by Clare Wuellner, board member of Foundation Beyond Belief
Our family has Christmas covered. My in-laws do it up full-on Christian-style. Giant pillared house set on a giant yard nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Giant holly bushes be-speckled with screaming-red berries. Wreaths and lights in every window greet us. Inside, will be an entire dining room table covered with cookies and cakes. Lots of love and decorations and presents and extended family and traditions (yes, some involve giving witness to their deep religiosity), stacked up over more than a decade of Christmases. It’s the sort of thing every family should get to go home to, in their own way.
In high contrast, for the past twenty-something years Thanksgiving has been a jumble of miserable attempts at tradition. Thanksgiving was traditionally my parent’s shift on the holiday roster, so that meant it had to be messy. The best Thanksgivings were spent away from my parents. That only happened when we were lucky and getting home was just too difficult for one reason or another. We’d forgo the trip home, spend Thanksgiving with friends, and actually relax and enjoy a laughter-filled, loving holiday.
All that was supposed to change last year. My husband and I were excited for Thanksgiving to happen. At the beginning of summer—after having been married for nearly 50 years—my father left my mother.
Last year was supposed to be the start of a New Thanksgiving Tradition. One that I was looking forward to the same way I look forward to The Big Martha Stewart Christmas at my in-laws’ every year. Maybe even more.
It had been my mother who had made time with my parents untenable. With her out of the picture, we could finally enjoy my Father’s company. But that went away when I watched my Father’s chest fall for the last time on November 2nd.
Someone had made a mistake. He had been a medium risk for major surgery. He had, as was his way, recovered more quickly than expected. He was released three days ahead of schedule from the hospital to go to the rehab facility where he would regain his strength. He was working that recovery, by golly. He was walking with a cane in short order. This was particularly impressive because he’d been using a walker, pre-surgery.
And then, my sister, Joan, noticed that his wound was looking and smelling a little funky. She pointed it out to the staff. They said the 3-cm deep wound was fine. See? Clean as a whistle. Then, they started to notice it too.
It was, after all, a 9-cm deep wound.
They didn’t have the fluid they needed on hand to flush the wound. The pharmacy was out of stock. Three days passed. And Dad tanked.
He was rushed to the hospital. They hammered him with antibiotics and everything else he needed. Initially, his white blood count took a dip but then shot up and stayed up. Irretrievable sepsis. Palliative care was called in. Hospice was suggested. My sister and I reeled. The physician gave him two weeks.
Here’s the thing that would surprise anyone, I think. Through it all, my Dad was happy. Even when he was told about his failing body, he seemed to absorb it from a place of acceptance that still boggles my mind. No stoicism. Just acceptance.
His happiness all flowed from one event that accidentally freed him: my mother had fallen down some stairs, fractured a part of a lumbar vertebra and wound up in a rehab facility in June. He had visited her once, and then found that he couldn’t bring himself to see her again.
He was free. My sister and I lived in the same house with my mother for only about 20 years. My Dad, on the other hand, had lived with her for nearly 50. Whereas I had escaped and girded myself into being a passable person, he had remained and his entire personhood had been eroded to nearly nothing. My mother had him sequestered away and didn’t allow him to do anything or see or talk with anyone he loved.
Now he had “his girls,” as he referred to my sister and me, with him constantly. He was actually pretty spoiled. Joan and I both adored our Father and it was our turn to show our gratitude for all he meant to us. From the time mom left the house, Joan had become his caregiver. She enjoyed every minute of it. My Father’s internist nailed it when he quipped to my Father that he was finally listening to the right woman.
So, Dad was supposed to get the surgery he needed, recover, and then move into his new independent-living apartment. The apartment was a two-bedroom beauty that’d we’d already decorated in our heads. We would fill it with displays of his tin soldiers he’d played with in his youth; photos he cherished; drawings, old and new from our youth and from his currently-young grandchildren.
Joan and I had planned a decorating “in-joke” for him. Dad was a musician. He always thought it silly and a bit self-aggrandizing to have paraphernalia about that hinted at an occupation. The sort of chotchkie or artwork that might prompt people to ask, “Oh, do you play piano?” To which one would reply with false modesty, “Why, yes! I do.”
