Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Bittersweet fall

I love fall. I love the leaves turning and the first cool day that finds me digging sweaters out of the back of the closet. I love knowing that the holidays are nearing. But, fall has also taken on a sadness for me. My dad loved the fall, it was his favorite time of year. His birthday is November 19th and Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday. My dad died last year, July 5, 2005.

He was sick for many years with a particularly cruel form of multiple sclerosis (MS) and his health had deteriorated significantly in the last several years. He was confined to a wheelchair and my mom had to feed him, bathe him, and help him use the bathroom. A difficult, sometimes sad life, but we were a very happy family. My mom cared for him everyday, our family and friends rallied around them, and Dad was the last person on earth to ask for sympathy. In fact, when anyone asked how he was, his patented response was "Doing well!" with an accompanying grin and a twinkle in his blue eyes. Then, fate kicked us in the ass yet again and he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004.

He actually responded quite well to treatment initially. But, in the end, the cancer was too much for his weakened body and he slipped very quickly from relative good health to his final days in the hospital. Though I knew he was sick and in the hospital yet again, it was a complete shock when I received a call early in the morning from my mom saying that I needed to get home as quickly as possible. I was in San Francisco with my husband where we were planning to celebrate our 2nd anniversary and my 30th birthday. I laid in bed in cried and cried while my husband made arrangements to get us there as soon as possible.

Our family spent Dad's last days together. He had to stay in the hospital, which still breaks my heart, but he needed too much to be comfortable at home. Family and friends came from far and near to say their goodbyes and we sat together, told stories and jokes, and shared pieces of chocolate cake (his favorite) brought from the best bakeries in town. He was aware of what was happening and we all acknowledged it with him, often in silence or through a look, a hug, a kiss. Luckily, everything important had already been said, or did not need to be said at all. We were a close-knit, happy family and he was the best of us all. He slipped into unconsciousness on July 4th and died the next morning surrounded by the women who loved him - my two grandmothers, my mom and myself. We were all touching him as we watched him take his last breath.

I did pretty well through that last week in the hospital and the days subsequent to his death. My family was together and we comforted each other and made it through with a mix of tears, stoicism, wine and inappropriate humor – our specialty. MS is not a fatal disease, but because of the unusual severity of his illness, I think we had all been preparing for some time to let go of Dad earlier than we wanted to. We realized that each of us had already done much of our mourning, over the last several years, as we came to grips with his MS and its devastating impact. I shed many tears that week, but was stronger than I could have imagined. Denial is a lovely thing.

After the shock began to wear off and we transitioned back to "normal" life, I felt my shell starting to crumble. You're not supposed to lose your dad at 30 years old. Though I was never much for, "Why me?" I found myself questioning how something so shitty could happen to such a kind, gentle man. He was a child psychiatrist who served the poorest and the sickest children. He was a very quiet man and often didn't have much to say, especially once the MS started to effect his swallowing and speaking. But he could always surprise you with a witty comment or a quick joke, just when you thought he wasn't following the conversation, and he was known for his grin and his extremely firm handshake, even when he was at his sickest.

Last year, I dreaded his birthday for weeks. It was the first big milestone after his death and I no longer had my denial to protect me. I made sure I was alone that day, even sending my husband to an out-of-town wedding, over his protests. I knew it would be hard and I wanted to be with my own thoughts and feelings. The holidays were sad, but we tried to tell as many great stories of him as we could think of and spending time with our family brought a lot of joy and laughter, even if it was mixed with tears. Over the next many months, I found myself gradually able to think about him without immediately tearing up. I remembered the good things, the funny stories, his voice and his smile.

I know that my grief isn't over and done with, but I've arrived at a more comfortable place - past the denial and the numb, and past the deep and pervasive sadness. I was almost surprised this past summer to realize that, amidst the chaos of my husband's graduation and vacations with friends and family, the anniversary of his death was approaching. I monitored my emotions, almost from outside my own self, and was surprised to realize that I was not dreading the impending date as much as I had feared. We had a quiet July 4th at home - me, my husband, our dog and our new puppy. The next morning dawned with my husband wrapping his arms around me and squeezing me tightly, though we didn't speak of it. Honestly, I don't even remember what I did that day. All I know is that I thought of Dad often, smiled, spoke quietly to him, felt his love, and felt comfort.

Now, we are almost upon his birthday again. I think I will always dread these milestone dates, but this year I do not have the fear that I did last year. I still miss him, I still cry in the shower sometimes, and as we move closer to thinking about starting a family, I mourn the fact that my children will never know their grandpa, will never be on the receiving end of one of his magical smiles, never hear him read them a bedtime story, and never feel his patient hands showing them how to hold a baseball bat. But, I have pictures, and stories, and memories and they will absolutely know how special he was.

So, though November will always bring me sadness, I know he would want me to feel the joy of the changing seasons, the approaching holidays, and the chance to spend time with family. So, I do.



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