Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dad's Four-Letter Word

After living with emphysema for 13 years, my dad passed away on July 13, 2014.  He was 87 years old.

When we met with the pastor to discuss Dad's service, he said that he would give people the opportunity to come up and speak.  I knew I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what or if I would be able to.  I woke up at 3:30 a.m. on the day of his funeral, and words kept flowing through my mind.  At 5:00, I decided to get up and write them down.  What follows is what I wrote that morning and, thankfully, was able to share with all who had gathered to pay their respects to a great man, Jack Burns, my father.


Those who know me well know I have a bad habit.  Actually, I have quite a few, but the one to which I am referring is my tendency to let four-letter words fly on occasion.  Those who know my family well also know where I most likely acquired that habit:  Dad.

Lately though, there was a particular four-letter word Dad liked to use.  That word I can use in front of all of you.  It was "love."  When it came time to leave after a visit, I would give him a hug goodbye, and he would say, "I love you."  When I would call and talk to Mom, he could be heard in the background telling her to tell me he loved me.  She would relay back to him that I said I loved him too, and he would respond, "Good."

The thing is, Dad wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know.  I don't remember the words being used a lot while I was growing up, but Dad told me he loved me all the time.  He said "I love you" when I was a little girl and he taught me to read simple words in the newspaper he was reading.  He said "I love you" when he came to school performances and listened to me screech my way through a song on the violin.  He said "I love you" when he rushed to my side, white as a sheet, when I broke my leg in the 8th grade.  He said "I love you" when he supported my decision to go to college, crying as he left his baby girl so many miles from home and beaming four years later when I received my diploma.  He said "I love you" when he walked me down the aisle and later when he held each of my sons, Jared and Jack, in his arms.  He said "I love you" every time he made me call when I got home after visiting so he knew I had arrived safely.  And he said "I love you" when he wished me a happy birthday every year at exactly 9:05 a.m., the time I was born.  No, he didn't need to say he loved me.  He had already shown me a million times; there was never a doubt in my mind.

It was that same love that Dad felt for all of us, Mom especially, that kept him going.  It gave him the strength he needed to keep fighting even when the simplest of tasks became a struggle.  In the end, Dad proved just how powerful love can be.

I will be eternally grateful that [my sister] Katie urged me to come home last Friday.  Those last two days were extremely hard, but I am so glad I was here to help take care of Dad and to simply hold his hand.  It wasn't much, but I hope he heard loud and clear what I was trying to say:  "I love you, too, Dad."

Friday, July 11, 2014

Waiting for the Silence

I sit and wait.  What I am waiting for exactly, I do not know.  No, that is not true.  I just don't want to be waiting for it, so I push it as far away from me as I can and pretend it isn't lurking around some not-too-distant dark corner of my future.

Tears gather but I force them back, telling myself to save them for later when I will really need them.  And need them I will.  There will be dark days ahead, filled with a heavy silence that the world will never quite be able to drown out.  There will be an emptiness.  No one else will see it, but I know it will be there, and I will carry it around with me the rest of my days.

I remember when my oldest sister died.  It's been almost 25 years, but those moments live on inside my mind.  My parents, brother-in-law, brother and sisters, and I were all at the hospital.  Waiting.  Waiting for what we did not want to happen, hoping, praying that by some miracle it would not happen.  I recall the nurse saying, "She has a strong heart."  Even though she worked in the medical profession, I do not believe she was referring to the organ beating rhythmically inside my sister.  Cindy was strong, determined, a fighter, and not ready to leave us.  So we waited.  Helplessly, we waited, like unwilling witnesses to a natural disaster, wanting to intervene but completely powerless to do so.  I'm ashamed to admit, at some point I just wanted the waiting to be over.  And then it was.

In the final moments, we knew the fight was over.  As the monitor broadcast her decreasing heart rate, I walked to her side, touched her hand, and said goodbye.  Then I walked out of the room.  I couldn't bear to see her go.

I wasn't prepared for the silence that followed.  That heavy, suffocating silence that comes when your world has irrevocably changed.  You sense that life is going on around you, but you can't feel it or make sense of it.  It's like in the movies when the only thing in focus is the character and everything around them becomes blurry and distorted.  Instinctively, you move through your days, responding to people in what you hope to be an appropriate manner.  But you are so hollow inside that nothing really sinks in, nothing fills you up, and you believe nothing ever will.  Truth is, you are right.  There is a part that will remain forever empty.

