I would expect by now I’d be an ‘old hat’ at this death business. But this is the worst one yet. Maybe I feel that way at some moment with every one- overwhelmed by grief and the ‘clean up’ tasks at hand? Ever since my first experience, my much beloved Grandfather in 1989, each subsequent one has taken me deeper and deeper. But this is the final one. Death isn’t finished with me by any means. It becomes us all. But he was the last left of those who saw me born into this world and had any care over me. He made me, and I made him a Father, as messy as that relationship came to be.
My Dad moved from California to Oregon in 1983. I was 10 years old. And it was at that pivotal moment that he decided he was going to stop being the Father every child needs. He had promised to write me every Sunday though. A small cushion. I held tight to that promise for years even though I never received a single letter from him. He was a deeply broken man and it took me a lot of years to sift through my own heartache and to tame the deep wound caused by his utter abandonment of me.
I distinctly remember the shift, like a literal heavy clink of grinding gears in my soul. I was maybe 19 years old, a very young mother of two children at that point. And I finally just stopped hoping he would be what I needed him to be. I came to accept that my Dad was never again going to be an available, capable adult, there to offer me anything I could take in support of my own life, that he was incapable of being a soft place for me to land. And I chose to love him anyway, to accept his brokenness, to have compassion for it, and to carry him even if he could never again carry me. And so for years I sent him Father’s Day cards, birthday cards, Christmas presents, letters and photos. I didn’t get a single card or letter in return. Ever. Not even a phone call on my birthday. In the 40 years he lived in Oregon I saw him four times. One of those times was the summer right after he left when I was still just a child. Twice he came to California to visit me and meet his grandchildren, at my constant urging. The last time I saw him was in May 2016 when we flew to Oregon for business and I spent some time with him. That’s when this photo was taken.
So to say I had a complicated relationship with my Dad is an understatement. It was fraught with deep, heavy emotions, a whole lot of woundedness, and to maintain a relationship with him required me to carry him all the way through, until the end.
I wholeheartedly believe a lot of my Father’s isolation, his distance, his refusal to come to Texas to allow me to care for him was the result of his unresolved guilt and his own childhood traumas that resulted in two failed marriages, two abandoned children, and never being able to be in a relationship again. And his traumatic brain injury he suffered in the early 1990’s certainly contributed as well. He almost didn’t make it through that. There were lifelong consequences that slowly eroded his cognitive health.
But what do you do as your parents age? I heard it from my Grandmother- she despised being treated like a child, as if she was incapable of maintaining independence. I over-assumed it with my Step-Father, seeing him as the protective, large and wide-shouldered strong guy who could handle everything, and me failing to see him as vulnerable and needing protection contributed to him dying in a manner I wouldn’t want anyone I love to die in. And so, I made an offer to my Dad. It was an offer most wouldn’t refuse. He didn’t have to live with me. He could maintain his own space and we could come visit him, help out when needed. But just as my Grandmother had done, he refused it. I had no choice but to just wait for the next phone call.
After that letter inviting him to come to Texas we had the longest conversation we’d had in years- sometime after March 2021, but before early 2022. When we hung up I was in tears. My Dad had a way of doing that to me anyway, a way of poking my sides with the sharpness of his woundedness. Every obstacle he placed I offered a solution until he was backed against a wall, and then he simply said, “I don’t want to come to Texas. I’m not coming. Don’t worry- I’ll just have my ashes shipped to you in a box.” After nearly 40 years of a relationship on his terms, that was the turning point between us. I knew I was willing to not just carry him until the end, but bear the burden of all his crosses as well. And he knew we were talking about the end- his death. He made his choice clear. I wasn’t angry. I was incredibly sad. It was hard enough that there wasn’t the level of reciprocity one would hope to have in relationship with their parent, but now he was even rejecting my more serious and committed offer to care for him in his last years of his life. He was denying me the privilege of carrying him into death as he had carried me into life.
