Faith Family Grief

Sympathetic Ink

On October 23rd, my father would have been 100 years old. Last year for his 99th, I flew to San Antonio with a suitcase full of pictures and mementos to give him a special birthday lunch. I spread photographs across the floor of the apartment I’d rented, choosing which ones to take to make into posters to display. One poster focused on his time in the war, one on his life with my mother, and one captured my relationship with him. The last was an intergenerational collage that showed him with his brothers on barren prairie and then with my children. At the party, I set up a table with telegrams he sent to my mother when he passed the bar exam, graduation programs, and other keepsakes of a lifetime. Toward the end of the event, he toasted the group saying, “Let’s do it again next year!”  Little did we know…

In late February or March, as I read and listened to news stories like this, I broke down in my kitchen, consumed by dread. I had envisioned his 100th with a great slideshow, a menu with everything he loved to eat, and even his favorite pianist playing “Stardust” and “As Time Goes By” as people raised a glass to toast his long and interesting life. Looking back, I knew we would not get through to the other side of the pandemic, that somehow my father and I would have a front row seat to the tragedy of this virus and would likely be called to take the stage. In a novel, this experience would be foreshadowing, my response a kind of premonition. 

My father’s family was populated with deeply devout churchgoers. His mother played the piano and the organ every Sunday in their small Baptist church. His father never “took a drink” in his 102 years. My father’s grandfather knitted his deeply divided community back together through public service and the church after the civil war. His great-grandfather was inclined to visions, one of which warned him of imminent capture by the Kansas Jayhawks. (He woke up and made an exit to Texas; the Jayhawks were, as it turns out, in hot pursuit.) Among the men on that side of the family, at least in hindsight, there was a clarity about how to handle uncertainty and hardship. Use both your faith and your education as a guide, take decisive action, do your duty however hard, and don’t give up on your community. 

My mother’s family held a few more secrets. Many years ago, I found my maternal great grandmother’s book of spells, with a red, faded cover, entitled “The Secrets of Life Unveiled.” In it are instructions for reading tea leaves and coffee grounds, along with the intricacies of palmistry. The book provides incantations to perform in the light of the three-quarter moon to attract a new love. There are herbal potions to ward off a cough or improve the skin. One chapter is called “Sympathetic Inks” and provides options for writing letters that cannot be read unless some sort of chemical treatment is used to make the writing appear. You can even choose your color!  

Once my father went into lockdown, I felt like I was reading tea leaves myself, scouring the Texas press, various state government websites, and the communications that came out from his assisted living facility to see if there were policies, procedures, or updates that would facilitate a visit. Perhaps in another month something would change? Maybe, because of his age, I could sneak in under the guise of an end-of-life visit, even if he wasn’t imminently at life’s end? Perhaps there was some way of writing to the Texas Governor that might indeed induce his sympathy and convince him that a World War II veteran should be able to see his only daughter? Full moon, half moon, crescent moon–for months I tried them all to no avail. I created my own ritual with the nightly phone call, modern day amulets of flowers, candy, new shirts or slippers, whatever tokens or talisman I could send to keep his spirits up. His friends and caregivers did too. Tomatoes from a garden, cans of popcorn, and fresh peaches, looking for the alchemy that would keep him going.  

Although no believer in the occult, my dad, in his own way, was full of a whimsical magic. He was the one who first introduced me to his version of sympathetic ink during Saturday treasure hunts. He could always find a nickel behind my sons’ ears and utter a few magic words to make a stoplight change. He could find common ground with anyone and was a spellbinding storyteller. But as the months wore on, I think he knew there was no magic that could save us. He let that 100th birthday go; he knew, or at least believed, there could be no celebration with his family and friends, no holidays together, just ongoing isolation. And, although he could not give it voice, surely he knew the awful toll not being able to see him was taking on me. I believe he decided that his duty was to let go, to give up the ghost, and head to new land.  

