This month, on cinco de mayo, five years ago, my father died. I’ve been sitting on this post for a few days now, vacillating on whether or not to post about death and loss. A few of my friends have lost people and I thought perhaps it was too fresh. Not to mention that I do get dark sometimes, but I figured death and loss is part of life, and this blog is about life in many respects. About my life—my hobbies, my child, my ups, and invariably y downs. So I decided to move forward with it.
My father’s death was a drawn out affair. Even long before, his decline involved visits to the east coast to see him in rehabs after his various health crises. My father had given up, and he literally wanted his life to end. The numerous hospital visits ended with his being released into my mother’s ‘care’ which meant he was neglected, so invariably, back to the hospital he would go, with new bruises, new issues like malnutrition and dehydration. Then to rehab where they would bring him back to a health that would mean he would go home and start the cycle all over again.
During this time, I begged my mother to let him fly out to Oregon. I would care for him. When they did finally arrive in the fated cross-country trip, he was at death’s door. He died nine days after he arrived. This exodus was explained at the time it happened on this blog. So if you’re curious, just look at May 2010, and even before that to the time that leads up to my father’s death. It was insane, it was miserable, and it was without a doubt, one of the most difficult times of my life.
Today, I look at how other people grieve and wonder at my own grief. When my father arrived, we had to hospitalize him immediately, and I was wrapped up in dealing with my mother, who was more concerned about how much attention she was receiving over my father, who was literally dying. I was not allowed to grieve. My husband and I were coordinating getting my mother and brother settled into a home while daddy languished in the hospital. My dear husband did the lion’s share of work with my mother just so I could be by my father’s side.
My father and I were not always super-close. As a very young child, I adored him. I remember cuddling up to his side, asking for affection from someone who was awkward with physical expressions of love, let alone verbal. The reason why I love ‘Despicable Me’ so much is because Gru reminds me of my dad. Not just the crazy accent, but his awkward, clumsy affections. That was my dad. My parents’ marriage was a stormy one. With huge fights and slamming doors, and flying fists. It’s no surprise. My mother played emotional games with all of us, and for a long time, because of my father’s fiery temper, my mother was able to convince me he was the bad guy. He didn’t help in negating that, by any means, taking his frustrations with life and marriage out on me in a physical way.
When I reached my twenties, the line was drawn. I was pushed one day to respond to my father in ‘his language’ of violence. And it was the first time his eyes snapped into mine and he SAW me. It was the first time my father came to the realization what he had done in raising us the way he had. He was knocked about as a child, he carried that on with some of us (not all of us kids). And from that point on, my dad’s demeanor towards me changed. And it was only THEN that we came to look at one another as equals, and he showed me respect and I did likewise. It was only then, that I could freely love my father, and he could freely love me. He accepted my forgiveness, and he also accepted that I would never forget what he had done.
My dad and I grew close. And when I moved out to my own apartment at 27, he was devastated. He had come to rely on me and it saddened him greatly that I was leaving. I made time to spend with him on common hobbies, and I called him when I could not visit. His gravelly voice, his chuckle, and his glistening blue eyes are things I miss most about my father.
The last words I exchanged with my father were expressions of love. So I don’t have that to regret. I told him how I felt, and he told me how he felt, and I cherish that memory every day. I’m sad I didn’t get to talk to him again, and that my last time with him was spent in watching him lie in a hospital bed, wasting away. I held his hand; I tried to sleep in an uncomfortable cot by his bed, the din of hospital equipment preventing any real rest. I arranged phone calls from the other kids; I sang to him, I spoke to him about what was new and what was past. I moistened his lips and mouth with a foam dauber, and listened to him breathe. I read to him.
He was not dying quickly enough for the hospital. So they sent him to hospice. A day after arrival, he passed away. He died in the morning before I could actually get down there. I remember getting the call and just breaking down into tears. But that did not last long. The hospice needed me to find a funeral home and then the arrangements had to be made.
