I don’t really know how to begin this. And I don’t know if this will help people, I don’t know if it will help me. But I am not a good speaker. I was never, actually, a good speaker. I get stage fright and sometimes my voice cracks. My body shakes, my hands sweat, and I make jokes to get around the awkward nature of public speaking. And so I found that when my dad passed away this past Christmas Eve, I could not physically bring myself to speak for him, to speak about him, at his service. And it broke my heart. But I couldn’t even sing the hymns, I felt completely inept by grief. The little abilities I have to execute any kind of presentation were at that point completely crippled.
But I can write. And my dad used to read my blog as much as anyone. He enjoyed it very much. So I’d like to take this piece and explain to you what I could not explain to really anyone, and to some degree haven’t fully taken in myself. Why my heart is so weighted and I wake up every morning and have to remember that my dad died. And sometimes I forget and almost call home to find him. And why it’s so brutally heartbreaking.
My dad was beautiful.
In the not quite 28 years I was able to spend with my dad, I cannot tell you one time that I ever heard him talk down to someone or talk badly about someone’s character. He just didn’t do that. And he spoke to every person as if they were not only exactly the same, but his friend. Everyone was “friends” with my dad. When his service was held, I hadn’t realized that the church was full until we were on our way out of the building. There were friends he’d known since kindergarten as well as people he had met in the past year. He spoke to the Mailman the same way he’d speak to the Mayor, and so we did, too.
My dad was a champion for my well-being. He went to as many of my sports games as he could and coached my softball team for years. He would stand outside with me until I could field everything he threw or batted until the sun went down. Day after day. He didn’t mind if lacrosse balls dented the cars (to a degree), and drove me to tournaments on his days off.
We would have secret adventures while my mom went on business trips and come home with hideous recliners and pierced ears. None of which, of course, went unnoticed. He let me eat dessert when I wasn’t supposed to have anymore cake, and taught me long division when I had no idea what the hell we were doing in math class. And he did this for all of his kids in whatever areas they needed help, whatever areas they needed assurance, or quite simply his time.
My dad’s taste in music, even if I were being objective, I’d still call impeccable. When I was 6 years old I knew most Elvis songs verbatim. Springsteen was and remains a musical hero, whose songs are the closest to feeling my dad since his passing. Dad would sit with my friends and I when they came over to watch movies until he decided what we were watching was awful (and it was) and would go read the newspaper. Mom used to find him late at night sitting asleep in his favorite chair with The Godfather playing. He was the King of “Bad Dad Jokes” and absolutely loved telling you the same story you’d heard 20 times. But you loved how happy it made him so eventually you learned to treat it as brand new. It was an art.
My dad let me transfer schools so I wouldn’t have to stay in the hellish environment mine had become. It saved my life. I wonder if he knew. I wonder if he knew every time he saved some part of my being. I hope he did. I hope he does. I was never the loudest child by any stretch in our family, and my dad was always the one that said “Ingrid’s speaking”. He always heard what I had to say, he always listened to what I had to say and I don’t know that there is anything greater than that for a child. For a person.
He was the only one that I somehow found hilarious when making jokes at my expense. Which happened a lot. But they were so funny, it just didn’t matter. He’d mimic my slur, my admittedly “off” speech patterns, and to this day I don’t know that anyone does it better.
I found out about his cancer on Valentine’s day of 2012, while working on my thesis project in graduate school. They caught his Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in stage four after he eventually went in for stomach pain. I remember sitting in the workspace at school and staring at the wall after hanging up the phone. I didn’t know where to go. My aunt had passed away from cancer when I was in 6th grade, but it still felt so distant. Cancer was what other people had. But he fought it and fought it, and my amazing mother was there every step of the way. She was there when he was declared cancer free, there for every relapse and there for his stem cell transplant last summer. We all thought that would buy us some time, and he had just been so brave and fought so hard to be clear for the procedure. He was so excited, I remember. He just wanted to be with his family as long as he could.
The stem cell transplant wracked his body and the recovery was slow. And so when he began to have some health issues, it was thought to be a reverberation of this or that. Until in December, his stomach issues began to return.
“Well, the good news is they don’t think it’s cancer,” my mom said over the phone. On Monday. December 15th. By Thursday, they had found it. In a place and with a severity that prevented further treatment. Four days. It just wasn’t making sense. And so when my phone rang and rang at work on the Friday before I flew home, I knew something was just wrong. And my sister cried into the phone.
My brother-in-law picked me up the next day at the airport, and drove me straight to the hospice center. He generously briefed me on the way.
My dad was dying.
I hadn’t seen my dad for a few months. I had spoken to him not that long ago on the phone, and he sounded alright. A couple voicemails had seemed tired, but I didn’t know just how much. I walked in and I could feel my knees buckle a bit. I don’t know how else to talk about this other than my heart just fell into my stomach. It’s a kind of hurt I’d never been to. You want so badly to help, and you can’t. What is before you isn’t lining up with that forever-ingrained image your child mind has of “Dad”. He could say that he loved me and squeeze my hand. And I sat there and held it, trying as hard as I could not to cry. I thought that would upset him. I could do alright until I was alone with him, and then I just cried and cried. There is no way to explain how your heart feels in that moment. The great hero of your time is lying before you, has waited for you to come home and is saying goodbye as gracefully as he can. “I know why I’m here,” he told my mom.
There were so many moments over the next few days that I don’t want to ever forget, but are already slipping away. And I know that that state is not how he would want us to remember him. My mom asked me to take a final picture of the two of them together, and she spoke to him softly. She stayed with him every night. His eyes never left her. She talked to him until 4am on Christmas Eve morning. He passed away at 5:30am. And so when my phone rang in the dark, I didn’t need to ask any questions. I let my mom speak, and she was calm. I woke my brother and we went to the hospice center. I had been there just hours before.
Eventually only my sister, myself and my mom remained to gather his things: Picture frames of the family, a small Christmas tree, some drawings from his grandchildren, and the gifts I’d gotten him for Christmas. I said goodbye, and waited for my mom in the hallway. But it is a strange, harrowing thing to leave without the person that took care of you your entire life. I ran in one last time, hugged him and just cried on his chest like I did when I was little. I told him I loved him very much. And I thanked him as best as I could speak. We took his favorite Pirates ball cap off very carefully, and it was seated upon the mantle when we got home, where it stays.
I think my dad would have really loved his service and the reception. He had so many friends there, and his favorite music was playing at his favorite restaurant. I kept thinking about how much he would have loved that party. I’m sure he did, actually. I’ve saved every voicemail I could from him that was on my phone. Sometimes I listen to them. I hope I never forget his voice. He was so wonderful. And the words fall short. One of my favorite films we would sometimes watch together was A River Runs Through It, and I can hear my favorite line just scolding me right now…
“‘You know more than that,’ my father said. ‘He was beautiful.'”