My tears were not just about him being emotionally unavailable to me once again. I had long let go of that hope and knew his limitations. My tears were also about the pain in realizing that many people truly do choose the way they want to die, and specifically my Dad was choosing the loneliest, saddest, and most abandoned way he could have. It was that moment I knew he would die alone, and that his body likely wouldn’t even be found for days or weeks, as no one was there to check on him, to care for him because he had pushed them all away. And yet I cared. I loved him. I persisted until the walls he built were so high there was no way I could climb over them. I persisted long, long after everyone else had given up. But I couldn’t make him accept my love any more than I could make him love me in the ways I needed him too. He was choosing to die alone when there was so much love I had to offer, and vicariously through me carrying him all those years, my children and grandchildren had to offer as well, even though he made no attempt to be in relationship with them.
The last time I talked with my Dad was when he called me on 2/22/22. The numbers of that date have taken on a relevance beyond just irony. I had become used to him not answering my calls and not being able to leave him a voice mail, so I answered with immediate concern on the rare occasions he did call. It was the usual brief conversation- 4 minutes and 7 seconds. He asked for my address again- his poor memory recall and ability to organize information had made this kind of thing a regular occurrence over the years. He announced he was sending me a t-shirt- the one with the picture of me on it. I know it well. (This isn’t the exact photo, but it’s similar. I’ll have to track down the exact one and place it here for Dad, as it’s what he held onto of me).
Back in the 1970’s-1980’s it was a rare treat to get custom-made t-shirts with photos printed on them. The photo he had printed on this t-shirt was one he took of me at the park. As a young child I often found myself the subject of Dad’s love for photography. So many of my early childhood photos are ones Dad took, back when he took me shopping for an Easter dress every year, and I was the center of his world. Back when his wounds were more subtle, more hidden, and while they did cause him to do things I am certain contributed to his later decisions, back then I only knew the love of a daddy, and how much I adored him.
I was shocked he still had the t-shirt. That carried out into my obviously rhetorical question, “you still have that thing?!” Yes. He wore the shit out of it until he eventually retired it as a museum piece in his closet. And when you don’t have relationships with people, this is what lost connections amount to- collections of things that represented them and the love and loss. That he wanted to give that to me is telling.
That t-shirt never came, just like the letters he promised to write every Sunday never came. But again, I had long let go of hope and had come to peace and acceptance of my Dad and his capacity, even as I can still feel the sting of pain and disappointment that little girl felt every time she checked the mail for years, waiting and hoping.
That was just Dad.
But I silently wondered- is he clearing out his closet? Is he getting rid of things? Why now?
The conversation took a sharp turn when he said something to me he’s never said, after all the platitudes about how my husband and all my kids were doing of course. He said, “you’ve been a good daughter.” And that was that. My red flag went high. I asked, “Dad, are you okay? Is everything okay?” See, that’s another thing. I spent many years of my childhood hearing of, knowing of my Dad’s suicidal ideations. In that period of time I was living with him after his second divorce and before he left for Oregon, on a few occasions he even directly stated to me that he might not return home from work, that his car might just swerve off the road over a cliff. I know that might sound cringe-inducing to share this so bluntly, but my childhood was so full of trauma, unbelievable trauma, that this just actually felt normal. I’m not suggesting I wasn’t affected by it. Sure, it scared me. Sure, I felt powerless as a 10 year old and didn’t know what to do about it. But it wasn’t even close to the most scared or powerless I’d felt. It’s just my Dad. He spent his entire life with a steady level of dysthymia that was persistent, unrelenting, and sometimes he dipped down into a major depressive episode. I never knew him any different.
