It looks like we are, hopefully, emerging from this miserable pandemic and it’s great to see people going about their lives, joyfully. Almost like nothing ever happened, or is happening. I hope they, we, aren’t engaging in risks that we will come to regret.
That said, this past 18 months, give or take, has been an utter living hellscape. It’s been a cascade of one grief event on top of another.
How do we even begin to navigate this into the future? How do we overcome what we’ve lost and will yet lose? Graduations, weddings, birthdays, holidays that will never happen? Not just stolen by death, but also by estrangement.
What does that future look like without our family members? Without closure for so many unnecessary and unexpected deaths? How do we navigate a divided country and world – cleaved clean in half not just by a virus – but the politicization of that virus and science?
And what do we do about families that are irrecoverably fractured – even if they haven’t died in the physical sense? They are still dead to us – removed and permanently alienated by irreconcilable differences. That’s an entirely different kind of pain than death – maybe even worse because it’s by unilateral choice. People and relationships tossed away, like soiled masks.
I can’t help but recall my ancestors divided by severe religious differences – think the 1755 Acadian Expulsion in Nova Scotia, the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France, the Holocaust in the 1940s in Europe and the edicts removing the Jews from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492. Today we marvel at these historic differences, but entire groups of people characterized the “other” as enemies. The result being that the weaker group was expelled, their property confiscated, and the people often murdered.
These last few months feel like a mass casualty event with more than 600,000 dead and that’s just in the US. It’s also not counting Long-Covid or the effects of living under lockdown and fear for 18 months. I’m positive I’m not the only one who feels this way.
That’s not considering the other, comparatively minor losses – well minor as compared to Covid. Lost jobs, school disruption, not seeing friends and family, church, weddings, missing conferences, just being able to socialize.
I’m not going to detail my personal losses, but trust me, there are many – including both close and more distant family.
In the Past
Twice before in my life, I’ve experienced what I would view as cascading grief events – defined as events that arrive so fast that you can’t recover from one or more before the next ones occur and pile on top. Think of a many-layered cake.
These layers could be deaths that happen close together or other life-altering and fork-in-the-road events.
In my case, one cascade series included the death of my sister, my (former) husband’s horrific stroke which, in addition to him of course, dramatically affected both of my children and the household income. That was followed shortly by the illness of my child and the death of my beloved step-father.
Another cascade series of grief events included the deaths of both of my brothers just a few months apart after concurrent battles with cancer, followed shortly by my nephew.
During this past 18 months, between Covid and other things, the number of family members lost is approaching 20 and that doesn’t include friends and their families. My husband lost his oldest and best friend.
I fear we aren’t finished yet. One of my close family members is gravely ill and her brother just died a month ago. My God, will this ever end?
Not to mention events that should have been celebrations have turned out to be anything but. This past month has been awful, just when I thought we were about finished.
Other people must be overwhelmed too. It’s like we’ve been in a war with a microscopic virus, then we began battling within our own ranks.
As I see other people out having fun, I want to be carefree like that too. While the pandemic is receding, at least somewhat, the grief and shock of what happened in the blink of an eye during the past 18 months have not. Someone said to me today that seeing people acting like nothing has happened just causes them to feel even more isolated in their grief.
Life will never be the same, or even close, for millions of people.
How do we cope?
So, I have to ask myself, how did my ancestors deal with situations like this? Many of them buried several children and they, themselves, survived pandemics of typhoid or worse, Bubonic Plague. Many, if not most had multiple spouses due to death. The church registers are full of deaths attributed to “the Pest.”
In the 1600s, war raged for 30 consecutive years in Germany, killing millions and depopulating much of the country.
WWMAD? What would my ancestors do? It seems like I’m always looking backward for inspiration and grounding.
I mean, they managed to make it, or I wouldn’t be here. Surely I have some of their mettle in me!
I didn’t know my biological father as an adult. He passed away when I was a child.
I was very fortunate that my mother married a wonderful man who earned the name, “Dad.” He was everything a father could have been, and more.
Dad was a quiet man, which was probably a good thing because my mother and I were not. He used to tell us we chattered like chickens.
I adored him. As a late teen and young adult, he was my advocate and constant cheerleader. As I age, I grow to appreciate him and Mom even more and look back across their lives to search for parallels.
