On Losing a Father

Governing Ana has been quiet lately, and the weekend for the 4th Annual Love Spanks has come and will soon go.

The writing has been put on hold, and the evil day job has taken a hiatus. I returned yesterday, stunned and fumbling through the motions of life.

Last October, I wrote about my father’s return to the world of cancer. If I had to choose three events that have shaped my life and who I am, his cancer would be the second. (Numbers one and three are too private to share.) Because he has been living with cancer and its side effects for about twenty years, he had to undergo some scary and long-term treatment.

When families go through serious, long-term illnesses, all of the unhealthy existing dynamics seem to increase exponentially. No matter how much people love each other, fear and stress can contribute to some unpleasant situations. For most of my life, I have worried that my father might die. These past few weeks was the first time in years that I thought it might happen now.

Due to the incredible generosity of a friend (hard to even call her a friend, as someone like this is so much more), I was able to fly to visit my dad and surprise him in the ICU. (I checked multiple times with his nurses to make sure a surprise wouldn’t negatively affect his health.)

Visiting him was more than I could have dreamed, and yet I couldn’t shake the utter devastation of watching my father’s body wracked with illness.

His formerly strong, big hands that performed difficult physical labor.

His once-balding head, now almost devoid of hair thanks to chemo.

His eyes, squinting through his eternally scratched glasses and a fog of three pages’ worth of medications.

His thin back, not quite covered by the hospital gown.

The legs and ankles swollen with IV fluids and weeks of bedrest.

The lips blackened with sores from chemo, sores unable to heal while his white blood cell count remained dangerously low.

I darted to and from the nurses’ station (ICU nurses, I have come to believe, are angels straight from God), anticipating every need and asking a million questions to make sure he was receiving the best care. Most of all, I let his teams (he was so ill that he had, at one time, four separate medical teams doing rounds on him each day) know that his “I’m fine” did not mean he was fine. Instead, it meant he didn’t want to be a bother and felt he could suffer in silence.

At one point, he asked me to leave the room while the nurse administered his medications. He was too weak to lift the spoon himself, and he didn’t want me to see.

In the midst of his daily battle to live, his only complaint was about trivial, should-have-been-long-forgotten family drama issues.

When he was pronounced ready to graduate from ICU and return to the regular floor (after days of false promises), I thought we would celebrate. Instead, all of the family drama came out.

And I returned, frustrated in my need to make things better.

Instead, I’ve come back to the evil day job and the peculiarities of normal living. My father has now developed pneumonia in addition to everything else he’s fighting. I’m struggling to make peace with what my world will look like without my father. I don’t mean a physically living and breathing dad, but a father. The man in my life who adored me when I was a child, sitting me on his lap and insisting everyone listen to my latest achievement. The dad who was more nervous than I when I performed a concerto with my high school orchestra.

The dad who, despite all of his and my imperfections, thought I was the smartest and best student in the school.

Maybe one day, family drama will lessen and relationships will become easier. Maybe not.

Until then, I hold in my heart the dad who loved me more than any father loved his daughter.

I love you, Dad. And I miss you.

 

Christmas the Italian-American way (Advent Calendar, Day 19)

Many of us have enjoyed Michael Thorn’s wit and humor throughout this month’s Advent Calendar. He has been a kind and gracious guest, welcoming everyone and cracking us up (Oops, maybe a bad metaphor…thanks for ruining that particular one for me permanently, Michael!) with his jokes about being in the corner. He is, as you see, on display in the corner due to his VERY naughty behavior. I think all of us should send his wife Season a nice hello or two, don’t you think?
Michael is here to tell us today about his Christmas traditions in an Italian-American family. Before I let Michael take over, please remember that all prize winners must contact your donor within four days, or the prize will be re-assigned!
Our naughty list of prize winners who have not contacted me (or helper elf Kathryn Blake) include:
  • Angel
  • Emily Tilton
  • Michelle Willms

If your prize donor has not responded to your first email, let me know. But because the Advent Calendar helper elves all donate their time to ensure everyone has a good time, we really appreciate when you let us know about prize distribution. If you have received your prize, respond with a thank you note and notify Kathryn or me.

Prizes are announced most days in the late afternoon or evening (anywhere between 4 and 9 PM EST). Check each day to see whether you have won and consult the Prize donor contact list as well as the FAQ. Thanks!

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And here’s Michael!

I am second generation Italian-American. All my grandparents were born in Italy. Growing up, Christmas Eve was just as important as Christmas Day, and observed not only with the reverence of church, but also with the celebration of family, food and drink. In our household, and that of my Italian relatives and friends, Christmas Eve was meatless so we ate fish, and boy did we eat fish. Seven or more courses of fish hence the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Actually, more accurate would be seafood as the menu consisted of scallops, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, scungilli with the only fish being baccala.This was the basic menu but some years there would be more than these seven or sometimes other seafood substituted depending on quality and availability. Lobster (very rare) crab, oysters, tuna filet and even eel on occasion which does NOT taste like chicken.I remember the baccala, which is dried salted cod fish, being hard as a board and had to be soaked for a day or more to soften and remove the salt. And while the calamari and scungilli were delicious if as kids we knew it was squid and sea snail (specifically conch) we might have considered it too yucky to eat. The food was prepared in a variety of ways and always served with pasta or as we called it, macaroni. In fact, growing up it was more often than not referred to as the specific type of macaroni so when asked what was for dinner mom would answer ziti or rigatoni or rotelli. The only time we used the word pasta was for specific dishes such as pasta e fagioli (ditalini macaroni and beans) and pasta piselli (ditalinl and peas).

