Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Men watching

Okay ladies, truth time: if you saw this handsome dude in the mall you'd look twice, wouldn't you?

I'm lucky. I was watching him my whole life.

This is my father, before I ever knew him. He passed away on April 27 and I haven't posted since then. Even dedicated writers experience seasons: a time to record their lives, and a time to set down their pens and immerse themselves so fully that they might live something worth writing about.

I could have written sooner of the shock when I got to the hospital and heard my mother, so small in the waiting room, say, “He didn’t make it.” I could have written of the panic urging me to connect with the only sister within striking distance—“Can you leave work? Come to the ER right now”—so she might witness with us the cooling evidence of this loss. I could have written of the way the chaplain tugged at the wedding band ensconced on my dad's hand ever since my mother placed it there sixty years ago, and the way that struggle left my dad’s fourth finger lying unnaturally straight, never to curve again alongside his others.

But these are observations, and since what I seek on this blog is perspective, I had to wait until I gained some. And this is what I keep coming back to: the differences between my first husband and my father.

I’ve written about Ron a lot on this blog, because for fifteen years I watched him as well. In choosing death, he taught me a lot about life. Because he was fourteen years older than I, one could posit that I sought in my first husband a father substitute, and one might be right [I totally wrote that sentence in my Dad’s voice]. Ron was the hugger my father wasn’t, giving freely the affection I sought to earn from my father. But both men were aloof, and unpracticed in sharing their inner emotional lives. What I learned from them both I learned by processing my observations.

But unlike my father, Ron was overwhelmed by life’s challenges and possibilities, and he committed suicide at just about the same age my dad was when he faced off against the first of many life-threatening illnesses: cancer, encapsulated on a kidney he would lose. He didn’t need it—spirit would fill in what the body couldn’t provide. My dad would continue to fight for his life for the next thirty years, pummeling into remission two more kinds of cancer. During those years he would have and enjoy all of his eight grandchildren.

By the time his first grandson was born—my son Jackson—my father was already well into a string of heart attacks that would lead to angioplasties and stents and quintuple bypass surgery. So worried was I for his life that when Jackson and I left the hospital in 1987 we went straight to another: Ron drove us from our room downtown to my dad's in another section of the city. I wanted to show Dad his first grandson...just in case.

My dad would live beyond Jackson’s college graduation because time and again he reached death's threshold and bounced off. When my mom called that last morning of my father's life to say he’d had a massive heart attack and that the ambulance had just left, I didn’t know what to expect. I grabbed the living will and power of attorney, dutifully, but also his med list. How many times had I driven the hour to get there to find him holding court in the emergency room, greeting my arrival with a hearty, “Well hello, Kathryn. What are you doing here?” On that final drive, until I would observe for the last time his silent, unmoving face, I held all possibilities aloft.

These past few years my dad was frustrated by dementia and a tremor that kept him from two of his great loves, reading and painting. Yet still his body continued to carry him proficiently through all his daily tasks, and he accepted the challenge of finding what pleasure he could in life, much of which involved the treasured company of my mother. When his heart seized this time the end was astoundingly complete. He lived to be 86, beyond any doctor's expectations, and there is some small measure of relief in the fact that this brilliant, creative man did not have to suffer any further the ravages and indignities of dementia.

Ron’s death at age 54 was also sudden and complete, and offered some measure of relief in a household that had weathered the storm of his psychological torment. We hope he rests with a peace he never knew in life. But the torment that was his continued for those he left behind.

My dad, on the other hand, left behind a precious gift: peace. All things must come to an end, we know this, and that includes the life of Jack Graham, fighter pilot, industrial designer, corporate executive, weekend carpenter, artist, writer, devoted husband, father, and grandfather. It was clearly his time to go, and we can rest in this knowledge. Because if it were within his power to stay, he’d be calling to me now from the porch of our camp: “Kathryn, is there any more maple cream?”

I licked it from my fingers this morning, Dad, thinking of you. May the toast in heaven be slathered with it.


Donna Galanti said...

Kathryn, that was beautiful. I love how your father left you the gift of peace vs. Ron's lost legacy of suffering and heart ache.

I can connect to that gift of peace as my mother left me the same in her passing. It sounds like your father suffered so much physically in past years yet hung on - and he witnessed so much joy in doing so. Blessings to you for having a wonderful father who shared his life with you and more importantly - was there.

jthomasross said...

It took me three months after my father's death before I could write again. Thanks for sharing, Kathryn. Your father was, indeed, a special man.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks, Donna. The last time I saw my father alive I was helping him with some paperwork in his office. To cover his embarrassment over his increased dependence, he said, "Growing old is the pits. I highly recommend against it," yet all of his actions said life was precious and well worth the fight. I was thankful for the opportunity to help him out.

Kathryn Craft said...

Judy: I've heard others report even longer times. For one woman, a year. It takes what it takes. But I couldn't see me writing a post about something any less significant than what I'd just been through, you know?

Donna Galanti said...

Kathryn and JT, agreed. Everyone is different with the time they need. But time is needed as its just to raw and painful to get back into your routine life so soon after a deep loss such as this.

billie bakhshi said...

Oh Kathryn...tis the season, isn't it?

The piece I just wrote for Moms Talk has a part that says: For me, Father’s Day is a wound that has never quite healed correctly.

I'm still healing through writing...

Marie Gilbert said...

I'm so happy your back, and loved your blog on your father. My father was 92 when he died and lived with me the last year of his life. He was placed on hospice in my house and it was what he wanted. He always had family over to visit and he loved when all my nine grandchildren were over and spending the time in his sick room. He died in our house, with the whole family around his bed. He was telling jokes up to that point. When I die, I want to go the same way as my dad. In my home,with my family in the room.

Kathryn Craft said...

Billie: Thanks for reading. Such a pleasure to have a face and voice to go with your comments now.

And Marie: Same with you! What a beautiful story. After reading that I'm sure most people would choose to go out like that, if they could. What a special time for you and your dad.

David Siegel Bernstein said...

Kathryn. Thank you.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think I'm closer to my Dad now more than ever. He died in 2006. It's like all the traits I got from him have come alive through some slow-to-develop, divine-like intervention. Now I love Johnny Cash and clambakes more than ever before. May the fighting gene (which he clearly passed on to you) grow stronger as he slowly masters the art of communication from above.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I was just up at our summer home alone, which can be a little creepy in the off-season—woods, few people on the lake, so very quiet. But I felt absolutely safe this year. I knew my dad was with me.

hearwritenow said...

Kathryn, you always make me tear up. You have such a beautiful way of noticing things and presenting them to a reader with grace. So often I've seen memoir pieces like this written so heavy-handedly. You are very talented.

HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

Margaret said...

Kathryn, This was so poignant and brings back memories of my father's death so many years ago. I knew when he told me he loved me - something he rarely said that the next time I heard, he would be gone. yet there was nothing I could do to change that. Time is the best healer, cliche that it may be.