Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Grief and journeys

Dad was working as a manager of an income tax preparation office at the time of his death. Ironically, he died on tax day, April 15.

At Dad's service, some of the people most grief-stricken were the people from his tax preparation office. Just like for us, to them, his death was too sudden. They had seen him on Tuesday before he went into the hospital. They knew he wasn't feeling well and had said "goodbye" as he'd gone home sick. (Doctors speculated that the rupture might have started as a slow bleed, causing Dad back pain and nausea at first.)

On the night of Dad's death, when my sister and brother-in-law told my two nephews that their Papa had died, a long, mournful wail from my 5-year-old nephew wound its way upstairs. A short while later, he came upstairs and tackled Mom in a great hug. The two of them sat on the floor and had a good cry together.

At Dad's graveside service, we read a poem written by my other nephew, who was in third grade at the time. He'd written the poem for Dad while he was still in the hospital. It had a sincerity that touched us all.

A poem for you

I wish you were here...
to see what's held in store.
You have to behave
or you'll be sore
Your daughters are
waiting for you
And so is your wife, too
So we're a family
We can't be broke apart
If I lose you
You'll always be in my heart.

Hope you like it
Love, Chris

I've written in the past about how I'm not a big fan of public speaking, but when Dad died, I felt I needed to say something during the service, to help people understand Dad like I'd known him.

It might be the emotions of the past week, but I can honestly say that I can't think of a negative memory about my Dad at the moment.

Dad was a kind man with a gentle soul. He was an inclusive person who was genuinely interested in people and had a live and let-live attitude.

He and my Mom had a great marriage for 40 years, and the almost 36 years that I had with him aren't nearly enough. He was a great dad to Heather and me, and a great Papa to the boys. Family was important to Dad and he would travel anywhere for a family function. He'd be disappointed to not be here today.

He was also one of those rare people who got to work in a job and industry he loved. He spent almost 40 years at United Airlines -- my parents met there -- and if you could have taken away the stresses of his job, he would have stayed there forever.

As a person, he wore many special hats.

There was Dad the Chair Tester. There wasn't a rocking chair made that could withstand him. He broke unbreakable chairs and would eventually end up with a direct line to the parts department. There had to always be at least two rocking chairs in the house, because one was always broken.

There was Dr. Dad. As a kid, he was the person we went to with our cuts and scrapes and illnesses. He didn't like dealing with the normal bodily functions, but give him anything extraordinary, and he was your man.

There was Mr. Fix It Dad. When anything broke in any of our houses, he was the first person any of us thought of. Electrical, plumbing, drywall, tile, he knew it all, or was willing to help us figure it out. He was always patient, and he would always pitch in if we asked.

Finally, there was Travel Agent Dad. All of us in the family and many of his friends have used Dad's Travel Agency at some point in time. Our United Airlines benefits required us to fly standby. Our family vacations didn't have itineraries, they had Plans A, B and C. I remember flying to Australia once, and I could swear the route was something like Chicago to Des Moines to Denver to L.A. to Fiji to New Zealand to Sydney and finally to Melbourne. He loved the strategy. He would get a gleam in his eyes, practically rub his hands together in anticipation, and with a deep laugh declare that "There's more than one way to skin the kitty cat."

But it wasn't just flying. He loved all sorts of travel -- driving trips, cruises. Part of the big adventure was in the journey itself.

Well, now Dad has embarked on the biggest journey of his life. I can only hope that wherever he stops, there's a sturdy rocking chair and a V.O. Manhattan on the rocks waiting for him.

It's that theme of journeys that has brought me the most comfort during the past year. And there are two songs that reflect that theme that I've enjoyed listening to, even though sometimes they bring tears to my eyes.

The first song is the incredibly pretty Green Day track with the unfortunate title "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)":

Another turning point
A fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist
Directs you where to go
So make the best of this test
And don't ask why
It's not a question
But a lesson learned in time

It's something unpredictable
But in the end it's right
I hope you had the time of your life

So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf of
Good health and good time
Tattoos of memories
And dead skin on trial
For what it's worth
It was worth all the while

It's something unpredictable
But in the end it's right
I hope you had the time of your life

The other song is the Johnny Cash version of "We'll Meet Again":

We'll meet again,
don't know where,
don't know when,
but I know we'll meet again
some sunny day!

Keep smiling through,
just like you always do,
'till the blue skies drive
the dark clouds far away!

So, will you please say hello
to the folks that I know?
Tell them I won't be long!
They'll be happy to know
that as you saw me go,
I was singin' this song:
We'll meet again,
don't know where,
don't know when,
but I know we'll meet again
some sunny day!

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