It’s not like I can ask for their opinion or advice anymore. I guess that’s why we spend as much time with family as possible, so we are able to “hear” the answers and their voice in our minds as we navigate shark-infested waters later in life.
My Mom experienced at least one cascade of grief when both of her parents died within a couple of years, and she and my biological father separated, followed by his death. As jolting as that was, it’s also normal for parents to die before children.
My Dad’s situation, on the other hand, was another matter altogether.
Dad was a Rock
Dad married his first wife in 1950. Three years later, a son joined the family, and five years later, a daughter, in July of 1958.
Everything seemed perfect on the Indiana prairie farm, but it wasn’t.
Martha gradually became ill. It started with her skin and slowly began to affect her mobility.
Linda, the baby had something “wrong” as well. Linda never learned to sit up as babies normally do, and two days after Christmas in 1959, she died of pneumonia at 17 months of age.
Dad and Martha had taken Linda to the hospital on Christmas Day. Dad was never, ever OK with Christmas after that, but he hid it well. That lasted right up until I had to take my daughter to ER on Christmas morning one year.
There were always tears at the holidays that Dad tried to hide. He spent a lot of time in the barn, alone, “checking on things.” Of course, now I know what he was doing.
Dad didn’t tell me for a very long time – and then he gave me Linda’s crib blanket when my daughter was born. I think that was his most valued possession and I will treasure it to my death. That is the language of love.
He once nonchalantly explained, passing through the kitchen, that when he married my Mom, he got his daughter back – although clearly, no one could ever replace Linda. What he meant was that he had a place for the daughter-love to go😊
And I had a father to love too.
Over the next few years following Linda’s death, Martha became increasingly ill. Dad was very worried, and with cause. Eventually, Martha was diagnosed with a very rare, fatal disease – Schleroderma. He carried a short newspaper article about it in his wallet for years. Martha was apparently one of the early people diagnosed and they allowed research on her body after her death. Today, it’s treatable, at least somewhat, but still not curable. Then, there was no treatment or relief. Just slow progression.
Dad added an inside bathroom, built a frame around the tub, toilet, and bed to help Martha.
Dad explained to me that Martha had “turned to stone – from the outside in.” Schleroderma is a disease where the autoimmune system replaces normal tissue with thick, dense collagen. And yes, it begins on the skin and works its way inside, then slowly through the other organs until it kills you. Her death certificate says she died of renal failure and had Schleroderma for 2 years – but Dad said she had early symptoms before Linda was born.
That might well have contributed to Linda’s health problems too.
For years, Dad watched Martha suffer. He farmed, took care of their son, and increasingly, Martha too. He became an overworked, grief-stricken, caregiver. He knew Martha would never “get well,” even though he didn’t know how long she would be with him. He hoped against hope for a very long time, but eventually the inevitable became clear.
The chronic stress was taking a toll on his health too. He developed bleeding ulcers that required 8 or 9 emergency surgeries over the years to save his life. His belly looked like he had been in several sword fights – and lost.
In 1962, his mother died. By this time, Martha was only 40 years old, but in significant pain and nearly immobile. Dad bathed and fed her, propping her up and tried to keep her comfortable.
Their son was 10 years old.
Dad told me that he was “OK” so long as he could talk to Martha, but as the illness consumed her, she became less and less cognizant and eventually, she lapsed into a coma. The machines kept her going artificially, at least for a while.
Dad finally removed the machines – a final act of kindness. In his words, “she was already gone.”
On a late June day in 1968, instead of plowing and farming, Dad sat by Martha’s side as she passed from this world – only 45 years old.
He buried the second person in the family plot he had purchased a few years earlier when Linda died.
Their son did not cope well with his mother’s illness or death. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if Martha already had the beginning of the disease when she was pregnant with him. His life, too, was unexpectedly short.
The 1968 Cliff
Dad was 48 years old and had spent almost his entire adult life married to a spouse he loved deeply, but who would slip away from him inch by inch as he bore silent witness for someplace between 10 and 15 years of their 18-year marriage.
This is the definition of living Hell. Also of love.
Oh, the irony.
Dad was a farmer, an occupation that is a 24x7x365 job. You don’t get vacations or breaks. Ever.
He told me one time that was probably a blessing, not a curse, because it occupied his mind and forced him to go on.
