Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dad's St. Petersburg, FL funeral 10-10-09

I am the baby of the family. With that status comes certain inalienable rights. Like

I get to be spoiled. I don’t have to beg for one darn thing — I get it the first time

I ask. I get the more relaxed parents because my siblings have broken them in…or

perhaps, broken them down. That’s just the way it is.

But because I am the baby there are other things that also fall on me, things that

are out of my control. Take my name, for instance. Because I am the baby, I will

answer to just about anything. Growing up I thought Jolee-Randy-Gay-Whoever-

you-are was my first name. But that was more what Mom called me. With Daddy,

there was a litany of names he called me, depending on the day, situation, or my

age. I was Lidda kid, Sadie, kidnick, Weezie, which then became shortened to

Weeze. But I think my very favorite nickname was Lucky Gay.

I think it started with my brother and sister kind of muttering it under their

breath, confirming with each other and rolling their eyes, “Lucky Gay.” But Daddy

ran with it. And you know, I think it’s a pretty appropriate name, really, when you think about

it. I am lucky.

I got to have two parents who stayed married to each other for nearly 61 years —

a record I will never be able to claim myself. Not only did they stay married, but my parents really liked

each other. Sure there were arguments, but the important part was seeing that they could work things

out and still love each other. A million times in my life I saw my father walk by Momma

and pinch her butt or cop a feel. Momma would shriek at Daddy, “Oh Ralph, stop

it!” “What?” he’d playfully respond, as if he had no idea what she was talking about.

He got such a kick out of getting her riled up. And that was normal for us.

I remember as an adult talking to friends and being stunned that they had never

seen their parents be loving toward each other. Never saw their parents kiss, or

laugh together, or have that secret knowing look. Mom and Dad had that. Not only

did they model how to be good partners, but it just made me happy to see that kind

of behavior. Lucky me!

I got to go off to college to play, and learn, and play, and grow up, and play. I had a

really good time in college. And my father supported me. Lucky me! And I know he

was proud of me. He went to all my recitals and shows and concerts. He stood tall,

with his chest puffed out. I’d get a “Good job, Weeze.” That meant a lot.

Daddy once taught us kids a little prayer. It was just a short two-liner, so I added

a little more. Tell me what you think.

Our father who art in heaven,

Hallowell be his middle name.

His kingdom come, his will was done,

Be it in Massachusetts, Florida, or Maine.

I got my father’s sense of humor. Actually, all three of us kids did. I don’t know if

that’s something innate, that I was born with, or if it’s from observing the master.

And you all know he was a master storyteller. Every night Daddy would come home

from work, dinner cooking on the stove, and we’d sit in the living room and talk

while Mom and Dad had a little happy hour. In the old days Dad would drink his

Schlitz and Momma would sip her wine. I kind of sat back and listened. Daddy would

tell us the funniest stories of screw-ups at work. One name that comes to mind is

Luddie. We heard lots of stories about Luddie. I haven’t a clue who the guy was,

but I can clearly remember looking forward to that day’s hilarious story about the

infamous Luddie.

Our house always had company. People would pop in and visit, and the joke telling

would begin. I always knew when it began, because they sent me to the other

room. “Gay Louise, go in the other room. Daddy’s going to say something you can’t

hear.” Man, that would irk me. But I was a clever child. I would go down the hallway

to my room and shut the door loudly so they would know (or thought they knew) I

was in. I’d wait for a couple of seconds and then almost silently open the door back


You know how to do that, right? While the door is shut, you twist the knob to its

fullest and then slowly pull the door open. But only enough so your ear fits in the

open space. I always missed the first minute of Daddy’s joke, but he was such a

good storyteller that I could piece it together. And the best part was the punch

line. I always got to hear those, and that was when I had to cover my mouth and

not laugh out loud … very difficult for me! Usually I’d run and bury my head in a

pillow so Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear me guffawing…because I got the joke.

You know, now that I think about it, I would have to say his timing was the best

part of the story or the joke. Daddy had impeccable timing. He could hold an

audience spellbound. He’d set the stage, pause a little, give a look, draw them in,

bring them up to— wait for it — the punch line! Yeah, I learned from the master.

