Holding On and Letting Go

On Sunday, as Steve and I often do, we wrote on a writing prompt for ten minutes. The prompt was “Days Gone By.” With thoughts of my father still wrapped around my mind, here’s what I wrote:

Tomorrow will be one week since my father died. My father died. The words still feel like a hammer to me, an unreal, cold, hard hammer.

Days gone by. One might think I’d write about the last few days, the days since his death, but they are a blur, an ongoing feeling that a part of me missing, like my breath has been sucked into a place of never and forever.

The bigger, more meaningful days gone by are of my father’s final days, as he left us in increments, hour-by-hour. We prayed he’d let go to end his suffering, yet wanted him to cling to life, knowing that once he crossed over, he’d be gone from our lives forever, leaving the very gaping hole I’ve felt over the last week.

I remember saying to my siblings early on in the week, “He’s already gone.” We were no longer seeing definite signs of response, of his knowledge that we were there with him. Perhaps he squeezed our hand, or raised an eyebrow when a familiar song played, or we said something that might stimulate his thoughts—“Dad, Chuck is here now,” or “Andi is on the phone,” or “Aunt Carol wants to talk to you,” or “We love you very much, Dad.”

But was it just a coincidence that his eyebrow raised? An involuntary twitch that made him squeeze our hands? We clung to hope that he knew, but we simply don’t know.

I chose to believe that as his soul began to depart in his last few days, it hovered over all of us, even as it lingered inside his pain-filled body, as unsure it wanted to depart as we were of our preparedness to let him go, and he saw our tears and felt our love mixed with pain, and he knew.

The Day After My Father Died

For the last few days, I’ve continued to think about the dichotomy of holding on and letting go, and it brought to mind what 20/20 hindsight has taught me about parenthood:

The hardest part is finding the line between holding on and letting go.

In my father’s final days, we all experienced this tug-of-war, even my father.

On Monday morning, after giving my father his pain medication, my brother, sister and father’s wife, stepped out of his bedroom to have a quick breakfast in the dining room, only 20 feet away.

After my brother said a beautiful prayer before eating, my dad’s wife went back to check on him.

In those few short minutes, my father had passed away quietly.

I hadn’t yet made it to his house that morning, so when my brother called to tell me, I was heartbroken and filled with guilt that I hadn’t been there. When I learned the details of the morning, that my father had passed alone, I suddenly realized that was exactly how he wanted it.

We loved my father and didn’t want to let go. Most of all, we feared seeing him struggle at the end.

After months of fighting every minute to hold on to a life he loved, on the morning of February 1, 2021, in his few minutes of solitude, he crossed the line between holding on and letting go.

I believe it was his final act of love.

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Out With the Old!

Who knew last New Year’s Eve–as we celebrated the start of a new decade and all the hope and promise it offered–that we were headed for what might very well be the worst year of our lives?

This New Year’s Eve, we’ll be sheltered-in-place and alone, but together. So, last night on our evening walk, Steve and I talked about ideas of how to celebrate the end of this miserable year as we hope for the new year. Our conversation went something like this:

Steve: We should order a nice dinner to be delivered.

Jan: That would be nice. (Visions of a glitter ball hanging in the middle of the living room begin to materialize in her head.) I also thought it would be fun for each of us to pick a song or two that we can share a dance to.

Steve: You mean, like I pick a song for you to dance to?

Jan: (Giggling) No, for US to dance to. (Laughing harder now.) Though that might be even more fun, me picking a song for you to dance to and you picking a song for me to dance to.

Steve: Yeah!

Something tells me no matter what we decide to do (or not to do!) we’ll have fun, and after a year like 2020, that’s something to be grateful for.

Perhaps this weekend I’ll summarize 2020 (if I can stomach it) and will write about my hopes and resolutions for 2021 (if I dare). For now, I’ll just say, “Good riddance, 2020!”

Bring on the New Year!

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A Simple Smile

We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.
                                                                                        ~ Mother Teresa

In the last few days, I’ve been scanning pictures of my father. I’d like to share some of them with you–a way to “show, not tell” one of the things I love most about my Dad–his smile.

There were smiles from when life was young and filled with promise.

I’ve written many times about his blue Jaguar . . .

…but even when his life changed unexpectedly–with news of my pending arrival–he smiled with resolution and hope for the future.

Wedding Day, 1957
Perhaps behind that smile, he thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
First Home!

Then, came another daughter. . .

And another, and another . . .

. . . until at last, he had a son!

A handful of “smiles.”

With five kids, you might imagine my dad didn’t ALWAYS smile. This is close to the look we got if we were in trouble. 🙂

Then, came Christiane, the woman who has been making him smile for almost 40 years now.

Our family has grown . . .

and grown . . .

and grown . . .

and continues to grow!

Even as my father battles prostate cancer, he smiles, though I know he doesn’t always feel like it. Still, his eyes continue to sparkle with a joy he takes from a life well-lived.

And, as he’s done so often in the past, he smiles as a gift to all of us–a gift I’ll always cherish.

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Golden Leaves – Part 2

In a November 13 blog post, I wrote a haiku about a tree, filled with golden leaves. It reminded me of my father:

A tree in autumn
Gold leaves sashay in the breeze
Winter harbinger

If the tree reminded me of my father, the leaves brought to mind all of the memories my family has of our time with him. For his 87th birthday in May, my siblings and I gave him a box filled with some of those memories.

Here are a few “golden leaves”–notes I wrote to my dad to add to his box:

One afternoon, when I was a young teenager, I’d just finished cleaning the kitchen. You came in, looked around and asked, “Can you tell yourself you did the best you could do?”

