Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On the Passing of my Father -- Part II

We held the funeral two days later. As my father wished, the service was a simple graveside ceremony. But first there was the viewing, a tradition that I have mixed feelings about. My father was all dressed up in one of his best jackets and tie, and, as usual for these viewings, he looked like he was sleeping in the casket. Mostly the people who came circulated around in the room outside the viewing room, although most came in at one time or another to see him. My mother sat outside the door most of the time, but she too came in for one last look. We all took lots of pictures of the people who came -- most of the family was there except my brother's two youngest children did not come up from California as they had school. Doug gave the family prayer there, and it was beautifully done.

We got to the cemetery a little earlier than scheduled, but because it was sort of cold for Mom to be out in the weather, we decided to go ahead about 15 minutes before the advertised starting time. The ceremony itself was quite short: Roy read a poem, Pat thanked all those who helped, and I dedicated the grave in the Mormon tradition. We were through before the advertised 1:00 pm starting time, and after the ceremony was over, many people showed up to attend the graveside service. Many friends of Mom and Dad came, some of whom I recognized -- even some who didn't recognize me. We felt sort of bad that the ceremony was already over, but there it was.

After the service the local Ward insisted on fixing a luncheon for us at the Chapel. The Bishop was also at the funeral but was careful to make us aware that he was not there in any official capacity. Since I hold the keys to do so, dedicating the grave was not an issue with him -- since he was not officiating, I was the senior Priesthood official for the funeral. The Relief Society ladies put on a very nice luncheon for us, and all the family members were there to visit together. It was very, very nice of the Ward to do that, and we all appreciated it.

Doug took Mom to and from the service, so we said goodbye at the end of the luncheon. I told Mom I would come by and see her the next day.

When I visited her the next day she was out in the "living room" of the home, sitting in her usual recliner chair. The door to Dad's room was closed. Mom said it was very strange to come by his door that morning, as she usually turns in there to be with him. Mom was in good spirits and doing well, as she had all through the funeral the day before.
Mom talked about the one thing that she always wanted but never got: for Dad to take her to the Temple to be sealed to her. Perhaps she was afraid that he didn't want to be sealed to her, or perhaps she was afraid that it wouldn't ever be done -- it wasn't clear. She started a count of the days to when she can go and have the work done for him. I told her that in God's wisdom all thing would be made right -- something that I believe with all my heart -- but she was fixated on this one thing.

I told Mom we would be leaving the next day to go home, and she was all right with that. She said again how glad she was that I was there. Later my sister wrote to tell me, "Today Sofie said something to me that was really very touching. She said that some nights she goes into Dad’s bedroom, closes the blinds and says, “Goodnight, Doc” and closes the door. She says, “It’s still Doc’s room.” (It was difficult to hear her say that and it continues to be difficult even to type it. Very sweet!) Ted still isn’t around much these days – we hardly see him. Dad’s death has been surprisingly hard on him."

We looked at the weather that night and decided to head south instead of east and take a southern route home. We left in the morning and drove south. Just south of Eugene it started to snow. The further south we went, the harder it snowed. There was enough snow -- slush, really -- on the road to obscure the lane marks, so traffic mostly stayed in the right lane. I finally decided to pick a large 18-wheel truck and just follow it. When it moved over to the left lane, so did I, and when it moved back to the right lane, I just stayed in its tracks. That worked pretty well, but at least once when we were in the left lane, trucks coming the other way threw huge waves of slush over the barrier. It hit our windshield like a ton of ice with a huge WHUMMP! Somewhat later I discovered a crack in the windshield that began at the bottom in the middle of the car, then turned and ran over to the driver's side a couple of inches from the bottom. I watched it grow a little longer each day. I'm pretty sure the wave of slush started it.

When we got to the California border the clouds disappeared and the sun came out -- just like all the advertisements! We spent the night in Redding, and in the morning it was snowing again. We didn't go far, though, before the sun came out again and stayed out all day. We stopped at a place in the Imperial Valley to buy nuts, and passed mile after mile after mile of almond orchards in all stages of growth. At Bakersfield we turned east and spent the night in Barstow.

The next morning we went to visit Calico, a partially restored mining ghost town a few miles outside of Barstow. We got there just as it opened and were informed that the shops wouldn't open for another hour. We didn't care about that -- we wanted to take pictures of the town without a lot of people in the shots. We spent about two hours happily hiking all over the town, taking digital pictures of everything that took our fancy. Digital photography is perfect for things like this because you can take almost unlimited numbers of pictures and know immediately what you got. The idea was to take pictures from which Carol can paint her watercolor pictures, and maybe I can do drawings. Whether that will actually happen has yet to be seen, but we have the pictures, anyway.

