Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Great Unvitation

It is amazing that the most obvious and irrefutable truth of this world is also the one that no one really truly believes: we will die. One day. Any day. We say we know this, but deep down we don't believe it. (This deep, inner conviction that we are immortal is part of what comprises my testimony of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life. I realize that atheists' minds are turned the other way by this same innate belief, and I realize why, but I tend to trust deep in the gut instincts. Plus I have other reasons for my testimony, but I kind of enjoy this one.) We cannot imagine actually not existing. I know I can't.

I also couldn't, didn't, imagine this happening to my parents or sisters, or kids or husband. But it will, hopefully in the case of my kids and husband, after I have passed on. I used to laugh at parents at the zoo busy photographing animals and not their kids, but I did kind of the same when I busily recorded my kids but not my parents with them. Because my dad spent really an extraordinary amount of time with us, he happens to appear in many photos and videos, for which I am very grateful now. I will need them to help my kids remember the third most important adult in their very young lives.

My dad taught Andrew to ride a bike and swim. A week after his diagnosis he came over one evening determined to teach Will to ride. It was very inconvenient--we were struggling through dinner and we had homework to accomplish, but I realized that he just really wanted to be the one to teach Will, too. To leave that small legacy there, as well. Will was uncooperative and became increasingly belligerent until the darkness of sky and attitude forced us back inside. I felt bad that it had not worked out, but I was also happy to get back to the business of putting them to bed as soon as possible. There would be another day. Only there wasn't. The weather after that was always too cold, or something else happened, and my dad steadily worsened. I can't beat myself up over every moment not perfectly put to max use, because we really did have a wonderful life with my dad. But I realize that he felt a deeper sadness that night when it ended up a bust.

The last week has seen huge deterioration. We are now preparing a downstairs room to be my parents' bedroom. I hate the thought that he will come down the stairs of a house he lived in since 1978 and just never go back up again. It is such a small, obvious thing, but I guess it stands in for a millions things and breaks my heart again to think of it.

Right now there are several people I know who are dying, or fighting for their lives against extraordinary odds, who are still young. Two moms in their 20s, one of whom discovered her brain cancer during her pregnancy a few months ago (her first), and had to deliver early so she could begin treatment. Their odds are less than 1 percent. Another girl, younger than me, who lost her battle with cancer two weeks ago, leaving behind three young kids. They would have traded what my dad is going through to face their battle at 70 after a healthy life. My dad would prefer his current illness to missing out on the last 40 years.

I often hear people in these situations say they don't want to miss their kids' high school graduations or weddings or grandkids. I used to be rather tone deaf to that complaint. I mean that I thought that I understood what they were saying, and I sympathized, but I didn't really get it until now. I used to think that the dead were happy, waiting patiently for those they loved to join them. But now I feel like they must miss us the way we miss them. And there has got to be an element of feeling left out, missing out on the huge milestone moments of those they love. If something happened to prevent me from attending Will's preschool graduation, I would have been really sad and felt deprived. I already did feel deprived when, after Claire was born, I reacted to the epidural and experienced extreme shakes for a couple of hours and was unable to hold her during that special quiet alertness newborns experience. Brigham held her, but it is painful to me that I did not.

What would it be like to face truly missing out on every single moment, big and small? To be entirely left out of every second of the rest of my family's lives? Because the truth is that while we never forget those we love, we do move on. We have to. They want us to and we should and we do. And I see now how it feels like we are betraying them in a strange way. And how left out they must feel facing the prospect of leaving the party before it is over, and for some, just as it is only beginning.

Life is so wonderful and we can fill it with so much. My dad loved life. He always said that everything after Vietnam he considered bonus years, and looking back at how he lived I think that it also influenced him to seize life, enjoy it, really make wonderful memories. Despite his constant leg pain due to wounding in Vietnam, he never let things stop him and he never complained. He loved the beach, he loved going places, he loved good food, so long as it was steak or a hamburger and not highly seasoned, he loved regular ordinary moments of going on walks down Old Falls Rd and sitting up late talking with us over a fried egg sandwich. He loved traditions and routine: McDonalds every day at 10:30, cleaning the whole house on Wednesdays ("My Cleaning Day," he called it) while listening to country music. Monday nights eating out for FHE, which later evolved into eating out all the time after we all left home. He forged such a strong relationship with the workers at our local Fuddruckers that he bought one guy a wedding gift. He loved TV, and I looked forward to watching Law and Order with him when I returned from my mission. The man loved candles for goodness sake and burning them made him happy. He is probably the only man who loved owning a Scentsy.

He was always up for anything. He took us places, visiting all the historic sites, especially battlefields, around. If anything, he was even more this way with his grandkids, showing up at my home to take them to ice cream and the park, preferrably by himself though if I really wanted I was invited, too. He took Will to his first movie in the theatre, Up, during my Ob appointment when I found out Porter was a boy. He organized the yearly trip to Kings Dominion amusement park. He wanted to take the grandkids alone there, too. He was in attendance at everything my kids did, and always so helpful. He showed up to help out with everything, down to the autumn before his heart attack when instead of just delivering his leaf blowers to us, he stayed and helped with the yard work. And he was so happy doing it. I remember looking over and seeing my dad laughing with the boys while they gathered sticks. He was just always there, and always cheerful. I realize that he was doing all of these things with an eye towards purposefully building a relationship with the kids and creating memories. He lived very deliberately and thoughtfully. His was a life very much examined. He always thought he would die young, pointing out that the men in his family did, but he was such a force we just didn't believe it.

