The Beautiful, Awful, Wondrous Walk. A Journey In Eight Parts

This is a series of entries written in the wake of my Father’s death on January 28th, 2009.


January 31st, 2009

Bobby typist. 1950s

It is done.
Dad left our world on January 28th at 11.45 pm. I will not go into the details of decline and death as those moments are both private and sacred. I will say, however, that the last two and a half years have been long, beautiful and grueling; filled with some of the happiest moments of my life, as well as some of the most painful.

This journey we take at the end of our lives is unlike anything I have seen before and I am humbled and privileged to have been part of that process with my Father. My Mother died suddenly in 2005, far from me, and that grief was almost unbearable. Now, I have seen the other side and the last two weeks, since Dad entered home hospice on January 13th, have been profoundly altering for me.

My meanderings are probably a little out of sync and my timeline a little skewed – there is no time at the moment; just moments of breath, of knowing, of loving, of falling, of tears and of laughter. Time is measured in feeling and emotion because the tick of the clock is too much of this world to be of any good at all.

I’d noticed during this period the presence of so many people who have slipped into the past, all of them gathering at our house; My mother, my Grandmother, my husband’s Mother, our cats…and others who we did not recognize. That was the first step and it truly felt as if they were there to help us through a passage that would be extraordinarily difficult.

At my Father’s house they were gathering as well. My Father spent most of the last two weeks of his life in and out of consciousness – more awake than asleep at first, but then spending longer and longer periods in his dreamworld, preparing for his journey; the one we couldn’t take with him.

While he could still talk – he was asking for my Mother. My husband and I were sitting with him and he asked both of us about her and asked for her. They had an acrimonious (in my Mother’s eyes) divorce in the mid-1990s and now we were wondering if she would come for him. There were others already in the room, but she was decidedly absent. We gave each other the look, saying “what if she doesn’t come? He’s waiting for her.” A few days later, as he continued to slip further away, we walked into his bedroom to sit with him a while and my husband looked over at me and said – “she’s here. She’s in the corner. She just said, ‘it’s ok Bobby.’” (her pet name for him when they were young) That was a relief! But it was a bittersweet moment for me because I couldn’t feel her. She doesn’t come to me often – more to my spouse, so it wasn’t really a surprise, but still I mourned for not being able to feel her with us.

She was there. Everyone was. My Dad and Stepmom’s house was humming, warm, bathed with love and longing for reunion. Every time we stepped across the threshold there was more energy, more light, more love. We could hear whispers in the corners; feel the anticipation of what was to come, rising both from the deep grief of us all, the living; but also from the deep love of those who no longer call this tangible world their own. That was comfort.

And, because of my beliefs, my convictions and my will (which I wanted  desperately to ignore so I could just be Daddy’s little girl and nothing else) I had the blessing of being able to feel what was going on from a perspective few experience. Being open to all that was around me was simply breathtaking. To feel the energy shift as the boundary between between our world and the next became thinner and finally dissipated left me awestruck. It’s different to when we feel the shift at other times of the year. Here, we were in moments so raw and powerful that the rhythms of all worlds were swirling, and we  were given the honor of that experience; those rare moments when everything is sacred, when we are so small in the enormity of the Divine, when we are truly held.


Fastest draw in all of Minnesota. circa 1930s

February 2nd, 2009

Dad was continuing to decline. We had thought he’d hospice for longer than he did – which is a gift with hindsight. After the first week, though, it was apparent he was slipping quickly. He’d not really been coherent and his ability to speak was rapidly succumbing. That was tough.

This part of the journey involves a close friend of mine we’ll call Reiki Girl – or RG for short. There was an evening when Dad really shifted from one stage to another, and it was terrifying. You could wake him from his dreamtime and he would open his eyes with recognition and perhaps speak, but would then slip back. He had been fairly agitated throughout the day and in the early evening I asked my Stepmom if she would like me to have RG come to work on him. She agreed and I set about scheduling it for the following morning as I didn’t want to take RG from her family and plans. I phoned her from Dad’s house at 7:30 pm and she was at the door by 8pm.

