Thursday, August 30, 2012

Life after Death

"I don't know where to start," one small pupil assigned to my row reported, his eyes meeting mine as I stood behind him.  I cocked my head and considered him for a moment.

"Well," I finally replied, "why don't you start here?" I pointed to a spot on his dry-erase board.  "Then we'll see what happens and go from there?"


I haven't the heart to tell stories of late.  I compose posts as I move through my days - sometimes happy, often sad - but I find I'm just holding it together and fear that if I examine anything too closely, I'll see that it's ragged around the edges with cracks spreading rapidly through the interior.  And having not the strength to repair it, my hope is to ignore - inasmuch as that's possible - until I regain my balance.

"Will you hold my hand?" I asked Little One as we sat on the bleachers at the drag races and I began to cry.  She nodded worriedly, lacing her fingers through mine and leaning against my side, our sweat-slick arms sticking together as grief wafted over me like smoke from tires. 

"You dad loved everything about this," Mom had said quietly.  And because I hadn't liked much of anything about it, I didn't really remember it well.  But - sitting there in the bright sunshine and sparing breeze on that Saturday afternoon - I listened to the engines rev and roar, inhaled the fumes of burning rubber, gasoline and nitrous fuels and watched the cars speed in straight lines.  And the urge to turn to my dad and comment - to watch his rapt attention and easy grin - was so powerful that I was lost in a pain so intense that I can't find words to describe it. 

We left his ashes along the return strip.  The cars turn around at the end after racing one way and either drive or are towed back home for rest and repair and the next round.  So we walked to a spot outside the fence and in sight of the finish line and I handed out the small bags I'd filled that morning. 

Brother went first before Smallest asked for her turn.  I filled the gap between their lines of pale powder, taking deep breaths while Little One carefully placed hers, insisting that Mom take the final bag and pour it so that we formed a line there at the grass.  We stood for a moment, staring downward, before returning to the car and moving back toward my house.


 "But you love customer presentations," people have protested as I made noises about changing teams and doing something different.

"I really don't," I finally noted, tiring of my nodding in absent agreement and hoping discussions would end faster.  "I loved my job and presentations were part of that.  So I did enjoy them and I tried hard to deliver good ones.  But it's not breaking my heart to walk away."

In a funny twist though, what could be my last major presentation was done via webcast in a studio - with teleprompters and three cameras and all the lighting and sound personnel.  It was a little bizarre, but a nice distraction for that particular day.  It didn't hurt to be concerned with what camera to speak to rather than what in the world I was trying to do with my life now. 

I had discussions with the three potential bosses and picked the one that's most different.  It's still not completely clear that I'll get what I want, but Adam has pulled some strings and tried to clear the way for my escape.  But until then, I'm trying to find energy to do what I've done in my current - somewhat nebulous role. 

It's unpleasant.  But not painfully so.


Smallest One turned 5 today - an event in which I fully participated thanks to spending the week at my parents' house.  Mom and I delivered snacks to her classroom.  I wrote out rhyming clues for a treasure hunt so that she could collect presents throughout the house and yard.  We selected a Dora cake (white cake with whipped cream icing) and made dinner for Aunt, Uncle, Brother, Useless Girlfriend and the girls.  We sang and laughed and took photos.  Bought balloons and wore pointy hats and retaped the 'happy birthday' banner when it grew lopsided.

It was lovely - they're charming and beautiful and I'm so glad they're around.  And it feels like home to have a small family party - to grill and smell the lemon Ajax as we do dishes.

"The house smells wrong," Mom told me tearfully when we arrived back here last Sunday though.  Brother had moved in and had parties, made messes, ruined items that weren't his.  But we've cleaned up and taken turns lecturing and trying to offer some understanding.  And I've made it perhaps-too-clear that he is not living here or staying here or driving Dad's cars.

