I thought I was prepared. After all, for the past two years, my father had been living with Stage IV colon cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, and kidney failure. That’s a lot for an 87 year old. But when my stepmother called me on the phone the other night, I could tell immediately that I was about to hear the worst news possible, and I realized I wasn’t prepared after all.
In the past two years, I’ve made four trips to Florida on what I assumed were “last time” visits. But my Dad’s will to live kept trumping the frailty of his body. Even though I knew he was living on borrowed time, I was expecting him to keep pulling miracles out of his hat, keep surprising us with unexpected rallies and recoveries. When he was hospitalized briefly two months ago, I contemplated making another trip down, but decided against it. I had a lot going on, the tickets were expensive…yadda yadda. I would wait, I thought, wait until November. And indeed I did make a trip in November, but it was to help my stepmother make arrangements for his cremation. I said my goodbyes, but only to his body lying still and cold in a makeshift casket.
It was slightly strange being in Florida alone with my stepmother. She has been my Dad’s chief caregiver throughout his long illness, even as she works a full time job in retail, and for that I was so grateful. But I felt as if I were the representative from the first part of my Dad’s life, the almost 50 years he spent married to my mother, his high school sweetheart, while Sharon stood for his Second Act – the new life he embarked upon in his mid-sixties, moving to Florida, marrying a woman two decades younger, cultivating new hobbies (golf, poker) and new friends. We had completely different memories of this man we were putting to rest, and we were trying to reconcile that with the reality of our loss.
Meanwhile, back at home, my mother deals with her own private grief, one not even acknowledged by society. The break up of their marriage was not by her choice, and though she had come to some sort of terms with it in the ensuing 25 years, there was still a large part of her heart that belonged to that young man she fell in love with in the early 1940′s, the one to whom she devoted four decades of her life.
As for me, I find myself speeding through the stages of grief. Those few days in Florida had a tinge of unreality, as if I were going through the motions without any sense of rhyme or reason. Then I started to feel angry – first with everybody around me who were oblivious to my sadness and continued about their trivial pursuits as if everything in the world was normal, and then with my Dad, who had once again taken me by surprise like he did 25 years ago when he packed up and left our family to start his new life.
Now, two weeks later, there is a veil of sadness inside me, one that washes over me at odd times. Like when I see his handwriting on a box of tools still sitting in my mother’s garage. When I look at the wedding picture of he and my mother that I keep on the mantle. When I drive by a Walmart Store, where my Dad worked during his retirement. When I see his phone number in the Favorites list on my phone.
I am no stranger to death. In the past few years I have lost my in-laws, a beloved uncle and aunt, and three elderly neighbors of whom I was inordinately fond. I thought I knew what grief was all about, was almost smug about my ability to handle it.
But the loss of a parent is something different, and I think it’s especially so for an only child.
I wasn’t prepared for it at all.