I, of course, knew inside that I had not done the best job I could do. Although I hardly enjoyed cleaning the kitchen, just asking myself that question made me want to do better, and I found all kinds of things I had “missed.”

When I finished the job, doing “the best I could do,” I remember feeling proud. It’s a question that has remained in my “Little Voice Library” ever since.

+ + +

Some of my happiest memories are of watching you and mom dance together. It was like a magical antidote to the turmoil that was sometimes in our lives.

I remember hoping I might dance like that with someone someday.

+ + +

I’ve always been amazed, and perhaps, a little envious, of your ability to play the piano and guitar by ear. Some of my favorite memories are of you playing at family reunions when I was a child, and, as an adult, listening to you and Christiane play. The music brings me joy, but even more, I love the pleasure I always saw in your face.

+ + +

Remember the terrible knee aches I used to get as a little girl? They hurt so badly, I used to wake up crying in the night.

You called them “growing pains,” and I remember how you’d come into my room and sit beside me. I don’t know what felt better. The warmth of your hand as you rubbed my knee, or that you cared enough to get up in the middle of the night to try to make me feel better.

Looking back, I guess you probably knew what those growing pains felt like!

+ + +

I remember when I was a little girl, we’d go to visit our uncles and aunties in Sacramento or San Francisco. At the time, it seemed like such a long way away from Fairfield, but it was only about 45 minutes.

So, on the way home at night I’d usually fall asleep. Though once we pulled into the driveway, I almost always woke, I pretended to be asleep for the pleasure of having you pick me up and carry me to my bed.

Looking back, I wonder if Cyn, Kim, Tami and Chuck were really asleep, or if they, like me, pretended to be asleep, too. No matter, you always proceeded to carry each of us to our beds.

+ + +

One of my recent and most treasured memories is of a walk you, Christiane and I took in a small village in Austria last year. You were in the beginnings of the terrible pains brought by prostate cancer, or, at least the pain you could no longer hide from us.

I could tell you no longer had the stamina that, even well into your 80s, often surpassed my own stamina, so I appreciated and no longer took for granted being able to take a walk with you.

But what I remember most about that day is this. As you and Christiane walked in front of me, often hand-in-hand, every once in a while, you turned and checked to see that I hadn’t fallen too far behind. Sometimes, you waited to let me pass, I suppose in case I started to feel left out.

Once again, I became your little girl, even as I’m in my 60s. It was a poignant moment for me—the feeling of being taken care of, even as an adult, as a mom with grown children, as a grandma. Now that Mom is gone, you are the only one in the world who can make me feel that kind of love and care.

I’ll always treasure and remember that feeling.

+ + +

Thank you, Dad, for being the best father I could have asked for. You taught me goodness, by example. Most of all, you taught me the difference between goodness and perfection.

I love you.

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Golden Leaves

Yesterday, I wrote a haiku with my father in mind.

A tree in autumn
Gold leaves sashay in the breeze
Winter harbinger

I pass this majestic tree every day as I walk in a park near my home, and through each season, especially in this year of pandemic, something about it has brought me peace.

When its leaves turned to gold this fall, I decided it reminds me of my father, who, at the age of 87 is in his own autumn season, fighting for his life against prostate cancer.

The tree leans, its roots exposed, fighting to keep its grip on the earth that sustains it. Yet, laden with golden leaves, the old tree shows there’s still plenty of life and spirit within in its branches.

I’ve attempted to write my thoughts about my father many times in recent months, but haven’t been able to finish anything. We’ve all been trying to keep our thoughts positive, and my intent in writing anything about my father has been to express my gratitude to him for my life–for choosing me over his blue Jaguar. I want to thank him for raising me to be who I am, and for being everything a father should be. But, writing about those things feels more like goodbye than gratitude. And so, I haven’t finished anything, because I don’t want any hint of saying “goodbye.”

But somehow, seeing this tree as a metaphor for my father makes it easier for me to write about what I’ve been grateful for.

When my paternal grandmother was alive, I used to say she was the “goodest” woman I knew. Yes, I know goodest isn’t a word, and although “most good” might have been more “proper,” something was lost in that properiety. So, I chose goodest as the better word to describe her.

Although it’s possible that grandmothers only show their best sides to their grandchildren, I never saw a bad or mean bone in her body. She was decent, caring, loving and hard-working.

Today, I think of my dad as the “goodest” man I know. He loved me and my four siblings the best way he could, though I know in recent years, he’s wishe he’d been around more during our childhood. But, as an Air Force pilot, he was often gone for months at a time.

No, that doesn’t mean I think he’s perfect, but listening to him express what he knows of his own imperfections and mistakes in life has also made me realize one can be both good and flawed, and in realizing his imperfection, he’s helped me to accept my own.

My father is a quiet man, but friendly to everyone. He’s got a gentle (sometimes wry) smile that often makes me wonder what he’s thinking. People who know me may think of me as quiet, or at least, not very talkative. I get this from my dad.

Today, he’s fighting prostate cancer with everything he has. He’s currently going through his second round of chemotherapy, only a week after finishing radiation treatments. I know he’s in pain, and he’s weak with barely enough appetite to sustain him. But he forces himself to eat and get up and move though it would be easy for him to just give in. This, perhaps more than anything, is proof of the life he’s led, that he is doing everything he can to continue to be near those he loves and who love him.

The following words are from one of my favorite songs by The Lettermen. Amazingly, this morning, it played on Spotify as I walked by the tree. My eyes burned with tears as I thought of my father, the tree, and golden leaves.

Quiet thoughts come floating down and settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet
I touch them and they burst apart with sweet memories

In my next blog post, I’ll share sweet memories of my dad.

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