Lucky me.

Actually it’s lucky us. All three of us kids are lucky. And we all know it. Jolee, you

got Daddy the longest. You got to visit day in and day out. Daddy so looked forward

to your coming every night at 6:15. Even in Barre, you probably saw Daddy the

most. Proximity has its payoff. The day-to-day memories you have are treasures

for you to keep, always. And you have all his little ditties memorized: Little Brown

Jug, the pig got up and slowly walked away, the monkey and the baboon, oh my son-

yay. He had quite a repertoire, and you know them all. Lucky you!

And Randy, well you are the crowned prince! You were his boy, and when you

became an adult, you and he got to play together. A lot. You got Daddy into the

Navy for a week, something the U.S. Government couldn’t do! You and he had a good

time. I don’t want to know about it, I just know you had a gooood time. And you

are funny. You too can weave a good yarn! But I think Daddy was proudest of you

because of your selfless moments, when people would come up and tell him about

some nice, unexpected deed you did. You help people, just to be nice. You make a

person’s day by being kind. You truly live by the Golden Rule. And that gave him and

Mom great satisfaction. Lucky you!

I have XM radio, and I was listening to Oprah last Saturday as I was driving to

Wegmans to grocery shop. Appropriately enough her guest that afternoon was a

man who specialized in dealing with patients at the end of their lives, especially

those who were terminally ill. He said the most important thing for the patient is

that they get a chance to resolve anything they’re upset about or that they regret.

He told of a story where the patient, a man, asked if someone would be in the room

to help him resolve things with his family. Apparently he hadn’t been very nice to

them, and he was asking for help.

We don’t have that problem. Never did. Lucky us! Do we get angry with each other?

Sure. Do we sometimes get our feelings hurt? Of course. But we forgive and move

on. I got to say goodbye to Daddy a week ago. And while it was horribly difficult to

let go, I have absolutely no regrets. I didn’t have to apologize to him for anything.

We said how much we loved each other, and I said how much I would miss him and

that I would think of him every single day. And that I knew he would be watching

over me every day. “Righto, Weeze,” he said.

Lucky me. Lucky Diana. Lucky Jolee. Lucky Randy. Lucky Weeze. Lucky Gay.

Monday, October 22, 2012

August 11th, 2011--Dad's Massachusetts Memorial Service

I just finished reading a book last week called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It’s a story about a nine-year-old boy whose dad died in 9/11. He talks about having heavy boots---which was the feeling he had about his loss. For me I connected with that imagery right away. That’s what Dad’s death felt like- heavy boots. Could we go on with our day? Yes. Did we do the tasks that life required of us? Certainly. But there was a heaviness to our step; to our being.

We didn’t know how in the world we would ever get over that feeling of missing. Something was missing… or rather someone was missing. Dad. It wasn’t right.

I said my goodbyes to Daddy on Monday, the following Sunday he left us. I have absolutely no regrets; we said everything we needed to. We didn’t have any amends we needed to make. We were good. The only problem was that I didn’t want him to go…I’m kinda spoiled that way, and usually I get what I want, so that was a very foreign feeling for me—this not getting my way.

Dad did it his way.  His illness was quick, matter-of-fact, without complaints, very much like the Down-Easter he was.

We didn’t know how the heck we would survive his death. But Dad knew our family was strong and we would be fine. And the troops gathered and we took care of each other. And we learned. Death, although most commonly equated with finality and ending, was for our family a new beginning—and there were many baby steps in that healing process. Ones, that turned out to be bonuses that never would’ve happened if Dad hadn’t passed away. Ones, that upon reflection, are kind of humorous.

