One of Judy’s closest friends in San Francisco just lost his mother to ALS and is now in the process of coping with his enormous loss. How we cope with death greatly depends on how we handled our relationship with our loved ones during their lives.
I had a great relationship with my father throughout my youth. He worked long, hard hours as a truck driver and all too often he was getting home at my bedtime. This meant that anytime he asked, “Did you want to go with me?” My immediate answer was yes. I didn’t care if it meant I had to fix plumbing at my aunt’s house; I just wanted to spend time with him and he wanted me around. He was proud of me and I worshiped him. During my teen years and throughout college, our late-night conversations grew and I became very vocal about my plans for the future and how I wasn’t going to just punch a time clock.
Things were moving fast: I had just finished college, started my first software company, and moved into a side-by-side duplex rental with my beautiful new wife. I was looking forward to sharing my accomplishments with him as an adult—the universe had other plans. My father only lived to see three months of my new life. This was not the plan, not my plan at least. I was pissed off at his doctors, God, and the universe. Anger was my coping mechanism and there was plenty of scorn to go around.
God was an easy target since my faith was already on shaky ground when dad died. This is how you show me you exist? This is proof of your mercy? This after you took my brother so many years ago when I was just five? I didn’t wait for answers and just slammed that door shut… tight.
As for the doctors, I quickly learned the limits of medical science. Before he died, they released my dad so he could go home and recover from heart surgery and a stroke, but his health was deteriorating and he couldn’t keep food down. He could barely walk on his own and was withering quickly. When I asked his doctors why this was happening to a 60-year old man, their answer was, “We’re not sure.” You’re his damn doctors. If you don’t know, who does? You had him in this hospital for weeks, you cut him open to fix his heart and ran test after test on my dad. How could you not know?!
This was all bullshit and not how this part of my life was supposed to go. My father was supposed to be there for me and advise me on my new career, marriage, and life in general. But here I was instead trying to find a way to keep him alive. In some ways, I was very mature for my age, but in so many others I was just a kid.
I saved the bulk of my anger for myself. The doctors’ only advice was to admit my father to the hospital again so they could try to get some nutrition into him and run even more tests. I remember having to carry him into the car that afternoon to get him to the hospital. He felt so fragile in my arms. I wasn’t that big or strong; I shouldn’t be able to lift my father so easily. I don’t recall straining to put him in the vehicle.
After driving to the hospital and delivering him to his room, I told him that I was very disappointed in him for giving up like this. I said that he used to be a fighter and this was so unlike him. The look on his face as he replied, “I’m trying, Kev,” broke my heart, but I thought he needed tough love to push through this setback.
Later that night Judy answered the phone, turned to me with tears in her eyes, and broke the news that my father was dead. My first feeling was regret about my harsh words to him in our final conversation. I remember telling Judy how horrible it was that he died thinking I was mad at him or that he was weak. That’s not how I really felt. She comforted me and said that there’s no way he thought that. Unfortunately, it would take years for me to let go of that regret.
I barely remember crying and the rest of the night is completely a lost memory. Portions of the funeral stick in my head, including returning from the church and not being able to step foot in my childhood home where Fran Hoctor’s Irish wake was being held and dozens of family and friends were inside toasting his life. I told Judy that I needed space, got in my car and left. I don’t remember how far or where I went, but I wasn’t coping with this well and just needed to be alone. I didn’t want to hear stories of his life—I heard those many times before and there was no solace in them now. My mentor was gone and his stories were at an end.
How could I have expected to cope with his death when I wasn’t even coping with his dying? The whole time he was in the hospital, I was upset that my new life was being put on hold. Hurry up and heal, dad, so you can see all the stories that I’m creating in my own life. How is he still not fully recovered? The petulant child in me was inconvenienced and was never prepared for the possibility that he wouldn’t make it.
No one knew how angry I was for the next few years—I kept all that deep inside for fear of what I might do or say. On the outside, I lived life as if nothing had happened, even though I still wrestled with pain and bitterness on the inside. I left Buffalo as soon as I could convince Judy to move to Texas. I had to get away from the place that reminded me of who I had lost. I wasn’t going to get sucked into the void—I had plans. Even though he was dead, I was going to show him that I could accomplish everything that he wanted for me and more. It took several years before I’d even share how I felt with Judy. Maybe I wasn’t even honest with myself. I don’t really know.
I’ve become very pragmatic about death—it’s a part of every life and we all have to deal with it at some point. I often wonder if I’m too practical—too logical about it. Has part of me shut down as a defense mechanism to the pain of loss? I’m not an emotional stone by any stretch of the imagination. I can’t watch the ending of Field of Dreams without my vision going all blurry. Shoot, there are movies that Judy makes it through with dry eyes and I’m the one reaching for tissues. Maybe I’m just broken in this one small area.
My wife was just 30 when she lost her mom to cancer and it devastated her. Judy would talk to her mom on the phone almost daily. Now that routine was gone and she couldn’t share her day or ask her mom advice on how to raise our three young children. I tried to help her cope, but there is no way I could fill that specific hole in her life. More recently, Judy’s dad died after living with us for several years. Wally had kidney and circulation problems that sent him to the hospital way too often. More than once, we had to be prepared that he might not recover, but that didn’t make his passing any easier on Judy or her brothers. My initial reaction was a feeling of peace. His pain was now gone and Wally could finally rest.
When I did break down in tears, they were from my emotional exhaustion. Seeing this man fight for his life reminded me of my own dad’s battle. Working from home, I had a front row seat to Wally’s health problems. It only made sense for me to step in and help him when he needed it—and I was happy to do it. In many ways my service to Judy’s dad was to make up for my inability to help my dad when he needed me. That connection didn’t sink in until my caretaker role ended. There were moments of selfish thoughts as well as I thought about how many times Judy’s dad recovered from life-threatening health problems. I wondered why my dad didn’t get a few more chances. A few more years.
Each time there is a death, I feel a nudge to take inventory of what is still present in my life. It’s a wake up call about my choices, health habits, and the people who are important to me. I’m not sure that I handle loss in a normal way anymore—if there even is a “normal” reaction. I’m an emotional person, but around death I become strangely disconnected. Except for the time my dad died, deep sorrow and tears aren’t my first response to death anymore. My first thought is how this death affects the loved ones who are dealing with loss, but it seems like I stay one step back from real emotion. Even now as I write about my feelings, I struggle to understand how I actually cope with death. I’m overflowing with empathy for everyone involved, but I’ve built some sort of insulating layer around my heart and mind.
My logical mind accepts death as inevitable. Is that really how I feel or am I kidding myself? If death took Judy or one of my children, I don’t know if I would have the capacity to cope—my protective wall might crumble and take me with it or expand to the point that I can’t feel anything. It doesn’t matter because I don’t want to ever find out this answer. Even writing about it makes me a bit sick inside. Revisions to this article have felt like I’m standing at the doorway of an ominous, dark room, glancing in but terrified to enter.
For now, I’m just trying to be present and grateful for those around me and not let anything broken within me get in the way. Writing has helped me unlock my past, confront buried feelings, and appreciate what I have been given, which is a very good thing.
This is me coping with life.