RG has a spirit like few I have ever met. The atmosphere in the house that evening had shifted, more from us than from anything else, really. It was darker, more oppressive than normal. We were all upset, tense and now keenly aware that the end was drawing near (oh- how the body plays tricks. It would be nearly another week, in fact). I didn’t hesitate to have RG come over. I trust her implicitly. She is a powerful healer and has been working with energy for nearly twenty years and has been a Reiki practitioner for fifteen of them. I knew that if she sensed anything that wasn’t right with her being there, or if Dad didn’t accept the Reiki, she would stop immediately. I also know that she is more than capable of keeping herself a step back from what she is feeling. With Dad so close to death, I didn’t want to put anyone in the position of tapping into that and having a frightening or disconcerting experience.

Her energy suffused the house the moment she entered. RG is pure light, pure love. I had been having a difficult time keeping myself balanced that day – felt like I, too, was somehow slipping. One hug from RG and I had my energy back – my balance checked, and my senses cleared. She and I went back to the bedroom. She had met Dad before on several occasions, so was as comfortable as one can be in the situation.

We hadn’t yet had the full coterie of folks, but there were still many in the room, waiting, watching. A good friend (living and breathing!) of Dad’s was there – the only other in the room besides RG & I. This remarkable man sat and played guitar for Dad just about every night in the two weeks before he died. He remained now while RG worked her magic.

We woke Dad up to let him know RG was there and that she was going to give him a “massage.” He nodded understanding and slipped down. I kept one hand on Dad’s head while she began to work. She didn’t touch him, as she usually does, but kept her hands just several inches above his body and began to shift energy to calm him. She could feel all those gathered, saying “this room is full of love, and so many are here for him.”

After several minutes I opened my eyes and looked at her and she had tears streaming down her face – which isn’t like RG at all while she’s working. My first thought was “shit, this can’t be good.” She looked at me and said, “no, no, it’s ok – these are tears of joy. I have seen where he’s going and it is incredible. I can feel nothing but pure ecstasy. It’s on a level unlike anything I have ever felt or seen before.”

She continued to work over Dad. Not pulling anything from him, but just clearing channels and moving energy around and within him. About halfway through, my Dad opened his eyes and said coherently and with quite a bit of vigor – well above the whispers he had been capable of – “oh MAN, that feels good!”, and then slipped back under. RG & I looked at each other and just laughed. It was the clearest speech he’d had in quite some time and apparently he was enjoying the massage! She finished working with him and we stepped out of the room, leaving Dad to dream, to listen to the guitar; at peace.

Back out in the house, the energy had shifted – had lightened – and I know it was down to RG. We gave her a big glass of wine and many hugs and she had a little cry – a blessing of tears, she said, for tapping into that unknowable bliss we only ever have the merest taste of. Although the message and sight was for her alone, seeing the look of rapture in her eyes, feeling the energy pulsing off her in waves of joy was my gift that night. The comfort of knowing, really knowing what’s there. It’s easy to say “yes, yes, it makes sense to me and this is what I believe happens, and this is what I think is out there.” But no matter how strong your convictions, or faith, or path, there can’t help but be the smallest seed of doubt.

RG took that doubt away.


Soldier boy

February 3rd, 2009

Each day that dawned and Dad was still with us, deeper in his dreams, was more difficult than the last. It was a blessing beyond blessings that he was able to live out his days at home, with those he loved; but for us, watching that process was awful. He was so tiny in the hospital bed, not at all my Dad, but an impostor – a ghostly imprint of who he was in the prime of his life.

It was, I think, the Friday before he died. My Stepmom had called us to the house. His breathing had changed. He was no longer aware, would just open his eyes for a few seconds but not really see.

My husband and I went to sit with him. We were alone with him. I was on one side of the bed, holding his hand – so small now, so fragile; my husband was on the other side, sitting on a couch brought in so visitors could be comfortable. I had my eyes shut, was crying, grieving. I looked across the bed at my partner and he was crying, too. Now, this man does not cry often. His eyes may mist over a little, but to see the tears was a surprise. I asked him if he was ok and this is what he said.

