Date of Death
Thank Goodness for Facebook
I have always been very good at remembering birthdays. I can relate them to other events surrounding them, seasons of the year, and even what I was wearing when I learned that a younger cousin was welcomed to the family. Birthdays are usually happy events (unless there is a clown at the party, or someone yelling “I’m the birthday girl, or a drunk uncle…..I digress).
Dates of death, are different. I knew them for clients when I settled estates over thirty years ago. Of course, I was typing the “DoD” as we referred to it, on government forms over and over, day after day. There were no computers to make the job easier with shortcuts like “Apple C, Apple V”. The date of death of an estate was impersonal; it was simply part of the file. It was like sheet music; “06/09/89”.
My father died ten years ago. It was Facebook that reminded me and the connection was that my daughter graduated high school ten years ago in June 2011. He died the week of her prom. It was a terribly sad time, but he was ready to die. He’d had it. He was sick, he was in the hospital, he was in pain and he was on a morphine drip. We had said our goodbyes and we were very pragmatic in the days leading up to his death. Don’t get me wrong, as an only child and someone extremely close to her dad, I was sad to lose him but relieved that his suffering was over. I’m never quite sure of the exact date in June, but I remember what he said the night before he died as we left his room; “Tomorrow is the longest day of the year, right?” I replied that it was indeed. “Well, it’s all downhill from there,” he said as we walked out the door. He hated darkness and always considered that once the Summer Solstice was over, winter was on the way and that was the end of the light and warmth. Sometimes, I remember he died on June 21, other times I don’t even think about it. I do remember how much he loved the summer and how much I loved him.
I totally mix up the date that my mother died although I was with her as she took her last breath. I know that it was around 5 am on a Saturday morning in December. The problem is that it was either the 16 or 17 and the year was either 2016 or 2017. I have to really sit and think about it. “Ah, yes, I was working and my youngest daughter was in Grade 11. That makes it December 2016, so she died on the 17th.” My mother and I were so very close during the years after my dad died. She missed him so much, but I told her that his gift to us was allowing us time together. She moved into the house next door to ours, spent evenings watching football with her “favourite son-in-law” and joined the seniors club in our neighbourhood. She too was calm and accepting of death. The cancer had spread throughout her body and the pain was unbearable. Slipping off her wedding bands as she lay dying was not something that I had ever thought I would need to do, but I had to. Holding her hand as she died, cleaning her face as she coughed, wiping her brow, were all part of being her daughter. I don’t need to know the date. I know the love.
My father-in-law died one year ago yesterday. I had no idea that it was the anniversary of this death. I was reminded by a post on Facebook. He had been living in a long-term care facility and receiving excellent care throughout the pandemic but, unlike my parents, he did not have an easy death.
Eighteen months prior to his death, he was hospitalized for congestive heart failure. While I was with him in the emergency room over the course of the two days waiting for him to be admitted, we had the opportunity to have some serious conversations about death. He asked what my mum went through when she died. I told him that she went peacefully, that she was ready to die, and that she wasn’t scared. He asked about his mother-in-law who died nearly thirty-five years earlier. His son and I had been at her bedside. She too, had basically slept into death. He confided to me that he was scared. He wasn’t sure that he would be going to Heaven.
It was interesting conversation. An eighty-eight year-old lapsed Catholic talking to a fifty-six year-old Atheist about the “hereafter”. I knew very well why he was scared. I had known for thirty-six years. There had been many long talks at the kitchen counter with my mother-in-law the first summer I met her. He was probably aware that I knew. Standing in the emergency room, looking at him so helpless and scared, it fell to me to assure him that death would not be fire and brimstone. I did my best. I was very kind.
He rallied from that stay in emergency. Although he did not return to his home, he lived through the pandemic to the point where end of life plans ultimately became necessary. My husband received the call. All superfluous medications were stopped, morphine was started and the doctor said it would take about a week for him to die. He hung on for thirteen days. The expression that my husband used was, “He was scared to life to die.” I can only assume that he never forgot his transgressions and still feared the fire and brimstone.
What caught me the most off guard about yesterday wasn’t that I hadn’t remembered the date my father-in-law died, but rather I had forgotten about him altogether. In the thirty-six years I knew the man, the emotions that I felt towards him ranged from anger to pity. Genuine love or admiration had never played in the equation.
Of course, he was the father of the man I love with all my heart. Yes, he was grandfather to my daughters and he did dote on them, but only while they were young enough to not express thoughts and opinions of their own. He wasn’t a great husband. He certainly wasn’t an exemplary father to his two children. My mother-in-law died first and he expected my sister-in-law to care for him at home until the end. (As an aside, I know my mother-in-law died in April because income taxes were due and it was at the same time my husband had surgery, and my daughter was in a school play. I spoke at her funeral. She was so done with living.)
What I do remember about my father-in-law is how he treated his daughter with intellectual disabilities and insulted her when she tried to cook something, how he spoke to my daughters about their appearance and weight, and how he rarely praised his son. I recall his racist remarks while watching sports on television and how he thought he could simply smile and get away with it all.
I tried to write about my father-in-law when he was dying, just after he died, and again after his burial. I held so much anger inside me about how he had treated people, that I could barely type fast enough to get the words onto the page. Draft after draft. I couldn’t get it right. Then I forgot about the essay. Life went on. The anger subsided. I forgot about him.
And then, the Facebook reminder.
I think I will always remember those I loved. I will never forget the tender moments. I will choose to keep close to my heart the sound of their voice, the memory of my years with them. I don’t need to remember when they died.
And, for some, I don’t need to remember them at all.