So I immediately thought maybe Dad was suicidal and he had a plan. It sure the hell did feel like a “goodbye.” But he assured me, as I went down a list- “is your health okay? Do you need money? Can I do anything for you?” In fact, he seemed annoyed by my inquisition and snapped something about not needing to be taken care of, and then trailed off the conversation. This wasn’t our usual way of interacting. I knew not to press in too deep, but I was concerned. Dad wasn’t much of a talker, if I didn’t make that obvious already. And as wordy as I am when I write, I kinda get that trait from him. Mostly it’s just the platitudes and small talk that irritates me, and with Dad we just couldn’t go deep, so the conversations stayed brief with lots of micro-language in between all the words. It’s not that conversations were tense or awkward. Rather, they were familiar. He was familiar. Even in a sentimental way. And I could sense him leaning in rather than out. So it wasn’t as difficult as I may be making it seem. It was just brief, fleeting, and limited. Sometimes he would ask me the hard questions, and I never hesitated in giving him the real answers. But conversation was also predicated on the level he wanted to show up at and the depth he wanted to maintain. The times I tried to scratch down into the surface the dragon would rear up and blast me with his fiery breath. And the same story loop would play again- how his Mother tried to kill herself, his sister, and him by running the car head first into a tree when he was 3 years old. And the blood on his cut head- trauma through the lens of a 3 year old. And how she spent the next 20 years locked up in the state mental hospital, receiving shock treatments until she wasn’t able to even remember she was a Mother. It’s a story I grew up hearing more times than I can count and was the only thing I ever knew of my Grandmother.
My Grandmother who laid in an unmarked grave for 45 years until my own commitment to ancestral reconciliation work compelled me to lay a headstone for her.
He seemed stuck. He could never go beyond the story, could never ask himself the harder questions that might uncover a darker truth. And in his telling there was always this palpable resentment towards his Mother that held up the entire story. That resentment often seemed to spill out towards all women really, and although I didn’t experience it as a child, I felt it as a grown woman. But I don’t want to paint the picture that my Dad was this uncompassionate asshole so into himself that he couldn’t love his own children. He had a deeper bond with his sister than most adult men do with their sisters, and she was the reason he moved to Oregon in the first place. He lived with her almost the entire time he’d been in Oregon, and when she got sick with cancer he cared for her all the way until her own death.
As a child I had a number of difficult experiences. One of those was the period of time when my Mother stopped talking to her parents, the only grandparents I had ever known and with whom I had a very bonded relationship. They adored me and I adored them. So when Mom stopped contact with them I also was not allowed contact. It was during Dad’s bi-weekly weekend visitations with me that he took me to visit my grandparents. It was something my Grandma talked about all the way until her own death at 97 years old. Like any human being my Dad had his dark side, his pain and trauma, but he equally had integrity and has maintained moments of connection, compassion, and love. I don’t know what it was that broke him. I just know the period of time after his second divorce was really dark for him, he made the decision to leave his children behind and move in with his sister in Oregon, and he was never the same again. It seemed the story became him.
But I didn’t get even deep enough to draw out the story this time. I expressed my concern, tried to make sure he was okay, and he just wasn’t going to have any of my concern. That’s the last time we spoke.
Two months later I got a call from the local police department asking me about my Dad. They got a call to do a welfare check on him, as he didn’t show up for an appointment and the provider was concerned. It seems it wasn’t just my calls Dad wasn’t answering. He wasn’t answering his phone at all, and again, his voice mail wasn’t set up to hold voice mails. But the policeman located Dad and ascertained everything was fine. He simply missed an appointment.
Oh, I called Dad several times, worried. No answer. No opportunity to leave a voicemail.
A year after that last 4 minute and 7 second conversation there was another call for a welfare check. The same policeman called me- he had my phone number saved in his phone. This time a neighbor tenant observed my Dad outside, trying to get into the secured gate for an hour and a half, seeming to struggle with the most basic task of finding the right key and putting in the right code. When the policeman called me from the scene I could hear my Dad in the background. He was alert, coherent. He wasn’t drunk- I asked. Although I knew my Dad had a history with alcohol, mostly going to local bars and drinking too much, he also had, as far as I knew, been sober for years. He said he was anyway, within the short sentences contained in 5 minute conversations over the years. I had no reason to believe otherwise. But then, maybe he had fallen off that wagon? Maybe his dysthymia had rolled him over into a darker place and he resorted to an old familiar way of trying to deaden the pain? But no, that wasn’t it. So the policeman tried to walk Dad to his apartment, and again Dad was unable to retrieve the code from his memory to get into his own apartment. So, me on the phone again, the officer asking me if this seemed normal for my Dad, and me certain that while Dad’s cognitive health had been declining it was never to this degree as far as I knew, the officer talks Dad into going to the hospital to get checked out. As they’re putting him reluctantly into the ambulance the officer tells Dad that he has me, his daughter, on the phone. “Who?”
