Thursday, July 30, 2009

Robbing Death of All Its Power

One week ago today, my dad passed away, due to a blood clot. The day before, I was told by my brother that my dad's prostate cancer prognosis had changed from roughly six years -- a prognosis that had, until then, remained unchanged since the diagnosis, about a year before -- to six months. Based on that news, my wife and I took that Friday off from work, so we could go visit him. About twelve hours before we were going to get in the car and drive up, my sister-in-law called and told me that he was dead.

* * * *
I broke down at the news, of course. I was sitting at my computer when I got the call, and after my wife took the phone from me, I sat there with my head in my hands, sometimes grabbing my hair in my fists. I wanted to throw things, but I didn't. Later that night, trying to find something to occupy my mind, I settled on watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I now acknowledge is a particularly odd selection, under the circumstances. However, the film is so close to perfect that it did do the job that I required of it. A day or so later, one of my brothers told me that on the night he learned of my dad's six-month prognosis, he chose to watch Ikiru. I said, "I can't decide if that's the best or worst possible choice." He said, "Worst."
* * * *
The first two nights I spent with my family, my brothers and I spent a great deal of time singing old Irish folk songs, primarily songs of Irish rebellion, because those were my dad's favorite. Growing up, we had a record, and later a tape, of the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem full of these songs, and my dad loved playing them for us. As a result, the lyrics of many of those songs have not left us. Those lyrics that did elude us were retrieved from the internet. Of my father's seven sons, two of us (not me) can genuinely sing, and each of them took a solo, one on "Boulevogue" (God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy/And open heaven to all your men) and the other on "The Parting Glass". "The Parting Glass" would later be sung by the same brother at my father's viewing.
The lot of us sang, together, "The Croppy Boy" and "Nell Flaherty's Drake" and "O Donnell Abu" and "The Foggy Dew" and "Kevin Barry" and "The Minstrel Boy". Most of us can't sing, but we sounded pretty good. At the cemetery, we had a bagpiper, and he played "The Minstrel Boy". I wasn't quite prepared for that.
* * * *
On Sunday, my wife and I, along with one of my sisters-in-law and her two kids, went to the National Zoo. My nephew really, really wanted to see beavers and otters. When I saw him that morning, as we were preparing to head to the zoo, I asked him, "What animals do you want to see today?" He said, "Beavers!" Like there was no question in the world. Had you asked my wife, she would have said "Pandas!" We did indeed see pandas and beavers and otters. It was a good day. My dad would have liked it.
* * * *
I was terrified of going to the viewing, because I hadn't seen my dad yet, and seeing him in his casket convinced me that he was, in fact, gone. It had somehow been an easy fact to navigate around in the days leading up to that night, but no longer. I brought him a pack of Vantage cigarettes, which had been his brand for many, many years, until he decided they were too expensive. When I thought my trip to Northern Virginia was going to be a visit with my dad, I had planned on bringing him several packs. My dad smoked until the end, but, though I smoke myself, it was something I never before had wanted to overtly encourage. But it was clear at that point that he'd beaten cigarettes, so I felt that he should have the brand he preferred. He never got them, but I gave them to him anyway.
* * * *
I was talking to one of my brothers about our dad, and how he raised us. Some old family friends, friends of my brothers and myself, were at the viewing, and many of them talked about how much they'd loved my old man, but were scared of him all the same. So my brother and I talked about how perfectly he walked that particular line. Based on his background, had my dad been a fictional character, he would have been the stereotypical hard-ass, who was either a cold disciplinarian, or perhaps worse. He grew up in an old Irish Catholic coal-mining community that still, to this day, seems to be physically clinging to the 1940s. He left that area and eventually became a Special Agent for the FBI. That was his job for thirty years, and he did it all over the country. He was a damn good agent (as he wouldn't hesitate to tell you, though maybe not in so many words) and a hero, and, by the way, he cut a very imposing figure. He was also the sweetest man I've ever known. My brothers and I weren't hit, by either of our parents, and they both loved to have fun with us, and joke with us. Any fear we felt was a fear of disappointing him. My mom, too. They were both such wonderful people that they set a very high standard of humanity by simply existing.
* * * *
My dad had a lot of phrases that he liked to repeat to us, for encouragement or instruction. If we came home from school crying because somebody had been mean to us, he would hold us close and say, "Never let the bastards get you down." If, for some reason, he felt the need to talk to us about fighting another kid -- which happened from time to time -- he would tell us that we should never start a fight. Ever. But if we found ourselves inextricably involved in one, he told us that we should always go for the other guy's nose, because that would end the fight right there. He also had the funny quirk of ending every phone message with "Clear", which, I'm told, is an old pre-CB radio sign-off.
But the best thing my dad ever said to me is something he said to me my whole life. He said, "I don't just love ya. I like ya, too." When I was a kid, I remember being confused by that, because wasn't "love" supposed to be a few steps up from "like"? What gives? As I got a little older, I of course realized that it's possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. As my brother rephrased it, when he and I were talking: "Even if you weren't my son, you'd still be my friend."
* * * *
The night before the funeral, I went to bed early, but I had trouble sleeping. There were a few reasons for that, but one was that a few of my brothers, my wife, one of my aunts, and two cousins were all downstairs, drinking and laughing, and, in the house where I was staying, sound carries. At the time I was annoyed with them, but I now consider it my own fault. I should have been down there with them. My occasional bouts of loner-ism don't always pay off in my favor.
Anyway, I was in bed, watching TV, flipping through the channels, and I found a show I'd never heard of before, called Movie Mob. The titular mob is a group of people from around the country who, at the behest of the show's producers, go out and see whatever big movies are opening that weekend, and then record their reviews on YouTube, or something, and send the links to the producers, who then show them to us, the viewer. The viewer, in turn, can get on-line and vote for their favorite, or least favorite, and the least popular member of the mob gets the axe, and can no longer submit his or her film reviews to the show. The films under discussion in the episode I caught were The Ugly Truth and G-Force. In the G-Force review, each member of the Movie Mob at some point offered up their imitation of a guinea pig.
"Jesus Christ," I thought. "First my dad dies, now this."
* * * *
In his homily during the church service, the priest said that funerals are important in that they're good at "robbing death of all its power." And indeed they are. They are also, of course, miserably painful, but afterwards you still feel cleansed, if I may be permitted to use that old cliche'. There were two eulogies at my dad's funeral: one from my brother, who talked about how my dad could never enjoy anything fully -- a song, a movie, anything -- unless he could share it with his family. One of my sisters-in-law relayed a bunch of stories about my dad, because, she pointed out -- as though any of us needed to be reminded of this fact -- my dad loved telling stories. The best story she told involved my dad tricking her into watching Patton.
Both eulogies were funny and sweet and sad and terribly moving. And then we brought the casket to the cemetery and left flowers on it. We cried and said goodbye.
As the song goes:
O, all the comrades e'er I had
They're sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts e'er I had
They'd wished me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be with you all
I love you, Dad.


Greg said...

I feel I shouldn't comment on this as it is so personal but as your friend I wouldn't want you to think I was ignoring it either.

Simply put, a beautiful tribute and you have my deepest sympathy.

Thomas Pluck said...

You have my deepest condolences. I lost my father 12 years ago, and it is a life-changing experience at any age. A sacrament of sorts. My father, named Danny, so of course they sang "Danny Boy" at his funeral, and there's nothing like a sad Irish song to get the tears flowing. Cherish the friendship you had with your father, for it's not always a common thing with men of that generation. May he rest in peace.

Neil Sarver said...

I agree. Very nicely said. Thank you very much for sharing.

Marilyn said...

My deepest sympathies, Bill. My dad died long ago, but reading this brought back a lot of memories of his death and his life. My cousin, in a kind of a curse about the loss of his uncles, said, "Why do the good ones go first?" Indeed.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Like Greg I don't know if I should comment on this because of how personal it is, but I too wanted send you my sympathies.

Uncle Gustav said...

My condolences.

Shawnee said...

Well said Billy.

John Self said...

Oh Bill. I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope I can be as coherent when it happens to me.

Funerals are so important in robbing death of its power. The British novelist Jim Crace brought this home to me:

"In 1979, I had buried my father, who was also an atheist, a really good old fashioned political atheist, and he had asked for an appropriate funeral for him, which was no funeral at all. No guests. No announcement. No flowers. No eulogy. No hymns, God's sake, no hymns. And no collecting of the ashes. We carried out his wishes, and it was a huge mistake.

"He was a curmudgeonly, difficult, awkward man, but he was a great man, my father. And we should have paid some attention to his greatness and ignored him. You should do what you want for yourself. But, of course, we did it wrongly. We didn't even take his ashes to his allotment garden and throw them on the soil, which would have been a sentimental thing to do, but it would have been the appropriate thing to do. Wish I had done it. Since then there hasn't been a day that's passed that I haven't regretted that."

Brian Doan said...

Bill, I'm so sorry to hear of your loss, and you have my deepest condolences.

bill r. said...

Greg - I appreciate your comment very much, though I understand why you'd hesitate. I just sort of felt the need to put this up, though I almost didn't.

Tommy - Thanks. "Danny Boy" was mentioned as a possible choice of song for one of my able-to-sing brothers, but it was decided that it was a) too hard to get through, under the circumstances (never mind actually being, apparently, technically harder to sing than you might think) and b) it was my dad's song. He used to get requests at certain gatherings to sing "Danny Boy", and should be remembered in that way.

Neil - Thanks, I appreciate you stopping by.

Marilyn - Indeed. Now, my dad was 78 years old (I'm the youngest of seven boys, remember, a cricumstance that saddles you with older parents than most of your peers), but this all happened relatively quickly -- less than a year, from his diagnosis. So it still seemed like he went too early. It will always seem like that, though, with the good ones.