“Your Mom is here. I can see her; she’s standing in between you and Dad and she’s young. She’s got one hand on your back and one hand on Dad’s forehead. Every time his breathing slows she leans into him, and then leans back when he’s at ease. If you weren’t crying and Dad wasn’t dying it would be such a beautiful family portrait.”

It was a shock for him, as he only knew my Mom after the divorce, when she didn’t have anything particularly positive to say about Dad – why, exactly, we never knew. Mom had some pretty heady mental health problems and that, truthfully, probably contributed to their divorce.

This was the first time my husband had seen all three of us together as a family -although at that moment what a family picture we must have made! What mattered was that Mom was there, she was with Dad and with me and I could feel her hand on my back. Past hurts were null and void, we were three again. I had felt for years that our family was fractured beyond repair – since long before their divorce. The peace it brought me to know that love endures; beyond anger, beyond frustration and instability, beyond death, was paramount.

I think that these moments have been hardest for my husband. What many feel or suspect, he sees – with clarity and dimension. We are visited regularly by those no longer with us, as I have mentioned before, but it’s a softer presence; a glimmer in the corners, a conversation in dreams. Now, with such raw emotion and blurred worlds so present in our lives, my poor spouse has crystal clear vision without filters; one of the reasons, I suspect, he generally keeps himself a more than a few steps away from situations like this. I can’t imagine the jolts he must have had over the last month. I love him beyond my wildest dreams, but I love him even more right now for these moments, for helping me find and feel and see – for being a conduit, for just being there.

It’s exciting, to be sure, and if we weren’t so connected to every person in this drama, all these things would be collected into “hurrah – look what happened” moments. They still are, but have been tempered with the intimacy of knowing so well the spirit forms in front of us and the deep hurt of having to let go.

We remained in that tableaux – the four of us – for a half hour or so. When my Stepmom came back into the room, Mom stepped back to the wall. Dave and I got up, kissed Dad, and left.


February 15th, 2009

The Archer

It was Thursday January 22nd.

I checked in with my Stepmother in the morning. Dad had been awake – not completely coherent – but awake during the night. Physically and emotionally he was extremely agitated, angry. The doctor upped his dose of Atavan. This is a common occurrence when the time of death is drawing near. Whether it’s the brain simply losing control of its neurological synapses, or the person themselves grasping at the last vestiges of living I do not know.

But Dad was angry. He came out of his dreams enough to demand a physical therapist to give him exercises to get stronger, and a hospital table for his bed so he could put his food on it and be able to eat easily. Never mind that he hadn’t had any food since the 14th of January or that he’d not been able move since then either. In his mind, he needed what he had been promised. Arrangements were made for both – to put him at ease . The other fixation he had on this day, was getting over to the portable commode – that last bastion of human function that he’d been performing for the better part of 76 years!

Because he was so agitated and angry, I made the decision not to go over to the house that day. I didn’t want to see my Dad in that state and I was absolutely exhausted.

My Stepmom called us in the late afternoon and said that Dad had asked for us, so off we went.

My husband and I went into the bedroom to spend some time with him. Dad was still agitated, and oddly, was able to “talk” with us a little, but really he was barely articulate and it took so much effort for him to get words out and for us to decipher what he was trying to say. Funnily enough, the only clear word he was able to say was “fuck.” He thought it was morning and asked us what we were going to do for the day. So we recounted what we had done, putting it all in the future tense.

He then demanded the newspaper. I sent my husband to get it, and asked Dad if he wanted us to read him some of the front page stories. He shook his head, “no.” We were desperate – trying to figure out what he wanted, knowing that his mind was still working, although he no longer had the ability to articulate his thoughts and desires.

He became agitated. Trying to vocalize…something. Finally, he looked at my husband and said quite clearly “I want you the Hell out of here.” That was a shock, to say the very least.  My husband got up and as he was leaving the room, Dad looked at me and said “And you can get out, too.”

