A good night to see the moon

November 26th, 2007

A comment over the weekend had me remembering that my father died two years ago this Thanksgiving. Or rather, he died the day after Thanksgiving, but only because we delayed him on this side of the door until the dinner dishes could be cleared. His death was swift but a long time coming, unexpected but unsurprising, inconvenient but flawlessly executed.

I hope you understand when I say my father’s death was his finest hour. I was proud of him, something I never genuinely felt before.

My mother ran interference for Dad in our lives. Despite her frequent assurances that “Your Daddy really loves you,” my father did not love easily nor was he easy to love. Although no child could be expected to know or compensate for it, my father showed us what a lifelong submersion in pain could look like, and how insidiously it could spread. As soon as I could steady myself on two feet, I kept my distance. For the rest of his life, nearby or not, I cultivated ways to buffer myself. I owe my strength, resilience, independence, intelligence, humor and oddly enough, peace of mind, to him.

My sisters and I would sometimes imagine my father’s decline into illness and incapacitation. We would stew in the cynical certainty that the burden would befall us to be kind to an unkind man and generous to a self-centered scrooge. We weren’t at all sure we could do it.

Suffice it to say that isn’t what happened.

About a year before he died, my father began to do some strange things. He imagined a new life, or death, in a new place, far away. And he set about, with the intention and resolve he had lacked in nearly every other year of his life, to accomplish this. He gave away or sold all the stuff we were so sure we would be saddled with sorting out. He sold his home, the albatross we’d already hung around our necks. He loaded up his dog and his truck and moved to a mountain home where six months later he could no longer breathe.

When I arrived at his bedside, he was not breathing on his own. I sat for two days to the rhythm of the respirator while we waited for a pathology report delayed by the holiday hiatus. There was no hope, nor was there need for any. We saw so clearly the perfect plan and timing, the wisdom, the care, the great responsibility he had stepped forward to shoulder for his life, finally, and his death, and weren’t they one and the same?

The last night, I felt his life rush out like the tide, and I lost my footing. I could not stand. I could not walk. The nurses wondered if I had the flu and if I should go to the ER.

“No,” I said, “it is my father dying.” They could only assume that it was an emotional response. But it wasn’t emotional. It was physical. I clung to my chair like a raft lest I flow out in the undertow. And then I felt, as never before, that my father was me.

When all was said and done, we turned off the machine and death came. It was simple and effortless. It was easy and on time. I spoke prayers, verses and encouragement, and I found out I could. I owe my compassion, faith and fearlessness to him.

I owe him my life, and my dog.

Good night, Daddy.


  1. Amazing and honest. I’ve long struggled over my mother’s death and wish I could find the same peace you show us here. My mother died suddenly at work, and I, her only child, was a thousand miles away not knowing anything was wrong for several hours. It was just before Thanksgiving.

    I do my best to see what went right that day. Her heart didn’t stop while she was driving on the highway. It didn’t stop while she was alone in her apartment and wouldn’t have been found for days. Death was unexpected and instant and so there was no long suffering.

    Whenever I hear someone say they hope they die quickly I wonder if they consider what that does to the people who love them. It seems often to me that people want their loved ones to suffer just long enough to say goodbye,but we of course want a speedy exit. Something isn’t right about that.

    I heard a woman say–why do we struggle so hard when none of us is going to get out alive?

    Thanks for the post.

    Comment by marta — November 26, 2007 @ 7:01 am

  2. i don’t know how to describe this post…nor what it makes me feel like. just know that your words found a way into my heart.

    Comment by dreamergirl — November 26, 2007 @ 8:46 am

  3. Courage and independence. Faith and fearlessness. There are few greater gifts.

    The fathers in my life have given me these gifts as well.

    Comment by Shawn — November 26, 2007 @ 11:45 am

  4. I grew up learning to keep a safe distance from my dad. He never apologized for anything and I never asked. But when I went to see him as he was dying, he said “I didn’t think you’d come.”

    I was just out of my teens and that was the first time I’d thought of our relationship from his point of view or saw him as a person apart from being my parent.

    Comment by Moanna — November 26, 2007 @ 1:37 pm

  5. Karen, that was beautiful. And describes so much of my own complicated relationship with my (still living) father.

    Comment by Mary P Jones (MPJ) — November 26, 2007 @ 4:08 pm

  6. What struck me the most was he took his dog with him. Seems like a very complicated man that made a simply lovely daughter.

    Comment by Shannon — November 26, 2007 @ 4:29 pm

  7. Yes. Too many thoughts and experiences with father and death to type them. But yes.

    Comment by denise — November 26, 2007 @ 4:31 pm

  8. Marta, I hope you never find anything that is right about that day. And if you do, I hope you lose it completely.

    It may not be true for us all, but I often say: We survive our fathers. I mean it in every sense.

    Comment by Karen — November 26, 2007 @ 4:44 pm

  9. You wrote about him honestly and without making him a caricature, which is something I doubt I’d achieve if I attempted to do the same about my father. I’m still tending wounds. Oh, I’ve healed much, but somehow they remain.

    Comment by Kathryn — November 26, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  10. I really don’t have the words to get out what swims inside my body now, as I read your story.
    So all I can say is that because he birthed you, I owe your father my life as well. And I love you for refusing to either glamorize or demonize.

    Comment by bella — November 26, 2007 @ 6:53 pm

  11. Thanks for the reply. It’s nice to have someone not say, “Well, at least…” No one seems to want another to feel sad or angry or whatever–they feel compelled to fix it.

    At least my father, who has failed in a few heartbreaking ways, has always said, “I love you” and “Do what makes you happy.”

    Comment by marta — November 26, 2007 @ 10:49 pm

  12. Karen,

    Thank you.


    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — November 27, 2007 @ 3:33 am

  13. breath-taking…thank you.

    Comment by Phyllis Sommer — November 27, 2007 @ 4:06 am

  14. karen
    my dad’s death was similar in that he couldn’t breathe, was hooked up to respirator, got unplugged, and was difficult to live with. my mother lived the last few years awake at night, asleep in day, to have a separate life. none of his 8 children could have cared for him in illness, not even the one who’s a nurse. I sat with him and listened for the last breath. It was not sad at all, a liberation. a lightening. my sisters sobbed and I held them. it felt like a gift.
    thanks for writing so poignantly

    Comment by musemother — November 28, 2007 @ 6:20 pm

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