“Your daughter Aimee”, he states again. “Aimee”, dad asks? But he didn’t ask as if he didn’t know who I was, didn’t recognize me. He asked with a sharp jab in the side, like he knew exactly who was on the phone and he was irritated that they involved me. He made it clear he didn’t want to talk to me.
But my Grandmother had dementia in her last months of her life, so I had experience with this type of situation and had learned to not take her moments of verbal aggression and rejection personal. If anything that moment just raised more of a concern about Dad’s cognitive health. The officer was kind and informed me of what hospital they’d be transporting my Dad to. And I called and got enough information to know they were keeping him overnight, and was given a room number. I called the nurse’s station and tried to inquire about his state of health, and to let them know if he became incoherent or unconscious as his only ‘next of kin’ I was available to help make decisions- a role I unexpectedly found myself in decades earlier when Dad had his severe brain injury that required immediate surgery. The nurse would not tell me anything and suggested if I wanted to speak to my Dad I should call his room. I did that too. Multiple times. There was never any answer. I was mostly concerned about how he would get back home, and if his cognitive health was intact enough that he would be able to take proper care of himself. So when I didn’t get any answer I called the nurse’s station again the following day and she was quite firm and even hostile with me. She made it clear my Dad was awake and able to answer his room phone, and if he wasn’t answering it maybe he just didn’t want to talk to me. And of course his cell phone was in the same state it had been in for months- went straight to voice mail with a message that his voice mail had not been setup to record and store messages.
He obviously found a way home. But I never did learn what had happened to make my Dad become so cognitively challenged and disoriented in that episode, or if he may have had some kind of condition that would make him prone to these episodes. This was in February 2023.
Dad’s 75th birthday was August 12, 2023. I used to send cards, but I stopped doing that for a whole bunch of reasons. Some of that was just my emotional exhaustion. My mom died unexpectedly in 2014. That took a lot of emotional and spiritual work for me to wade through and come out on the other side. Four years later my Step-Dad died in a very difficult manner. And then 2 years after that my Grandmother died, also in a very difficult manner. And then there was COVID amidst all this. It was a lot.
I’m still wading through my Grandmother’s paperwork and getting it all sorted. We still have a storage unit full of my Mom and Step-Dad’s belongings, what was left after everyone took what they wanted of what my parents had packed to take to Panama with them. But I did try to call him. I don’t know why I expected any different than what had become the usual. I had a small hope that it being his birthday he would know I would call him and he would turn his phone on, and/or answer it. But he didn’t. On the thought maybe he just had me blocked I called from my husband’s phone. I called from my second phone I use for business. It was the same response- straight to voice mail and a message about the system not being setup. I was growing concerned, but there was nothing acutely out of the ordinary, as the pattern of his avoidance and lack of communication had gone on for 40 years, and more noticeably for at least two years. His voice mail hadn’t been set up since 2020, and he hadn’t been answering his phone for months. It was a slow, slippery path.
So I thought I would write him. That worked in the past- at least would prompt him to eventually call me. On August 22, 2023 I started a letter. It took me a few days to work on it a bit here and there. In letters of this type I choose my words carefully and labor it with great care, so it takes a lot from me. Nevertheless I continued to work on it until I got to 1937 words, and then it just hung there for a bit. I don’t know exactly why, but I was struggling to get back to finish it. I had it on my “to do” list, and I literally had it as the second priority to finish and mail off before we leave on October 3rd for our extended trip to Ireland.
That was the last thing I wanted to write about in the letter- our upcoming trip to Ireland and how I was going to do ancestral work with his side of my family- specifically his Mother’s lineage. And maybe that’s why it was so hard for me to finish it. I knew I would be flaying open some wounds.
But that letter never got sent because it never got finished.
