A Measure of Understanding

My dad died last week. A week ago Sunday to be exact. I received the phone call at 2:45 am and then had the task of waking up my mother and telling her what had happened. I got through that and she and I decided to sit up for a while and talk. It was a quiet moment with layers of shock, sadness and relief combined. The phone call that I’d known was inevitable had come and gone, and I was relieved to no longer be waiting for it. Just the same, my dad was dead, and I was about to venture into unknown territory as far as my emotions were concerned. Then my cell phone rang again about fifteen minutes later. This time it was the mortician:

Me: Hello

Mr. G: Yes, I’m from the funeral home and I need to know the size of your father’s body so I can decide how to transport him.

Me: Uh.

Mr. G.: How tall was he?

Me: I’m sorry I can’t think right now, we just found out about my dad.

Mr. G. Yes I know, that’s why I’m calling. You have my sympathy.

Me. Thanks and yes, I realize that, anyway…I’ll say he was about average.

Mr. G. What were your plans for your father’s remains?

This is where my brain went on autopilot and I had to fight myself not to say, “Well he might make a nice coffee table.” I mean really, yes my relationship with my dad was problematic; to put it nicely, but even so, this was too much. Just the same, there was no time to react. My full concentration was on my mother beginning her radiation the following day. That’s right, dad dies on Sunday, mom starts radiation on Monday and me, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do or feel. Autopilot is not only a good thing, but it’s sometimes necessary.

The rest of Sunday was a blur.

Friends came over with gifts and food, some tried to be comforting and some didn’t know what to say and instead were either obnoxious or emotional. It was a blur then and it’s a blur now. Sunday came and went, Monday began with another call from the mortician. Papers needed to be signed before the day was over, but mom had to get her first dose of radiation and we had to go to the nursing home to retrieve my father’s belongings.

It all felt immense. A lifetime had begun and ended in the span of a day and I didn’t know where to place my emotions. I didn’t know what my emotions were. I had cried when I told my mother that dad had died. And I had cried again when I told her that I believed he had heard me when I told him that I loved him, and that it was OK for him to stop fighting and go to sleep, because I would take care of mom. And he had done it. He had relinquished his life and simply gone to sleep and I, as usual, was responsible for all the various responsibilities circling around me like horses on a merry-go-round, except this was very un-merry, and my emotions ranged from indifferent sadness to numb.

My whole energy was on my mother and helping her get through losing my dad and into radiation. There was nothing else. The most I could do for dad was get the papers signed so that his body could be donated to the local medical college per his wishes and then write his obituary. Mom was going to need me for a million things and I had to save my energies for her. But I knew how things were with her, so I had to be careful.

It was just like that when my grandmother died when I was kid. I took the full brunt of things then too. Mom had a full-blown breakdown back then, all the while dad was in rehab or jail, I forget which, he bounced back and forth between the two a couple of times. I didn’t cry for two years after my grandmother died. Mom did all the crying for both of us and then some. I held everything back until I almost had a breakdown myself. I wonder how many ten or eleven-year-olds have breakdowns, not many I’m guessing, but what do I know?

Now it’s a week later, and I’m struggling to write this. It’s been an odd week. Mom is getting through her radiation. I tried to go back to my regular job of editing medical articles and I wasn’t ready, and then on top of it all Roger Ebert, the noted film critic, read this blog and recommended it to his followers.

That could be a blog post in itself. Mr. Ebert has been a hero of mine since I began watching him with Gene Siskel when I was in high school. He is not the sort to recommend things lightly or that he doesn’t value in some way. So for him to say he liked what he found here means more to me than I can say. I thanked him a great deal, in fact I think if I were to thank him again he may have me blocked as a stalker.

Then there are my writing friends, some have been supportive in lieu of my news, some have been distant and some have suggested that I somehow use Mr. Ebert’s recommendation to promote myself and get my “15 minutes of fame.”

That will not be happening. And perhaps I’m a fool for taking this stance, but it would hardly be the first time I could be called a fool. First off, I think the idea of gaining fame because of a tweet or Facebook announcement is ridiculous. True, I got some more traffic to my blog, but that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly an Internet sensation. Secondly, and most importantly, Roger Ebert is facing his own struggle with cancer and cancer recovery. I can’t say I know what he’s going through, but I know enough about what cancer patients often have to endure to have a measure of understanding of his situation. And it’s because of this that it would just feel completely wrong to do anything to attempt to glean any sort of fame from this.