I did not spend much time crying or grieving over the next days. I had to go to the funeral home, and discuss the cremation, and pick an urn. The only things that really stick with me from that time are, one, a particularly morbid display of an open casket at the funeral home, in which someone had draped a military uniform, and a flag on the open door. I remember how hard that struck me. The second thought was the idea of what cremation really was, and I thought of Daddy’s body being destroyed, but oddly, it did not bother me. As an atheist, my dad was objective about death. I think his objectivity carried through. I think I handled that moment, as I have come to realize I handled many moments, by imagining what he would say or think on the matter. And knowing dad, he would have waved his hand and said: “I vouldn’t feel anytheeng, don’t be stoopid.”
This is where I found my strength to go on and cope with the grieving after his loss. I was back to work on the 12th, and the most upsetting part of that was discovering that my co-worker had unilaterally decided to clean and organize my office; and she took every personal belonging on my desk and stuffed it in a box and put it on top of the cabinet as if I’d been fired or I’d quit. I’m not sure why that bothered me as much as it did, but it really irked the shit out of me. Work was there, my mom and brother still had needs, and grief did not really come. I guess the closest thing to a breakdown I had was when I yelled at my mother when she pushed me too far. Other than that, there was a hollow starkness to life, an emptiness… but I did not cry much. I did not grieve.
You see, my dad was a fatalist throughout his life. I would make an observation about the future and my dad would invariably remark about how he probably wouldn’t be alive then. So all of us already had a clear understanding of death and loss. Never mind the countless dogs we lost on the busy streets in Belgium; never mind that. Daddy was always on about the day when we would no longer have him around, and he was quite vocal about it. When it came to death, he found it irritating when people lingered on it. I’m here, now I’m not. I was here, you are proof of it. Your children will be proof of that. My wisdom, my quirks, my habits, my genes. That was his attitude, and he would likely grumble at anyone who would whine or moan about his absence. I can totally imagine his reaction if he saw me blubbering about his death. He would gruffly tell me to stop. Tears made him uncomfortable.
He wasn’t a particularly sentimental man. I’ve seen him tear up when he heard the Hungarian national anthem being played. He missed Hungary—as a deserter, he would have been hanged before October of 1989 if he had returned. He had fled in 1956 while still serving in the military. He never got the chance to go back. Other than that, he was a stoic, often awkward character. A pragmatic man, with a prickly edge to him, with rare but amazing moments of tenderness. He did the two things I needed the most from him before he died. He told me he was proud of me, and he told me he loved me. I hold onto those things like treasures. What I no longer hold onto is the grief. Very occasionally, I’ll have a sharp pang of missing him. When I see some technology I just know he would be tickled by; when I think he would have enjoyed how sharp and inquisitive my son is, how much he would have delighted in the fact that we named him Alexander—and how sometimes, I miss his blue, blue eyes, and his five o’clock shadow; the sound of his fingers rasping on his chin… I get pangs. I’ve had moments where I’ve shed tears, but they’re short. Because I immediately hear daddy’s admonishing voice telling me to stop blubbering.
So what kept me from being miserable about the physical truth of what cremation entails basically helped me cope with grief. And that was to imagine what my dad would think of my behavior. And trust me, he would hate it if I was dragging my bum around, weeping and lamenting his loss. I keenly miss him, but I have accepted the finality of his no longer being present in my life. I have decided to instead focus on how he has influenced my life. I seek the evidenced of his being every day.
Ultimately, as Daddy once told me, grief isn’t about the person who is dead. It’s about the person who is grieving. It’s about their feelings about the loss. I’m not sure if how I grieve is normal, but I know it is what Daddy would have wanted. That’s what matter’s most. I think it’s the best and only way to honour him. I can find solace in the little bits of daddy that are carried on in Alex. From his lips, to the little stories and little bits of wisdom daddy passed on to me. That is the beautiful part of death, and that is the sort of immortality that comes from it. He’s still here. He’s in me and he’s in Alex. However other people choose to view it, in spirits or heaven or in the case of atheists, genes and memory… the lost ones are always with us.