Till Death Do Us Part
Nine years ago today, my mom lost her battle with lung cancer. Five hours later, my father passed unexpectedly from what I believe was a broken heart. When people learn of this, they instantly conjure images of the couple in Nicholas Sparks’ book or movie “The Notebook.” My parents were not that couple.
My parents were fiercely independent. My father worked away from home much of his career. Mother was not the kind of woman to wait around for her husband to fix things on his short weekends. Instead, she learned how to repair everything from toilets to electrical appliances. She loved wood working and could build anything from bluebird houses, closets, desks, bookshelves, and cabinets. She even finished the basement and constructed a sauna for my father. My father preferred fishing, trapping, or cutting wood versus fixing or creating things. The reality is that Mother was much better at these tasks, and it was better if he did not try to help.
When my father retired, my mother grew tired of him being underfoot. Everything about him being in the house irritated her. My mother was more than a bit OCD, and my father was more harmony in disorder. He got up early and she late. He made messes everywhere he went, and she continually put everything back in place. He took over the kitchen to make breakfast and lunch often, leaving unpleasant odors, grease on the stove, counter, and table, and a mountain of dirty dishes. He was also noisy. He walked hard, he talked loud, and even when not talking made grumbling noises or often cursed for no apparent reason.
My mother’s solution was to have a 2 ½ stall garage built. One side was insulated and equipped with a wood stove, sleeping cot, recliner, books, and a reading lamp just in case he might like to hang out there. As time went on, my father did grow to love his garage. So much so that he added a refrigerator, a camp stove, crockpot, and other cooking supplies. Then he moved into the garage. We might never have seen him had it contained a bathroom. It was the perfect solution. They could be close but have enough space to find peace with one another.
There were times I wondered why they stayed together. I loved them both so much, but often felt they might be happier with other people. I will admit there were times that I thought they stayed married because they lived during a time when a commitment was a commitment, and till death do us part meant just that. But now and again, I would glimpse my father looking at my mother in a special way. And, occasionally, I would see my mother look at him in the same fashion.
A few days before they passed, I witnessed a profound exchange between Mom and Dad. Never again would I wonder if they truly loved one another, or, the depth of that love. I was staying with them, knowing that the end was near for mom. Her cancer had spread from her lungs to her brain, and she was no longer thinking clearly. I had just helped her with meds and thought she was down for the night. I escaped upstairs to get some much-needed sleep.
Just as I started to drift off, I heard the thumping of feet running back and forth from the living room, to the hall, and the office. I rushed downstairs to find my mother racing from one place to another, confused, but knowing that her oxygen was not working. With all that running and sheer panic, she had become oxygen-deprived. I noticed a small oxygen tank near Dad and connected her air tubing to it. Of course, the tank was empty. Mom was beside herself. Then my father said something I had never heard before. He said quite sternly, “Lynnie, go sit down.” My mother obeyed, calmly walking back to her office, where we had set up a temporary bedroom. What startled me was that he called her by her name. In all my 50 years, I had never heard him call her anything other than Mother or Ma.
I followed her and then proceeded to study the manual for the oxygen machine in an attempt to determine a solution. I was still frantically looking through the document when my father arrived in the room. He, too, had an oxygen machine. He had gotten up on legs that were no longer stable or reliable, unplugged his machine, and was hunched over it, pushing it toward mother. He plugged it in, took the air tubing off from his face, and gently placed it upon her and said, “It is more important that you have this.” They sat beside each other on the twin bed, holding each other’s hands and looking deeply into one another’s eyes. There are no words to describe the moment they shared.
They looked like newlyweds with a lifetime to share, and yet, like the elderly couple, they were, with no words needed to express how they felt. The energy in the room was palpable. I was an intruder in this very intimate moment. As they both grew tired from the incident, the spell was broken, and I remembered that I needed to fix the oxygen machine.
The following evening, as I prepared dinner, my father told me that he had walked by my mother while she was resting. He could not see her breathing and thought she had died. It gave him a terrible shock. He told me that he did not think he could bear to live without her. Little did I know that what he was saying was that he would be going with her. Two hours later, he had a fever that would not break. Sometime mid-morning of the following day, my mother began to fade, my father’s kidneys began to fail, and his lungs began to fill with fluid as a result of congestive heart failure. They both passed quietly at home in the presence of a few friends, family, and a fantastic hospice crew.
My folks were clearly, not the couple in The Notebook! They were, however, hardworking, honest, kind, and giving. They adored the kids from the neighborhood and loved having them hang out at the house. My mother taught cub scouts and 4-H. My father taught many young people how to fish and trap, including most recently a group of Amish boys. He also mentored many young men when he was a journeyman lineman. They both loved their children with a passion. And in the end, I was lucky enough to learn that they had an unbreakable bond and love that lasted not only for their 54 years of marriage but also, into the eternity of the hereafter.
February 20, 2011, was the most devastating day of my life. At the time, it felt like the beginning of the end. Without the anchor of my parents, would I float adrift, not knowing how to live? As it turns out, they prepared me well. My ship sails with their loving guidance from their heavenly home. Their deaths made me stretch as a person, and I feel that I have found my True North. There passing was not the end of my life, but the beginning.
I am tremendously grateful for them, and I miss them every day. But I often wonder if I would have had the courage to leave my job at Patterson Dental, begin writing, taking photos, or start The Gratitude Project. Art is known to heal broken hearts, and that is what it did for me. Words poured easily from my woundedness and gratitude. Photography kept me present and surrounded by the beauty of nature. The Gratitude Project allows me to give reverence to that past, live in the present, and, hopefully, be a gift to myself and others in the future.
Mom! Dad! I love you. I miss you. I hope I am making you proud.
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