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SHIFTING THE SUN

When your father dies, say the Irish,
you lose your umbrella against bad weather.
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh,
you sink a foot deeper into the earth.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Canadians,
you run out of excuses. May you inherit
his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the French,
you become your own father.
May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians,
he comes back as the thunder.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,
he takes your childhood with him.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the English,
you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,
your sun shifts forever.
And you walk in his light.

– DIANA DER-HOVANESSIAN –

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“Coming to rest…”

For five years, I have been writing about my father and his gradual decline. On September 5, the 21st anniversary of my mother’s death, I sat with him outside in the afternoon sunlight. He was tired, drifting off. His hands, as always, were cold. His lungs sounded moist and when I said good-bye, I felt my throat tighten. I tried to shrug off my sadness. The relentless thought, “The end is near.” Followed by, “I’ve had this thought a hundred times before.” Our ritual, unchanged: “Bye, Dad. I love you. I’ll see you soon…” His answer always, “Hope so…”

There is no good way to die. There is no way to adjust, to prepare or to steel yourself against the loss. It happens when it happens, in the way it happens.

On October 3, the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning. “We’re sending Dad to the ER, his fever has spiked…” I breathe, I roll over and go back to sleep. I arrive at the hospital as he is being transferred to a private room; as always, in sight of the nurse’s station. Three bags on the IV pole. He is clammy and very tired.

On October 4, my husband and I visit him together. He’s alert, talkative, animated. I feed him applesauce that is left over from his lunch tray. Then some chocolate pudding. Then thickened cranberry juice. His usual ecstasy…”this is delicious! What is it?”

On October 5, my daughter Grace arrives. We have lunch in Beacon and make the drive across the county to the new hospital in Middletown. He is unresponsive, very pale, breathing hard, chest rattling. The nurse hears us trying to rouse him and with one look says, “I don’t like this.” She’s on the phone, “Code Blue.” Immediately there are ten people in the room. Two machines. A doctor, aides, respiratory therapist, nurses. They surround the bed. No blood pressure. Can’t find the heartbeat or pulse. Get the doptone. Scratchy sounds. Faint beating. It’s 4:09. I text my brother…”Dad not good. Unresponsive.”

The doctor kneels in front of me, acknowledges the DNR. The room empties. Grace and I hold each other. We text, we call family, we cry. We open iTunes and play Ode to Joy. His hands twitch, as if preparing to conduct the orchestra. Our family gathers. Twilight becomes darkness. We sit together, talk with him, touch him, hold his hands. Periodically, his eyes open a crack. His breathing gradually settles, slows…softens. Softer, slower. Space between the end of the out breath and the next in breath. Softer. The gap widens between breaths…until the last soft breath.

MOMENT OF INERTIA

It’s what makes the pancake hold still

while you slip the spatula under it

so fast it doesn’t move, my father said

standing by the stove.

All motion stopped when he died.

With his last breath the earth

lurched to a halt and hung still on its axis,

the atoms in the air

coming to rest within their molecules,

and in that moment

something slid beneath me

so fast I couldn’t move.

– DEBRA SPENCER –

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“For Fathers….”

Here are two fathers–my husband and my Dad. In so many ways, cut from the same cloth. This could be my Dad elaborating on the definition of  the 250 point word that he has just invented, laid out on the Scrabble board with absolute authority and is daring my husband to challenge. That look of bemused skepticism on my husband’s face embodying his fondness, momentary self-doubt and internal calculations–could it possibly BE a word? Or maybe they’re discussing a wager on the next football game. My father defending his position that he can only take the Navy team if my husband will give him two touchdowns. Of course, with complete seriousness, he will fabricate the article that he read last week on some random sports page saying that Navy will definitely lose by, not two, but three touchdowns! They’ve been exchanging the same dog-eared $5.00 bill for years now, betting on football and basketball–the two sports that my father played in college. It took more than a few years for my husband to catch on to this art of negotiation. To develop the capacity to make a ridiculous offer with a straight face.

I love them both and what I appreciate is their generosity, their dedication to family, their determination and their playful spirit. My father, who will be 88 next week said yesterday that, “…nothing can keep me down! I’m not going to just fade away!” Today, I celebrate these wonderful men and all fathers everywhere. HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!!

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We’re in the wondrous chartreuse time of spring. The yellow greens; trees on the edge of leafing out. I wake up filled with gratitude for my life…the richness of family, friends, good health, work that I love for which I am well paid. The gift of my father, who at almost 88, still seems young and playful in his own way…the man who continues to teach me about love and about appreciation and generosity. Here he is, against all odds, still here. I want to thank him for staying–most especially for being here for my daughters who love him dearly and absolutely. I see him gradually letting go. Whenever I visit, I find him napping in his wheelchair. He always lights up when he sees me and when asked how he’s doing, he says, “As best as can be expected under the circumstances!”

APRIL PRAYER

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.

– STUART KESTENBAUM –

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Autumn persists. So lovely, languishing. The color holding death at bay. Maples still fiercely orange, red and yellow. I feel winter at my back and turn toward the autumn that remains; the warmth of afternoon sun; the long slats of light filtering through clouds.

