It took a long time to get him down the wooden stairs from the porch that looked out at the ocean I had frolicked in since I was thirteen. A condo on the beach bought in 1980 — a vacation tradition that started when my family first escaped a frigid Minnesota winter at Christmas. We were on our way to the hospital.
Dad hadn’t been well all fall, but doctors looked and checked, poked and tested — and pronounced him fine. All vacation, he’d been mostly holed up on that porch. Having difficulty climbing the stairs, he spent much time holding court, telling jokes, watching sunsets, and serving Pina Coladas.
The week before the trip, my mom reported that my dad called from a parking lot. He said he wasn’t sure he could get her what she needed from the grocery store. He explained that if he got up and went in, he was afraid he couldn’t get back in the car. She asked if he was safe to drive and told him to come home. Since then, he had been only somewhat ambulatory.
When I arrived, he looked fragile and had aged ten years in the six months since I’d seen him. I think I knew something was wrong, but I pushed it aside. There were good times to be had, and he would get better. He always had.
I felt unprepared when I lost my dad. (photo credit Debbi Ryan)
He’d had rheumatoid arthritis, back problems, nerve problems, blood clots, stints, and pacemakers. But they happened throughout my life, so I never thought of my dad as having chronic health problems. I saw them as health challenges he’d overcome. Everything had been “fixed.” He became less light on his feet but was always bright, exuberant, and full of life.
My dad grew up with very little, so he didn’t expect much and saw his life as a gift. He was forever exclaiming about a view, a meal, a sunset, a trip, a time with family or friends. He spent his life making memories and having experiences with those he loved. His days were full of appreciation for what he was doing and anticipation of the next great thing.
This trip strongly resembled the last 30-some Christmases we had spent on the island. There was beaching and pool time, a boat outing, cousin fun, and each of us winding down from our own lives on our way together. Like many families, the Christmas festivities culminated in a big Christmas dinner.
I met serious resistance from one of my daughters about attending the meal. She was 16 and unwilling to participate in extended family gatherings. I felt desperate for her to come. I remember hearing myself say, “Please come. Pop-Pop wants everyone there, and I don’t know how many more Christmases we have with him.” I even surprised myself and realized that I was having those thoughts.
After Christmas, Dad looked even more drained. We helped him carefully navigate those wooden steps on New Year’s Day and got him to the hospital. As he walked the steps, his face was strained, his upper lip was tense, and his tongue stuck out slightly between his lips — like it did when he was deeply concentrating. I’m told I do this too.
On the way to the hospital, we stopped at a local market and bought him a key lime pie ice cream cone. I have a picture of him smiling ear to ear, sitting in the car’s back seat. He looks like a 6-year-old with a new toy — pure joy.
We arrived at the ER, and the doctors tried to find answers. My mom left the exam room at one point, and my dad turned to me. “When I die, I want to be cremated, ok? And no big ceremony — just a celebration on the water with people eating and drinking, telling jokes, and remembering.” I rushed to reassure him this was all premature and he was going to be fine, but he continued, “I need you and your brother to take care of Mom, make sure she is loved and cared for, and has everything she needs for the rest of her life.” He knew we would. My mom returned to the room, and he acted as if the conversation had never happened. It seems surreal to me, even now.
There was never a firm diagnosis, but Dad declined rapidly. Within two weeks, he became less and less himself; within five weeks, he was gone.
He was much larger than life; I never imagined the day coming.
For many months, there was an endless pounding wave of grief. Hysterical crying without warning. A dull ache and lethargy made it hard to do the mom things I needed to do.
I woke each morning, newly hit upside the head by the reality that he was gone.
I am grateful to have had the kind of dad who delighted in me, encouraged me – and that I knew had my back. Whether I was right or wrong — he gave me the feeling that I was enough. That I could fix it or fight for it or forgive it. I wish every child could begin their life with that kind of love.
He was the dad who would do anything to help you through your depression, who made you feel strong and confident when you needed to move across the country with your family. Even though you knew it was killing him to have you go.
He was the grandfather who would dance and tickle, teach you to throw a ball and play ping pong, then let himself be made up and adorned with jewelry for a tea party.
We, of course, had all the skirmishes of adolescence and differences of opinion, arguments, and anger. But they were passing and resolved. He and I were, as my kids would say, “all good.”
Dad was the life of the party, the guy with a smile, a drink in his hand, and a story and a joke at the ready. He arrived at our house with kids standing on the porch, jumping up and down and yelling, “Pop-Pop!” And he probably received as many hugs, kisses, and “I love you” as any grandfather could hope to get.
We celebrated him on a boat in a beautiful cove. People ate and drank, told stories, and laughed — and I could almost see him smiling in the corner.
The following Christmas, we boated near the island he loved, his grandkids took turns telling their best memories of Pop-Pop, and we tossed his ashes in the ocean.
Time has passed, and to be honest, I’m better, and I’m worse. I’m better because I’ve sorted through the memories and moments, and I appreciate even more the father I had in my life. It’s worse because life keeps moving, and there’s more and more he isn’t here for.
But I try to remember that if there were any way for him to be with us, he would find it. So I believe he is here in his favorite things: sunsets, beaches, boat rides, pickles and orchids, and yellow.
I believe he is in each of my family members for the rest of our lives. We choose to find joy in the moment, hope in tomorrow, and care passionately for our people — just like he did each time.
So, in the end, I was prepared for his passing after all. Because our love was in order, and that’s all there is.
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