I’m still working on knowing what my duty was and whether I executed it as I should. The peace I seek is complicated by guilt, anger, wishes, and love. Joan Didion wrote about the first year after a death as “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And, indeed, for the last four months I’ve kept a sort of altar in our house that has kept my dad alive, including the three hats he wore regularly, one for winter, one for summer, and one that was part of his Navy uniform. When I came home from attending to his death, I hung two of them in my closet and kept one sitting with his picture on a chest in our living room. After his 100th birthday had passed, my husband added a nail and we hung up his last hat. 

This weekend, the President-Elect quoted from a hymn we sang at my father’s funeral. As I listened, I thought perhaps the terrible spell will soon be broken and that once again through faith and science, decisive action, devotion to duty, and hard work, we will get to the other side of this pandemic. It is too late for my father and me, but I write this in “sympathetic ink” for other families that still wait to reunite. 

Faith Family Grief

Virus Diary Number 5: Reunion, Robbery, Requiem?

Today my house is full of flowers and cards, remembrances of my dad, and messages of comfort to me. His possessions are gradually accumulating. The black lacquer box with his initials that sat on his dresser for as long as I can remember holding cuff links, belt buckles, stray keys, and war medals. Others are en route: his favorite red blanket, his summer and winter hats, the paintings he wanted to surround him, a few pieces of furniture, some books and other small treasures.

Two weeks ago, my father died alone moments before I was able to get to him. I have gone over and over the time frame, looking at phone logs and text messages, wondering how I could’ve gotten to him sooner, whether my decisions were the right ones, believing both what others tell me– that I did the best I could with the information I was given– and admonishing myself for not acting on the choices I thought of making, but didn’t, choices that might have allowed us at least a brief good-bye.

There are questions that will never be answered. He was presumed to have COVID-19. His symptoms: first diarrhea, fever, aches, and chills, and later a cough and trouble breathing were all consistent with the virus. He had been tested the day before his symptoms started as part of a routine screening. The test result, returned seven days later, a full three days after his death, came back negative. I have no idea whether to trust it or not.

Of course, it is good that the test was negative. Good for his lovely friends and caregivers and good for the reputation of the place where he lived.  The negative test provides validation that the procedures in place to prevent spread to frail elders worked. But what about the choices that were made in service of the presumptive positive status?  He was kept in isolation from the onset of symptoms. I had planned a trip because, at last, there was going to be some minimal form of visiting, a chance for a reunion however limited.  When I called him upon arrival, I knew he was still in isolation.  Even though he was coughing and seemed to be struggling to breathe, I didn’t tell him I was in town because I didn’t want to upset him without knowing whether I’d be allowed to see him. If had told him, would he have told me to come right away, that he knew he was dying?  Would the nurse with whom I spoke immediately after I got off the phone have gone to check on him and told me to come sooner if the concern of infection had not been so great? An hour or so later, when my messages were finally answered by the director, I believe he was checked and, at that point, the staff realized how dire the situation was and called me.  I arrived moments too late and instead of sitting with him until the funeral home staff arrived, I was advised to leave, to not spend too much time in his room because I would be exposing myself to infection. I remained with him for perhaps 30 minutes after gingerly moving his special, red, potentially infectious blanket, in which I much would’ve much preferred to wrap myself, so that I had a place to sit. He looked like he might wake up any minute except that he was too still for this world.

Even so, I was able to give him a proper, if unorthodox, memorial service more intimate and beautiful because of the painful time in which we live. Fifteen people gathered outside at a lovely spot in San Antonio. My husband and sons at home in North Carolina, along with friends and family in other places joined in by livestream. The experience of listening to a pastor who has come to mean so much in my family, contextualize my father’s long life, and indeed his death, as one that teaches us how to adapt and accept difficult circumstances has been deeply comforting. Likewise, listening to my husband and friends describe my dad so fondly let me know surely that he knew how much he was loved even in the isolation of his last days and months. At the memorial, the minister told those gathered and specifically me, that “we would not ask for another day for him.”  At 99, he had led a long and fruitful life. And I know that those words are right.  But, it is also true, that we were robbed – by circumstance, by uncertainty, by choice, and by chance –  and I would give anything to live that last day over, to try it different ways, and see if there was a path that might have led me to his bedside a day, an hour, or even ten minutes sooner.