We left and sent my Stepmom and a family friend (who had been there all day every day to help and support) into Dad.

We went out onto the porch – stunned, devastated.

Our friend came to us a few moments later and told us that Dad didn’t want us to leave for any reason other than that he wanted to get over to the commode to do his business and told my Stepmom that he didn’t want us to see that.

We felt much better, and actually had a bit of a chuckle. No wonder he wanted the morning paper!

We went back in and sat with him a little while longer. I held his hand and watched him dream.

Those were the last words Dad ever spoke to us. He slipped into a coma that night.


February 15th, 2009

Dad getting a pull from his father

The Leaving

Our time with Dad was coming to a close…and it was such a strange feeling. Overwhelming, painful and very, very real. The finality was setting in…striking deep and more often, the gut-punch of knowing that it would soon be over and so very desperately wanting time to wheel back months…days…years; but also hoping beyond hope that Dad would just go, and we could all be released from this surreal tableaux that felt more suited to a soap opera than our own lives.

On Sunday, January 25th, my husband and I felt an odd niggling that today would be “the day.” The hospice doctor and nurse had said that they felt Dad’s death would come over the weekend, based on his physical condition; but for us, it cut much deeper than that.

I was cold that day, not cold because it’s winter and you’re supposed to be cold…but cold like I was losing a part of myself; empty and gutted with a hole where my heart should have been. It was the night of the dark moon.

I went up to bed early, to relax and to rest up for the phone call that I was sure would be coming sometime over the night. I was 3/4 of the way though the second Harry Potter film when the phone rang at 10pm. It was my Stepmom. It was time…the deathwatch had commenced.

We arrived at the house and the moment my husband and I crossed the threshold we could sense that something was different, the moments of waiting in timeless space had passed and we were now completely in another world. Everyone gone had gathered long before, but whereas they had been kicking around Dad’s bedroom, now they were all through the house; in every room, in every corner, moving through us in ways I’d never felt.

Everyone, at one time or another, has a glimpse into a place that is called beyond the veil even if they are not aware. When we entered the house that night, there was no barrier at all between this world and the next. None. The veil had dropped, disappeared and with every step we took, we were in both worlds at once. That feeling was so profoundly moving and I don’t really have the words to describe how it felt. We could feel everyone around us, sense the energy shifting and swirling. It was noisy in the house, the hum of conversation too low to understand, the shift in energy rising from those who had come to be with Dad at the end. There was a buzz, a sense of expectancy….an agitation of molecules all around us.

My husband and I kept looking at each other – sending each other our thoughts as they could not be spoken aloud in the presence of those in the house – the living friends and family who gathered and moved silently through the rooms, each doing their own thing; togetherness spent in isolation.

It was a long night and we camped out in the living room with the dog and the fireplace… husband in “his” chair with his laptop and me lying on the couch, trying to still myself to balance. I dozed a little, felt things drawing closer, as energy pulsed here and there. Once, when I opened my eyes I saw my grandfather (my Dad’s father) walk by me – just legs in dark trousers and a little bit of white shirt above the belt. It made me smile, as he died when I was just three or four and those legs and shirt were all I knew of him from my world so close to the ground.

The hours crept by, slowly…oddly. It was probably about 1:30am or so when my husband and I started up from our respective nests in the living room, as the hair raised on my neck and on his, too. There was a massive change in energy, a shift that should have been audible and visible, but wasn’t. And just like that, worlds without barrier had shifted and returned to their normal state – a rush of air and everyone was gone. The doorway had shut and suddenly, the house was just a house and we were no longer iin the in between.

All our lost loved ones were gone – puffed out in an instant. Dad was gone, too. His energy, his spirit, his soul had departed, jostling out the door on the way to some fabulous party with those he was to be with now. We were not for him any longer. But it was ok.

It was about that time that his breathing became more regular and my Stepmom said that tonight was probably a false alarm and that it was ok to go home if we felt like we wanted to. Indeed, Dad’s body – that shell he no longer needed – wouldn’t die until Wednesday. His heart was still beating, his lungs pushing oxygen…but it wasn’t him any longer, his essence was gone – that spark that made Dad “Dad” was probably drinking the biggest fucking martini he could get his hands on!

