74 Days into Grieving My Dad

Dear Dad,

I miss you so much in ordinary little things…I’ll be deciding what to make for dinner, and thinking I’ll make something you like, and then suddenly remember that you can’t just drop in for dinner anymore. I will see someone in the corner of my eye wearing a reflective vest, and think for a second that it’s you, riding on your scooter. If a car goes by that looks like yours, my heart skips a beat, wondering if perhaps it’s you coming to visit. I still think, “Oh, maybe Dad can drive me to this appointment,” and then have to remember you can’t.

I was there when you were dying. I arranged your funeral and wept over your ashes when I picked up your urn from Kearney. I was there when you were buried, but my head and my heart are having a hard time catching up. It’s like I can’t really realize you’re gone. Often I say to myself, “I should really call Dad and catch up,” and then I remember that I disconnected your phone after you died, and why can’t I remember that? I feel like someone who is constantly waking up from a happy dream, only to have reality slap me in the face.

So many things remind me of you: the garden beds you built out front, filled with brave spring bulbs peeking out, and the planters in the backyard by the garage, your worksop, which contain the mournful remains of summer sunflowers and tomatoes, now scraggly and black, the little hooks on my cupboards which you hung up for my washcloths, and the many books on my homeschool bookshelves, which you were always bringing for the kids, whom you adored. It is hard to realize you’re gone because there are so many signs of your loving presence everywhere.

One night shortly after you died I couldn’t sleep, and went to read on the couch. I pulled a book from my Montgomery bookshelf: “Emily Climbs.” In it was an inscription from you to me as a child, “to my dearest ‘star,’ love + hugs–Dad.” Emily Starr was also very close to her gentle father, and lost him at a young age. Reading this always made me cry as a kid, because it felt like my pain in being separated from you after the divorce. I was four then, and now I’m forty, but I’ll always be your little girl, and being apart from you still hurts terribly, especially each time I momentarily forget, only to remember again. 

Loving you always, and waiting to give you a huge hug in Heaven,

Anna

The Bravery of Surrender: On the Death of my Beloved Father

There is a common misconception that safety lies in control, and that the more powerful you are, the more you can control. But one thing my Dad’s recent death from cancer taught me is the bravery of surrender.

Let me back up a little to his last month or so of life. None of us realized quite how sick he was, although we had our suspicions. All of us, his family and friends, wanted to somehow rescue him, stop the disease, and make him get better again. After all, he had already recovered from the brink of death twice in the last five or six years.

But Dad, in his quiet, firm way, never making any drama or fuss, already knew. He spent this last year, this year of horrid covid isolation, preparing his apartment for me: purging papers, decluttering, labelling, sorting, highlighting his Marie Kondo books and covering his walls with mindmaps and plans for his home, putting everything in its place so it would be easier for me to deal with when he passed.

He kept telling me enthusiastically how many old papers he had sorted and gotten rid of, and still I didn’t realize. Perhaps it was too difficult for him to tell his only daughter the words “I’m dying” out loud.

When we went to the oncologist, and heard that his PSA’s were skyrocketing, I think he had confirmation that his fight was coming to an end, and he could now let go. He spoke to me of the peace of surrendering, but I stubbornly encouraged him to keep trying. His reaction was not despair, although I know now that the news hurt him deeply, but was his acceptance of a bigger plan, in which he no longer had to grip the wheel so tightly.

Page from my Dad’s journal

At first, when the pain intensified and his body no longer wanted food, he wanted to hide away by himself. He told me he felt like a grumpy bear who kept getting woken up while trying to hibernate.

Sketch from my Dad’s journal

But when I begged him, weeping over the phone, if I could not come and do something to make him feel better, not offering food or solutions, but merely comfort, he admitted he would perhaps like to be sung to.

So the next day, with the promise of a song and a gentle massage, he let me come and see him, lying in bed with his cozy toque and scarf, and very little able to move.

The next few days were a painful dance of trying to soothe, while also encouraging him to try to keep eating…pulling out all my best mom tricks, giving little sips of juice, convincing him to let me feed him minuscule bites of kiwi on a tiny grapefruit spoon.

“It’s your baby bird diet,” I joked, while blinking back tears.

After three days of this, I was able to speak to his oncologist over the phone and ask him the hard question:

“What is my role doctor, to try to save him, or simply to soothe him in his parting?”

His clear answer was given gently and honestly: “To soothe. Within a month, he will be with the angels.”

I was devastated—but also freed. No longer did I have to fight, but to surrender, and to walk my Dad as gently as I could to the gates of Heaven.

And Dad, you let me walk you there. You didn’t hide your weakness from me, nor your pain.