Today, I am there again.  Waiting.  Waiting for words I do not want to come.  Waiting for a goodbye that I will not be able to bear.  I don't know when it's coming.  It may be months for all I know.  But it's coming.  Another natural disaster that I am powerless to stop.  Only this time I know what will follow.  So wait I will, and save my tears for another day.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A House Without a Cat

I don't have a cat.

Which is strange because just yesterday I was awakened before dawn by the sound of  raucous meowing.  Just yesterday I stroked soft fur covering a little bony body while I spoke gentle words of comfort.  Yesterday, I helped my husband guide an apparently disgruntled creature with sharp claws into a cat carrier.  And even today, I find cat hair on blankets and floors, and there's still that little dirty spot on the rounded corner of the bathroom wall that she liked to rub against.  A food bowl sits empty on the laundry room floor waiting to be filled.

But I don't have a cat.

I can't say it was a shock when my husband called from the vet's office yesterday afternoon to say that Adele's kidneys were failing along with a host of other problems and the vet suggested we have her put to sleep.  I had known it was coming.  We both had.  Or perhaps I should say all three of us had.  Adele hadn't been herself lately, jumping up on tables she had never thought to jump on before, following us into rooms but then sitting with her back turned to us like she was in some self-imposed time-out, curling up on the pillow next to the head of my sleeping child instead of staying in her usual spot at the foot of the bed.  My husband joked that she was crossing off items on her bucket list.  Maybe she was.

There are truths in life that we accept intellectually, but when we are actually confronted by those truths we find ourselves emotionally ill-equipped to deal with them.  My husband asked me what I thought we should do.  Neither one of us wanted to be the one to make the decision.  So we talked around it for a few minutes, silently praying that the other one would be brave enough to say what we both knew needed to be said.  In the end, I don't think either one of us said it.  It was just understood.  At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do.  Now I have moments when I'm not so sure.  I didn't want her to suffer, but I wonder if she wouldn't have preferred to be at home.  I know that is what I would want for myself.  To be surrounded by my own things and my own people.  To be where all that really matters lives.  I am comforted by the thought that my husband, the one who brought her into our home all those years ago, was with her at the end.

As painful as all that was, the hardest part was having to tell our children.  They had known Adele all their lives.  She was as much a part of the family as any human relative.  How could we explain that she was no more?  I took them to their martial arts class knowing that when we returned their father would be home and we would have to tell them.  We agreed to one little white lie:  We would tell them that she had died at the veterinarian's office but not that we had had her put to sleep.  Death is understandable, euthanasia a little less so when you are 11 and 7.  We pulled into the driveway and, upon seeing their father's car in the driveway, my older boy, Jared, called out, "Daddy's home!" Then he said, "Adele's home!"  I couldn't speak.  I suspect he knew something was up because he repeated, "Adele's home!"  Still I said nothing.  As we walked up to the front door, my younger son repeated the story of something Adele had done that morning and told me, "She better not do that again!"  No, she won't, I thought, and hoped that he wouldn't feel bad later for having said those words.

There was stunned silence when my husband first told them.  Jared stood stoically until I took him in my arms.  Even then he cried silently.  Jack was confused at first, asking if she was going to be okay, then finally realizing that he was never going to see his cat again.  That's when the tears started.  I told him it was okay, to which he wisely responded that it wasn't.  His grief broke my heart even further.  As I watched him lying on the couch crying, I couldn't help but wonder how he would handle it when the loss was even greater.  Intellectually, he knows death exists.  Emotionally, the experience of losing someone he loves is like an unexpected round kick to the heart.  How will he handle the deaths that lie before him?  How will any of us?

The amazing thing is we will.  Our world will be a little quieter, a little sadder perhaps.  But we will get through it.  We will find reasons to smile and to laugh and to wonder again. 

We spent some time last night going through boxes of old photographs, hunting for pictures of Adele.  It turned into a wonderful trip back in time to when our life as a family was just beginning.  We found several pictures of Adele, in many of which she is lying next to Maslow, who died 7 years ago.  And I smiled, thinking that they were back together again, napping peacefully in a spot of sunshine.