Thursday, May 29, 2014

DAD’S SYMBOLS (with tears on my keyboard)

Last month, when my father’s pneumonia/COPD took a turn for the worse, I flew to Connecticut.  Alongside my brother and cousin, I was with him as he passed on as peacefully as one can with life-sustaining oxygen removed, morphine compassionately administered.  Afterward, we faced the bittersweet removal of Dad’s things from his assisted-living efficiency at St. Mary's Home.   His was a tiny place, but packed wall-to-wall with his last years’ lifestyle, outlook, and convictions.  He was sharp to the end, so it was a surprise when we discovered he obsessively collected certain items.  I reflected on who he was as I imagined the symbolism of each. 

Shame:  Dad had hidden empty liquor bottles and beer cans.  He could have anonymously taken those bags out to the dumpster just around the corner in the hall, but he’d struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  His secret drinking had undermined his sense of worth.  He was ashamed of this weakness, attempting to hide it from the world.  

  Unclean, Unsafe, Unhealthy:  Dad had sanitizer bottles, various levels of full, all around his apartment.  One or two would suffice if he’d worried over germs.  Thus I suspect they were secret conversations with himself, perhaps related to his sneak drinking and a few other past indiscretions he wished he could wash from his soul.

Seeking Comfort:   Dad had always had dry skin but it must have grown more so over the years because he had a dozen different tubes and bottles of lotion scattered about.  It may have been simply necessary after using so much alcohol based sanitizer, but either way, using it meant comfort.

His Past Career:  Office supplies, pens, paper clips and organizing boxes.  Dad had been a successful manager of over 170 people.  He knew his business inside-out, treated his employees well, was organized, efficient, and capable.  Despite all his later troubles, he continued to keep well-filed records of his bills, payments, resumes, etc. 

Vulnerability and Fear:  Dad had a dozen depleted oxygen bottles, rentals he should have returned.   Dad knew he was winding down.  And we could hear it in his voice when he started to call us more often.  The heavy green bottles stood there as reminders that smoking had sucked the life right out of him.

Prepare and Protect:  White Towels that should have been returned to St. Mary’s laundry were everywhere.  I doubt the white meant purity.  St. Mary's only distributed white towels.  In their terrycloth-soft way, they’d protected him.  He’d wrapped them around his chair arms and back, cushioning them since he spent much of his time there, even while sleeping.  Maybe he feared pressure sores.  He’d draped more white towels over this oxygen bottles, collected them in his closet, tucked them beside furniture--emergency sop ups for his now-and-then incontinence.  They were preparation and prevention, maybe even embarrassment.

Limited Time:  Dad had little dime-store alarm clocks everywhere, as if he needed one visible from any spot he sat or stood.  He hadn’t taken good care of himself, smoking so many years, at times drinking himself into homelessness, even threatening his own life.  Miraculously his liver never suffered.  But his lungs told him he lived on borrowed time.

 Isolation:  Unable to even walk a few blocks, Dad came to feel detached from the wide world he had influenced in his political heyday.  He had a huge collection of magazines, CDs and DVDs that must have helped him feel a part of the world again.  Classics to new-release movies (rated G to X), CDs of all sorts--country music his preference, and magazines about his favorite topics, horses, sports, and what he always read “for the articles” --  Playboy.  These items offered vicarious connection. 

Nostalgia:  Calling to mind a teenage bedroom, magazine cut-outs of beautiful women were taped to his walls.  Maybe he wanted to be reminded of a time when he was a handsome, charismatic, female magnet.  It was only because he was loved that St. Mary's turned a blind eye to the half-clad display.

The athletic days: At least a dozen baseball caps hung on a wall:  He was reminded of his athletic days.  Growing older with a bad back was hard on him.  He used to play baseball, ride horses, and golf.

Conscientious about the World:  Cloth and canvas bags were everywhere.  It seemed as if he’d shopped in many places and bought a $1 bag each trip.  He must have set each aside and forgotten to take one with him when he went out shopping again. He could have asked for plastic but sacrificed what little he had to make the environmental choice.

Self-consciousness:  One might argue that sucking on mints was a practical thing to do given Dad’s lack of good teeth.  But I felt the hundreds of packets of hard candies and gummy chews—most not even opened—were my father’s way of reassuring himself that he could pop some flavor and keep his breath fresh.  He’d always been a good-smelling, clean, well-dressed statesman.  He still had pride in his presentation despite having very few good teeth in his mouth.  

Powerlessness:  Dad was naturally fastidious, but he’d become incapable, leaving dirty dishes strewn about and piled in the sink.  The unused stove was covered with a towel.  Luckily St. Mary's Home served meals.

Preserving and Protecting:   Dad had tissues everywhere.  Wads shoved over half eaten dried cranberries in paper cups, apparently meant to protect and preserve.  Sometimes those cups also had take-out plastic drink lids laid over them to further protect munchies from drying out.

Connecting/Reconnecting:  Dad had many little calendars and tiny address books with contacts and long lists of birthdates, friends and family he wanted to send cards to for Valentine’s Day (names checked off), fellow assisted-living residents to buy little gifts for.  Tucked inside were greeting cards he’d received and found precious enough to keep—one was from me, my last to him in which I wrote, “Dad you taught me to care what I think of myself rather than what others think of me.  You taught me to stand up to the bullies.  You taught me to care about the world around me.”  I had tucked a check into that card.  Only weeks before, he had sent the check back to me asking that I spend it on my sons.