For example, Daddy died on October 4th 2009, and the first holiday to “celebrate” was Thanksgiving. How in the world could we celebrate? That word seemed so wrong. The wound was too fresh. But the trumpets sounded, the troops gathered in St. Petersburg and our entire family arrived.  Jolee hosted at her house and we all brought food. I had just learned how to properly carve a turkey from my son, the chef—the way you get the most meat out of it…and it looks beautiful, so I was happy to carve one of the turkeys…I say one, because we were so large en mass that we needed two fat birds that day.  The awkward moment of the day was when we were about to eat. Who would say grace? Daddy always, my entire life, said grace. Who the heck was going to say grace? All of us, all 23 of us had gathered into the dining room and were standing. Waiting. In silence.  Un-COMfortable!--Mom looked at Jolee, Jolee looked at me, I looked at Randy, who was looking up at the ceiling not making eye contact with anyone. It was like that old Life cereal commercial-Let’s give it to Mikey, he won’t eat it, he hates everything! After a solid two minutes of silence, Randy became Mikey…and he did a beautiful job of saying grace—no surprise there.  And we ate, and laughed and had fun. We survived Thanksgiving…it was just different.  It was the first baby step and we got through it.

Christmas was the next biggie.

I had begged Mom and Dad to come have Christmas with me in Pennsylvania since I moved there in 1996. Why in God’s name would we go up into that horrible-God-forsaken-cold-and-snow when we can be right here in paradise? (I see you recognize my impersonation of Ralph Rogers )--Which when you think about it, is a lovely way to feel about where you live.

So that first Christmas I got a bonus: Mom AND Libby came to my house for 5 days. And everything we did was totally NOT traditional—pretty much how the McPhees roll—but I wanted everything to be different for Mom so she wouldn’t think about Dad too much…  So we did NOT go to church on Christmas Eve. Unheard of for my mother. Instead we had friends over and ate and drank wine, and sang carols around the piano, and my mother beamed. And the next day, as is mandated law in my house, we stayed in our pajamas all day long. We never dress for dinner on Christmas. Mom thought it was weird, but she sat there at 7:00 at night in her robe with her hair done, fabulous bedazzled earrings and pink lipstick, eating dinner by candlelight with Amanda, Nick, Josh, Libby, Andy, and Gay. The most family I’ve have ever had at a holiday dinner in Pennsylvania! I loved it! We had fun, and laughed, and enjoyed the day. We got through another biggie, and we didn’t just survive it, we had a really good time.  

There have been some unique moments as well. Like the day that I turned on my computer and went to Facebook and up flew a message that said RALPH ROGERS WANTS TO BE YOUR FRIEND. What the…? They have Facebook in heaven? And Daddy’s on it? Honestly, it took my breath away. I just stared at it for about 20 seconds and then it came to me, my brother is now part of the digital nation. I must say, that took some getting used to: Ralph Rogers on Facebook.

Little moments, little bonuses, hiccups of time where you see something and think of Dad; that’s what I’ve learned to recognize and appreciate. At Daddy’s first memorial service in Florida…and by the way, who has more than one memorial service? Presidents. Presidents and Dad. So there ya go. ‘Nuff said.
Anyhoo, at his first service, at the end of the reception, Jolee came running, pointing at the glass wall looking out onto the water, grabbing my arm saying, “Daddy…Daddy came!”  “What?” “Come look,” she says, “Manatees!”

Now I have been dying to see the manatees that swim through the canal for years! Jolee brags of dolphins and manatees, and I have yet to see them. Until that day, that is. Sure enough, there was a manatee floating by, rolling around in the water. Ah, Daddy works in mysterious ways…

My compost heap sprouted potato plants in the spring. I had not put any parts of any potatoes near that compost heap. Down-Easter and potatoes? Please! Dad did it. Made me smile.

So teacher McPhee, let’s get to the point. The point is that death is brutal for those who are left behind. And it hurts a lot, because grief is an expression of how well you loved. And we loved Dad really, really well. And everyone who is here is part of that love. And then somehow 22 months have passed, and you realize hey, we’ve had some good times. I can’t tell you how hard we laughed over a damn piece of chicken cuz I’ll get in trouble, but we freakin’ roared. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. No, my heavy boots are gone. Every now and again, it’s like …a leather flip-flop.

After my visit with Mom in June, she called me one day and said the greatest thing to me and I will never forget it. She said, “Gay Louise, I’ve realized something. I’m happy. It’s a different kind of happy; not happy like I was with Ralph, but I’m happy and looking forward to living. I think I will live for 10 more years.”

