As close as I remain to the passing of my Dad, I couldn’t help but be struck by a recent article from Joy Johnston at Cox Media Group. Joy entitled her article, “One surefire way to humble a workaholic“. In it, she writes heartbreakingly about her feelings at the passing of her own father:
I wrestled with my faults as a loving daughter. As an only child, the responsibility of caring for my parents when their health failed was solely mine. Yes, I made sure Dad never ran out of diapers or nutritional drinks at the dementia care center he lived in during the last year of his life. Since I lived 1,300 miles away and was limited in the amount of hands-on care I could provide, I allowed my mother to bear the burden of caregiving. I felt guilty, but not enough to make any sacrifices in my own life … It is better to make sacrifices now than to live the rest of your life with regrets.
That’s as sad as it is unrealistic. Perhaps more important, it’s as unfair to Joy as it is to her father.
The Hard Way
Theda Nelson, my maternal grandmother, passed away in September of 1991. When we went to meet with the minister who was to conduct her funeral service, he asked us to describe my grandmother and our relationships with her. My mother cried disconsolately. When the minister asked about the source of her sadness, my mother said she felt so guilty for not having done more for her mom, who’d spent her last years — like Joy’s father, with Alzheimer’s — in a nursing home.
The minister listened in wonder, occasionally glancing at my father and me as my mother spoke, as if he were looking for confirmation — or refutation — of my mother’s story of caring and compassion, of time management, of logistical and geographical challenges surmounted in love. We only nodded in response. When my mother finished, the minister asked almost pleadingly, “What else could you possibly have done?” My mother couldn’t answer.The nursing home happened to be in the town in which my mother worked full-time, the town in which my grandmother and my mother had been born and raised. Every day, my mother had spent her lunch hour feeding my grandmother. Every evening, my mother had gone back to the nursing home to visit her mom before making the 40-mile drive home to share supper — which, more days than not, she cooked — with my father.
My father’s funeral was more than four months ago. He and my mother had spent Saturday, January 4 — the day before he passed away — together, helping Susan (my better half in every way conceivable) and me get Susan’s new lighting shop in order. Dad was as happy as I’d ever seen him, literally singing while he worked.
At the end of the day, we hugged and kissed my parents in the parking lot as we parted, and we thanked them for their help. My Dad said, “Don’t thank us. We all spent the day together getting things done.” Nothing was more important to Dad than getting things done.
My mother called from an emergency clinic at 4:15 the following morning saying we should get there as quickly as we could. We did. At 5:17, Dad was pronounced dead. In lieu of an autopsy, his passing was attributed to a major cardiac event, neither unexpected nor debatable to any constructive purpose for an 85-year-old man with heart disease. Yet … even as recently as last night, I was replaying the circumstances of his passing and thinking, with no reasonable means of completing the thought, “If I’d only ….” And that’s my point:
I believe — I know with all of my ability to know anything — that all of us with meaningfully developed senses of love and responsibility feel, in circumstances like the passing of a loved one, that we could have and should have done more. (I recently found out a friend I hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s took his own life in 2005. My first thought? “If only I’d been there ….” To do WHAT?!) It’s a fallacious trick, a psychological trap, yet another inexplicable vagary of our human nature and our delusional preconceptions of and presumptions about control. We fall for it, every time, nevertheless.
Yes. We can all use better balance in our lives. But by the same token, we should trust the decisions we make in every moment. I don’t believe for a second my Dad would have done — or would have had me do — anything other than what I did. I suspect Joy’s Dad would echo that sentiment in regard to her. I’m sure he was proud of Joy for her sense of duty to her work. And I’m sure he was equally proud of the part he played in instilling that sense in her.
Be gentle with yourself, Joy. And thank you for your beautiful post. Your Dad smiles on you for your devotion.
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter
Because the flesh will get weak
And the ashes will scatter.
So I’m thinking about forgiveness.*
*Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter”