Birthdays & Grief


Today is my youngest daughter’s second birthday. She is a beautiful, clever and funny little thing. I am so glad that she is a part of our family. And yet, I feel ambivalent at best about this milestone.

Some people reflect on the past year at New Year’s Eve. I reflect on the year on my two daughters’ birthdays. I can vividly see and remember their births and each subsequent birthday. I reflect on just how far they have come – how far we both have come in the past year. And then I think about my father.

I think about all he has missed since his death over two and a half years ago. He died within days of my oldest daughter’s second birthday and while I was just weeks pregnant with my second child. I grieve all over again for what he missed this past year. I grieve for my children not knowing their grandpa.

And then I get this dropping sensation and visceral tightening in my stomach. I am angry. I am resentful. His sudden death somehow seems avoidable. I resent him for not taking better care of himself. I am angry that his death overshadows my daughters’ birthdays.

I used to love planning birthday parties for my daughters. They were epic. Ridiculous, but great. For my oldest daughter’s second birthday, I had put so much effort and detail into planning the party. A few days prior, my father suddenly died. The party suddenly seemed so pointless and stupid.

I am not pissed at my dead father for ruining my party planning for my daughter’s second birthday. I am not that shallow. I am saying his death put a black smudge on one of my simple pleasures.

And, every year, it takes my focus off of celebrating the great little human I am so happy is part of my life. A child’s birthday should be a day all about them. They are a gift in my life. Seeing the delight in their eyes about a party with all of their favorite things is my way of showing them “Today, you are the center of the universe. Your every wish shall be granted.” It is a day to count blessings not to drudge up grief.

I need to find a way to celebrate his life as a gift – to count my memories of him as blessings and share them with my girls.


Saying Goodbye


My father passed away suddenly just recently. I had the privilege of speaking at his funeral. Dad, I will miss you everyday.

Here is what I said:

Jen, it’s Carrie. Sorry it’s so late. Click.
A sheriff came to our house looking for me. Click.
It’s about Dad. Click.

I stand here unwilling to believe what has happened. I stand here unwilling to believe my father is gone. It feels like my heart keeps breaking over and over again. My mind just cannot comprehend it. It has been very difficult to find comfort these past few days, but it gives me some peace to surround myself by his things – his truck, his sweatshirt, the music he listened to, his friends, our family and my memories of him. So I thought I would share some of the memories that I hold most dear and I think define him.

As a child he taught me how to fish in the yard with a rod and reel and a line weighted down with a metal washer. He taught me how to ride a bike, fly a kite, mow the lawn, plant a flower, drive a car, change the oil, fix a flat tire, throw a baseball, swing a bat, kick a soccer ball, and shoot a basket just to name a few. He’d say, “Like this. Watch.” Then I’d watch his strong callused hands and then try it myself. “Atta girl!” He’d say. And my chest would fill with pride.

I can’t tell you anything about the volleyball, basketball or softball games I played in over the years. What I remember was playing “Horse” with my dad in our driveway after games and re-enacting parts play-by-play. He’d give Carrie or I back massages in the living room when our muscles ached. And in the summers, we’d go to the ball diamond and take grounders or go to the batting cages.

My sister Carrie has never lived down the black eye she gave him one time when he tried to catch her always powerful and sometimes unpredictable softball pitches. He called her wild thing. And he and I spent countless hours watching games together. He’d teach me the game – be it baseball, basketball or football – by picking out a player for me to watch. If we were watching the Cardinals, it was Ozzie Smith. “Now just watch. See the way he moves…, ” he’d start. Dad did not have the patience for a lot of questions. I learned how to observe and silently take in the smallest subtleties like the way a player shifted his weight or faced his shoulders. It moulded my personality.

