Friday, May 29, 2015

Memories of my Dad in the Midst of Losing my Mom

This is part three of a blog series for my dad's 60th birthday. (Part 1 here and part 2 here.)  I am hoping to chronicle 60 memories by the end of the week. Today's installment is not fun and lighthearted like the first two; in this post, I will share memories of how my relationship with my dad grew stronger through my mom's battle with breast cancer and her death.

Over President’s Day weekend of my freshman year of college, my life changed forever when I got a call from my dad.  I was in bed with a horrible cold, and I remember that I was lying there surrounded by used tissues when my Dad’s number came up on the caller ID.  I answered it cheerfully and asked when he was doing, “Oh your mom, Laura, and I are just driving to Utah to see you,” he said.  There had been no plan for them to visit that weekend, so I sat up in bed, confused.  “Now??” I asked. “Yes,” he continued. “We need to talk as a family.”  The moment that those words left his mouth, my heart seized inside of my chest.  I knew at that instant that I was going to lose my mom.  There was no other reason that they would be driving all that way to Utah just to talk to us.  Her cancer must be back, and if it was back, it was deadly.

I don’t remember the details of that weekend; I don’t remember the conversation where they broke the news.  I do remember that about a month later, my mom and Dad again drove to Utah, this time to support me as I ran my first half marathon.  My mom had had a laser operation on a tumor in her brain just a few days before, so she had little scars near her hairline, but she was there nonetheless.  Both of my parents were so proud of me.  I was new to running, but my dad had been a recreational runner for years, and he was excited for me to get home for the summer so we could jog together.

We ran together a lot that summer.  I think it was an outlet for both of us as we watched my mom deteriorate—a way to run off the grief we were feeling, an escape into nature, a time to talk and think.  On the weekends, we would wake up early and run four or five miles on the beautiful canal trail by our home.  Sometimes we would talk about my mom’s illness; sometimes we would just run.  I remember getting home from our jogs and sipping cups of Gatorade with ice on the backporch while my dad read the newspaper.  The routine was comforting during a summer that was anything but.

We did have some fun as a family during that difficult summer, and my dad's signature sense of humor shone through on occasion.  We would often laugh about the hilarious things Mom would say when her morphine kicked in (she once told us that John Elway was on his way to visit her).  One evening, I waxed my mom's upper lip and chin because the medications that she was taking caused facial hair growth.  My dad came into the room and teased, "You were starting to have a better five-o'clock-shadow than me!" and my mom swatted him good-naturedly.  Even in the midst of so much sadness, there was laughter.

My mom passed away on July 14, 2003.  I was my mom’s caregiver during the day that summer, and she was having a really difficult morning so she asked to call my dad at work.  She had become child-like at the end of her life, and she sounded timid and a little whiny when she admitted to him that she had fallen down and wasn’t feeling very good.  He comforted her, and I remember that she called him “Bert,” a nickname that started in the beginning of their marriage but that I didn’t often hear her use.  “Oh, Bert,” she said at one point, “what are we going to do?”  My dad told her to hand the phone to me, and he asked if he should come home.  I told him that I thought she was okay, just a little sad from her fall earlier.  I don’t remember how they finished up their call—I’m sure they said their usual I-love-yous.  None of us knew that it would be the last time that they would speak in this life. 

A few hours later I called my dad sobbing uncontrollably.  My mom had lost consciousness and the paramedics were there.  He was already in his car halfway home when he got my call, and he started driving over medians and running stoplights to try to get home to us.  He pulled up to the house just as the ambulance was pulling away with me and my mom inside, and he followed us to the hospital.

My older sister was with my dad (she worked at his office that summer), and my little sister was out with friends but happened to come home just as my dad did, so we all met up at the Emergency Room and held hands around Mom's bed.  She passed away about an hour later, with her husband and daughters surrounding her.  I don’t remember many of the details other than the devastation that I felt, the total numb.  I lay on a couch in the ER waiting room, my face turned into the scratchy pillows, my eyes swollen from crying, and when I looked up, my dad was staring blankly at a clipboard as the doctor explained next steps to him.  I will always remember how he looked: defeated, devastated, drained of any joy or hope.  I had never seen my dad look that way, and I have never seen it again since.