I am so sad that my dad won't know where the boys go on their missions, or which sports they settle into. He won't be there to be a calm voice of reason when they may need it, that extra encouragement and safe place that he could offer them as a grandfather, removed from the parenting role. He won't know who they turn into as tweens and teens. Brigham wondered who would be able to get them on social security disability when they needed to be government dependent after college. (Dad, as Bishop, mastered navigating the social security benefits program and got everyone eligible off Church welfare and onto government, which is kind of hilarious.) He won't know Claire at all, which is especially sad because he really wanted to have another granddaughter. He wrote to me right after she was born that she looked like me. I need to write that down because he has not otherwise remarked on her very much; he just cannot.

So I now see death as a huge unvitation. You just leave the party, and it is a big missing out. What a lonely, desperate feeling when there are things you still want to do, memories you want to be part of, people you still want to be with. I have taken up reading Loren Eisley, one of my dad's favorite poets, because I initially thought it might be nice to record myself reading his favorite poems to him to listen to in his bed when we are not there, since he can no longer read. But after looking them over I feel they are all just too sad and as much as he loved them and loved even tapping into that universal melancholy, right now I think he has too much sadness and what he needs is some light and laughter. I think I understand my dad even better reading them, though. I feel like if he could speak, it would be the things Eisley says. Even Eisley's tombstone felt appropriate to dad: "We loved the earth but we could not stay."

I also really like this:
"We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can see, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all that we hunger to know."

That image feels exactly right.

Eiseley, incidentally, was the originator of that Starfish story the church made into a movie. It actually happened to him and he wrote an essay about it. Now I don't feel so silly for the chills I got watching that movie in seminary.

When he was three, he and his dad watched Halley's comet blaze across the sky. His dad told him to look for it in 75 years. This is what he wrote, and I cry every time I read it:

... somewhere in the remote darkness I could sense Halley's comet turning on its long ellipse. Hurry, I half formed the words. Hurry, or I will not be here. I did not know why I said it. Yes, I did. I wanted to return to that bare world of 1910, held in my father's arms -- lay back and vanish. Pa, I said. There was no sound from the dark.
— The Lost Notebooks
Eiseley never did see it--he died before the comet came back. Right now there is no sound coming from the darkness with my dad. But I know someday there will be no no darkness at all, or silence.


Monica Rich said...

Oh, Allie. That was heartbreaking and beautiful and made me laugh all at the same time. What a blessing your dad has been to you and your sweet family.

Holly said...

This is beautiful. Sometimes I wonder how dying young feels to those who are missing out. I often look at Preston and think how angry and sad Shane must be to miss out on these years. It's so unfair. But one thing that impressed me is that we'll never be satisfied with the amount of life we get. The only life that will satisfy us is eternal life. I paraphrased that from some general authority talk.

Love you Alexandra! So sorry you are going through this now.

Eliza said...

made me cry again. stop that! but don't stop blogging. thanks for the insights. you and your dad have been very lucky to have had each other all these years.

alexandra said...

Holly, I have been thinking a lot about you and Shane, too. I loved that insight that we can only be satisfied iwth eternal life.

Momo Cannon said...

I really love that your Dad has been such an important part of my grandsons' lives. He is a great man and I enjoyed your insights. Love to you all

terrah said...

I've been thinking about you and hoping you are feeling peace. Thankyou for your lovely, thought-provoking post.

Ashley said...

While it breaks my heart that you are losing your dad, I love your posts about him. I love the man you describe--from the daily McDonald's to the law and order to the poetry to the grandpa stuff. It's hard for me to fathom bc most of the grandpas I know are sort of hands-off. It is so so sweet that your dad has been such a huge part of your boys' lives. The fact that he loves time alone with th speaks volumes. (My dad wouldn't know what to do, bless his heart.) I am so sorry for all your heartache and his deterioration, and mostly that such a man has to leave the party early. I have always believed that those we love so much can't be too far away after death--that they must be somewhat aware of us. I don't know but it only seems right. I hope things go as well as possible. I am so glad the two have you have had such a wonderful relationship-I wish you had another 30 years. I totally share your view about leaving the party--I used to think dying was ok bc you go to a better place--now I just desperately want to live.

Erin said...

I checked your blog a few days ago and read both posts about your father. I cried through both of them and did not have any words. You and your family have been in our prayers.
John's mission mom used to say on occasion, "Life is hard and then you die." I don't know why I find comfort in this other than I find happiness in setting my expectations low.
The best talk, in my opinion, on death was given two conferences ago by Elder Shayne M. Bowen. He lost his eight month old and talked about how he will never have a fullness of joy until he is reunited with him. The Lord will bring you peace and comfort but it doesn't erase the fact that it is hard and that it will be hard until you are with him again in his healthy happy state.
We love you guys and I love your Dad. I only met him a couple of times but he left an impression. I'm so sorry.

Chris Robbins said...

Very touching story. I walked past Loren Eiseley's grave yesterday at West Laurel Hill Cemetery outside of Philadelphia. I was researching the quote and came across your essay. And I'm glad I did.