Sunday, April 25, 2021

2 Years Gone

I will always remember the night my dad died. 

Even though he was only 2 days out of a major surgery, all signs pointed to recovery and imminent discharge. He took a shower. He was WALKING around the ICU. He transitioned to oral pain meds. Those were the major things his doctor told him he needed to do before he could continue his recovery at home.

 A few out-of-the-ordinary but not completely unusual flags spiked small warnings that everyone missed: he had a couple of breathing treatments, complained of some chest pain, was preoccupied with needing to go to the bathroom but felt constipated, was suffering from renal dysfunction. Now, these seem like clear signs of impending doom, but hospital staff treated each one as an isolated incident, with only the kidney problems rising to the level of repeated concern, and he never got the x-ray that might have revealed blood clots in his lungs before they killed him.

We expected bad news the day of the surgery, almost didn't believe our luck when he woke up afterwards.

 After he died, we found hospital selfies on his phone, but he didn't call or text much during his stay. I sent him a picture of Beatrix in her cone of shame, asking if he was going to have to wear one too, but he didn't reply. The last text he sent me was on April 20, 2019. I told him we were in Peoria and grabbing lunch. He said great. 

The last voicemail on my phone is transactional, too, about reservations for Easter brunch. It's long, though, because logistics abound when you are eating with a bunch of kids, so I saved it. Of course.

I used to talk to my dad on the phone all the time, especially after Bomma went to the nursing home and couldn't answer the phone without staff to help her. Before that, she had been my go-to phone call in the middle of a long day home with little kids, but my dad easily filled that void. He loved to shoot the breeze and hear what the children had been up to that day-- he especially loved Cooper's antics and tales of Harry and Jack when they went to school without their ADHD meds. It's been two years, and I still want to call him midday.

Walking into acupuncture the other day, I remembered mid-April of 2019, standing in the hallway outside the clinic trying to get my dad off the phone so I wouldn't be late for my appointment. If I could take that call again, I wouldn't rush him off the phone. Acupuncture appointments come and go, but your dad only has another week on the planet, and all that.

I stood up at his funeral and said I didn't even want to make any new friends for the rest of my life because how could I have a friend who didn't know my dad (and also, you know, I am a misanthrope). And then I went and made a whole new person born into this my-dad-less world.

COVID was a grief gift for me, a fatherless mother of a new baby girl. No one visited us in the hospital. None of our parents welcomed her home. Grandma and Grandpa were just abstractions to Minnie who only knew us. Until last weekend, a tiny part of my brain has been able to pretend that he just hasn't met Minnie yet. With this two-year anniversary, though, comes reality. He'll never meet her. She won't have any Grandpa Gary stories to add to the trove. Minnie will live a whole life without my dad. He lived his whole life without the idea of her. 

The night my dad died, I was too sad to sleep. That morning, I woke up with a dad. Sleep meant that the next time I opened my eyes, I'd be without. The best course of action seemed to be to stay awake forever.

Thursday, April 25, 2019, was take your kid to work day. Ben took Harry downtown where they wore suits and saw the Governor. I took everyone else to campus with me where they attended lecture and gorged at their favorite campus cafeteria. I have great pictures of that day and had already written a blog post in my head.

Ben and I sat on the couch having a glass of wine and decompressing (it is exhausting to work with your children AS WE ALL KNOW BY NOW) when Jon called us to say my mom called him because the hospital called her to tell her my dad's status had changed. We talked with Ben (our brother) for 30 minutes speculating about what that could mean even though we all knew exactly what that meant. Then my mom called, sobbing, and told us doctors had been doing CPR but they stopped when she got there, that he looked so bloated, that he was still warm. It happened so fast, everyone assured us. A minute of feeling lightheaded, maybe, first. Perhaps some confusion. Then nothing.

I was ice. Immediately. Freezing, shaking, shivering cold-- like a fever. Can grief cause a fever? Dr. Google doesn't think so, but I was sick with it for weeks before it faded to something less acute but still so completely unqualified, unquantifiable. NEVER. ALWAYS. FOREVER. NOT AGAIN. ETERNALLY. We seldom use words so big, so bald, so unimaginable, but they are the only language we have to talk about such a terrible absence. 

Two years later, this dad-shaped vacancy is always with me. Sometimes, I just miss him, an unexpected wave. Other times, it's proof that I had a dad and he was so great that his absence is its own presence. Occasionally, I see a cardinal-- a slapdash blur of red against a brown branch-- and think it might be him, watching us, checking in to see what the kids are doing since we can't chat anymore.

It's an uncomplicated grief. He was wonderful. We miss him every day. We loved him. He loved us. We all knew we loved each other. We told each other everything we needed to, as soon as it occurred to us to say it. Parents are supposed to go first. I was over 40 when we lost him-- hardly young, hardly a shocking death. 

Even simple grief is heavy, more than I wish I had to lug around with me.

When he died everyone told me that it might not get easier to miss him, but it would get easier to live next to the loss, and this is, of course, exactly right. My dad is dead. It's awful. It's also spring, and there are flowers, and the vaccines work, and Minnie has the most squishable cheeks. Grief has stepped politely aside to make room for these other things, too, but it lurks next to them, next to me, all of the time. 

Happy Deathaversary, Dad. This feels like yesterday, but it was, unbelievably, the last day we saw you: April 21, 2019.


  1. This is so beautifully written, Sarah. Such a great tribute to your dad and your relationship with him. I lost my dad 4-1/2 years ago. It feels like yesterday and ages ago at the same time. I am so sad about all he has missed. And I miss him. Although our life circumstances are different the core is the same. You’ve captured all of that so well.

  2. Thank you for such an eloquent post. My dad died 9 years ago, and the feelings you describe are so relatable. Grief is so hard.