He also had a son to raise who had watched his mother deteriorate for his entire life.
Other men would have succumbed someplace in that nightmare, but not Dad.
Now that Martha was gone, he had a decision to make. He chose donuts!
I met Dad after he joined Parents Without Partners after Martha’s death, sometime around 1969 or 1970. Dad found himself living alone and reached out for human companionship. I’m sure those walls closed in on him after a while.
Dad navigated those grief-filled waters by giving back. He fixed everything for everyone. He would finish his chores on the farm, change out of his “farm clothes” and drive to town. He bought boxes of donuts and dropped in on people with a snack and tools to fix whatever was broken.
There were enough people in the Parents Without Partner’s Club that he visited each household maybe once a month or whenever someone needed help with something. Often, the homeowner asked him to dinner in exchange. Everyone benefitted.
And – he developed a crush on Mom. I probably gained 10 donut-pounds and our house was never more well-maintained😊
Mom and Dad’s wedding in September 1972
Mom and Dad were married in September of 1972 at Judson Baptist Church, the little neighborhood church on the corner. Before they married, Dad talked to his son who was hospitalized, and me – kind of asking our permission.
Dad got a wife and daughter, Mom got a husband and son, and I got a Dad and brother. We were all happy – our little blended family.
Life was good once again on the farm. However, there were reminders everyplace. I would ask about something, and the answer would be that Dad made it for Martha, or that baby photo was Linda. I didn’t realize how painful those questions must have been for Dad.
But I surely do now.
Every Memorial Day, as well as other times, Dad would slip away to the cemetery. I think he went to talk to Martha and Linda. I bet he talked with Martha before asking Mom to marry him. I surely am glad that she agreed😊
While my losses over the past 18 months or so are different than Dad’s, grief salad is still grief salad. Dad also never had to deal with social media hatefulness or a pandemic on top of everything else, thankfully.
His Hell lasted for roughly 15 years. This has been much shorter but involves more people. Grief can’t really be compared.
Dad didn’t have the opportunity to recover from one event before the next one arrived. Those events were connected and overlapping, possibly due, at least in part, to Martha’s horrific illness.
Fifteen years of living in a constant state of grief is an overwhelming burden for anyone to bear. I still can’t believe it didn’t consume him. If his bleeding ulcers are any indication, it nearly did.
Yet, he never talked about it. I had NO IDEA of the magnitude of what that man withstood and somehow recovered from until after he was gone and I began looking back, piecing things together from tidbits in my own search for answers.
In 1993/1994, I too was incredibly overwhelmed with my spouse’s stroke, two children who were not doing well, one who left the family, Dad’s terminal illness which made Mom a wreck. I did talk with Dad from time to time, even though he was hospitalized, drifting in and out of consciousness and I was trapped in another state.
Thankfully, I was able to visit him in person towards the end. Dad was still Dad, bemoaning the fact that he was not healthy enough to help me with my situation. He was also a realist and knew exactly what was happening.
Truth be told, he helped me far more than he knew:
- Dad told me to take care of myself – because you can’t take care of anyone else otherwise. He would surely know.
- He told me to put one foot in front of the other every day and just keep moving forward. Some days, that defines success.
- He told me to rebuild my life with the tools I have at hand – because no one is going to do it for me. He assured me I could do it. I wasn’t convinced.
- He told me that this “chapter” would end and I would be happy again someday. At that moment, I seriously doubted that I would ever be alright.
- He explained that anyone who isn’t good to me isn’t worthy of me and it doesn’t matter who in life you’re talking about. That also applies to children and animals. He was dead-on right.
- He told me to find small things that bring joy and wonder, because they lead to more joy and wonder. I can’t help but think of him looking over his fields and sitting outside under the tree.
- He told me not to look backward – that the future is not in that direction, the past can’t be changed, and it would only make me sad. And that is not taking care of myself.
- He told me that either I would consume “it,” integrate “it,” and go on in spite of “it,” or “it” would consume me. I’m pretty sure “it” is grief. Although maybe “it” is generic.
- He told me it comes down to sink or swim, and the decision is mine to do either.
- “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” He never swore in front of Mom, so this piece of wisdom was reserved for when she was not present. I still laugh when I hear this.
