Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Monumental and Routine

I've been thinking those words a lot over the last ten days: "Monumental and routine." As I saw it approaching--this universal thing, this utterly enormous and shattering thing--my gaze would drift to my right hand.

I wear a ring there--on the middle finger--that many people mistake for a wedding band. They wonder why I have one on each hand. It's an understandable mistake.  The ring is old, and the raised area with the stylized harp stamp is well-worn and hard to see. It is, in fact, a Norwegian PhD ring that my father received from the University of Oslo when he finished his degree in Geology. When I earned my PhD, my father passed it on to me. The gift was a reserved man's way of saying, "I love you more than you can know, and I feel connected to you, and I am so very proud." I've worn it ever since.

Less than two weeks ago my family got word that my father's cancer--which had occasioned the removal of his bladder last winter--had spread to the abdomen and liver. Last week, on Tuesday, the oncologist gave his assessment: Without any treatment, he could expect to live weeks. With chemo, he might stretch it to months.

Wanting another holiday with the family, my father opted for a chemo treatment for later that week. I ordered a plane ticket to fly home the following week, so that I could be sure to see him again before the end. I just assumed there'd be that much time. He was ill but walking, talking, hoping to try out the Skype camera they'd finally managed to get hooked up to their computer. When I talked to him on the phone, he expressed regret that, as things were, they probably wouldn't be able to come to Oklahoma for Christmas. I assured him we'd come there.

I was supposed to fly to Buffalo on Thursday of this week--tomorrow--but on Sunday afternoon my sister called, urging me to come sooner. His condition was rapidly deteriorating. She'd asked him if he could hold out until Thursday, and he'd said yes. But she didn't believe him.

I changed my ticket so that I'd leave first thing the next morning. I started packing my bags, not really sure what I was doing. I put the kids to bed--who abruptly decided they wanted to curl up together in one bed "like we do sometimes on vacation." They sensed this was a different kind of night. A couple of hours later I got the phone call that he'd died.

The next morning, a friend drove me to the Tulsa airport. It was a trip I've taken dozens of times--and most often to fly where I was flying now, to Buffalo, to visit my family there. The passage through security--empty pockets, take off belt and shoes, take liquids bag out of carry-on--had the feel of habit. But this time, what waited at the end of the journey was an empty space.

As my first plane was getting ready to take off, I reached into my carry-on bag for something to read. It's what I always do on a plane. I sit and read, usually a fantasy or science fiction novel.  As I reached into the bag I saw the cap my eight-year-old son had insisted I pack. He'd snatched it down from a door knob as I was scurrying madly about to get ready for the unexpected flight. He told me I should take it with me and show it to "Fafa." Because, of course, my father loved caps. He'd been bald since his twenties and had devised a creative assortment of ways to protect himself from a sunburned scalp.

But even within the context of my father's collection, this cap would've stood out. I'd imagined sitting next to him, wearing it, telling him his grandson wanted him to see it. I can picture his smile. And so I found myself turning away from the woman next to me on the plane, choking on the rush of feelings. Stupid Perry the Platypus cap.

I thought about all the people who'd come up to me over the last few days, who'd heard about my father's condition, about the inevitability and uncertainty of it all. "I remember going through that with my mother." "I just went through that this spring." "I'm so sorry. Liver cancer took my dad."

Monumental and routine.

On Friday, two of my father's former students flew to see him--one from Norway, the other from Sicily. My father sat up with them on Friday evening, weak but excited to see them, talking with them about their research. On Saturday he was weaker but still alert. He couldn't talk as much, but he listened.

A third former student was on a business trip in California when he learned about my father's illness, and so delayed his return flight to Russia and arrived in Buffalo on Sunday. When he arrived, my father said his name. It was one of the few moments that day when my mother felt sure he was aware of what was going on.

I didn't make it there before he died, but he was surrounded, even so, by sons. Their devotion moved me but didn't surprise me. My father had been more than a teacher to them. Year after year my parents provided a home-away-from-home for the international graduate students in the geology department. They became family. My parents talked about their "adopted kids" in Italy, Poland, Korea, Russia, Norway. The relationships endured for years after the students had graduated (or, as the case may be, dropped out).

I'm pretty sure that each of the sons who surrounded him at his death had, at one point or another, lived in my parents' finished basement. They'd certainly spent many hours around the unfinished wooden dining room table, talking and laughing and drinking wine (or beer if it was a beer meal, or Aquavit and beer if it was a holiday). My father would've been the deceptively calm presence (the deception unmasked if you got him on a topic he was passionate about--such as the environment--at which point his fire would break through). He would've been the one making sure no one's glass was empty unless they wanted it to be. He would've been the one smiling down through those bushy white brows he refused to trim.

At the end, my mother, his wife of 49 years, was beside him. She held him, kissing his forehead. He drew three last shuddering breaths, and she saw the life leave his eyes. And she called out to her three adopted sons, and they came. 

I came the next day, too late to see him again, with a cartoon character cap in my bag that my own son wanted his grandfather to see, and a ring on my finger with my father's name inscribed within. And I walked through a house full of his traces: his reading glasses, his well-worn slippers. The symbols of a life--the routine symbols that all of us leave, the monuments to who we are, scattered everywhere.

This is not a memorial. In a week or two, when I can step back from my own feelings of loss and grief, I will write about him. For now, I just needed to write about losing him. It will likely be my last post for awhile. When I have a memorial to him written I may post it here. But I think I'll otherwise take November off from blog-writing to focus on other things.


  1. Your father sounds like a wonderful man. This regular reader's thoughts are with you.

    May God's peace be with you all.

  2. Tremendously sorry to hear that Eric. My thoughts are with you.


  3. The ending you describe could only have come from a beautiful life. Thank you for sharing, and I hope the best for you and your family.

  4. Thank you for sharing. Remembering you and your family in prayer.

    God's peace.

  5. You have my sympathy and condolences.

  6. It sounds like your father ran his race well. My prayers are with you and your family during this time of grief.

  7. Very sad new. My condolences to you and your family, with a special thought for your children.

  8. I'm sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing honestly with your readers.