Daddy would be so proud of you Mumma. And of Jolee, and of Randy.  And of me.

Thank you all so much for coming this evening and remembering Dad. It means the world to us.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One Moment in Time

I was feeling sad for myself on my ride home from work today. It all started during the 3rd session of writing that I co-teach with my friend, Katie. We are teaching the kids how to write personal narratives. Specifically about a moment in time that you wish you could pause, to hang onto for a bit longer, to savor. For Katie it was the dance she shared with her dad at her wedding three months ago. She told the students she never wants to forget it, because at that moment she felt so emotionally connected to her dad that the world seemed to fade away, and it was just father and daughter, cheek to cheek, floating across the dance floor to My Little Girl by Tim McGraw.

It was during this lesson that I was remembering my own father. Three years ago tomorrow was the absolute worst day of my life to date. October 4, 2009, was when my dad left this earth, succumbing to mesothelioma. His illness was hard and fast—and although I know he had been ill for a long time, he never let on to it. The man never complained. Ever.

On the car ride home from work, I was planning in my head what I would write about him on my blog. My mind was flooded with thoughts of Daddy. And then my heart began to ache, and the tears fell, each one containing a silent memory of him.

I was wishing I could freeze-frame some times that I had with my dad. I was thinking about the first wedding I had, doing the father-daughter dance to Daddy’s Little Girl. And riding with him to the church in the red-and-black Rolls Royce from the 1930s. I kept waiting for some deep, meaningful words of wisdom from him, but they never came. He just held my hand and was quiet for the entire one-mile ride to the church. But it was that strong vice-like grip that signaled to me that no matter what, he would always be there for me.

And then I thought about my wedding to Andy, and my absolute all-time three favorite pictures I have from that fantastic day. It’s a three-in-a-series. In the first one, Andy and Dad are doing the congratulatory man-hug. You know, where they’re shaking hands but have pulled it into a hug, and they are grinning like they just shared the best joke. In the second one Dad still has his arm on Andy’s shoulder, but he’s whispering something conspiratorially to him.  In the third one Andy has a Cheshire cat grin, and Daddy (you can only see his arm) is walking away. They both have their arm extended--it almost looks like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Dad and he haven’t let go, arms still outstretched, fingers touching.

I was savoring those moments.

I drove into the driveway and followed the curve up to the house and when I stopped, something startled me. I quickly turned my head to the right, and there beside my little zinnia garden near the driveway and the shed, were a momma deer and her fawn. Almost immediately the mother gracefully ran off into the woods. But the baby just stayed put and stared at me.

I was still in the car, so I quickly took out my phone and took a picture of it. I exhaled—I knew I had gasped, but I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. I didn’t want to move a muscle. I wanted that fawn to stay.

Ever so slowly I got out of the car. Carefully I tiptoed to the edge of the grass. The baby flicked his little white tail at me, but didn’t leave. He let me take more pictures of him.

After about 2 minutes of staring he slowly walked behind the shed. I thought I would try to go around to the other side to get a close-up of him. He stopped and turned back to look at me again.

“Hello, friend” I murmured. “Do you want to stay for a little while?”

He picked up his hoof and held it in the air, and then slowly put it down. It was almost as if he waved to me. He let me take a couple more pictures.

“I’m so glad you visited me today. I needed to see you.”

He flicked his tail two more times, looked over his shoulder again, and then scampered off to his mother in the woods.

So what the heck does this have to do with anything? My dad had a way with animals. Every dog loved him, every cat would climb on his lap, he could hypnotize a lobster, and wild birds would land on his out-stretched hand and feed. My father was an avid hunter, and every year he would go dear hunting. He had a great respect for the deer. He appreciated its silent beauty and grace. My grandmother was a believer in reincarnation, and if she was right, and my father were to come back as a land animal, it would be as a deer. I’m sure of it.

Maybe it was me, being nostalgic and wishful. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Maybe I just miss my dad. Whatever it was, it comforted me to think it was my Dad who visited me today. And trust me, today I savored that moment.