So Joan and I had purchased two music-score covered decorative pillows to go with a piano keyboard-themed throw that would live on his couch and quietly beg the question. Joan and I had worked hard to pry the pillows, which had been for display only, from the proprietor’s possession and cackled raucously every time we spoke of our plan and anticipated Dad’s eye-roll, smile, and chuckle in reaction to our fun.
The second bedroom was to be for his computer set-up that had a keyboard, giant monitors, speakers, and amazing programs that allowed him to compose to his heart’s content. He had been a performance pianist by training, but always felt drawn to composition. He’d composed lullabies for each of his four grandchildren and many other pieces. Mom had pretty much killed that joy with criticisms and put-downs. But she wouldn’t be there to stab at him anymore.
The living room had a huge window that overlooked a lake. Right there in front of the window was where his grand piano would sit. He could start playing again. He had told me that since mom had left he had tried to play again, but had been discouraged by his loss of technical skill to play the stuff he used to be able to flow through. I knew how he felt. It’s hard to start over again. But we wanted him to have his piano there tempting him because we knew how much joy playing gave him.
My Dad was one of those people who actually loved to play. I hadn’t known this about him until recently. I’d just thought he was dedicated. Turns out, he was happiest behind the piano. For me, as I had assumed was true for most people, practice was something musicians just did. It was a means to an end.
My Dad spoke of starting the piano twice in his youth. The first time was a disaster. The second time he said he “fell in love with the sound.” With these words went an open sweeping of both arms and a wide-eyed look of wonder on his face. He said his father would have to order him off the piano to do things most kids would think were actual fun.
So, I had hatched a wicked-good plan. I play the cello. Used to be pretty good, but haven’t played much at all for years. When I was younger, Dad had always been my accompanist, except for once when I’d done what most musicians had to do: pay one. Wow, did I come to appreciate what I’d taken for granted. Dad was an amazingly sensitive musician and I think accompanying was perfect for him because all eyes were on the soloist and not him. He had paralyzing stage fright, which meant that no one but people lucky enough to grow up in our house ever got to really hear him play.
You might assume that working with a parent so closely might be a nightmare. Kind of like having a parent help you with your homework. Disaster, right? No. We always enjoyed practicing together. If you’ve never played an instrument with another human being, I can tell you it is an intimacy that is hard to replicate. Music resonates in special ways with the human mind, and when you get your music to jive with another person’s music, the result is exponentially glorious. When I recall the joy I felt when Dad and I were playing together, it has the same deep sense of connection that I recall feeling when I held my children as infants.
In years past, when I lived close enough to my parents, I’d bring my cello home, and Dad and I would crash through pieces and laugh and curse and sometimes make incredible music and it was so much fun. My mother would be monstrously jealous.
So back to my plan. I had planned to show up last Thanksgiving at his apartment with my cello. I’d bring a simple piece, because I needed to start back a few notches. Naturally, the accompaniment would be way below his technical ability because I was never, even at my best, anywhere near his worst. We’d crash through the piece, laugh, curse, make some music. He’d fall in love with playing again, and there would be music filling his world again.
But that isn’t going to happen. It is gone.
When people speak condolences to me my throat tightens, just like someone’s hands, gently squeezing, are hidden beneath my skin. Just enough to make me feel like I’m almost going to choke, but I don’t. And then the hands hold right there. When the hands are there, I can’t see. My eyes are open, but I can’t see for the limbic goo that fills my head. The feeling is thick, but has no words. How to describe what I’m feeling? This isn’t just your usual loss of a “cherished father.” It’s not just my loss. It’s my father’s opportunity for living a new and happy life that has been lost. Many Thanksgivings to come that have been lost.
Of course, my Dad is unaware of all of this. He isn’t witnessing the pain of those he left behind. For this, I am glad. It always tore it him when Joan or I were hurting. He is also unaware of the notion of his own new life, unlived. So, I am, in a sense, mourning it for him. It’s a big job. But I’ll crash through it.