Admittedly though, in trying to help, I've crossed the line as well.  I wept while cleaning out one of Daddy's drawers in an attempt to put away his Army medals.  Mom frowned in disapproval.  I reorganized the linen closet after removing some of his clutter.  Mom snapped at me - just a little - when I lost her toothpaste.  So I'm leaving things alone - trying to create a stable, safe place - until she's ready for something different.


"I can't do it," Ethan said after I'd suggested he try something - anything - with his little red marker.  I made my most thoughtful face and tried fruitlessly to remember how I'd learned to write the number 2.

"Aunt Katie?" Smallest One's teacher called from her position in the front of the room.  "Put your hand over his and show him."

"Oh," I breathed, leaning down over little Ethan and curling my fingers around his smaller hand.  "Let's start here," I said softly, "and curve around and down and then come back."

He grinned up at me, ridiculously proud and I cuddled him for a second.

I sighed when we left, admiring a lunchbox with a Nickelodeon boy band on it and waving at some children and offering my hand for too-hard high fives to others.  We gathered up the birthday treat trash and made our retreat while I wished I had someone to take my hand and show me how to do this.  How to go on while making Dad's memory matter but not being incapacitated by grief.

In the absence of that, however, I'll just keep trying something and going from there.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fines (and stars)

"I don't think they fine you," I noted when I blew past another toll plaza without stopping to pay.  It was - I'll admit - rather hit and miss as to whether I'd go online and remember to pay afterward. But I did like saving time by not stopping.  And time went on while I drove home and back - all the while a certain state calculated my crimes and I ended up paying a rather hefty (in the hundreds, not thousands) amount to account for my sins.

I couldn't even get all that upset about it.  I knew the rule.  Broke it with said knowledge.  And hoped I'd somehow avoid getting caught. 

I applied a remarkably similar approach to my professional life for most of 2011.  I was frustrated.  Nothing was changing.  We were all talk and so much of that talk felt like lies that I wanted to escape.  So I did.  I "worked" from home.  I took naps.  Did the bare minimum necessary and when even that became onerous, started working on only the projects I wanted, responding to Adam's pleas and threats with stark apathy.

I remember shaking my head at those silly managers one day last summer - I was walking to my car before lunch, having worked a couple or three hours, and was heading home to work no more for the day.  And they weren't doing a single thing to stop me.

Except the annual review of 2011 performance was hardly permissive.  They had to call my year 'uneven' because even when I'm not trying, I do pretty good work.  But I was no longer the passionately dedicated Katie I once was.  And I'd become so annoyed and superior that I wanted them to notice.  And though I'd begged them to notice in so many ways, I was horrified when it became official.  Ashamed and miserable and so very hurt. 

Which is - of course - wildly irrational but pretty predictable if you know me well at all.

So I walked into the reorganization at a distinct disadvantage.  Though I've successfully completed my probationary punishment with flying colors (my parents being unwell and having a clearly-defined goal really helped my focus), I should have realized that my chances at promotion were low.

Brother threatened to beat up the man who rejected me.  And I thanked him and cried while he got increasingly angry, Dad in the process of dying beside us.  That will likely go down as the worst few hours in my life.  And though the job stuff was miniscule in comparison and I was the one who called and insisted on the news, I am angry. 

Not livid.  Just a cold, stern anger.  As I can't find any of the emotion for Dad for leaving me or God for taking him, Mom for needing me and Brother for doing the best he could, I find I'm focusing that rage in the professional context. 

Mom and I came home yesterday and I went to work this afternoon.  I was embraced and soothed and patted comfortingly.  Then I went to take a meeting about what I should do next.

"What do you want to do?" my new pseudo-manager asked (I'm in a sort of limbo right now as my former job no longer exists and I didn't get the new job).  And I opened my mouth, closed it again and stared into space while I considered it.

"I feel devalued," I wanted to say.  "I recognize why you might have chosen who you did - and he's fantastic - but I'm still insulted and unsettled by it for various reasons.  So I want to walk away - to force the realization that I was valuable to this team and you miss what I brought to Industry."

