I know that death has a profound effect on those who are living. The past six months have really been rough on my family”me in particular. People close to me in relationship and proximity have passed away”a neighbor who left a young daughter behind, my husband’s aunt passed away after a long illness, my godmother died from cancer, the spiritual leader of my religion, and my mentor/mother, Leola Spann. In June, my father, Joe Sanders, passed away. I was not prepared.
My dad’s health declined rapidly about 12 years ago. He was diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes. I am told that he once went missing from his business a few days and was found wandering far away from his home. I have also been told that someone found him unconscious one time in an alley near his home. He had been missing for awhile.
My dad was an independent person. He was an entrepreneur and owned several businesses. He definitely was his own man. I see these traits in me. As a young man, my dad lived a very intriguing and somewhat complicated life. My father married my mother while he was married to another woman. I think he would deny this version, but I am not sure that he could explain it any differently. My parents’ first “marriage” was in 1955. They legally married in 1971 and divorced in 1982.
By most accounts, Dad was “married” three times. From his first marriage, there were three children, his second marriage produced 13 children, and from his third to my mother there is only me. I understand that he had a few other kids here and there. I have no idea who they are or how to find them. So, in addition to my own sister, I have 16 other siblings.
I met most of the children from his second marriage during his funeral. The excitement of meeting them was tainted by my own anxiety. Would they like me? Are they nice? A part of me wanted to be accepted by them, yet another part felt resentful, even angry. I found out that one of them lives in the Austin community. I have passed her house every day for years. Recently, I got a chance to visit with her. I have promised that I will get to know them.
My dad was found miles away from his home. He wandered into a restaurant that he frequented. The folks could see that something was wrong and called one of my dad’s friends. Dad was hospitalized and a string of illnesses followed. For a short period of time, my dad stayed with me but this was not the man I knew growing up. He was thin and seemed much shorter than 6-feet-2. This was the time immediately preceding the first of what ended up being several amputations. While living with me, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to have surgery immediately. Dad also was having problems with one of his eyes, bleeding behind the retina. His leg was not healing and needed another surgery and the other foot was also experiencing some difficulty. A few years later that leg was also amputated.
My father had terrific wit and a sense of humor. He always had something to say. Some the best advice I have ever gotten, he gave me. Once he told me that people will tell you what you should do. Most do not take their own advice, and don’t you take it either. Listen to yourself and do what you need to do for yourself and only for yourself. Do not live for other people”you will regret it. He lived this way himself. At his funeral, one of his sons said that if there was a song that embodied my dad’s life, it is the song by Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” I have played that song often over the past few months.
I had to face the reality that I couldn’t care for him anymore. I placed him in a nursing home where my dad lived for about six months, then moved into a seniors building. But his health continued to decline. He was put on dialysis. Eventually, he lived in another nursing home and finally with his oldest daughter. She is the one who cared for him during the last stages of his life. My dad was 83 when he died.
Ms. Spann and my daddy’s death took the wind out of me. I find myself needing to breathe deeply. Sometimes I feel like I cannot catch my breath. I am still very, very sad. I am a doer”I am always doing something. Lately, I have not been able to keep up with much activity. It is harder to reach me. I am not available unless I want to be. I have unplugged the phone. I do not check the messages, and I have decided that a ringing phone is not an emergency. I still tend to respond to e-mail, but I take my time.
When I got the news of my father’s death, it was early Monday morning, the day after Father’s Day. I cancelled every speaking engagement this summer, even the ones that I planned to attend later in the summer. I just could not attend. All of my activities seemed so trivial. I struggled to find the purpose of all of these meetings. Which ones are important? I found out a lot of my running about was unnecessary. I was overscheduled”something to do every minute.
My children have had an unstructured summer. No running back and forth to summer activities. I stayed home with them. I am enjoying them. They have played in the yard and around the house.
Luther Vandross died a few weeks after my father. His death reminded me of my teenage years and my friends, some of whom have also made their transition. Luther’s death and my dad’s were related to lifestyle. I started to check myself. How can I take better care of myself? Want can I do to prevent stroke, cancer, hypertension and diabetes?
I started to exercise daily. I started walking/biking at Columbus Park and going to the lakefront. Sometimes we go on family walks. I practice yoga and meditate. I am paying more attention to my diet. I am fascinated by nature and forests, so we are planning a family camping trip. I know that I get my outdoor spirit from my father. He loved to travel.
Sitting still is new for me, and it was not voluntary. I was sort of knocked down by the weight of my dad’s death. It was a forced pause in my life activity. I have had to stop multi-tasking. I cannot go to all the meetings that I have wanted to go to. I haven’t traveled as much. I have resigned from a number of boards and committees. I have worked only on one thing all summer: landscaping my backyard. I am slowly making space. Being at home with my children and my husband has given me what I needed. Hugging my kids and loving them has been healing medicine.
I wasn’t very involved in his funeral arrangement, but I’m grateful his family decided to include me as one of their family. I wished there was more that I could have done, but I don’t know if anything more was possible. I have played with the idea of doing a memorial service for my dad, just for myself, my children, and my husband, but I haven’t decided. Right now, I have his picture with a candle next to it in my mediation space. I hope the light helps his spirit find its way to peace.
I have heard it said that funeral rituals are really about the living, not those who have departed. I have to admit that, for me, it is all too true. People tell me that the death of a parent is difficult, and it takes at least a year to get back to normal. I will be patient with myself, but I don’t think I want to go back to where I was before. There is so much more to feel and see.