We drove to Flagstaff, AZ that evening. Flagstaff is 7,000 feet high and was covered in snow and ice, and it was snowing again when we got there. We looked in the hotel guest book to see where to go to eat, and found an intriguing advertisement for Black Bart's Steak House that promised live singing entertainment during dinner at no extra charge. We looked at each other and said, "Why not?" Black Bart's is located in the rear of a trailer park, and it is easy to miss the entrance -- which I did. The live entertainment turned out to be the waitresses and waiters, all of whom were students at Northern Arizona University. Some were better than others, but it was a lot of fun to listen to them. Steak house or not, I had a nice salad with chicken on it.

The next morning it was snowing again, but it quit as soon as we descended below about 5,000 feet. We visited three more "ghost towns" in Arizona and New Mexico, because they were located just off I-40 (also called "Historic Route 66" in many places) and easy to get to. Although they were nothing like Calico, some of them were very interesting and made fabulous pictures. Here's two taken in Foss, NM.

After getting snowed on in NM, and stopping to replace a turn signal light, we also got snowed on in Oklahoma, and Arkansas. We came across these states just behind a big winter storm that had moved north. Along the way, he heard on the radio that the other routes I had considered taking had massive snowfalls -- up to 14 inches with road closures in places on I-80 and in Reno NV, another possible route home, and the route we took the last time we went to Oregon in the middle of the winter.

Home again, we got the windshield replaced. The new one was so clear that I thought for a moment it wasn't there -- the older one was so pitted from stones, sand, rocks and cracks that it scattered a lot of light.

As is typical for me, I had put my emotions on hold while there were things to do with the funeral and while concentrating on traveling. I knew they would come sailing back one day to catch me by surprise when I least expected it. I thought because I had lived so far away from my parents and siblings for so long -- more than 45 years -- that things would go on pretty much as before. So I was a little surprised to find that they did not. In my head, where my father was there is now sort of a hole. It will fill in eventually, but it hasn't yet. When I think of him, I see him clearly as he pointed at my ring, and smiled and nodded to me -- exactly as he always did -- sharing our understanding of how I came by the ring, and what it stands for without the need for words. Then I remember how he focused completely on me and shook my hand so firmly when I bent over to say goodbye. I knew he wasn't able to speak to me, and I wondered as I left him that day if it truly was goodbye -- the last words I would ever speak to him. And, as it turned out, it was.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

On The Passing Of My Father – Part I

My sister called to tell me that my father was doing poorly. He turned 94 last November, and actually had been doing poorly for the past five years. I asked if I needed to come right away, imagining in my mind leaving the next morning. She said that I would have to decide for myself, which left me torn as to what to do. I immediately thought of driving, because I hate to fly. I have done enough flying to last me a lifetime, and if I never see the inside of another airplane it will be too soon.

But my wife wanted to come with me, and immediately assumed that we would fly. I reluctantly looked up possible flights on the Internet, only to find that not only were there not any good choices, but all the flights that I could find were apparently full to the point where we would have to sit in different parts of the airplane. This, coupled with the amount of material we would want to take with us, argued decisively for driving. But driving would take five days in the best of times, and January would not be the best of times.

We didn’t leave immediately. Instead, we packed up the car (Toyota 4-Runner 4WD) as if we were leaving, but went to the West Virginia cabin on Friday afternoon, while we waited for further word from my sister. On Monday I went to work as usual, but warned my colleagues that if I didn’t show up on Wednesday (I was taking Tuesday off) it would be because I had left for Oregon.

On Monday evening we decided we would complete all the things we had planned for Tuesday, drive to West Virginia to spend the night in the cabin, and then leave on Wednesday morning for Oregon. My sister was still telling me that I had to decide for myself when to come, but when I told her we would leave on Wednesday, she said she was so relieved.

One of the reasons to go back to the cabin was to collect my laptop to take with us. Having it along meant that we would be able to connect to the Internet each night to collect and send emails, and to check the weather along the next day’s route. I had planned several alternate routes that we could take depending on the weather.

As it turned out, we left in time to move across Kentucky, Indiana, and Missouri just ahead of a winter storm that moved in behind us. Each evening we checked in with the family on the Internet to tell them where we were and examined the probable weather for the upcoming route. I wouldn’t say I was driven, but I did have a certain anxiety to move right along, and it seemed that each day we were just marginally ahead of the bad weather.

