A Death In the Family

Lessons my dad taught me when mom passed away

So…today I’ve put a moratorium on “your mom” jokes. 

A running joke in our family is that any statement can become a great joke simply by adding the words, “That’s what your mom said…” at the end. Try it, it almost always works.

It started when my teenage son and I were in the car together and pulled up to one of the gated communities here in sunny Florida. We punched in the code, and a recorded voice came through the speaker.

“Access granted,” it said

“That’s what your mom said,” I replied.

Mass hysteria ensued, and our inappropriate family tradition was born. 

My mom has always been a source of gentle humor in our family. A southern woman with naturally blonde hair teased out big, she always sounded like a female version of Hank Hill from the cartoon “King of the Hill”. Over the years, I developed a dead-on impersonation of her, including her infamous whooping crane noise.

Let me explain. Whenever she got amazed or exasperated by something, Mom would try to say “well..”, probably meaning to eventually say “well, I never” or some equivalent. 

Instead, all that came out was a “wuh” noise. Then she would say it repeatedly, in a sort of cadence that got louder as she further grasped her own amazement: “wuh….wuh…Wuh…WUH…!” Thus the “Nana whooping crane noise” became the running gag in our home for expressing mock amazement.

But for now, we can’t joke about mom. At least not for a while…

THE DAY BEFORE

I’m sitting outside at Starbucks today, as usual. I’ve got my backpack and computer set up, ready to do some writing. But unlike usual, I’m facing away from the crowd. It’s an oh so subtle signal that says, “No, I really don’t want to talk if I don’t have to.”

That’s not normal for me, but today is not normal. My mom is dying.

I’m in SW Florida where I live and work now – she’s in a hospital in Alabama. My 89-year-old dad is there, with a few church friends around him. I traveled there when she first had the stroke about 6 weeks ago, but then it became a waiting game. So I came back home.

Earlier this week, I got the call from Dad. I knew it was something bad because I’ve been calling him every day since the stroke. I’d usually wait until after 5 pm to see if there’d been any improvement during the day. So for him to call at midday meant something was up.

She’d taken a turn for the worse. Some kind of seizure, and now she no longer communicates. The doctor said this was something from which she couldn’t recover. She would diminish now, day by day, until the end comes. We’d know it was time because her breathing would become more seldom. Then soon, she’d be gone.

Now, her southern drawl is playing on a continual loop in my head as I think of her. I try to remember our last conversation. When death comes, you start playing mind games like, “What was the last thing she said to me?”  You rack your brain, thinking back on some casual phone call two months ago to which you were only semi-committed. 

She would often get confused on the line as my dad and I spoke together. Her interjected questions would regularly cause us to have to repeat what we’d just said. I have to admit it was pretty irritating at times, and it was hard not to lose your patience as she would lose patience with us.

Now, you try to recall those conversations, hoping that the last things you said to her were charitable. I was always kind to her, but there were times I’d have to admit I was merely tolerating her rather than engaging her honestly.

Guilt. There it is – that most potent of weapons in a parent’s arsenal. And yet, my mom isn’t guilt-tripping me. I’m doing it to myself.

Happily, that was never a weapon she used on me. There were occasional plays for sympathy, because of something she was dealing with. In the last ten years, it usually tended to be something involving her continued struggle with physical pain. Or her cat. 

The cat was usually the priority in her life these days.

She had basically replaced her doting on me, the self-absorbed only-child, with obsessively doting on a fat stray cat she’d adopted. The cat had run off a few months ago and not returned. It devastated her. I listened to her sob loudly on the phone as she wondered aloud what had happened to that cat – if it had been attacked by another animal and had suffered before it died alone. 

That thought, the animal dying alone without her there, was what she couldn’t bear. Ironic.

Now, here we are. I’m in Florida, and she’s in Alabama. I’m basically waiting for her to die so I can make the trip back to my childhood hometown. She’s unconscious, so there’s no reason to be there until she passes, really. She won’t be alone like the cat she mourned, but I still feel guilty as I sit at my Starbucks and wait for word…

My Dad is faithfully by her bedside, and he’ll call when her breathing becomes more shallow. He’ll let me know the minute she passes, and then we’ll start packing up the kids and making the long car ride there. But it still feels wrong, being so far away. 

MINUTIA

I rifle through the bazillion of responsibilities I have, and think through a dozen contingency plans of how to shuffle them all. If she dies today, I can’t go until Monday because I have to preach on Sunday. We’re a small, new church and there’s no other staff to run the Sunday service. 

