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I was at my father's hospital bedside when he died, which will be almost two years ago in August.  In the weeks before that Sunday afternoon, I'€™d spent a good deal of time trying to determine whether or not I wanted to be there for the last moment of his life. I could see reasons for not being there.  I wanted to remember my dad alive, see him alive and laughing rather than dying.  Yet i€™t didn't feel quite right that I would not be there when he took his last breath.

As it turns out, I was there for his last breath, but it took me many days, many months to forget that last moment--to return to remembering my dad alive and laughing all the years of my life--once I had watched him leave.  It was a strange and very profound experience to watch my dad's larger-than-life personality fade away. Just €”where did he go?  My mother, my two sisters, and brother stayed by his bedside for two hours after he was gone.

During the days afterward, I wondered how I would ever think of my father as the laughing, loving, glad-to-be alive person he was.  When would that image come back to me?

 

My sister told me that one of the ways she was able to let go of the vision of my father's moment of death was to replace that vision with a better one that took place during our visits to him in the weeks before his death.  She said she replaced the image of his death with how she remembered him gazing upon each of us as we surrounded his bed in the hospital as he fought his last battle with a failing heart.  He would look at each of his children for a few moments at a time before moving on to the next, and he would make eye contact with each of us. He couldn't speak due to a ventilator, but his eyes were completely readable.  It was his only way of communicating with us at that point---and I could tell that he really saw each one of us, acknowledged us, loved us, and was happy that we were there with him.

I am grateful to my sister for suggesting to me to remember him at that moment rather than the other, and I still call on it when I conjure up his actual moment of death. I try to remember other moments of his life too; other memories when he was very much alive. Some moments stand out.  

Everything would be okay . . .
One of the things I most I remember about my father is that he always did a little jig in the face of adversity.  Literally a little jig--€”or a sort of silly, made-up little dance. I don'€™t know when this started, but I remember it very well.  He'd break out in it when we encountered a problem of some kind. When he wanted us to know we'd be okay. Sometimes our car engine would overheat on the way up north to our yearly week-long vacation way back when we were little kids. We'd drive from Detroit to Houghton Lake or Petoskey or somewhere north for a week to stay in a sandy little cottage--but often with a lovely Lake Michigan or Huron beach that ran for miles.

Getting there and back home again intact was part of the adventure.  Four kids packed together in the backseat before seatbelts were mandatory, our Plymouth Belvedere pulling some kind of a small trailer with all our gear for a week at the beach.  When our laboring car engine overheated--€”and it happened more than once--€”my dad could have reacted with some sort of frustration or anger, some sort of behavior that would have been even more unsettling to his kids than the car trouble itself.  Instead, he always made light of it. His response was:  Here'€™s a problem--and now here'€™s how we're going to go about fixing it, kiddos. But before he would set about the task of addressing the problem, surrounded by his worried wife and kids, he'€™d do a little dance. Just a 10-second long, silly dance to take the edge off the moment.  It often embarrassed us if other people got a look at it, but it was his way to make us laugh, to break the tension and the embarrassment of the moment.  Then my dad would move on to deal with the problem at hand.

This kind of response to adversity--and I use the overheated car as an example of any number of problems we faced growing up in the 60's--€”has aided me in so many ways throughout my life. My father always took whatever crisis was at hand and danced in its face. Although I did not know it at the time, he was imparting a huge message of confidence to his four kids €”and his wife. No crisis ever seemed too big, too insurmountable. We would prevail. And just to make sure we didn't get too frightened or too worried, he'd do that little dance. The lasting effect on us as children is that we never really felt insecure, unsafe, or beaten down by problems due to my father's general optimism and a really strong can-do attitude. Nothing would beat him down, and nothing really ever did. Only death.  

I think that character trait--€”taking adversity in stride--was my father'€™s greatest legacy to his four children.  We were typical middle class in that 60's way--€”my dad could actually get and hold onto a middle-management white-collar job with just a high school education--a job with benefits and a pension that would provide for my mother long past his death.  This kind of life has slipped away for so many of us today--most workers no longer have that complete sense of security that if they do their jobs well, they'll be paid a living wage with good benefits.  But back in the 50's and 60's, my dad was able to provide a safe, secure life for his four children by working hard, buying a house, paying his taxes, and trying his best to be a good citizen.  Back then, he was the typical corporate middle manager who worked in a thriving automotive industry. He left for work every morning at 6 a.m. and came through the door again at 6 in the evening. The reliability of that pattern was also very comforting to us as children.  We knew how much time we had to watch tv for a while before dinner or run down the block to play before he'€™d come through the door.  I don'€™t mean to make it sound like the Brady Bunch, but there was a reliability and security in the day-to-day pattern that can make a childhood very pleasant.

It wasn't always smooth sailing, of course.  My dad had a period of unemployment when my mother was pregnant with my sister, but he dressed for work each morning and went out looking for the entire day, coming back for dinner and did not even tell my mother until he secured a new job. In those days, it didn't take that long. He was a little cavalier about spending, and my mom had to reign him in at times.  He had a temper that would flare when least expected, making everyone around him very uncomfortable.  He wasn'€™t always able to have a thoughtful conversation--his attention span wasn't all that long.  He was far from perfect.  But his can-do attitude in the face of a problem was one of his greatest strengths, and I tap into that now and then when I confront life's problems, large and small.  I tap into it when I feel despair over the state of our country, or for that matter, the world.  I try not to become overwhelmed by the larger issues, like what kind of place this will be for my children and whether they'll thrive in it.  I try to remember it when I run smack into my own day-to-day disappointments and frustrations, the more serious hurdles, and occasional dark days.

What I do try to do when I'm feeling sorry for myself or growing angry about things not going the way I'd hoped for me, or for this whole troubled country, is picture my dad first dance that little jig. . . and then go about doing his very best to fix the problem at hand.

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