Some would say that what God asks now is for me to focus on all the good of his life, and to the gifts he gave to me, to be thankful for all that he was and will remain. But in the Christian tradition there is a place for righteous anger and Jesus most expressed his fury at the money changers in the temple, saying that his house of prayer had been turned into a den of robbers. That is where I am right now. The pure grief I might feel is blunted by a deep outrage that drowns out any requiem I might wish to sing. My anger is not for individual missteps, mine and others; those can be seen only in hindsight. Rather, it is reserved for the policies enacted, espoused, and exploited by politicians that sacrificed frail elders to create a perception that we are a caring society, isolating elders while feeding our economic engine. To wit, the day after my father’s death, I asked what I should do about his belongings. I was told to get a rapid COVID test, which took about 30 minutes total, and then I was allowed into his facility to organize his things. While there, I spent a good hour talking with two of his close friends who are also unable to see their children. What sense does that make? A lot, if the concern is the economic health of the elder care “industry” versus the emotional health of those elders and their families. Keeping elders from their families was never really about safety. It was about liability and about perpetuating a false belief that society could move on economically by “protecting the vulnerable.” Just a talking point. It was no more safe for me to enter his facility the day I did than it would have been two days before following a rapid test with 80% accuracy. But, if my dad’s belongings are sorted, the room can be prepared for someone else; there is more money to be made. State law and policy supports this practice, a cynical reality laid bare.

The memory of all he was and is to me are already well documented in his obituary, in the remarks I made at his memorial, and in the many previous posts I have written about him. So, there will be no requiem for him here. His life began just as a deadly pandemic had subsided and it ends with another that, to date, has no end in sight. My father’s virus diary concludes, but for me it is not over, and I find myself wondering what entries will come next.

Faith Family Grief

For Two Friends Who Grieve

Among those college friends with whom I stayed up all night, took spontaneous road trips, and wondered about all that the future would bring are twin brothers who are friends to so many. Through football games and parents’ weekends, their parents became our friends too and welcomed large groups of college students to their home for summer shenanigans.  In recent weeks this family has been on my mind as the patriarch’s health declines and a decision has been made to focus exclusively on palliative treatment.

They are a family of great faith and, until this morning, their prayer requests via social media have asked for total bodily healing of their beloved father.  But that has not happened and they are making sense of the fact that he will leave them sooner rather than later. There is so much I want to say to them having faced my own versions of this parental loss journey in recent years.

First, there is no dishonor, no ungodliness in accepting that something sad and difficult is happening. Even though your father’s suffering will end, and in accordance with our faith, he will truly and joyfully meet his maker, the poignancy of saying farewell, if not goodbye, is real. It hurts and it does not need to be covered over by platitudes no matter how well intentioned.  There is no shame or guilt in wishing that the current circumstance could be different. God knows what you wish for and it is the mark of your dad’s great love for his sons that you want to keep him on this earth forever. I believe our tears for our parents please God, because it means that, at least in part, the parents and the children have seen something of Him in each other, something they know they will miss.

The next reminder is to dwell on the commandment to “Honor Your Father and Mother.”  Because during these next weeks or months, you will learn what that actually means. As a child, I thought honoring them meant using honorifics – Yes ma’am. No sir – and following their rules.  As I got older and had to find my own path, I often felt sad and sometimes guilty that I was not exactly the daughter they thought they would have. I felt badly about celebrations for them that I couldn’t quite pull off, frustrated by conversations in which I chose to be argumentative/adolescent rather than accepting. But what I’ve learned in recent years is that, if we’re lucky, there is time to honor them anew, and that honor shows up them in the smallest of acts. Not reacting with anger or frustration when someone can’t quite make it to the bathroom. Putting fancy moisturizer on my 93-year-old mother’s face in the hospital. Manicuring my father’s nails when they become ragged and torn. Helping him with socks and shoes.  Just as with the very young, it is the physical care of the body that is the most primitive indicator of our love. These are strange Rubicons to cross and yet there is sacredness to them that I hope you will not ignore.