So even if my mom dies on Saturday, I’ll be preaching Sunday morning. It’s a bit brutal, but life has to go on, even if it stops for her.

Hopefully she’ll hold on through the weekend, and we can head out Sunday afternoon late. They’ve secured a replacement for me in the orchestra pit at the theater where I play each night. I hope the guy will be able to read my writing for all the cuts and changes in the score. 

A church member is texting me, asking if I’m here at Starbucks. Is it lousy of me that I’m avoiding responding? 

My job is making myself available for people, listening and helping them. But today I’ve just got nothing left. I’m empty. I still feel bad about ignoring his texts, but I figure your mom dying is a good enough excuse to be a little selfish today.

I’ve got a sermon to finish before Sunday. I’m trying to care about it. I’ve got music I need to practice before tomorrow’s rehearsal. No motivation. Nothing. Right now, I just want to sit here and type, far away from the rest of the world though sitting right next to them. 

Right now, I just want to sit here and type, far away from the rest of the world though sitting right next to them. 

I’m actually typing to God right now. I know He’d hear me without the computer, but somehow it helps to do something tactile.

AND SUDDENLY, SHE’S GONE

I was in the midst of another rehearsal the next day when my Dad called. When his voice cracked as he said hello, I knew it was over. Mom’s breathing had slowed that morning, and by that afternoon around 1 pm, she was gone.

The next 24 hours was a blur.

It was Saturday, so that meant I had to preach on Sunday and put my emotions and feelings on hold. I’m a guy, so we tend to do that much of the time anyway.

However, when we got to the slow moving song I was supposed to sing in my rehearsal, I paused. “Bring Him Home” is the big emotional number from Les Miserables where Valjean pleads with God for the life of the young Marius. 

I slowly walk over to the musical director to tell him the circumstances. There’s no way I’ll make it through that song. He says no problem skipping the number, because a guy never really wants to see another guy cry. 

I make it through the Sunday morning church service and Sunday afternoon orchestra performance, and start packing for the trip. Since we have two babies, the best way to travel the 14 hours to northern Alabama is at night while they’re sleeping. So I won’t get any sleep this evening as I drive through the night.

THE FUNERAL

We survived the funeral service in my home church well enough. The music was a throwback to the old school way of leading worship. Piano and organ playing a prelude, hymns led by a music minister standing behind the pulpit, my daughter singing a more contemporary chorus that I accompany. My parent’s pastor delivered a good message of hope in the resurrection won by Christ, nothing surprising. In fact, the predictability and vintage feel of the proceedings bring a level of comfort.

Tradition is good for making traumas like death feel more like the expected part of life they should be. I’m not normally a fan of too much tradition in worship. But in death, it reminds us this is a path all before us have taken, and that we will walk as well.

After the burial and a meal back at the house, my wife takes the kids back to the hotel. I decided to stay with my Dad at his house instead of with my family during this trip. I thought he needed company, and I frankly didn’t mind the space between me and the babies screaming.

That evening, my dad sat in his chair and talked with me about everything from the day. Basically, he talked of how even with mom’s obvious deterioration over the past years, he still wasn’t ready for her death. I know that sounds predictable, but for me, it was a little surprising for one reason.

I thought he’d be relieved she was gone.

As I type those words, I realize how harsh they sound. I almost want to backspace over them, because they seem naked. But there is a truth in them we don’t often have the courage to acknowledge after someone dies.

My mom had been incredibly hard to live with over the past years. As people do when they get sick, she became more irritable as her life concluded. The past several years were spent with much complaining, bickering, and blaming on her part.

I suppose she was realizing her life was ending, and my dad and a cat looked like all she had to show for it. And then, she lost the cat. To her in those final years, life was cruel and unfair. She hadn’t had her fair shot at happiness. And now she was physically miserable, in continual pain, and nothing much comforted her anymore.

So like many people in her boat, she took it all out on my dad.

Before you think I’m trying to get back at her by writing this, let me assure you I have no motives in that direction. My relationship with her was fine and she never attacked me. I’m writing this because I think many other people go through a similar situation with their parents at the end of life, and they think they’re just the singular dysfunctional ones.

But every family is dysfunctional. Some just camouflage it better than others.