He was always a relatively physically fit man with muscular tan arms and legs. We used to squeeze his rock hard biceps like he was the Man of Steel. Later, he’d flex that muscle as he roughly shook one of his daughters’ dates’ hands. My father had a way of silently intimidating any guy that dated one of his three daughters. He’d sit, with crossed arms and legs, and let the room fill with uncomfortable silence. I never really tried to stay out past curfew and my boyfriends never asked. Dad would be sitting at the kitchen table watching tv waiting when I got home. He would never forbid me from dating someone, but he’d sometimes give them a nickname. That meant the guy’s days as my boyfriend were numbered. He wasn’t even bothering to learn his name.

Other than that, though, I don’t really remember Dad saying anything negative to me about my choices. He would give me a hard time about silly mistakes like getting lost while driving or asking for Grey Poupon at Green Gables, but he knew when something was important to me. He might get quiet and set his jaw. Then you knew he wasn’t happy. Or, in confusion, he’d cough shortly, furrow his brow, narrow his eyes while slightly turning his head to one side like he’d heard me wrong. He did this when I told him I was going to travel around the world alone, for instance. Or when I once complained to my dad about my job at the time not being my true passion. With a derisive snort and years of experience, he’d said he had always worked to live and not lived to work.

In their own ways, both of my parents instilled a healthy work ethic in us. I think everyone who knew my father would say that he was a man of few words whose actions spoke louder than his words. He sometimes worked twelve hour shifts when I was growing up, but he’d always be there on the sidelines at one of our sporting events. Our parents worked so hard to provide for us. We always had the things we wanted.

Growing up, sports was the foundation of our relationship. Later, we’d talk about the latest books we’d read or swap views on the economy as we rode in his truck. I loved to make him smile. Whether it was my latest anecdote about travelling or living abroad or, more recently, about my daughter Evelyne, I’d always try to make him laugh until he had to wipe the tears from his eyes.

As we left the house and went off to college, living on our own, then starting families, I talked less frequently to my father than I did my mother. But he was always there when I needed his help. I can’t count how many times he’s moved one of us daughters. Every time he’d say, “Now this is the last time.”
He once moved me into a third floor walk up in downtown Chicago into a building with no elevator. He remarked ryely, “Are you sure there wasn’t an apartment on the fifth floor you liked?”

My sisters and I will forever be able to look around our homes and see Dad. He was always willing to tile a floor, replace cabinets, or paint a wall. He even flew all the way over to see me to put in a wooden floor in our sunroom. He would even babysit.

When we’d get home, we knew to walk into the garage and he’d be there on his stool. He’d say, “Hey kiddo”, ask about my trip, and offer to carry something. I’d find him there to give him a hug before going to bed. He’d be there sitting on the stool in the garage either watching tv, reading a book or researching some investment on his laptop. An ashtray with a half smoked cigar and short glass with an inch of golden Crown Royal sitting next to his right hand.

I could tell he was home by the sound of his truck door slamming or the opening and closing of the garage doors followed by his signature single cough. Sometimes you’d hear the metallic snap of his lighter as he lit his cigar. When I would be upstairs and he was coming in to talk, I would hear the kiss of the door from the garage leading into the house shut but not quite close. He’d stand at the bottom of the landing, stop to get his hanky out of his back pocket and blow his nose before he’d start up the stairs. He’d start, “Well, Jen” as if we were picking up a conversation that never ended and he’d start in on his idea. It usually involved a trip into Bloomington, stopping somewhere to eat and a stop through Walmart or Menards.

My sister Jill said that Dad taught her that people can change. Dad shocked us all when he not only once, but three times travelled over to The Netherlands to visit me. We’ve travelled to Paris, London, Ireland, Belgium and several cities in Germany as well as two concentration camps.

I have a lot of dear memories from those trips. It was a luxury just to have the time together – the easy companionship and exploring new places together. There was nothing quite like reflecting on the day’s sightseeing over a cold local beer and a hearty meal.