Crossing Kansas and Colorado, it was sunny, but we were just a day behind a big storm with lots of wind. We saw five instances of tractor-double-trailer rigs that had the rear trailer blown over by the wind, causing the rigs to end up in the ditch along the road, sometimes with the cab jack-knifed as well. In Wyoming we crossed the almost 9,000-foot pass between Cheyenne and Laramie in sunshine, just ahead of a storm that dumped a lot of snow there. We crossed the 7,000-foot high Wyoming plateau under sunshine, but low temperatures and lots of wind-blown snow across the road. But because the snow was blowing, it gave us no problem, except for a few times that it blew so high that it looked more like fog.

Utah was sunny. Idaho was sunny. The Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon were terrible. It was cloudy, foggy, and snowing. This 150-mile section was the one I feared the most. All the big rigs had to put on chains, but automobiles were allowed to go without. The road was snow-packed and I was glad for the 4-WD of the Toyota. We actually had no problem here because it was cold enough that the snow was not melting, so it wasn’t particularly slippery. After we got to Pendleton, it was sunny again.

We arrived in Hillsboro Sunday early afternoon (I had scheduled arrival for Monday afternoon, so we were a day ahead because we didn’t hit any bad weather). I went to see my parents that afternoon and found my mother by my father’s bedside, where he was sleeping. He looked very, very frail. My mother hugged me and told me she was so glad that I was there.

On Monday when I went to see them, Dad was sitting up in his recliner chair, which had been moved into his bedroom. Although he was sitting up, he was drifting in and out of consciousness – sort of drowsing. Whenever my sister would talk directly at him, then he would rouse himself and look at her. But he had great difficulty speaking – it seemed like he couldn’t move his lips to make the consonants, and his lack of breath control caused him to sort of huff out each vowel sound. Pat seemed to understand him, though, having had more practice at it than I had.

I was sitting on his bed with my right hand draped over the end. I looked up to see him pointing with his left index finger (one of the ones he had cut off) at the ring I was wearing on my right hand. This ring is the one my mother gave him in 1958, and that he wore for 40 years before he gave to me on my 58th birthday, in 1998. I saw him pointing at the ring, and looked up into his face. He was looking at me and nodded. And for that moment, he was fully present and powerfully THERE. He was the father I remembered, with a little smile on his face, and intelligence in his eyes – I knew exactly what he was thinking. He was telling me as clearly as words that he and I both knew the significance of that ring, just as he explained it to me when he gave it to me.

On Tuesday, we all went to visit them because it was Mom and Dad’s 70th Wedding Anniversary. We took them an ice cream cake to share with all the people there at the home. Again Dad was sitting up in his chair. Because it is more tiring for him to sit in his chair, we were surprised to find him there again on Tuesday. We thought he would be in bed instead. He looked much the same as the day before, dozing and drifting, and from time to time responding to direct questions. As we left, I reached for his hand and said, “I want to say goodbye”. Suddenly he turned and looked me right in the eye, and again, suddenly he was fully present. He looked at me and nodded, and gripped my hand in a very firm handshake.

The next day we had agreed that Pat and Roy would go in the morning to see them, and Carol and I would go in the afternoon. Carol and I were going to the store when my cell phone rang and Pat told me that I had better come now. We were halfway to their home already, so it didn’t take us long to get there. My father was breathing like he had run a long way and was trying to catch his breath again – very labored. I ached to see him like this. For three days I had had a very strong feeling that I should put my hands on his head and give him a Priesthood blessing, and now I asked my mother if she thought that would be all right. She said, “Oh, yes! I would like you to”. I put my hands on his head and released him from the cares of this world. I told him that he should not be concerned about my mother – that we would take care of her. And, I told him to go in peace. About 40 minutes later I heard a sharp change in his breathing. Whereas it had been rather loud, it became almost silent. I looked up from where I was sitting and watched him take one, two, three breaths and then stop. I looked at my watch and saw 40 seconds go by. Then he took another breath and stopped. I counted 30 seconds. Then he took a shallow breath and breathed it all the way out and stopped for good.

My mother dropped her head on her lap and cried bitterly. I have never seen her cry so before. When she could pause, I asked her if she wanted a blessing. “Oh, yes.” I blessed her that at a time of the Lord’s choosing – not now, but at a later time – she would understand why these events happened the way they did, and see the rightness of them. I told her not to be concerned – the Lord held all things in His hand, and all would be made right in the end.

Finally my mother looked up and me and said she wanted to go to her own room. She looked at my father’s body and said, “This is not him.”