The next night, my dad came to my room and sat on the edge of my bed as I sobbed into my pillow.  He put his hand on my back and let me pour out all of my grief and fear:  “What if we never see Mom again?” I asked him through tears. “What if everything we believe about heaven and God is a lie?”  He didn’t immediately reassure me that of course it is all true, and he didn’t censure me for having doubts either.  He merely let me cry, and when I was done, he said, thoughtfully, “Rachel, I absolutely do believe in God and life after death--I want you to know that.  But I also want you to know that of course there have been times in my life when I have had questions and doubts.  But during those times, I’ve always decided that no matter what comes after this life, this is the best way to live.” I have never forgotten that conversation or his understanding of my fears.  I have also never forgotten his assurance that having faith is the best way to live: it gives us hope and stability in an otherwise tumultuous world.

In the months after my mom’s passing, my sisters and I surprised my dad by recording a CD of us singing some of his favorite songs, to bring him comfort and to let him hear our voices after we were gone back to college.  My mom had actually planned this gift with me shortly before her passing, and it was a joy to make it happen.  We gave it to my dad on my parents’ wedding anniversary.  We arranged for our friend who plays the piano to come over and play for us while we gave Dad a private concert, and then at the end, we said, “And there’s more…” and pulled out the CD.  My dad has never loved a gift so much.  He embarrassed us by making dozens of copies and giving it to family and friends.  Seriously, I’m pretty sure the mailman must have a copy.  And my dad still listens to it on repeat in his car at times and calls me to tell me how much he loves it.

When my older sister, Sarah, and I headed back to college at the end of that summer, my dad stepped into the “Mom” role more than ever as he helped us get ready.  Hours after he got home from dropping us off in Utah, my older sister’s very serious boyfriend broke up with her (worst timing ever), and when my dad got the phone call from Sarah, he turned around and drove back to Utah to spend the weekend with her.  He had always been invested in our lives, but without our mom to rely on emotionally, he really stepped up to fill that gap.

He sent us cute care packages for holidays, something my mom had always done.  They were not elaborate: a t-shirt from Old Navy, a bag of candy, and a funny card or gag-gift from him, but they meant the world to us.  He talked to us on the phone several times a week and counseled us about our classes, our relationships, and our worries and dreams.  He sent us flowers on important days, such as my first day of student teaching.  (And in subsequent years, he always sent me flowers on my first day teaching school.)

Back at home, he developed an extremely close and special relationship with my little sister, Laura.  She was 16 and about to start her junior year of high school when my mom passed away.  The two of them had a “date night” one evening of every weekend (isn’t that the cutest?) and supported each other during those first few years of terrible grief.  When my little sister was applying to colleges, my dad was the one to help her with that involved process.  When she was rejected by Stanford, she called him at work to tell him the disappointing news.  He came home a little early and made a banner that said “Stanford Sucks!” and hung it over our garage for my sister to see when she pulled in after her dance class.  So hilarious!!!  He also had her favorite ice cream waiting for her.

Truly, the only blessing to come from my mother’s passing is how close it brought my sisters and me to our dad.  We had always been close to him, as evidenced by my childhood and teenage memories, but this extremely difficult trial brought it to an entirely new level.  

Last year, my dad gave a talk in church on Father’s Day and explained a little about the special relationships that he has been able to develop with us since my mom’s passing; he said that he wished he would’ve been as involved when she was still living.  He encouraged all of the dads in the congregation to connect with their kids emotionally and not just allow their wives to do that.

My dad has taken such good care of us in the twelve years since my mom passed away, and I hope we have taken care of him.  Our healing was his first priority, and we have all navigated our grief together.

I love him.  I don’t know what we would do without him.  He has shown us how to grieve with faith, how to reach out to others even in the midst of our own pain, and how to move forward with hope through life’s most difficult struggles.

(Part four here.)


  1. okay, i've been blog-lurking for years now, but these last posts have really been some of my favorite (and I always enjoy reading your posts!). My Dad is quite different from my husband, so as much as I love my husband, sometimes I don't always understand or appreciate the way he interacts with our kids. But reading your earlier posts really gave some sweet insight into what their relationship is and will continue to be. And this, of course, has me in a ball of tears. What tender memories and such a tribute to your father. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Oh my! What a great tribute Rachel! I have met your dad, and although my memories of him are not strong, I would have never guessed these things about him! Father of the Year for sure. No! Father of the Decade! I hope I get to meet him again in this lifetime. If not, I hope to meet him in the afterlife!

  3. well now i am just bawling my eyes out. these posts make me feel like i know your dad. what a good man.

  4. Sweetest. Incredible human being and father. Amazing tribute. xo

  5. Love you and your whole family. What a gift!


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