We drove home, in the dark and in the cold and waited.


February 23rd, 2009

With Pip, in Groton

I would imagine that the events to follow the great leave-taking would seem a dénouement and in many ways, perhaps, they are. However, with everything that my husband and I had experienced prior to that Sunday and with all the emotional grief that we were in the midst of, knowing that things would shortly be much more painful than they had been; what followed was most likely all we could handle.

I woke up Monday morning, knowing that Dad – his essence – was gone from our physical world and there was a thud in my chest where he ought to have been, but wasn’t. The folks from the Hospice were surprised that he had made it through the weekend – and I wasn’t going to disavow them of that fact! We entered a strange time of “any moment now,” and as each moment passed, the waiting became excruciating.

We have weathered a season here with bitter cold, but with very little precipitation, and it was inevitable that we’d have some kind of storm when we least needed to have it and sure enough, the ice and snow storm came in on Tuesday January 27th. Buggers. It wasn’t a lot, but the roads were tricky enough to navigate and our development isn’t ever plowed or sanded, so we bunkered in and stayed in touch with my Stepmom via telephone. She was under instruction to call us when the time was near so we could be there when the moment finally came.

By Wednesday evening, it was pretty clear that Dad was nearly gone. But we’d been having day after day after day of that slipping so it was quite hard to gauge the reality of the situation. The roads were terrible, his house was quiet – just my Stepmom and her friend, out from Chicago to be with her – even the night nurse was unable to make it to their house, although we didn’t know that until morning.

We talked to her early in the evening and left her with the usual instruction – “call us. We will be there.”

I went up to bed early that night – to rest. I was exhausted and wrung out. I was lying in bed, with headphones on, listening to music and my hsuband was upstairs, too, in the other room reading. At about 11:45 I heard someone walking downstairs in the kitchen – the footsteps were slow and heavy and I sat bolt upright in bed, removing the headphones to figure out what was going on. I knew my husband hadn’t moved. I listened…no more footsteps….no need to get the baseball bat…I can hear pages being turned in the other room…. so back on with the headphones. Just a very little while later, someone sat on my bed, rested and remained there for as long as it took me to sit upright again and turn on the light. Of course, there was no-one there.

I knew. I knew it was over, but felt nothing – no sorrow, no peace, no emotion. I rolled over and went straight to a dreamless, sound sleep. The next morning – a beautiful winter’s day – brought the news. Daddy had died the night before. I’ll let you guess the time.  And it made sense to me. The house had been so full with friends, nurses and doctors that how on earth could anyone expect to have enough peace and quiet to die? He waited until the house was nearly empty – my Stepmother was outside with the dog and just barely made it back inside in time. For Dad, it was three simple breaths, and then no more.

Even if we had wanted to be there, we couldn’t have arrived in time, and my Stepmother knew I’d be stubborn enough to jump in the car and hare over there in ice and snow which would have been stupidly dangerous. It was as it needed to be.

And after the phone call, before I woke my husband and we got ready to go over to the house – a different house now – I went out onto the deck, in the sun and in the cold and took a breath – the first breath of the first day of a whole new life.



In the garden

This is the end….for the moment.

Our lives have changed irrevocably in the last two months and we are in the long, long process of putting things back into linear time, even as time itself often stubbornly refuses to move minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.  The world didn’t stop when Dad died, even though it felt like it did to us; now we have thrown ourselves back into the world of the living, leaving behind the odd no-man’s land of death for the daily ins and outs we cast off for nearly two months.  It has been difficult, this re-introduction, where the mundane is so very real, more so as the essence of my Father begins to fade, leaving empty space where there was substance.  The gate to the otherworld is firmly closed for the time being and, for the moment, we are cut off and shut out– rightly reminded now of who we are and where we are; firmly and properly placed in the land of the living.

But…. Just a few small things left over from January.