- He told me it’s OK to be tired, and discouraged, and to take a break. But DON’T GIVE UP.
- Never give up.
- He assured me several times that I could do anything I set my mind to.
- The damaged places become the strong places. As a teenager, he used to show me welds on farm machinery to prove his point. He explained about iron and fire, something about the strongest steel being forged in the fires of Hell. I just rolled my eyes. He laughed and gently pecked me on the head with his finger, saying “don’t forget.” At that time, I had absolutely NO IDEA what he was really telling me. I get it now, in spades.
- The last time I saw him, he told me he was proud of me and always had been. I felt like I was failing miserably at the cascade of grief events that I was navigating poorly. He assured me otherwise.
- He gave me a tattered, folded copy of Invictus, also out of his billfold, folded and tucked behind my picture. I was trying not to cry in front of him, but that did me in.
- He said, “Don’t ever forget that I love you. I’m the luckiest man on earth to have two wonderful wives and two wonderful daughters.” I wondered aloud about his miserable years watching Martha die. He told me that he had been honored to be able to care for her, that he loved Linda, and that they had gotten him to me and Mom. And he loved us beyond this lifetime.
- Love is forever.
- And, “I will always walk with you.”
And he has too. Like, now, for instance.
We both knew he was leaving soon. I thought I would die. My heart was crushed, then, as it has been recently, but I kept repeating his words over and over to myself at his funeral. He gave me hope for the future, and at that moment, I had none.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that his interminable sense of humor showed through then too. He was literally late for his own funeral. I laughed and cried at the same time. How is that even possible?
After the funeral, I went back to the farm and dug up a few phlox plants and ferns that live in my yard today, having moved twice and multiplied prolifically.
Dad’s ferns have filled my garden, just as his love fills my heart.
Dad is with me every time I look at these with joy and wonder and remember his ferns beside the house at home.
These would make Dad happy. They make me happy, and I’ve passed them on as well.
Thank You Dad
Never give up, he said. I need to hear those words in the darkest of nights. Never give up doesn’t always mean staying on the same path. Sometimes it means to row steadily – but in a different direction.
Family is not always about blood, but about who we choose to spend the future with – who we choose to love and integrate into our lives. Who we choose to cherish – and those who cherish us.
Clearly, I survived what I came to call the “Decade from Hell” – the 1990s.
That’s when I began making care quilts for others with my wonderful friend Connie who had also lost a child.
I eventually moved and remarried too, a decade later, just like Dad had.
I re-immersed myself in genealogy, then genetic genealogy as my youngest child transitioned into adulthood.
Yet, here I am again, awash in an avalanche of concatenated grief events – overwhelmed by the immensity, depth, and duration of it all.
Maybe this is one of those “rhythm of life” things. Waves in the endless ocean.
Perhaps grief is a season.
The Path Forward
I find myself seeking out and following Dad’s wisdom once again. It seems timeless and ageless. I’m not at all sure that he was talking to the me of that time and place. It feels like he was talking to a future me that would need to hear his message.
I’m still making care quilts and writing articles to help people. Don’t worry, I don’t plan to stop researching my ancestors or writing anytime soon.
And I’m absolutely focused on looking forward and creating a modified future – although grief events keep rearing their ugly heads like blood-seeking sharks. I will survive this too.
Once again, I’m not going to remain where there are constant reminders. It’s time for this chapter to close and another doorway to open.
I’ve begun the process of cleaning out, purging, throwing away, giving away, and selling things. I’m finding the process cathartic even if it’s a bit overwhelming. How did I accumulate so much stuff? And what do I do with all of these genealogy files? I’ll figure it out.
I’m going to step into the next chapter, someplace else, lighter and less burdened. There are so many things I won’t be doing any more that I haven’t enjoyed for a long time. The pandemic has made me reconsider a lot.
There will be a rebirth, a new beginning. The Phoenix rising from the ashes of the old.
One of the pandemic’s gifts has been that we now realize that we can work from just about any place with a decent internet connection. One less thing to bind us and one more avenue to free us.
Thank you, Dad, for your incredible example of courage and resilience. Your life-well-lived lessons in the face of adversity are ever so much more effective than any words could have ever been.
But mostly, thank you for choosing me as your daughter, being my forever Dad, and walking with me.
I love you.
Happy Father’s Day.