Friday, February 15, 2019


I'm reading Michelle Obama's book, Becoming.  It started off a little stiff, but halfway through it I am now enthralled.  One of the most beautiful passages is about the death of her father at 55, from MS.  Her description of his last days in the hospital are incredibly sad and sweet.  The kissing of her hands, over and over, because he could no longer speak.  Each kiss telling her a story of his love for her and his family.  After his death in the middle of the night, the family faced the strange new reality to be navigated while planning a funeral and grieving deeply.  There is a funny bit there, too, wherein mother, brother and Michelle were sitting at the kitchen table after coming home from the funeral parlor to choose a casket.  They were weeping copiously, and her mom said something in a wry little way, "Look at us."  This led, slowly, to peels of laughter.  Such is the emotional roller coaster of death.

That passage reminded me of one of own experiences with death, which was grim, and then jovial. One can only take so much sadness.  My former life-partner, Lynn, and I, watched as her alcoholic father slowly died of throat cancer back in the late 1990s.  A heavy smoker and drinker his entire adult life, he could not fathom why he had contracted this cancer.  He was in denial, an alcoholic's most stalwart trait.  Throughout his surgery, chemo and radiation, he was convinced he was going to beat this thing, despite his obvious and shocking decline. Lynn's parents told the oncologist they did not want to hear the prognosis.  They preferred not knowing.  Lynn and I, however, wanted the information and so we knew how dire things were at the end of that year.

We had been visiting for Christmas, his last, and returned home from Seattle to Santa Cruz.  A week later we received the call that he has died during the night.  We boarded a plane hours later and arrived in time to be with his body for awhile before he was carried away.  It was one of the few times I had visited a dead body, and his eyes were still open.  I gently closed them.  I slipped a note from my then 8-year-old daughter into the pocket of his pajamas, and I held his lifeless hand.  No one in the family had touched him.  Such was the Christiansen family. All the while, Lynn's mother was preparing lunch and she called us to the kitchen table.  Everyone's eyes were red and puffy and we were a somber bunch.  Lynn's brother Steve and sister Janet had been at the family home for hours, and their exhaustion showed in their disheveled hair and clothes and the way they shuffled slowly to the table.  We began to eat (I can't even remember what).  Brother Steve looked over to the living room where dad was lying in his hospital bed, deader than a door-nail, and started a small, hysterical giggle.  

"How weird is it that he is a few feet away, gone from this world, and here we are chowing down on hot food and cold beer?"  Steve asked.

Here we were, around the old family kitchen table, everyone but Dad.  We began to wave in his direction.  

"Hi Dad! We're having our lunch!"  

"Hey dad, come on over here, the food's great!"  

"Dad -- you want mustard with that?"

We were laughing uncontrollably at this point. The absurdity having a normal family meal seemed, totally bizarre.  Our reality had been flipped onto its back, desperate legs and arms flailing to right itself.  Laughter was seeing us through the initial shock.

When the mortuary came to take his body away, there was a clutch in my heart.  The finality of it was a jolt to my system.  They gently loaded him into the van while we stood around on the gravel driveway.  When the door shut on the back of the van, Lynn's mom began to wave good-bye.  It was something that Dad had done each time the kids or guests drove away: he'd stand there in the driveway, in all kinds of weather, and raise his had with a gentle left to right wave and a smile on his face.  He'd stand there until the car was out of sight.  Then he'd sigh and slowly walk into the house. Following his example, we stood shoulder to shoulder, doing the "Dad wave" until the van slipped out of sight over the hill.  We then sighed, and collectively turned left to walk into the house, crunching over the gravel on a cold January day, with the low gunmetal sky of Seattle punctuated with the dark empty branches of winter trees.


  1. We had our most common gallows humor when acknowledging the flowers and gifts of food. We started to giggle with each note as one of us would invariably say, "Mere words cannot express..." Sometimes that is what gets you through the difficult times.

  2. I love the story of how Lynn's dad waved good-bye, and how you all stood and waved that way at his final journey until the care was out of sight. There are rituals that spring from the heart in the moment. That's love. You remind me of the last time we saw Roger's mom in the hospice care facility. She had passed away shortly before we arrived. The nurses were prepping her for her journey. I noticed that they had combed her hair in a way that she never combed it. So, I asked if I could change that, and they said yes. I combed her hair and we bid her a final farewell.

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