Since I didn't say any of that, he finally mentioned a couple of jobs that he thought might fit.  I nodded and said I'd consider it.  Then he mentioned another job, but said he didn't think I'd like it.  That he didn't want me to take it anyway as he'd rather I stay on his team.  But that manager had said he'd take me in a second if I became available.

So - obviously - that's what I want.  To leave my current team and learn something new.  Change buildings on campus.  Meet new people.  Grow in another direction.  Take advantage of some perks and embrace the disadvantages as completely worthwhile in context.

Plus - perhaps most importantly - there's enough of Daddy in me to want to say 'fuck it' and move on.  Not very far and not moving backward, but making it clear that they have displeased the Katie (and her family).  The thought makes me feel peaceful.  So I'll take a couple days to think and then see what magic I can work.

The last time I felt this peaceful?  Last night - just before dawn when I woke myself coughing.  There was the brightest of stars shining in the window at the head of my bed.  I paused while adjusting my pillows and stared at it, smiling when I recalled Mom asking Dad if he was picking out a star from which to watch over us. 

She came in at that moment, crawling in the other side of the bed with Chienne close behind her. 

"Look, Mom," I said and lifted my hand to point.  "I think I see Daddy's star."  And we smiled at it for a moment before going to sleep. 

So we're going to be fine.  I'm pretty confident. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dad's Eulogy

I have a PhD.  Dad would have wanted you to know that if you didn’t already.  Then he would have taken his wallet out to show you pictures of me and my dog.  Brother and his girls, Little and Smallest One.  He probably didn’t disclose that I struggled a little at the end of my studies and finished my doctorate four months later than I’d planned.  That he and Mom came to bring me presents and buy me dinner for my originally scheduled defense date in July.  That he drove me to Madison and back over Thanksgiving break so I didn’t have to turn in my thesis alone.  Then – after he stood beside me to pay my final fees and hand in hundreds of printed pages – we stopped for a cheeseburger on the drive home.  He said he wanted to go somewhere nicer, but I thought it was perfect – sitting across from my dad – who was so proud of me and loved me so much -  in a booth at a Culver’s on the back roads.    

He drove that trip – as he did most times when he was with me.  I wasn’t great at following all Dad’s driving rules.  Like not driving in the left lane unless you were passing.  Not jerking the wheel when the road curves.  I should follow gravel trucks at a safe distance so as not to risk cracking the windshield.  Not sit so close to the steering wheel in case the airbag went off.  Don’t park too close to the entrance because people can be idiots and open their doors right into the side of your car. 

Despite calling people idiots, Dad had a gentle soul – was protective and kind and funny and smart.  But he’d also shoot at squirrels out back.  Served in Vietnam.  Guarded Mom against any of the people she thought might get her.  He was a car guy and liked doing car stuff that I never really embraced or understood.  I remember being so bored – in garages or at cruise ins or taking a ride just to look around.  Walking through lots at car dealers.  Going to car museums.  And the races – so many races.  I’d look at my mom and think – my goodness, she must love him a lot.  In all honesty, she loved him more than I can begin to understand – and Dad would tell you that I’m pretty smart.  They’ve been married 43 years and she was as devoted to that man – and he to her – as it was possible to be.  They made a home together – at old address here in the Heights then at current address, where Brother and I grew up.

Whenever we’d lose something in that house, we’d go get Dad.  He had this deliberate nature that kept him searching – for my keys, Smallest’s iPod, Brother’s hat.  Little and Smallest both went through a Webkinz phase – those little stuffed animals that linked to an online cartoon version for which you could buy online toys and furniture.  Mom and I started dutifully playing Webkinz games to earn KinzCash for these online animals and when we didn’t earn enough, Dad would go in and play Eager Beaver Adventure Park.  You were supposed to make words from these stacks of letters – a little like Scrabble – but you could only use adjacent letters.  Mom and I could only find words that were too short and the little cartoon beavers would get so mad.  I’d rarely last more than one level.  But Dad would sit and click and think, reporting his earnings and number of letters in his longest word when he’d return from the office.  He was always good at thinking and planning and thinking some more.  And he would have moved Heaven and Earth for his granddaughters – one letter at a time.