 Follow Through:  He didn’t only make gift lists, he followed through.  On a window sill sat little figurines and tiny pots with silk flowers.  Dad wasn’t a figurine and flowers type.  But as my brother and I scooped Dad’s life into boxes to be donated or otherwise distributed, Dad’s fellow residents popped their heads through the door, expressing their sadness, showing us little gifts he’d given them on holidays and birthdays, items he must have picked up at the nearby thrift store.  Little pieces of his love.  Despite his oxygen depleted state, he’d thought of everyone. 

Dad’s things had no monetary value, but they told the story of his last few years, his reminiscences, what he regretted, what he cherished.   -- InkPot   



  1. Karen, I'm sorry to hear you lost your dad. Lost my son last July. Recently my husband and I decided it was time to downsize and that meant digging through the storage room. I sent about 9 huge boxes of my son's Star War and Star Trek collection and more to my daughter in law for my son's children. In the process, I found so many mementos, class awards, newspaper articles etc, I copied the originals on my computer and mailed the rest to his family, even letters from his friends. I'm hoping all these things will help his very young children to know what a fine man their dad was.

    So your blog touched me deeply. And when I write, I'll think about how "things," how ever small can really help writers and readers to know the characters and make them more real.

  2. Such a special blog, Karen. I think your dad also taught you to be an amazing, thoughtful, and special person, one whose generosity and love for her family and friends is shared each and every day.

  3. Karen, I'm so sorry your father passed away. What a remarkable sense of him you share with us with this beautiful piece of writing. All the details of his life in his later years are endearing. I too went through my father's tiny apartment after he died, and it deepened my appreciation and compassion for him.

  4. Ah, dear Inkpot. Hugs to you. These transitions can be so painful and so meaningful, and universal. Thanks for sharing this in such a moving way.

  5. Karen, I'm so sorry you've lost your dad. My dad has been gone over 20 years now. I was only 31 years of age. As I read your post this morning, I am struck by the tenderness and thoughtfulness with which you have gone through his things . . . the symbolism and meaning that you attribute to those items. At 31 years of age, I was really clueless about life and loss. It did not occur to me to slow down and see my dad through the lenses that he wore. Now at 54, I do see my dad's attempts to manage vulnerability and fear . . . to prepare, preserve, and protect . . . his nostalgia and sense of pride . . . . Your post has given me a new opportunity to slow down, think of my own father today, and recognize that with more mature eyes, I, too, can see more of the man . . . more of the amazing father that he was to me. Blessings to you on your journey, Karen!

  6. Karen, I am so sorry you've lost your dad. Your writing is poignant. I loved how you assembled categories, from what he left behind, to paint a compassionate picture of a man and a life.

  7. Tamera, your tender response to my post touched me. As we get older we deal with more and more loss. It is hard to face it head on, many prefer not to, but crying is cathartic, as was writing this for me. Thank you for your response.

  8. Thank you Jody, Gail and everybody for your thoughts and for reading about my father, a troubled yet kind man. We all face these losses and yet it will be different each time. For all of us and especially those of us who are "creatives," we are lucky. To honor our loved ones, we can touch the little details and then try our best to take them into our memories and put their power onto the page, into the music.

  9. Thank you Shannon and Janet and Julie for so many years of friendship and for sharing these losses we all will and do face. Love you sisters of the quill! K

  10. Dear Sharla, I'm so sorry for the loss of your son. I have a pretty good imagination, and yet I can't fathom the pain and the bewilderment and disorientation that would cause. It is in these little things that we feel those we love. What had meaning to them... and the fact that we can notice them is more evidence of how much we loved them. My condenses. Karen

  11. Very moving post, Karen. Makes me wonder what all of us will leave behind when it's our time to go...and what our familial archeologists will unearth and interpret as our lives. Our symbols.

    The month my wife and I got married, my paternal grandfather died. I flew out to NYS to attend the funeral and do all the things that go with that, including going through his things. It standing beside yourself...intruding upon another's life. He'd passed after his wife, by a couple years, so, he'd also lived alone...and he'd intended to come out to our wedding. Even had some of his clothes already packed and hanging in the closet, ready to leave. That was stark. My dad, one of my brothers, and I all went through his things, and like you say, the symbology is deeply moving, engaging our imaginations. Sometimes confirming, sometimes challenging our interpretations of the people we thought we knew...but always rounding out, providing more depth to the souls we shared some road and love with as we journeyed through our lives together.

    Thanks for sharing Karen, and our deepest sympathies go out to you and yours.

  12. Karen,

    You've movingly described the sum total of a life, not always well-lived. Your compassion for and understanding of your father would make him proud, even if the way he taught those lessons to you was sometimes not the way either of you would have chosen. Oh, so many mixed emotions with the death of a parent. Your tribute is a poignant reminder that our lives are not based on the objects we acquire, but the memories we leave behind for others.

    Warm hugs to you,

    Debbie Burke