What Roger Ebert did for me was a generous, thoughtful act. He saw something in my blog that he felt worthy or that touched him, who knows? After the week I had, it felt like a blessing and that’s really at the core of what this blog is about; there are blessings in the midst of sadness.

Currently my life is definitely an odd mix of sadness and blessings, but really I think that’s how it is for many of us. I am going to do my best to focus on the blessings. I can’t do anything about dad. He is gone and he’s left a trail of emotional and physical wounds for me to continue to deal with. I loved him in spite of it all and I miss the good father he would sometimes allow himself to be. Mom has finished the second week of her radiation treatment and it’s going well. And me, I’m OK in spite of it all. I’m not sleeping well, and I have moments where a happy moment that I spent with my dad floods back to me. Death is like everything else I’ve ever dealt with, you get through it day-by-day. There really is nothing else to do and there really is no other choice. We can fight that truth, but it will remain as it is. One day at a time, that was the credo my father repeated when he started AA and finally found sobriety. It’s my credo too now.

My dad is at the medical college and I hope they’re treating his corpse with more respect than he treated me. Weird thought I know, but during college my art school shared the building with the pre-med school. We always knew when it was cadaver day because the smell of formaldehyde would waft up through the vents. Now my dad is one of those cadavers and I have to make myself stop thinking about it. I also had more wrangling with the mortician to deal with including him sending me the wrong bill and haggling with me over the price of my dad’s obit. Yeah a measure of understanding would have been nice from him, but I got it from an unexpected place and I feel blessed.

P.S. I may require an additional measure of understanding with regard to typos. Since my father’s death I’ve been making them all over the place, and then missing them during edits. Hopefully this nonsense passes too.

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10 Responses to A Measure of Understanding

  1. Crystal says:


    I signed on to Facebook this morning; my plan being to reconnect with you after so many months – obviously never expecting to read this.

    There are no words. Really, there aren’t. People will try, and we’re thankful to them for their efforts, but right now anything said seems a little empty. I lived through this with my mom. She was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and a little over four months later she died.

    You seem to be handling things as well as can be expected. I know that when I was going through this I remember being in awe over the fact that our minds put us into a kind of – as you said, which by the way is a very accurate way to put it – auto pilot. Something kicks in within us, so that even though we’re falling apart and hurt so desperately inside, we’re able (for the most part) to function.

    Rachel, remember to be gentle with yourself. With so many responsibilities and things requiring your attention right now, it’s important to remember to take care of YOU.

    Sending Blessings and Healing Thoughts your way…

    • Blackbirdsong says:

      Crystal, it has a been a long time. I’ve missed you and it’s good to hear from you. Yes, it’s been quite a ordeal, but then again no. There have been so many blessings along the way and I continue to be blessed with friends and those who have come forward as friends. Mom is doing well with radiation, so I can’t complain too much. Thanks for commenting and I look forward to reconnecting with you again.

  2. Les says:

    I just don’t know quite what to say. I’m sitting here just trying to grasp everything that this piece is saying. Amazed that you even were able to write it with everything that is going on. Your strength uplifts me. I happy for you, sad for you, and want to hug you all at the same time. Take care.

    • Blackbirdsong says:

      Les, you have been such a wonderfully supportive friend throughout this whole thing. Your notes to me on Twitter have cheered me up so much. Your last sentence made me feel teary-eyed and gave me a smile all at the same time. You take care too.

  3. Vanessa says:

    This post is so beautiful in its raw honesty, and you’ve captured that “auto pilot” feeling so well. I’ve turned it on and off as I’ve lost my parents then healed, and it’s a blessing.

    Life is a tapestry of moments and memories good and bad, and what we weave as families is unique and colorful. I hope you continue to find comfort in its warmth.

    And thanks for continuing to share so openly. It helps me (and I’m sure, the rest of your readers) sort out my own feelings as you work through yours.

  4. christel42 says:

    Sometimes auto-pilot is all you can do, and often words just aren’t enough to convey. Stay strong, or at least some semblance of strong because I know you are. My heart goes out to you, and I think of you every day. Typos be damned!

  5. Greetings from an avid reader! Now, there have been many blogs which I have read today however none of them comes close to this. Well done! And I want you to be aware that my mates reckon I am very critical so that is high praise indeed!

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  7. Found out your web site via msn the other day and absolutely like it so much. Keep up the good work.

  8. Wookiesgirl says:

    Remember you are loved Rach! Also, remember that God is carrying you. Sometimes we need to do things one minute at a time, when a whole day is just too much.

    Love you honey and you are in my prayers

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