Of all the sites we saw, the memory I hold most dear is from our flight over to London. It is a short 40-minute trip across the English Channel to London from The Netherlands, but it can be very windy. We were in a small plane and there was a lot of turbulence that day. I fly often, but this turbulence was terrifying me. If my dad was scared, he hid it well. I squeezed his hand until we landed while he distracted me with stories. He told me about the worst flight he had been on in a little plane back in his URW days as a President. And he told me that I could squeeze his hand all I wanted because it still would not be as tight as my grandmother had squeezed his hand on a flight they took to Albuquerque. “I thought I was going to lose my hand, ” he told me. Every time I am on a plane, even on this trip home when we experienced a lot of turbulence, I hear his words echo as if he is right there next to me.

My father was notoriously hard of hearing, but never wanted to wear his hearing aid. Partly due to a motorcycling accident decades ago and also the result of years of working in a noisy factory, every conversation walked a fine line between talking louder and enunciating more than normal, but not so much as to appear condescending or draw attention. I secretly always thought this was a tactic for filtering out ‘the yapping’ as Dad would refer to idle chatter.

I will never forget the first time my husband met my father when we were dating. To fly him over to the U.S. to meet my family for the first time, I had used frequent flyer miles to book him a ticket with a ridiculous amount of connections, something like five. What could have been an eight hour direct flight had stretched into nearly 24 hours followed by a car ride down from Milwaukee. Arriving at my parents’ house, my dad greeted Theo at the top of the stairs. My dad shook his hand in greeting and in an attempt at small talk said, “I bet your tired?” Having not understood him, my husband, leaned forward and in a loud, slow voice said, “My name is The-o!” My dad’s brow furrowed and eyes narrowed in question as he looked to me for explanation as if to say, “Well shit. He doesn’t understand a word of English.”

In the end, they had a jovial relationship with common interests in investing, whisky and most of all our daughter Evelyne.

When my father became a grandfather, it opened up a new side of him that I had never seen. He would go to silly lengths to get our kids to smile. He also always managed to inadvertently teach each child their first swear word. He’d travel for hours to watch a ballgame. He’d get right down on their level and softly rub their little backs. This past summer, in true toddler form, my then 18 month old daughter, Evelyne, dramatically draped her cubby little arm over her forehead and leaned against the dishwasher to pout and cry. He’d knelt down on one knee, and leaned against the adjacent cabinet in exactly the same way. She stopped crying, turned her head to one side and peeked out at him from behind her elbow. He said, “Are you done yet?” She giggled. He offered her a Goldfish cracker. They were instant friends. From then on, he’d
just reached out his index finger for her to grab and they’d be off. She takes after Dad down to his stubbornness, love of cheese crackers, and the ‘Newsom gap’ in their front teeth.

One of my biggest regrets is that he only got to take Evelyne out fishing once. My dad was an avid fisherman. I looked forward to him teaching her how to cast and taking her out on the water like he did with me. From his grandsons to his cousins to his buddies, we have probably all fished with Dad. Growing up, Carrie and I attended the Methodist Church here in town along with my mom. When I would ask Dad why he did not come to church with us, he’d say that he was closer to God out fishing than he’d ever be in a church. It took me years to really understand that for myself. And now it gives me what peace I can find in this sad and bewildering time. There is so little we know about his last 24 hours, but we know he went fishing. So I will imagine him sitting perched on his padded chair casting a line out of his boat onto water shimmering and dazzling in the first rays of sunlight. Nothing but the sounds of the soft plop of the lure hitting the water against the background of crickets, frogs and calling birds. He was at peace.

I am who I am because of my parents. Everything I am and have is because of the values they instilled in me. My sisters and I will pass along those values to our children. And we will pass along all of our great memories. So in that way, Dad’s life will never end. If life is written in chapters, this is merely the end of one, but not the end of the book. The book will never end.

And so I stand here before you still completely bewildered and in disbelief. I ask of you each just one favour. In the coming days or years, if you see me or one of my family members, please mention my father. Please tell me a memory you have of him – not matter how small. It adds to what I know of my dad. I can get to know him better and, in a way, he will still live on. Thank you.