Flickhead and Kevin - Thank you both for your thoughts.

Shawnee - I somehow thought that someone in the family might object to me writing this for public viewing, though I couldn't tell you why. Anyway, that's why I left out all the names, which probably made it a bit confusing for anyone who doesn't know us.

John - Thank you. And it's funny you mentioned Jim Crace (well...maybe not funny). I'm not an atheist myself, but I have read Crace on the subject of funerals, and I read his novel Being Dead, which I thought was a absolutely beautiful, and which he has said he intended to be a sort of atheistic funeral ceremony. He thought atheists were truly missing out by not having one, and he wanted to give it to them, in a manner of speaking. I think he succeeded.

Arbogast said...

It's always tough to be the eleventh bastard to come through the door in a black suit to say "Sorry for your loss... where's the bar?" But here I am. I'm not only sorry for your loss, Bill, but I want to help to help you bear it. If you're lucky enough to have one, you grow up in the shadow of your Dad and you probably do so with very complex feelings that run the gamut of emotions. And yet the thought of living a day in a world without him, without that context, seems impossible. And yet the best dads prepare you for that. They prepare you for the world without them in it. Lucky us and our broken hearts - pity the poor soul who never knew his dad or saw him off to oblivion without so much as a misty eye.

Word verification: bemazing. Your Dad sounds like he was pretty bemazing.

Stop smoking.

bill r. said...

Brian - Thank you, that means a lot.

Arbogast -

And yet the thought of living a day in a world without him, without that context, seems impossible. And yet the best dads prepare you for that. They prepare you for the world without them in it. Lucky us and our broken hearts - pity the poor soul who never knew his dad or saw him off to oblivion without so much as a misty eye...

Absolutely. One of the things that has made this easier than it might otherwise have been is that I had a very good relationship with my dad, and so I therefore don't really have any regrets. Oh, I have a few, but those are probably inflated because he's gone. My dad was a terrific guy, and a great dad, and he lived a full life. Had things been more rocky between us, I can't imagine how I'd feel right now.

And he was also ready to go. He'd said so, in so many words, even before he got sick. He'd been ready since my mom passed away three years ago. From what I heard about his final hours, he showed no fear or panic. Which is not the same as saying that he was necessarily happy about it, but he figured that if now was the time, then now was the time.

bill r. said...

Oh, also:

Stop smoking...

Can I at least finish the pack I just bought?

Marilyn said...

My dad was three months from diagnosis to death. My biggest regret for him was that he was 66 and never got a chance to retire. He deserved a few years away from the grindstone.

Michael Salewski, DVM said...

A wonderful expression of the man your father was and what he meant to those privledged enough to have known him. He was really what everyone of my generation expected in a father: a great example of what a man is, and someone to be just a little afraid of. His loss touched me deeply and I wish I could have been there to sing songs to his memory. Your family is in out thoughts.

Fox said...

I'm very, very sorry Bill. My heart and thoughts go out to you.

Ryan Kelly said...

Like Greg said, this is so personal I almost feel dirty commenting, but I want you to know that you have my condolences, and that this piece was extremely touching.

And, incidentally, you and I must have been on the same wavelength last week, because I caught that same episode of Movie MOb that you did, because I was watching The Critic, which was being shown in reruns in the time slot before (in spite of the fact that I have the DVD set of the series and have seen every episode so many times I could probably recite them from memory), and then I saw that nonsense. And then, what, those dorks make up their own rating system? I remember one of the girls reviewing The Ugly Truth gave it "one cheese stick" because "the movie is soooooooooo cheeesy".

My personal favorite rating system is one that Jay Sherman used on "The Critic". It was "diseases I'd rather have than watch this movie".

Ed Howard said...

My condolences, Bill. This was beautifully put and moving. I'm very sorry for your loss...

Patricia Perry said...

Bill - So very sorry to hear about your Dad. You have my deepest condolences.

This post is beautiful, heartfelt and a great tribute to your father.

Unknown said...

Bill, I'm so sorry to learn of your loss. Your words of remembrance speak straight to what is most important, and I'm glad you were able to share your thoughts here. Take care and all best to you and your family.

Jason Bellamy said...

Touching and heartfelt. The love and respect is unmistakable. Clearly it went both ways: you didn't just love your dad, you liked him too.

My condolences for your terrible loss.

Bob Turnbull said...

"Never let the bastards get you down."

Your Dad sounded like a helluva person. If you don't mind, I may impart some of his same words to my son.

I made the mistake of reading this beautiful piece earlier today at work. I had to go dry my eyes surreptitiously.

Thanks for sharing it Bill and I'm very sorry for your loss.

bill r. said...

If you don't mind, I may impart some of his same words to my son...

I wouldn't mind that at all. What a great thing to say. Thank you, Bob.