Third is a lesson that many who grieve come to understand, but don’t necessarily speak. And, that is, that when you love someone fully, they do not leave you. Your relationship does not end; it simply changes.  You see them in different places. I see my mother in the morning glory that turns away from the sun to peak in my doorway.  I talk to her in my head most every day whether to ask advice, complain, or show off a new outfit. Very rarely, she shows up in a dream.  At first I wanted that more, but now once in awhile is enough. I am not a sci-fi person, but I am beginning to wonder about the nature of time. There are some loves that simply are bigger than the linear time frame in which we live our lives.  These loves don’t begin and end, they simply are, sometimes dormant as we pay attention to other things, but always present and waiting to speak to us again. Your relationship with your father is like that. He truly will be with you, even as he is not.

Finally, I remember our times together, your enveloping hugs that made me feel safe and cared about, our late night drives to Austin during exams, conversations by the suspension bridge plotting our respective futures, writing secrets on the walls of a house your folks were refurbishing before the paint went on, being one of many friends your parents welcomed home.  We have no daily contact now. I have no means to be of any instrumental help.  But know that far from East Texas someone loves you both, loves your dad, and wishes him and you Godspeed.


Photo Credit: Skylar C. Searing

Faith Family

Always and Everywhere


Last night I learned I would have to leave vacation with my family because my father, who I was just with for almost three weeks, was back in the hospital. Worry and disappointment mounted in equal measure. What is happening to my admittedly very old, but always sharp and robust father? This slow decline is so not what I would wish for him. Why must he suffer?  And more selfishly, why does this latest bout of suffering have to happen during this 10-day window that, as a family, we had tried so hard to protect?  The last two or three years have been filled with family crises. And, between those crises and our work, our boys have gotten used to one or the other of us almost always being on the road.  And vacations, something we have always held sacred as a family, have gone by the wayside. This summer we were reclaiming them…

As these thoughts were roiling, the sentiments found in the New Testament and repeated in various ways throughout the Catholic and Anglican liturgies came to mind, spontaneously combatting my lesser angels: It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks and praise. Always and everywhere? Even right now when I have to leave this place I’ve been dying to get to?  “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, always everywhere to give thanks.”  Well then…no escaping that very clear direction. I made my plane reservation and we went out for a last sunset hike as a foursome.  The climb was heavenly. An afternoon rain meant the earth was fresh, the Sedona colors magical, and every step led us to an enchantment-filled view. As I climbed, I found myself repeating, “Always and everywhere it is a good and joyful thing to give thanks.”  This morning, I left the three of them to continue the trip and I came home to be with my dad.

Giving thanks is harder tonight as I sit by myself in my parents’ house.  It is lonely. It is sticky and humid outside and there are mosquitoes.  The pictures and memorabilia that I started sorting during my last visit are still here, beckoning like a disorganized lament. Thinking of all that will transpire this week, all that will need to be figured out and accomplished, makes me want to crawl under a rock.

Yet, those words from Thessalonians keep surfacing, “In all things, give thanks.”  In other traditions, this might be called a mantra. Cognitive-behavioral therapists might even define this repeated sentence as a thought stopping mechanism, a means for combatting the negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression. For me, I think they have become a habit of mind, something that comes to me when I am facing something difficult that I know I cannot avoid.  Like the little engine that could, that said, “I think I can. I think I can” over and over, this liturgical practice drives out the frustration and, truthfully, resentment that threatens the tenderness that comes from caring for others and putting our own needs and wants on a back burner. And as I do, all that I am thankful for begins to surface and be named:

  • A father to care for who has loved me so well all my life.
  • A husband that supports me in doing all that I do for my dad.
  • The high school friend I’ll see tomorrow night for dinner.
  • A flexible summer work schedule.
  • Morning walks around my childhood neighborhood.
  • My father’s friends who remain so committed to him as he declines.
  • The professionals who are helping me figure all of this out.
  • The ministers that seem to show up out of nowhere when they are most needed.
  • The encouraging texts from friends far away.
  • The memories that live in that disorganized pile of pictures.

And finally for the practice over a lifetime that imbedded these words deep in my mind and heart so that I could call them up when they are most needed. Indeed, always and everywhere it is right, our duty and our joy, to give thanks.