The calmari was served in marinara sauce which was a change from our usual meat sauce which was made with meatballs, Italian sausage usually hot, and pork chops. The mussels were also in marinara sauce. My dad cooked the mussels and I can still see them steaming in the pot their shells opening and closing like narrow mouths which made us kids squeal in wonder and delight. Now that I think about it I don’t know how my mom, dad and grandmother cooked the meal with us kids scurrying underfoot. As we got older we helped with the meal but not at this early age. But that’s part of what made the day special, we were not distracted with toys which wouldn’t be opened until the next day, but were caught up in the preparations for our Christmas Eve celebration.
The meal started with scungilli salad and clams oreganta as an appetizer, work its way through the other seafood courses and conclude with the baccala cut into pieces served over spaghetti aglio e olio – spaghetti in olive oil and garlic. Afterwards there would be a fruit and nut course then desserts of cannoli, homemade cookies and pies, two flavors of jello – strawberry and lime – so it was in the Christmas colors and strong cups of espresso into which my dad and grandfather would add anisette, the licorice smelling liqueur. The meal would start about 2:00 in the afternoon and last into the early evening, and the next day on Christmas we would repeat this sumptuous feast substituting lasagna and meat sauce for the seafood.
Why seven? In our family it was the Feast of the Seven Fishes even though many times it was more than seven, but in other families, including some relatives, the number was nine, or twelve or thirteen. There are  many theories about the number seven for the feast. It is the most common number in the bible; it represents the bible verse in Genesis telling how God created the heavens and earth in seven days or it could be for the seven Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not sure about the number nine, but twelve could be for the twelve Apostles and thirteen could be for the twelve Apostles plus Jesus Christ.
I also mentioned drink as being a part of the celebration, and this is where my grandfather took center stage. Like many Italians he kept a garden even in the most urban of areas. His table always included homegrown vegetables from his garden. Various types of tomatoes and peppers. Squash, eggplant, peas and herbs such as basil, oregano and parsley. And grapes grown on a trellis for homemade wine. Growing up I got into trouble many times climbing on grandpa’s trellis. He made not only red wine but also liqueurs such as amaretto and anisette with 190 proof alcohol which I think he purchased through the local pharmacist. Part of my grandfather’s Christmas Eve tradition was in the evening he would take a large jug of his homemade wine and visit neighbors offering them a glass. He would be invited in and while he poured a glass of his wine the neighbor would reciprocate and pour a glass of his own homemade wine. As I got older I marveled that my grandfather never stumbled home, but walked straight as could be up the stairs and into the house. But he did go to sleep immediately upon getting home, sometimes never making farther than the easy chair in the living room.

Growing up that’s how we celebrated Christmas Eve. I miss my parents and grandparents and am forever thankful I have these Christmas memories to look back upon. I know you all have special Christmas memories, and hope you are making more precious memories with each passing Christmas.

Holding onto life: the breath of a child

Far away, a five-month-old baby is struggling for breath. Each in, each out is a victory won with the help of a ventilator. Ordinary life milestones have been replaced by daily notations whether he has opened his eyes, whether he moves his arms or legs in response to stimuli (arms sometimes, legs not yet). Watching, hoping for the day when he will show signs of a gag reflex. Reducing the ventilator gradually, going too fast, and having to return to previous levels.

Far away, a young mother and father massage this baby’s limbs, rubbing and squeezing in an attempt to relieve the spastic tightening of his muscles. Wondering whether to thank the heavy sedation for its success in–so far–stalling repeat experiences of the extensive, debilitating seizures that rocked his body and robbed his breath. Or whether they should curse the overpowering drugs for the inevitable short and long term effects they will have on this baby’s emotional, physical, and cognitive development.

One day, someone dear to me had a newborn baby who smiled, laughed, and gurgled like most newborn babies do.

The next, our family transformed into an unceasing prayer vigil.

One day, this baby’s parents delighted in feeding him cereal for the first time, wondering when he would begin crawling, and perhaps fussing that he was too short, too skinny, too chubby, or too slow. The way parents always are able to do, no matter how perfect their baby might be.

The next, there was only one thought on everyone’s minds:

Let him live.

And as the days passed and the hope for improvement grew steadily less, perhaps only I was the one to wonder:

Are we praying for the wrong thing? How can a five-month-old body go through this and come out all right?

The human body has an amazing capacity to heal, and yet in many cases it can not.

The human soul has an amazing capacity to heal, and yet in many cases it can not.

We can look on the positive, we can preach sermons about faith and miracles and not giving up, but when it comes right down to it?

Losing my child would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me. People have healed from such a loss. I could not.

I read about a society in which parents who lost children were considered bad luck. The bodies of the children were not allowed to be buried, and they were left to rot.

One of the cruelest things about human nature is our tendency to isolate, shame, and blame those who have already suffered. It makes us feel a tiny less uncomfortable. To face the unspeakable loss of another, we must convince ourselves that we are different, we deserve better, and our relative good fortune is due to something we did or did not do. The thought of undeserved, completely random suffering sends fear to the strongest of hearts.

Yet if we face our own fears of the worst things that could happen to us, we find a strength, a resiliency, and a compassion that enables us to understand each other. We are all terrified of what could happen to our loved ones. If we acknowledge that fear, acknowledge the randomness of who experiences these losses…we affirm what it means to be human. To be human, at its most basic level, is to love one another.

Today, I hold onto the news that this five-month-old baby was able to draw a breath on his own. In between using the ventilator, he had one unassisted breath of air. His lungs and body cooperated in order to draw in air, filter out the unnecessary components, and send oxygen coursing through his body to keep his vital organs functioning.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know what eighteen years from now will bring, or what kind of quality we will have.

For now, we simply have the breath of a child.

And we are grateful.