A few weeks before you had been hard on yourself, feeling like a terrible disciple, because you’d fall asleep every time you tried to meditate, even now, as you were trying to prepare your spirit for the next world.

Having a gentle, loving father like you has helped me understand the tenderness of God, so I said to you: “But Dad, don’t feel bad. God knows your heart, and he knows all you’re going through. He knows you want to spend time with him. Just tell him so before you settle in to pray, and it won’t matter if you fall asleep. Just imagine you’d come over to read to your granddaughter, and she, being only two, fell asleep on your lap. Would you be mad at her?”

“Of course not.”

“Well, it’s the same with our father God. He loves you and is so happy when you seek to be close to him, even when you’re asleep.”

Not long after, you found the courage to not only be a little child before God, but before me. You let me soothe your aches and gently stroke your head until you fell asleep. Thank you, Dad, for this honour.

Thank you, Dad, for surrendering to getting more help, when things became too much for me alone, playing nurse when all I know how to do is be a mom. The bravest thing you did was give up the comfort and control of your own home to enter hospice care, so that I would not have to worry that you’d be alone, in pain and unable to get a sip of water at 2 am.

You surrendered and let yourself be carried to the hospice by the friendly ambulance guys, and after six more days, in an atmosphere of peace and prayer, you let yourself be carried to Heaven.

Since you let me accompany you to the steps of Heaven, I know you’re still so close to me while I’m on earth. Together we struggled, we surrendered, and in the end, everything was perfect.

Cookies and Milk at 3 am

Of course, after admonishing our kids not to wake up too early for Christmas (they once woke up at midnight to open the stockings on the ends of their beds) it would be me, their mom, who woke up at 2:30 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. So silly, as the kids and I had worked so hard to prepare ahead, had finished wrapping and had even stuffed the stockings and stowed them in a box days ago, so I wouldn’t have to burn the midnight oil playing Mrs Clause. Yet I woke up. Was it pregnancy heartburn, excitement, or insomnia?

Whatever it was, I decided Santa’s tradition of the post-midnight snack was a good idea and got up to have an angel sugar cookie and a glass of milk. I’d say I had a snack with Santa, but you’d know from Google Santa Tracker that he was already safely back home in the North Pole by this hour.

So while I’m up, I thought I’d take this quiet moment chance to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, despite everything, and a lot of hope for better things to come in 2021. Thank you so much to all our family and friends who supported us from afar this year, as we went through the pandemic, and through the illness and loss of my Dad, Bob, to cancer. Your loving words, encouragement, cards, flowers or food dropped at our door have meant a lot.

Shortly after my Dad passed away, in the morning of November 9th, it began snowing, which is rare on the rainy coast. “Mum, Mum,” said the kids with excitement, “Grandpa is sending us snow from Heaven with Josephine!” It’s amazing how positive and resilient kids can be in the face of loss. Here are a few pictures from our house, where we have tried to find all the joy and sparkle we can this Advent.

May God in his humble nearness at Christmas surround you with blessings and give you the eyes to see them, so the little hidden miracles of each day can shine and bring you hope.

Lots of love from all the Eastlands here at Just East of Crazy Land! Thanks for being here, making me feel less alone as I eat cookies and milk at 3 am, and await the sparkly madness of Christmas morning with 7 kids! ✨🌲✨🎁✨🌲✨

Grapefruit Spoons

Going to your apartment shortly after you died

I gather your important papers,

the things I’ll need to help take care of everything for you,

but I don’t want to touch anything else

or unsettle your calmly organized cupboards

covered with labels in your sweet hand:

“Tea,” Spices,” “Cups,” “Bowls.”

My sweetest scatterbrain Dad,

who worked so heroically hard this past year

—reading Marie Kondo and likely highlighting half the pages—

to make everything organized for me

because you knew you were dying

even when I couldn’t let myself believe it.

To me your home feels like a shrine

a testament to all the things you did last—

where you hung your bathrobe, your plaid shirt,

the dirty baseball cap that you’d wear doing carpentry in my garage.

I want to hug everything—

the blankets and sweaters that smell like you—

but don’t want to take anything

except the fancy grapefruit spoons with jagged little edges,

tiny teeth which I used to scoop out that half kiwi

which you allowed me to feed you slowly

your last week at home,

and that little quarter of yellow mango,

your baby bird diet

which I desperately hoped would somehow sustain you

when your body was too tired to eat

and your soul was ready to surrender.

These little grapefruit spoons

I tuck in my purse

and flee your empty apartment

where I wish you would come back

and let me feed you again.

Just When

Just when the weight

became crushing

and I no longer knew what to do

to make anything better at all,

and the pain was becoming too much

for you to bear

and me to see,

it lifted.