Daddy loved Brother and I know they were closer than we were.  Dad worked from home while Brother was small – pouring cereal while we sat at the counter, waving from the front door as we walked to school, working in the garage, running errands.  He and Mom coached sports and beamed with pride at graduation ceremonies and sat in the front pew for Brother’s wedding.  They did projects – Dad and Brother – and my goodness does he love that kid.  When it came time to go for chemotherapy every week, he asked that Brother take him.  I think Daddy drew strength from their bond and defended his youngest child when Mom and I were mean to him.  We'll try to be nicer - we love you lots.

Thanks for coming.  For loving us and loving my dad.  When hospice came last Thursday, Dad sat in his chair and when the pastor asked what she should pray for, Dad said ‘comfort.’  We miss him tremendously right now so I’d ask that you pray we find comfort in knowing how much he loves us.  That he was the most supreme comfort while dwelling with the Lord.  

And clean your cars when you go home tonight – Dad would have liked that. 

Monday, August 13, 2012


Yesterday was remarkably peaceful.  I could feel the prayers - love and support and comfort - whisper around me, like fingers against my forehead or arms around my shoulders. 

So I rested.  We gave Dad morphine in the morning after a restless night and we all - Mom, Brother, me, Dad - lapsed into this gentle sleep. 

"Mom's worried that he hasn't moved since we gave him the medicine," Brother said when I awakened this morning.  I nodded and paused to brush my teeth, then moving to the living room to have Mom express her concern directly to me. 

"They'll bring the hospital bed today," I said, settling next to her on the couch in front of the window.  "We'll move him then." 

I joined a teleconference, hopeful that my efforts would assist in landing me the job I covet.  The bed was delivered while I was talking and I finished up my portion and came back inside to look at the adjustable contraption. 

I rested on it when Mom asked if it was comfortable, squirming a bit and pronouncing it fine. 

"Should we give morphine?" I asked before the transport team arrived to help move him.  But we debated, deciding he was so peaceful and the last dose seemed to last for so long, and decided to wait. 

Dad groaned in pain when Mom moved his leg.  He'd let it dangle to the floor from the couch and the adjustment hurt.  But it was nothing compared to the coming onslaught.  Five or six people arrived to help move him onto a 'transport sheet' which would then be used to shift him from couch to bed. 

And my kind, gentle father - rendered even more so by his current condition - called out in misery.  'Ow ow ow,' and 'you're hurting me' and I tried to speak soothingly until I broke down in the face of such suffering. 

"I'm so sorry, Daddy," I sobbed.  "They're almost done - it's almost over."  But I lied - over and over in that 3 minutes - as they continued to roll and nudge and arrange his diseased body.  "Oh, God, help us," I begged and sagged when they finally finished, shivering with reaction and weeping at the side of the bed, holding to the siderails and begging forgiveness from my dad. 

I let them hurt him. 

This man who always protected me - who drove me to turn in my thesis after my committee delayed my defense.  Who drove 6 hours to deliver a snowblower when I called - exasperated - and said I could not clear my sidewalks.  Who held me when I was scolded at my first retail job for sitting down instead of straightening.  Who cheered me on and beamed with pride and loved me too much to leave me in the nursery when I was born.  And ever since. 

Aunt and Cousin came afterward - I had Mom call as I was falling to pieces and had nothing left to comfort her after the trauma of our afternoon.  They came and prayed and cleaned and hugged and patted.  Brother came back from work.  And we all gathered around this bed in the center of the living room and took turns talking softly and crying hard.  Because the end seems to be coming more quickly now.

The evening has turned to shit - literally.  Changing pads and hurting him more as we roll and clean him.  Brother says 'I love you' before we begin each time and it makes me physically ill.  This is not the love you speak of, is it?  The kind that is elemental and disgusting and viciously loyal? 

