw this paper, but supposedly he'd left everything to Amanda, except for the sum of one dollar to be paid to each of his four kids. In the end, I didn't even get the dollar. He had nothing.

It took me a great deal of time to work up the courage to go into the bedroom where my Dad died. The room had mostly been cleared out. There was no furniture. I was prepared for that. What I wasn't prepared for was the large blood stain on the carpet. When Dad fell out of bed, he busted his nose and lip. I didn't know the blood was there. I stood staring, in shock, before fleeing the room. I'm not sure I'm better off having gone in there, or not. I'm not sure I'll ever know.

I took a few things from the house for myself and/or my kids. For my daughter, I took a pretty basket Dad kept his hair brush and comb in. For my other daugther, I took a bird house. Dad had a number of bird houses. I took the smallest one, the only one with chimes. I plan to hang it in her room. For Phoenix, I took Dad's coat. For myself, I took his big plaid jacket he always wore, a bright green 1970's-era wine goblet and a handful of photographs.

It was hard to be there, and I was glad when my friend Emma arrived to take me back to my in-laws' place and hang out a little there. My in-laws adore Emma. After the stress of the day, it was nice to unwind a bit.

The next day, we left Ohio for home. On my way out, I laid the daisies on Mom's and Micah's graves. Micah is buried in Woodland Cemetary. There has been so much contruction and new burials there since last we visited, I couldn't find his grave and had to go to the office for a map.

And then we were off. This time, we stayed at a Ramada in Denver. It was a fantastic hotel, with the best free breakfast I've ever seen. It was basically a buffet restaurant. My husband especially liked the made-to-order omelets.

I was relieved to get back to our home in Portland. Our cat, Woody, was angry with us and it took several days to placate him. I had my husband put Dad's things, including the ashes, in the hall closet. I know I need to do the thank-you notes for those who sent flowers or donated to the funeral costs, but I haven't been able to bring myself to look at any of those things yet. I need more time. When the death certificate arrived in the mail, I put it in the bag, too. I know I am going to have to face that bag eventually, but for now, it simply lies there, waiting.

I don't plan to keep Dad's ashes in the little green cardboard box forever. I will take my time, and find just the right box or urn. I will know it when I see it.

The past months have been rough. I am trying to adjust to the fact that my father, who had seemed so invinceable that I had often joked that only a silver bullet would kill him, was gone. Gone, so suddenly, with no chance to say good-bye, to say all that so desperately needed saying.

We had a rough time with one another, my father and me. At times it seemed we couldn't be more different. I didn't approve of the way he lived his life, and he didn't approve of the way I lived mine. We had arguments that would last hours, and we had heart-to-hearts that never lasted long enough. I think of all his kids, I was the one that was the hardest for him to relate to, to figure out. I was also the one who refused to let him control my life, and the one who had no hesitation about telling him when he was wrong. I was my own woman, and although this vexed him quite clearly, I also think it caused him to respect me, albeit grudgingly. In some ways, we were very much alike, despite all those differences that so impacted our ability to connect. In the last few years, we came to realize that we didn't like to fight with each other, that we didn't want to be at odds, and the only way to make that happen was a sad one. We got along better when we didn't speak to each other all that often.

When he and my stepmonster reconciled, I didn't speak to him for several months, even after her death (although I did send him a sympathy card). But in the months leading up to his death, we had begun to change that, speaking on the phone once or twice a month. He told me he had a box of photos and things to send to me, but I never got it (I am now told Helen has it, and I am hoping I can get her to ship it to me...if it still or ever existed at all). He was planning to come visit me in the fall, and just weeks before his death had told Mitchell to cancel all this travel plans, as he wasn't feeling well and was unsure he could make it.

That last big fight we had, I will never forget. I was angry at him for drinking so much. I had heard rumors he was participating in "pharming parties," which are parties where people swap prescription medicines. Exasperated, I snapped, "Do you want that little girl [my niece] to find you dead someday?"

And that's exactly what happened.

I miss him. We spent so much of our lives in contention with one another. And there is no denying that he made my childhood a living hell. But I still miss him.

No matter what else, he was my father. I loved him, and I'll never let my kids forget him.

Rest in peace, Daddy.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Happy Birthday, Phoenix!

Today is my son Phoenix's 17th birthday.

Happy birthday, kid. I love you.