THE BEAUTY IN THE ASHES

As I sat and talked with my dad that night, there were several times I wanted to blurt out, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”  In my heart, while I was sad she was gone, I was happy for my dad. It bothered me the way she often talked to him, and the things she often said questioning his love for her. Her bitterness over the past several years had tarnished the few good memories we’d had as a family now.

Honestly, I’d rather this part of her life be done with and my dad be allowed to live his last few years in peace. He’d spent too long as a caregiver and punching bag. Now maybe he could enjoy himself

But now as I sit next to my dad’s chair and listen to him talk on and on about her, I realize just how despondent he is that she’s gone. He’s desperately sad that a person who tortured him the past several years is no longer there to continue it. He racks his brain for what he might have done to head off the stroke before it had happened. What were the warning signs, if any, he missed? If only he had more time with her…

How completely unreasonable and unexpected love is. How indestructible and resilient.

Where years of disappointment had caused him to question God’s plan in bringing them together, now with mom’s absence he dumbfounds me by proclaiming, “I know she was the one I was supposed to marry. I was so lucky to have her.”

He brings out their wedding pictures and marvels at her beauty and how she would have chosen him. He describes her in ideal terms, conveniently forgetting most of the past 10 years. He’s not just trying to “speak well of the dead” – he really means what he’s saying. It’s not that he’s avoiding the truth. It’s simply that his love makes him not care anymore about all the pain she caused him.

He’s now suddenly completely and utterly focused on his love for her: a love which seems to have unexpectedly tapped him on the shoulder again, reminding him of its presence now at her passing. The same voice I heard arguing with her on the phone two months before now quivers every time he mentions her.

It’s like the old joke where the pastor gives a glowing eulogy of the town scoundrel, only to have the scoundrel’s family walk up during the message to make sure it was their family member in the coffin the pastor was describing. I sat into the late evening and listened as Dad described a woman she had not truly been now in around 10 years, while completely ignoring the one he’d endured ever day of that final decade.

This is the beauty of love and the miracle of marriage. It is a commitment which endures when feelings fade, and withstands all the onslaughts of its very object.

My generation can continue to go to our marriage retreats and workshops, and read up on all the latest tips to having perfect relationships. But in the end, it all comes down to this: 

Our relationships will remain imperfect no matter how hard we try to fix them. But they will endure based on how much love we are willing to dispense and how much pain we are willing to absorb.

My dad fell asleep in his chair that night, as he usually does. Oddly enough, he no longer sleeps in his bed. I believe he’d started spending his evenings in that chair because it was next to her bedroom. Though her pain meant they could no longer sleep in the same bed, he remained stationed outside her door like a sentry. As I went to bed that evening, I got the feeling he wouldn’t be sleeping in bed anymore, even now that my mom was no longer in the room next door.

By the time I’d left my hometown on Wednesday, I realized my dad had taught me a great lesson about love. As we drove home, I listened to my wife groan as the babies refused to sleep. I watched her overreact to our teenagers in the car with us, then I caught myself overreacting with frustration as well. If someone had recorded us, you might be surprised at how little we sounded like a “godly family”.

No one who’d eavesdropped on our conversations during that long trip would be lining up for marriage advice from me. After 14 excruciating hours, we were home again, back to “our lives”. And now I’m reminded it’s my turn to deal with the joys and disappointments – the reality – of this life, just like my parents had. 

I believe I’m happy to give up my illusions of a perfect marriage. Despite all the handy tips from “experts”, I don’t believe perfection was ever supposed to be the goal anyway.

What I’m left with is an example and a promise from the example of my dad. By watching his reaction to my mom’s death, I see that after years of frustration and pain, the power of love can push our bad memories back into some musty closet just like the ones in my parents deteriorating old home. 

Finally, I pray I’m lucky like my dad. My hope is that in spite of many years of imperfection, all that will be left after my own funeral is an indestructible, gracious beauty still smoldering somehow there within the ashes.

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20 thoughts on “A Death In the Family

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts following the loss of your mother. My Dad died very suddenly a year ago, and I understand completely all the feelings you describe, having also had a difficult relationship with my Dad over the past 10-15 years. But, like you with your mother, after his death, all the past pain of the strained relationship became as nothing, and all that remains is an overwhelming love for him, and an immense sadness that his physical being is no longer here on earth … to put the kettle on and bring out the cream cakes, which was his favourite thing to do whenever we popped round to see him! Your sharing the details of your own experience is a comfort to those who are struggling with bereavement. I pray for you and your family, and your Dad, that the peace of God will fill your hearts and comfort you all as the days, weeks and months pass by. God bless.