Dad was very happily Catholic – not by birth but by marriage and he took much joy in his faith.  The funeral for my Father was a movement in three parts:  The casual memorial, reception and all night vigil on Sunday February 1st; The funeral mass on Monday February 2nd; the burial following the mass.

On Sunday night we arrived at the church for the memorial service.  We were sitting to one side of Dad’s casket, facing rows of empty chairs that were directly opposite.   The service itself was quite beautiful – by far better than the formal mass the next day – and we were listening to people talk about Dad and listening to music played by members of the congregation and trying to get through this most surreal of times. My husband was smirking and I looked at him – wondering if it was just his usual “I’m in a church” grimace or if there was something more happening.

He leaned to my ear and said “He’s here.  He’s sitting in a chair across from us, wearing a tux, holding a martini and directing the musicians with his free hand.  He is having the time of his life.”  I couldn’t see him but Dad remained until the memorial was over.  What made this so funny, poignant and real is that this image fits Dad’s personality to a T!  What my hsuband could see, I had no trouble imagining at all and it made me laugh.

The next day just sucked – simple as that – as we went through these motions that mean nothing to us, and I tried to remain hinged throughout.   After the mass the pallbearers brought the casket to the hearse so we could proceed to the graveyard.  We were standing out front, waiting to get into the cars for the procession.   The funeral directors – three of them – were standing by the doors to the church, having a conversation.  I paid no attention to this – but my hsuband did and told me in the car that he was surprised that one of the directors looked very much like Dad.  I passed it off and we continued on.

It was only a little later, when talking about this to one of our friends, that we discovered there were only two funeral directors at the church…standing by the door…having a conversation.  That experience was for him alone.

My last moment with Dad during this time happened the night of the funeral and burial.  I was gutted, exhausted, an emotional wasteland and I went up to bed early just so I could close my eyes and please, please, please sleep early and end the day.  I was lying in bed in the dark, bereft and empty, alone and sad beyond sad.  My hand was over the covers lying on the quilt.  As I lay there wishing for sleep, I felt my Dad pick up my hand and hold it – as he had so many times; his big hand over my small one , and me knowing that touch as well as I know myself.  He stayed there – giving me comfort as I finally, thankfully, fell into deep slumber.  It was his goodbye, his last act, his swan-song.  I love him for it because his final gift allowed me, in that moment, to be five years old again; to be his little girl and for him to be my Daddy.


February, 20th, 2009

Bobby and his grandfather

It’s funny how we receive what we need when we need it. Tonight, after a day spent running around, battling a sinus infection and taking care of some of Dad’s estate business, I was sitting on the couch and talking to my husband about how keenly I feel the absence of my Dad. Those moments come all swings and roundabouts these days; one minute I’ll be fine and the next feel the hole in my heart.

Tonight has been one of those nights. I was really missing Dad, so my husband and I were speculating about what’s he’s been up to and how he’s doing. There have been so many times in recent weeks when I have been between the worlds and most of the time my convictions and beliefs hold true. Tonight, though, I had a wavering moment of doubt….wondering that if you miss someone so much you create what you need to fill the void.

So as I was sitting on the couch, puzzling out these feelings and crocheting a scarf, my husband was scampering around the house looking for pictures to post on Facebook of a friend of his from long ago and far away. He has a spiffy collection of snaps that date from when he was 18-ish to about 23 and he bounded upstairs to the back of his closet on the highest shelf to grab this particular album, to find the photo he wanted to upload.

He found the one he wanted but stopped first in my office where I had decamped and handed me a photo of my Dad and my great Grandfather. It would have been taken in a photo booth in the early 1940s, probably at a county fair in Minnesota. I looked at him and asked where he’d gotten that. That little tiny picture was in my hsuband’s old photo album, face down against the page. Now, I’ve never seen this photo before in my life, and there is absolutely no way on earth that it could have been where it was. Zero.

So, then, there it was. An answer to a question asked; a comfort received from someone I am missing so very, very much. Tonight has been a reminder that mystery is always around us, and that what you really need will always be given to you. These are the pure, profound moments in our lives and I share this one with you.

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