On September 25, 2023 I got another late afternoon call from the local policeman- the same one I’d spoken to the couple times prior. A local postal worker had called the police suggesting a welfare check be done as my Dad hadn’t checked his mail in over a month. We went through the usual set of questions and he said he was going to head over to my Dad’s apartment and check on him and would get back with me after. Hours went by.
And then the call. They found my Dad dead on his bedroom floor. It appears he had been there approximately a month. There were no signs of foul play and it appears to be of natural causes.
He said he was going to have his ashes sent to me in a box. But that didn’t happen.
That was my Dad.
And this was his death.
I am beyond sad that he died alone and his body laid there for so long before anyone noticed. But I knew it was going to happen exactly like this. Knowing doesn’t make it any easier when it happens. It’s hard not to be angry about it. But then, even after all the death I’ve experienced I am wondering if we truly do get to choose? When I knew it was going to be like this and he knew it was going to be like this, how much of it is succumbing to destiny?
Two days later, having spent the past two days notifying the couple of people who needed to be notified, Dad’s cremation arranged, making sure his property is secured, his rent is paid, his storage unit doesn’t auction off his belongings, and his mail is being held until we can make the arduous journey to Oregon after we come back from Ireland, and I’m just feeling the need to take the time to tell his story while it’s fresh on my heart- as intricately entwined with mine as it is as the storyteller. My version doesn’t even begin to compare with what his would be- the fullness of his life even in the brokenness. And maybe the emptiness too. I know he loved. I know he lost. And that’s something. He had two children, six grandchildren (two of which he didn’t know about), and five great grandchildren. And that’s something too, even if that part of his story is what he didn’t know of the families he was here to create, who stand on his shoulders whether they knew him or not. But in the end my story is the only story left to tell, because I am the one who has carried him and will continue to carry him until my own death. And that’s what we leave behind of ourselves- not our own experiences, but the experiences we’ve shared with others, how we’ve taught them to love, to be loved, to live, to die- how to be human.
Maybe when I get to Oregon I’ll find that t-shirt he intended to send me. And maybe I’ll discover other things about my Dad, other aspects of his life that I wasn’t familiar with. I don’t know if I was a good daughter. My Dad seemed to think so enough that he told me I had been. I can find some kind of comfort in knowing he didn’t feel I had abandoned him. Yet I still feel the incredible sadness that he died alone and his body laid there so long. Even though I knew this was coming, it isn’t easy for me to accept his destiny. It’s not the way I wanted it to go down. Yet to honor him and his life I must also find the way to honor his death. I must suggest the timing of his death is beyond irony as we steady to leave for an epic ancestral trip we’ve been planning for the past 5 years.
One thing genealogy research has proven to me is the official certificates don’t tell the story. I will never know for certain the day my Dad died. By law Oregon will list his date of death as the date he was found- 9/25/23. They will also list his location of death as “home” and his cause of death as “natural.” A hundred years from now, if no one is there to tell the story, it would be so easy to imagine a quiet, peaceful home death surrounded by family. In reality “natural” just means we don’t really know because no one was around to tell us. The likely truer peaceful death, supported by a room full of loved ones, is the one that’s listed as “metastatic carcinoma of the colon.” That’s when we’re given the opportunity to know what’s coming, and to get our shit together, and to draw near. But it doesn’t always happen like that either. Those are parts of the story that MUST be told, must be held, carried. Because no matter what, one’s birth is only half the story and how we go out is just as important as how we came in. In telling the story of my Dad’s death I find hope that I am helping to create people of depth who can show up fearlessly to my own, when my time comes, and that I have the opportunity to set the table for it, even if it’s deemed a “tragedy.” Because that’s the thing we don’t necessarily control- the cause and manner. This is where the Mother Death, Muerte Madre brings us close to Her fires. This is where Destiny paves the way forward with each step we take until the only way forward is The Way.
I hope that in all I’ve said here I’ve carried my Dad in guarded authenticity and that my Love for him is obvious, but that I’ve also made the invitation into Death less threatening and seated Her back where She belongs- in the sacred spaces that reinforce our humanity and remind us of our work here, our impact on others, and the legacy we leave of ourselves sewn in to those we care for.
Fly high, Dad.