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.

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.

Axe

Sometimes in the busyness of the day

I forget for a few minutes

and don’t feel the ache,

but when I first wake up

from the dream of sleep

to the nightmare of real life,

it is there

—the axe in my chest—

the cleaving pain

of remembering

my beloved father is dying

and all I can do is sing to him,

mother him,

tenderly stroke his head,

pray and cry,

and hold his sweet hands

still warm.

On “Food Matters:” Nighttime Ramblings of a Herbalist’s Daughter

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Tonight I watched a great documentary on Netflix called “Food Matters.” I liked it because while it addressed serious health issues related to poor nutrition, it wasn’t pessimistic or guilt inducing. Rather it focused on the amazing link between good nutrition and healing, and encouraged its viewers to be empowered to take their well-being into their own hands. The main message was: your body can heal itself if given the right nutrition.

Good nutrition heals the whole body, or rather allows the body to heal its whole self. Eating more fresh, raw, healthy foods is safe, effective and affordable, so barring situations of extreme poverty perhaps, we can all do it. And by doing so, we can treat and even prevent many chronic diseases like heart conditions and cancer.

This goes rather against the grain in our culture of specialized doctors and medications for every disease. The doctors and nutritionists in “Food Matters” sees drugs as toxins meant to target specific symptoms of disease, rather than heal the whole person. While very useful in some cases, the strong occurrence of serious and even lethal side effects from drugs make the return to overall vibrant health difficult when they are taken long term.

Here are a few tidbits from the movie I found interesting. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous was very depressed. Upon recommendation he tried taking high doses of the vitamin niacin daily and recovered totally. He wanted this to be part of his program but was forbidden. Niacin is natural and safe yet doctors generally will caution against taking too much (ie enough to be effective) because they are not trained in nutrition. They’re trained, funded and promoted by drug companies who stand to lose millions if people cure themselves of chronic diseases, or better yet prevent them through good nutrition.

Another interesting fact was that various alternative health clinics have found giving large doses of intravenous vitamin C very effective for curing cancer. Vitamin C targets cancer cells without harming heathy cells, and has no bad side effects. We might be inclined to rebel against this because it seems too simple, but compare this to the effects of chemotherapy and radiation which harm all cells and cause nausea, hair loss, etc. Large doses of vitamin C kick starts the body’s natural healing process, without harmful side effects, while most typical cancer treatments are themselves carcinogenic.

Our bodies were made to be healthy, and good nutrition can keep them that way. We have the power to cure ourselves but must take responsibility for ourselves. We tend to flock toward the experts and feel we ourselves know nothing. This is a disempowered lie. As the movie says several times, we all know that we are what we eat. We can all take little steps to improve. We can listen to grandma and eat our veggies, and to mom and take our vitamins.

One of the huge problems we have today is absorbing toxins from our food (pesticides, fungicides, etc) and not eliminating them. This is why simple things like drinking lots of water and eating lots of fibre can help us so much. We enable our bodies to pull the toxins out through our guts and release them, instead of reabsorbing them into our blood.

This is especially relevant for me right now as I’m struggling with cholestasis, a pregnancy-related liver condition. In some women, high hormone levels mess with liver and gall bladder function and make it difficult for the body to process and eliminate toxins. The bile salts then get sent into the blood stream under the skin instead of eliminated, and make a person very itchy. Not fun! It took several pregnancies before an OB suggested bran flakes as a way to keep bad things from reabsorbing, and keeping up with them religiously makes a huge difference. As skipping them for a week or two can make the difference between getting this condition or not, I can only imagine that bran fibre must have great health benefits for others as well. The baby just kicked in agreement! Again, an affordable preventative nutritional solution with no harmful side effects.

A relative of mine was very ill with MS. The medication she had to take several times a week made her feel awful flu symptoms and did little to improve her situation, if anything. When she transitioned to a vegan no-oil diet upon recommendation of my Dad, a master herbalist who also studies nutrition, she had vast improvements. Her weight returned to normal. Her energy improved and she has been able to work part-time again and to come visit her nieces and nephew. Of course she still struggles, but it makes enough difference that she firmly sticks with her new diet, and has learned to make delicious food without the things that cause her body harm. She no longer has to give herself shots several times a week with drugs which make her feel terrible.

One of the things Iove about my Dad as a herbal doctor is that he is not an extremist. He’s all about baby steps. Make one little change at a time in order to reclaim your health and vitality. No crash diets. So here are some little health tips that seem doable to me, as a busy mother of soon to be six. I hope that means they are reasonable suggestions for you as well!

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1. Drink more water, especially first thing in the morning. Flush out what’s been sitting inside all night. If you need a swanky new water bottle to remind yourself to keep sipping though out the day, go for it. Fancy it up a little sometimes by adding a squeeze of fresh lemon, which is a great cleanser and liver tonic.

2. Eat more fibre. This is the powerful partner of water that will scour your guts and scrape out those pesky toxins, allowing your body to absorb the good nutrients you want it to. One super simple but effective fiber is All Bran Flakes. You can also get powdered bran to add to homemade pancakes, muffins, etc. Oats are good, too, and brown rice. If your kids won’t eat while wheat pasta, try Cattelli’s Smart Pasta, which looks white but has a higher fiber content. You can also throw nutritious quinoa in stews, wraps etc, without it being too noticeable.

3. Cut down on fried oils. Many dishes are just as delicious when you satay the onions etc in a few tablespoons of veggie broth. Or try a little coconut oil, which endures heat well and adds a nice flavor. If you’d like the omega-three benefit of olive or flaxseed oil, try adding it to your stew or other dish once you’ve finished cooking it, to preserve its goodness.

4. Eat more raw foods. The live enzymes in uncooked fruits and vegetables are so good for you, but are largely destroyed by cooking. How about a fruit and veggie platter at snack time, or on the table before a meal? Or some baby carrots and cucumber served with hummus as an appetizer? Of course salad is fantastic, and if you dislike all the washing and chopping involved, it’s worth it to grab a nice salad mix or some prewashed organic greens. There are all kinds available now, and it’s easy to fancy up your baby lettuces or spinach by throwing on silvered almonds, sliced strawberries or dried cranberries, and a sprinkle of feta cheese.

5. Eat less prepackaged foods and read nutritional labels carefully. The salt content alone in many pre made foods is rather frightening…like a frozen meal that has 30% of your daily sodium….sometimes in half a portion! Not that I’m a queen of this…the other day my kids had alpha-getties for lunch, but it’s good to be aware…and save stuff like this for days you have the flu and can’t cook. It’s good to teach your kids to read the labels, too, so they understand why you say no to certain things. Recently my 8 year old read the pop bottle and exclaimed “Oh, 7-Up has 41 grams of sugar in it, Mummy, that’s why you don’t let us get it much!” “Exactly!”

6. Even if it’s just sometimes, perhaps when on sale, buy some things organic. We can remember the favour we are doing our bodies in not having to spend energy removing extra toxins from pesticides from their systems. I didn’t say always or everything, because that can be expensive, but getting some organic veggies or fruit as a treat is surely a worthwhile investment in our health and that of our families.

7. Portion your treats. I bought some pretty little metal bowls at an East Indian store recently, and though they are likely meant for chutney or other sauces, they are great for little portions of ice-cream or pudding, or even for a handful of trail mix or a few pieces of dark chocolate…instead of munching the whole bag or chocolate bar by mistake while you watch tv!

That’s enough for one day! You’ll likely be hearing more from the herbalist’s daughter…doesn’t that sound like a fun medieval novel? 😉

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