Just when words failed me

and I was running out of songs to sing you

while I massaged your aching back

or gently washed your face,

a comforter came

who spoke such words of consolation

that he drew from your own aching heart

words of hope.

Just when I cried out that I could not carry on,

could no longer bear

these birth pangs of your transition

into a new and deeper life,

the pain ceased—

a gentle day came

and you slipped out of this world

sweetly, like a baby in sleep.

Just when I felt so inadequate

to bring you any closer to peace,

everyone’s prayers kicked in

and suddenly lifted you,

as I’d promised,

straight up to Heaven

in a hot air balloon

filled with love.

The Pain that Waits in Quiet Corners

The hospice room is quiet

I can hear my dad breathing steadily in his sleep.

Not wanting to disturb him

I sit there in the half light coming from the bathroom door

clutch my hot tea

and try not to flee the stillness—

the pain that waits in quiet corners

to roll in hot tears down my cheeks.

After I eat the cookies that the sweet care attendant gave me

there’s nothing to do but sit and listen to him sleep

the way he must have so often listened to me sleep

when I was a blond and rosy baby.

Back then, all he had to do was hold me

and I was safe.

Now, all I have to do is let him go

and he is safe, too.

Both times

both hearts

aching with love.

Welcome, Baby Timbit

In my last post, “Spot the Difference” I posted two pictures that my daughter drew of our family, and asked readers to spot the difference. Perhaps you’re all too busy with summer holidays to read or comment, or were simply hesitant to wager a guess, so here are a few more pictures that should make things a little more obvious.

Here we are, in a photo taken in February, an epic moment where we all looked decently clothed (note you can’t see that my boys are not wearing socks…matching socks are beyond my powers). Gotta love the godfather-style glare from my toddler, who was not amused.

And here’s the family member who isn’t in the photo, for the simple fact that this little bean didn’t exist yet, except, as the saying goes, as a twinkle in her father’s eyes. ✨

Welcome to the world, baby!

My sister has dubbed our new little one Timbit, because this is how James and I announced the baby to our other kids: we brought home a box of Timbits and told the kids we had a little piece of news for them, one currently smaller than a Timbit. After several guesses about things like Daddy buying me jewellery or something, and a hint that the news would not stay the size of a Timbit, the excited kids realized it was a baby.

Yup, it’s kinda crazy, but at this point, may as well own the crazy. Thinking of getting such a jersey for the baby to save trouble at the grocery store: “Oh, how cute! Is this your second? Third? Fourth?”

You get the idea. Lucky #9!

More Happy Headlines

In my last post, Making Our Own Headlines, I wrote about the idea of writing our own headlines for each day, focussing on the little things that matter to us and bring us joy, rather than all the huge world news and depressing statistics. If we can each find more beauty in our days, and be grateful for it, we can bring more hope to the world.

So here are a few more of my “happy headlines.” I hope they inspire you to notice many joyful moments in your own day, and if it’s a harder one for you today, here’s sending you a giant hug, and wishes for a better tomorrow! 🥰

Bees Keep Buzzing, Blissfully Ignoring World Pandemic

There’s hardly ever I time I go into the garden without being inspired by its wild and hopeful beauty. Just keep planting seeds…and so much life keeps springing up. It always gives me hope especially as a parent, that if I keep on loving and learning with my kids, they’ll blossom in ways beyond what I can imagine.

Tired Mom Receives Home Spa Treatment from Tiny Masseuse

I was trying to put this little beastie to bed, but she decided I needed a little love first, and slathered my arm with lavender cream from Lush instead, all the while sticking out her little pink tongue in concentration.

Summer Brings More Family Time For Fancy Baking

My eldest daughter learned this recipe at a girls club; it was really fun to try it out together, and fairly simple for such a fancy looking result. I really want all my kids to be empowered in the kitchen, and to know how to take care of themselves. It’s good for them to learn to cook, and it’s a lot of fun for me not to be the lonely only chef! I really like the extra time we have to do things like this together in the summer. It’s the stuff of memories, and when they’re older, and cook for themselves, they’ll be able to recreate the taste of home.

Mother and Daughter Bring Joy to Neighbour by Sharing Home Baking

My 8 year old and I had such fun baking these mini-apple pies in muffin tins and weaving tops for them. When they were hot and ready, we brought one to our friend next door, who is a recent widow, along with flowers from our garden. She was touched to be pampered in this way, and is constantly showering my kids with yummy snacks as well. We have basically adopted each other, and our Tupperware goes back and forth over the fence filled with little sweet signs of love. “Never return Tupperware empty,” her mother told her. We are both so much enriched by this exchange, especially in these isolated times. My littlest kids love to chat with her from our back porch to hers, and feel that despite everything right now, the world is still a friendly sort of place.