I visit my father who is endlessly delighted to see me. I take the usual rations of junk food that he loves–this time, pretzels dunked in peanut butter and chocolate. As he reaches for them, I press them into his grasp. His fingers seem awkward, his pincer-grabber grip uncertain. I see in him the essence of his being and all the dimensions of who he has been. The boy in knickers, organizing neighborhood boys for sandlot baseball. The naval officer–boy-man navigating the Pacific, pouring over charts and poised with sextant in hand. The executive, briefcase in hand, overcoat and gray felt hat, running to catch the train. The playful father and grandfather–silly beyond measure. The man drank and smoked and outwitted all actuarial calculations, still here at 87 years of age.

This morning I attend a meditation intensive. We do a deep and slow yogic practice–holding asanas and sounding; releasing. A thunderous sadness wells up in me and I know, in a new way, that I must let him go. That it is a generous act to release him to the embrace of what he would call, “our gracious heavenly Father.” I know, too, that he is in me…not just his lineage…not just his legacy, but a complete and lovely sense of his spirit. That years from now, I will be able to say…”Well, your grandfather would have said…” or “your great-grandfather would have said…” Or, perhaps, to simply “be” as he has been in my life.

May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be large enough for the dreams of your soul.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart
…something good is going to happen to you.
May you find harmony between your soul and your life.
May the mansion of your soul never become a haunted place.
May you know the eternal longing that lies at the heart of time.
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you be set free from the prisons of guilt, fear, disappointment and despair.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you,
mind you, and embrace you in belonging.

–  JOHN O’DONOHUE  –

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Warmer today. The temperature rises above 25 degrees. Ice flows move south on the Hudson. In the first light a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers  gore the half dead Catalpa tree by our pond. There are eight male cardinals waiting…taking turns at the feeder. Bluejays, rosy finches, goldfinches, juncos, sparrows, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and the smaller woodpeckers hunker in the brush. There are bird songs…some sense of spring gathers.

I take a break to walk with my friend Sunny–both of us hoping for snowshoeing weather. The predictions for tonight are that the pending storm will swing south of us…we’ll get a light dusting.

Later in the day, I visit my Dad, stopping on the way, as always, at the Goshen Bakery. This time it’s a mini Chocolate Mousse Tart and a piece Chocolate Cheese Cake to share. He’s in heaven…”Delectible!” he says, over and over again. He tells me that he’s been gone a lot and when I ask where he’s been, he says, “All over the place…everywhere! In fact, I just got back today.” Some thing has changed for me. I no longer feel the need to “correct” his reality–I just smile now and say, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Last month I reread Reeve Lindbergh’s book, No More Words. It is a memoir of the last seventeen months of her mother’s life…the experience of coming to grips with loss, with acceptance, with the enduring wish that things might be different, with the strangeness of a parent who becomes gradually smaller, more childlike, silent, dependent, fiercely frail, disconnected, delusional and yet still here. This along with all of the second guessing, the longing and the yearning to be close, the recognition that there is no separation, the fear, the frustration, the buffeting between generosity, obligation, resentment, compassion, deep caring and protective distancing. She captures so completely the initial stages of relating to the promise of death…how the expectation, perhaps spoken–“It won’t be long now, maybe a few months.”–begins a process of stiffening and tightening, a certain quality of vigilance and separation…and how later, there’s a softening when the predictions are past their shelf life and the preciousness of connection, regardless of how it unfolds, is enough…is, in fact, deeply satisfying and nourishing. Time and the person of the parent becomes kaleidoscopic…their youthful qualities mix with memory, humor and the poignancy of the present.

The first time I read her book, I soaked the pages with tears…seeing myself; understanding and relating to all the contrasts of her life–her visits with her mother, her times with her husband and son…the joy of the changing seasons and bittersweetness of month after month after month awaiting the inevitable. This time I cried, too, but differently…perhaps simply being moved by how much I’ve let go and allowed my own heart to soften.

ENOUGH

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath,
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
until now.

Until now.

– DAVID WHYTE –

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Right now, I’m at 36,198 feet, going 420 miles an hour with 904 miles left to go to arrive in LA. According to the screen in front of me, it’s – 75 degrees outside and we’re just crossing over the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Apparently, I’m leaving behind the first winter storm. It was balmy and moist at 5:30 this morning. Petunias were still blooming in pots on our deck when we left for the airport. According to CNN, Washington, DC is getting snow and it’s moving north. Our long, luxurious autumn season is coming to an end.

It’s been almost three months since I’ve seen Dashiell–much too long for me. I can tell from our iChats how much he’s grown and changed and so often I wish I could reach through the computer screen and scoop him up and into my world. Lately I’ve been drawing pictures of farm animals and fish and snowmen and holding them up for him to see. He favors the “no-meen.” I’ve been told that they have a snow-making machine at The Grove Shopping Mall and that every night at 7 they blow snow. I guess it’s as close as we’ll get to winter for the next 10 days!

We’ll be baking cookies, decorating a tree and talking about Santa and reindeer and the Night Before Christmas…entering the world of mystery and delight–I can’t wait. In the time it’s taken me to write 229 words, we are already 289 miles closer…listen…I think I hear sleigh bells!

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