Or would we, while stumbling through this exhausting, frazzled season of empty chairs and hollow celebrations, prefer to find a way to forget—ignore, erase, mute, move past—those we loved (hated) the most . . . and miss (don’t miss) the most?
Fill in the blank for you: holidays are the most __________ time of the year.
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That’s me in the photo above. On the left. (Oh, you guessed that?)
My hair is gray now.
Dad, the guy in the sweater, has been dead for over five years. This upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas will be the sixth time I have not shared a special Mom-cooked-meal with him at the head of the table. He would be wearing a sweater or jacket, certainly a tie, and would’ve recently shaved, showered, and splashed on some Old Spice.
Since my father’s final years were ruined by illness, those best times around the table were way more than six years ago—and seem from a different lifetime.
But I want to always remember him. Even with the anguished feelings we may have for loved ones—the searing pain of recent death, the lingering pain of old regrets, the hidden pain of secret hurts, the grim pain of guilt, the never-let-go pain of tragedy—I don’t want to enter into a holiday season hoping to forget my past.
The picture* I’ve posted was from way back in the last century. I’m now closer to the age Dad was in this photo. We are a study in contrasts, my Dad and me. See my wild hair and silly beret. Dad, well, not much hair! He is wearing a favorite sweater, one he was “forced” to wear at my wedding. My wife and I were hitched in Yosemite and Dad left his fancy suit at home, hanging on a closet door. Hey, the ceremony was in the mountains. He looked great in his sweater!
I gaze at this photo.
I can never remember my father telling me that he loved me. It was how he was raised. It was the “silence” of his men-don’t-share-feelings generation. Did he love me? Of course! But hearing the words can be nice. See . . . pictures and regrets, holidays and melancholy.
I gaze at this photo.
I cannot remember the last time we really talked. Really had a fun, back-and-forth, father-and-son, laughing-and-joking talk. I’ve written about this “absence” before; it’s one of my most painful (lack of) recollections. Not long after my Yosemite wedding, Dad’s hearing started to fade. It got worse. At a mysterious point when he could no longer detect the trill of a bird’s call or the rustle of wind or a voice on the phone, dementia barged into his “house.” It boarded up his memories and evicted his personality. Once we had rollicking conversations—politics, football, bragging on his insurance business, golf with my older sister—and then there were none.
He could be abrupt with words, stubborn, suspicious, biased (often against Democrats), and randomly critical. And he thought the Lawrence Welk Show was great television. Don’t we all have faults? He had his share. I have mine.
But Dad also had a basketball hoop attached above our garage. Just for me. And—here, the memories can bring tears of love—he stayed outside on summer evenings, playing catch until the long day’s light languidly disappeared. Just for me.
I gaze at this photo.
My father volunteered for the Army Air Corps in World War II. Though never experiencing combat, and rarely mentioning his military service, he did what millions of young Americans did in the 1940s: he helped save civilization from evil. Mostly though, he was proud of being a husband and father and creating a family.
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In his last months, Dad finally entered hospice care. Mom was long past exhaustion by then. She had tried to care for an old, physically intimidating man who had bursts of anger, stretches of cruel silence, and weird hallucinations. After he was placed in a care facility, which Mom hated, there were different forms of exhaustion. Visiting was a chore; not visiting was worse.
I recall the first hospice arriving to evaluate Dad. Though I could never fully understand the reasons, the nurse who spent a few moments with him decided he wasn’t “hospice appropriate.” She left. Mom, I think, felt abandoned. How could that hospice not see he was dying? That he was a wreck. Not himself?
Mom’s exhaustion didn’t mean she wasn’t resourceful. A second hospice was called for a second opinion.
They said, “Yes.”
Yes, your husband of six decades, the father of your children, your best friend, and the man you’ve loved since you were sweet sixteen, is “hospice appropriate.” Which is to say, the second hospice guessed Dad had six months or less to live.
They were right. He lived four more months.
Even with all that we know about grim cancers and failing hearts and the terrible neurological diseases like Dad’s dementia, we still make guesses about when the living will become the dying. Conjecture, hunches, and speculation are inevitable factors in medical decisions.
My practical side, which is always willing to give advice about my hospice experience, is to remind anyone seeking help from hospice that you can get second and third and more opinions. You can change hospices. You can ask for different staff. You know your loved one best. If you think it’s time for hospice care, don’t only keep it a thought. Have someone from hospice provide explanations and information. Their visit is “free.” Hey, you’ve already paid for it in the money deducted from your paychecks!
Adding hospice for my father helped Mom. It helped Dad . . . and also the facility staff that cared for him. Were there problems? Sure. But when aren’t there?
Seek assistance! Get information!! Be assertive!!!
One hospice’s “No” may lead to a second hospice’s “Yes.”
I have another side, much less practical.
On these holidays, with their empty chairs and memories, maybe bring out a few pictures to share or display. Tell stories to the living about the loved one who died. Write a letter to the loved one who died**. Whatever you consider doing, honor the truth of the relationship. For me, I can’t not write about my parents, in all of their—and my—complexity.
There can be relief at the holidays. I am glad Dad is no longer suffering. And some are glad “loved ones” are no longer causing suffering for others.
Shed tears in this season. You’ve earned ‘em. Weeping comes in many forms and for myriad reasons. For what you’ve lost. For what you never had but wish you did. For the rich memories you treasure. For the faults you can now (maybe) forgive. For the empty chairs in your life. For the chairs still filled. For the next risky steps that you will take into a new year.
I gaze at this photo.
I want to remember Dad. All of him. The best. The worst. The guy in the sweater who loved me.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
*With Thanksgiving upon us, and the December celebrations approaching, I used personal holiday pictures for inspiring my Hospice Matters thoughts and on my larrypatten.com site. If you want to read about the “other picture,” go HERE.
** On letters . . . writing a note to a deceased loved one may be beneficial. In a grief group’s “homework” that I encouraged, one participant wrote an honest letter to a loved one who’d been—let’s be polite—a difficult, damaging person. That blunt letter was really addressed to the participant’s own heart to continue and strengthen the healing. Writing it did help.by