Trembling once again, I went to the front porch to sit on the steps, Blackberry in hand.  I scrolled through new emails and called the head interviewer when I saw a request for us to speak tomorrow.  He returned my call and I asked him to just tell me the results - 3 good candidates but only 1 job. 

And he didn't pick me.

So I took a breath and gathered my bruised pride and broken heart and returned to the house, the sounds of Dad's restless mumbling emerging from open windows.  I told Mom and Brother and saw Dad frown as he listened.  Then we had to change the linens once more.

I sat to write this post, tapping lightly on the keyboard as I sat in Dad's chair above the head of his deathbed.  I was nearly finished - having finished the first sentence of that last paragraph - when Mom said my name and that Dad was going.

"No," I replied, in my typical state of denial.  "He's just resting."  Still, I rose and sat by his head and prayed yet again.  I've done little but pray and cry today, honestly.

"I think he's gone," Brother whispered after we said Amen.  But I thought I heard him breathing - shallow but peaceful.  But then I couldn't find a pulse.  And even after turning off the waterfall noise we had in the background, I couldn't hear him breathe.

"Is he gone, Katie?" Mom asked, covering him with another prayer shawl.

And I nodded and bent my head to grieve. 

"I'm fine," I said, gulping back tears.  "I prayed about it and it's really OK.  I understand. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Levels of Difficulty

"This will," Friend told me, "be the easiest and hardest thing you've ever done."  And - as she is so much of the time - she's right. 

The love flows - clean and smooth and constant - and there's this acknowledgement of the goodness in the world.  When I link my fingers - stubby fingers on wide palms - with Dad's and note the similarities.  Mom and Brian have more elegant appendages - longer fingers and less pudgy palms - but mine are like Dad's.  And - unlike my younger brother and mother, I don't hurt him when I lift or nudge.  And though I'd always wished for prettier hands, I'm somehow proud of these that I have now - so like my dad's.

"You know that phone commercial?" I asked Dad's sister when she came to see him yesterday.  "It gets terrible signal but is a dog whistle and tells you if your family members are birds?  I get miserable call quality on my phone so Dad's started asking me if he's a bird when I can hear him again."  And a ghost of a smile touched Dad's lips though his eyes remained closed while he sat next to my aunt. 

The girls came yesterday, talking to Brother and his ex-wife on the back porch before moving into the living room on small, quiet feet.  The photos I'd ordered of them with a horse they'd visited on their last trip to me (a post I drafted but didn't publish) had arrived so they each took their envelope and flipped through images. 

Brother had coaxed Dad awake before they entered but he'd fallen asleep again so Mom approached, rubbing arms bruised from his recent hospital stay and asking if the girls could give hugs.  Little One went first, bending at the waist and resting her head on Dad's chest while he wrapped one arm around her.  "I love you," she said when her mother prompted it and Dad immediately murmured he loved her too. 

Smallest One paused in her examination of the new items in the room to scamper over and embrace her grandpa.  Strands of her blonde hair touched his chin as she cuddled for a moment, happy little voice reminding him she loved him as he returned the sentiment.  I watched alone, Brother needing to walk outside and Mom down the hall to gather their composure. 

"Grandma's crying," Smallest told me when I scooped her up and gulped back my own grief. 

"That's OK," I replied.  "She's a little sad right now."  She nodded and considered it for a moment before smiling and lifting her hand from my shoulder to point at the oxygen in the corner and inquiring over its purpose.

"That's in case Grandpa has trouble breathing," I explained and glanced around at the wheelchair and commode, walker and bags of supplies for wounds and the spots on his leg that have opened to leak fluid and wipes and blankets and pillows and cushions. 

I walked in my parents' bedroom - the one I used while growing up - and thought it smelled like death.  But the weather cooled and we opened the windows, blessedly fresh air and sounds of birds and bugs and life streaming inside. 