Save-On-Foods Grocery Delivery Service Saves the Day for Car-less Family

Yes, I really do think the save-on drivers, and the people who work night shift to shop all night for morning deliveries, are super heroes! My kids get so excited when they come to drop off the groceries, and they almost always have a kind word for the kids, who like to help carry them to the kitchen to put away. As I have seven kids and no car, you can see why I think the save-on trucks should have capes flying off them!

Well, I realize many of my happy headlines have to do with food…I guess feeding people is my love language, and stocked cupboards make me feel safe. I am so lucky to be able to take such good care of the kids in this way, while my hardworking accountant husband slogs away to earn our daily bread. Thanks, honey.

Quarantine Self-Care: In the Toilet!

I have a special button my sister gave me once; it says, “Mom Off Duty.” She gave it to me as a suggestion, rather than a joke, cause she knows I’m not the best at taking time to recharge my batteries. This morning I found the button in the toilet. Yes, actually in it–and that pretty much sums up how my self-care is at the moment.

I’m sure this is the case for many people…working long hours from home while parenting and homeschooling, or braving the front lines in the hospitals. I loved this image my mom sent me, because it’s so fitting. Real life superheroes walk the halls of every hospital right now! Thank you brave nurses and doctors and all health careworkers!

IMG_6856.JPG

There are so many heroes right now…but even Wonder Woman needs a bathroom break (alone!), or a shower, a quiet walk, or a few minutes for a favourite hobby to restore her weary soul a bit. These moments have been scarce for me, as I homeschool my seven kids and try to make magic from what remains of rice and dried in beans the cupboard until our next grocery order comes. The other day, for example, since we were out of bread and milk, we had homemade peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and fishy crackers for breakfast, not that the kids objected much to that!

Anyway, as I’m not the queen of mamma self-care, I’m going to share a few ideas friends of mine have mentioned doing. Please comment and share your tips, too!

  1. Going for a quiet walk alone, and calling a friend to catch up.
  2. Having a daily time set aside to practice music alone, behind a locked door, without interruption “unless anyone’s eyeballs are bleeding!”
  3. Dates at home, while the kids babysit each other in another room. Snacks and a movie with your spouse, without your littlest kids climbing all over and talking the whole time.
  4. Walks with your spouse…if you’re lucky enough to have kids old enough to babysit that is. Some friends of mine in Saskatchewan even braved the rather chilly park for a lunch date!
  5. Visiting friends over Zoom, FaceTime or Skype, to have a laugh together and feel less alone. My friend Monique had a knitting date over Zoom, and I’m planning a writing one with my writer buddy Lisa Rumple, who bravely blogs about her mental health journey at The Resilient Catholic.
  6. Taking a class online to feed your mind and grow.
  7. Exercising. As a family, we like to do the daily workout with the Body Coach, Joe Wicks, on YouTube. He is funny and accessible, and requires no equipment for his 20 minute workout (30 minutes when you include the breaks). Even our toddler joins in, and likes doing jumping jacks, or as they call them in England “star jumps.” It helps that every Friday is Fancy Friday dress up day!

I think all these are great ideas to help release the pressure that builds up from being “on” 24/7. Sometimes it feels very spoiled to talk about being stressed right now, when some people are in situations that are so much more devastating. As my friend Laura asked, “When have people endured epidemic isolation from a place of such luxury and connection?”

While we are indeed so lucky to be able to connect with others from the safely of our homes, it also means that we are more aware of the suffering of others all around the world. This collective stress affects us all; I don’t see the use in pretending it doesn’t.

So we need to find ways of releasing that stress, so it doesn’t silently build up like the little bricks in Tetris, until they are almost at the top of the screen and falling faster by the minute. If like in the game, we can find ways to organize all the little bricks that cause anxiety into little rows, plugging in the empty spots, they can disappear and leave us more breathing room. It’s not that we won’t have more stress factors coming our way, but if we can acknowledge them and fit them into our life, maybe we can rob them of some of their destructive power.

Right now, some of the strange things like working and schooling from home, not being able to visit friends, travel freely or go out as a family to socialize are the new normal. It takes energy to readjust; we are mourning the loss of the innocence of a world where people didn’t hesitate to shake hands with strangers or hug a friend who stopped by.

So whatever your situation right now, however much you feel affected by this pandemic, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself with kindness, as well as others. Don’t drown in your to do lists. Try to pause and savour the little good things that happen each day. Pray for the grace to endure this storm, and to grow better from it, but little by little. Don’t be harsh with yourself.

And if it helps, and you’ve got insomnia, too, eat pumpkin pie ice cream at midnight, like me.

Big love to everyone!