My dad died about 10 days ago. He died of Parkinson’s and very aggressive Lewy Body dementia. He took his last breaths in the home where I grew up and where my mom still lives. He came home from the hospital to rest peacefully, and though he wasn’t able to be responsive at the end, my immediate family was able to say our goodbyes. Some extended family saw him through open doors from the back yard, masks on, and my brother facilitated more distant relatives and family friends saying farewells via FaceTime.
Before he died, my dad was a runner, a yogi, a mover, a musician, and most importantly for this conversation, a writer. He wrote music, poetry, and letters, sometimes serious, often times nonsensical, almost always romantic. He expressed himself more successfully in writing than he did verbally. He wrote to think. It was one of the more influential things he passed along to me. I too write to condense and crystallize my thoughts. My hope is that by sharing my thoughts here, and processing them publicly, it might help others through their own 2020 losses.
About a year ago, I took a walk with my dad around the block in the neighborhood I’d explored endlessly in my most formative years. Sometimes it was on a bike or a skateboard, sometimes on foot. My brother or friends would join at times, but mostly I was alone. So many of my childhood memories crept into my head as my dad and I walked hand in hand. I’ll never forget the day I read the words “beware of the Delano street gang” spray painted in silver on the asphalt just off of that block. I have no idea why that memory stands out, but it’s a powerful one embedded in my mind.
As a child, I was athletic and fast, but I remember my father as faster and more powerful. Many of us remember our fathers in a dramatized way. We remember them as stronger, more dynamic, more intelligent, more interesting than they actually were. I’m no different. I remember my dad’s hands as being particularly powerful, like they could always hold and handle the reins. He was a kick ass swimmer, and I was game to take on the biggest waves and the coldest lakes and rivers with him leading the way. He’d put my hands on his shoulders, tell me to hold my breath and dive beneath the surface of the water, dragging me along for the ride. At beaches and on camping trips, if my dad said we could venture down a path, we could do it. We could hop a fence, or pick a piece of fruit or just own a bit of space together. He’d make it safe. As an adult, I’ve rarely felt out of my depths because of the confidence he showed me moving through both nature and the city streets of Los Angeles as a child. He could be graceful and gentle while tough and in control at the same time.
So here I was, 35 or so years later, holding my dad’s hand, literally holding him up as we walked. His left hand held mine, and his still rugged, long, lean fingers fit perfectly interlaced with mine. We walked at a snail’s pace. We talked, but some concentration was required, and I felt some anxiety about making sure he didn’t fall. He’d had several near disastrous spills leading up to that walk, and he would have several more before the end came. He was weak, off balance, had difficulty seeing and hearing and wasn’t nearly as sharp and clear. And although I didn’t fully recognize it at the time of that walk, was dying. Perhaps I began processing and dealing with that reality that day in the valley, but it wasn’t yet a conscious thought.
It’s wrecking me now to know how hard it must have been for him to not have that control and strength he exhibited when I was a boy and throughout most of my adulthood. My dad was not my dad anymore. He needed help to do even the most basic of daily life tasks. That sucked for me, more for my mother and most for him. But somehow, he smiled. Somehow he seemed happy. Somehow, he was at peace.
So a little over a month ago, when I returned to my parents’ home in Southern California, I had quite a bit of work to do to properly say goodbye. And like many of you, that entailed getting covid tested and being masked up around my dad, my mom and my brother. There’s no roadmap for a dying loved one, and there’s even less of one in this crazy environment. There wasn’t any hugging or physical spontaneity. Everything was measured. My mother is an affection junkie. She couldn’t get more than holding a pre- and post-sanitized hand from me. And she was losing her husband.
We’re not grieving like we did a year ago in this country and in the world. There are few funerals, few celebrations of life. My mother vows to host that sort of gathering when it’s safe. Until then, my dad will be cremated, and that will be that. I’m, along with my family, figuring out how to grieve in my own way. Countless others around the world had to say goodbye this year and have had to find alternative ways to do so. I don’t really know what those ways are for you, but I’d encourage us to not cling to a coping or grieving ideal that doesn’t exist at the end of 2020. I’m exploring writing about my father and my family in lieu of a service and finding some solace in the community of people doing the same. Be easy on yourself if you can, and trust your creativity as you walk this path. I have my father to thank for showing me how to do that.