    Michele Neal (UK)

    • Thank you, Michele, for writing those kind thoughts and sharing about your dad. I’m so glad the article was a positive experience for you.

      Appreciate you reading!

      God bless,
      Dave

  2. THANK You for your transparency in sharing. I wept, I remembered, I identified.
    From my experiences with death and grieving, those moments will continue to surface, unexpectedly. The details of past moments, encounters, their real perspective on what I said/did or not – these all make me more aware of how I live today’s moments and interactions.
    “This is the beauty of love and the miracle of marriage. It is a commitment which endures when feelings fade, and withstands all the onslaughts of its very object.” Love like this must of necessity include Forgiveness, which in turn includes entering into the wounds of Christ, resulting in ongoing Forever Love. True in any relationship.

    • Thanks Pauline, for your kind words. I’m so happy the story resonated with you and your own experiences.

      Thanks so much for reading.

      God bless,
      Dave

  3. i am so sorry about your mother and am praying for you. your dad is a beautiful example of love and forgiveness- even when your partner is (or has become) unlovable. he must be a wonderful, kind and loving person.

    today is my 27th anniversary, and over the years we have each taken turns being “unlovable” although in most cases it is me! my mom, who’s a smart lady always told me that you “fake it till you can make it, ” during those times when you wish your spouse would be kidnapped by gypsies! because eventually you fall in love again.

    thank you for sharing your loss, your experience and your family.

    • Congratulations Carrie, and great advice! People do change but we can truly keep falling in love over again with our spouse, as long as we keep forgiving.

      Thanks for commenting, my dear friend! And tell your husband I said to buy you that mink coat now ;0)

      God bless,
      Dave

  4. Thank you for sharing. It was beautifully written straight from the heart. Isn’t it the truth that the mind remembers and holds on to what it loves. I know because I am doing it myself. I wrote a book of blessings and it made me remember and be thankful for all that was good amongst the sad.
    ‘Love never fails’. Take care, friend, your Dad too. Please let him know how many people he doesn’t even know are thinking & praying for both of you. Blessings, Marlane

  5. Thanks for sharing Dave. This brought back memories and thoughts from when my mom passed away 15 years ago. I’m praying for strength and comfort for your father, you, and for the rest of the family.

  6. Dave, thank you for sharing this article. A death in the family is almost always an interruption of normalcy in the lives of those left behind. Your article helps me to better understand your reactions after your mother had the stroke. Life goes on for all the rest of the family, for you and for your Dad. But a brand new life is being experienced by your Mom. She is with Jesus and free from all the pain and frustrations you described in your article. I know I don’t have to remind you of that.
    I think of your life and the success God has allowed you to have and I can’t help but think of the great investment your parents made into your life. All the frustrations seem to fade into oblivion when you think of that. Both of my parents have been gone for years now and growing up I didn’t appreciate or acknowledge the investment they made in my life. But now I do and I wish I could tell them one more time how much I appreciate them. Like most kids, I didn’t make it easy for them most of the time. Now I have more years behind me than I do before me and when I get to heaven after I see Jesus I want to hug them both and tell them how much I loved them and appreciate them for all they did to point me in the right direction. One of these days Dave, it will be you and I on the receiving end and dependent on those who love us. Our children will then have to be understanding and tolerant of us as our life fades away. Stay close to your Dad – he needs you. Even though his church family is supportive he needs you because you are his only connection to her.
    Even though our time together here on earth was very brief I want you to know I love you and am very proud to have been a small part of your life.
    Your friend,
    James Parker

  7. I loved your story as I lost my mom a year and a half ago it is just like it was yesterday sometimes. The part that struck me and got me thinking was when was the last time we spoke. I personally know those phone calls where you try to hurry to get off the phone because all they are doing is whining about some part of there day or how they are feeling. I like anyone would love a do over on some of those calls. But at the end of the day we had a great relationship despite some of our differences and with my dad still alive I do not hurry to get off the phone with him I listen to him when he complains about all the doctor appointments because when I call him that is what I do and as a parent he is there listening to me and giving me the advice I need to get me through it.

    Thank you for sharing your experience because it woke me up on a few things that I have time to do with my dad.

    Melissa

  8. So sorry for your loss. May she Rest in Paradise. As your Dad showed, Love is all that last, and it is enough. Praise God.