We sleep and cry and laugh and struggle.  And there are moments where it's almost impossible - clinging to Brother and saying that I absolutely cannot do this after we've taken Dad to the bathroom and he was too weak to stand, sagging in my arms and resting his head on my shoulder. 

But then there's peace - sitting next to him as he perched on the side of the bed, lifting his head to speak to someone and reaching my hand to him, palm cupped to take whatever imaginary items he's offering me.  I brought my hand to my chest afterward, feeling the echo of his fingertips brushing my palm and fought to release him - to allow him to move on from the discomfort and sadness that's here.

But then we giggle - awaken in the morning and gather in the living room - the four of us - and tease Brother about his inability to kill the fly we'd assigned him. 

"I'm like a ninja - lying in wait," he reports then I scoff when the fly lands on his chest and taunts him.  He did eventually get it, not long after I told my mother than Obama is not the anti-Christ.  Dad opened his eyes to frown at Brother and me for not being impressed with Romney and his new VP partner. 

"I won't vote," Brother assured him and he closed his eyes again. 

Thank you for the prayers - in whatever form they take - or thoughts if prayers aren't possible.  This is both startlingly easy and impossibly hard for me and I do deeply appreciate your responses to what I'd written here. 

Friday, August 10, 2012


There's nothing more they can do for my dad. 

That's what I said when people asked - as I either wept when embraced by colleagues or trembled as I composed an email before leaving for home.  It turns out that my job was eliminated in a reorganization.  So I was interviewing last week, which was either a good distraction or a gross misprioritization as I stayed to talk about myself rather than rushing home to the hospital when Dad was admitted on Monday. 

I instead returned on Wednesday - the planned trip south being replaced with a more urgent one.  My bag containing a black dress and shoes that I certainly hadn't been planning to bring.  I've stuffed them in a drawer in the wardrobe that stands in the corner of the back bedroom.  But the time when we can pretend this situation is better than it is - remain in blissful denial and daily distractions - has passed.

We brought him home yesterday, all of us relieved that he insisted on leaving the hospital.  It would have been very un-Daddy-like to stay. 

Hospice came yesterday and I scrawled my signature under his on the consent and no-CPR forms.  Brother was closer - steadying the clipboard and pointing to the appropriate line for our father, but he handed the forms to me instead of signing them.  So I did, our brown eyes meeting in the saddest of gazes while Dad sat in his chair and Mom took a much-needed nap down the hall.

Dad's eyes are blue - a pretty, pale shade.  He's not in pain - we keep asking and medicating - but he murmurs and reaches while he rests.  Sometimes his eyes are open and glazed.  Others they are wide and sharp - with some mixture of fear or demand or inquiry. 

The first night - Wednesday - I told him that I was scared.  He replied that everyone is.

This morning I prayed, kneeling on the floor beside his swollen legs and curling my fingers around his pinkie and ring finger of his bruised and battered hand.  I reached for Mom and she stretched over him as they sat together on the couch with its extra cushions to provide height and softness.  And we asked for comfort and peace and readiness.

"What am I praying for?" the pastoral care lady asked and I started to cry, clinging to Brother's hand, and we turned to look at Dad.

"Comfort," he said, eyes barely open as he sat unsteadily in the recliner.  And I nodded, apologizing for my lack of composure as I waved my hands and tried desperately to explain that I didn't want him to be afraid or in pain.  I wanted God's will to be done in terms of timing, but for Him to prepare my daddy for the next part of his journey.

It's such a strange process - the mixture of profound emotional matters with figuring out how to go to the bathroom and why he's cramping (beyond the liver/kidney failure that's taking him from us). 

I therefore have moments of peace and clarity and those where I can't catch my breath beyond the sobbing.  Sympathy makes me cry more but I'd ask that you pray if you do such things.  I'd also ask that you do something kind today - buy someone coffee, adopt a puppy (and name him Jim), give extra to charity, call a member of your family.  Just something to make the world a little bit better for Dad's last days in it.