Growing up, I always enjoyed the time between Christmas and my birthday in early February. During that five-and-a-half week stretch, I would enjoy the Christmas holidays while out of school, followed by New Year’s. Then, I would start planning my birthday party and birthday wish list based on what I didn’t get on my Christmas list.
It was always a time of hope and new beginnings: A new year — and then a month later, a new year for me.
This year — well, it was different. Time froze during this former happy stretch of time as we prayed for my dad’s recovery from acute respiratory distress syndrome.
This year, my dad was placed into the hospital two days after Christmas. And this year, we held his memorial two days before my birthday.
The day my dad died, knowing when memorial plans would take place, I sobbed and screamed on the phone to my husband that, “Christmas is RUINED. My birthday is RUINED.”
It sounds childish, but what I was feeling was the shattering of the innocence of my former happy stretch. I thought that from now on, it would be a sad and grief-ridden stretch; all happy memories gone forever.
The day of my dad’s memorial, as it turns out, was my husband’s birthday. Mine was two days later. My chef husband catered lunch after my dad’s viewing, and dinner after his memorial service. As he was serving dessert, my brother-in-law brought out a surprise birthday cake for the two of us. And as we simultaneously blew out the candles, I realized that I can choose to still make it a happy stretch.
Every Christmas, I can remember my last Christmas with my dad, and all the ones before.
And every birthday, I can remember every year I shared with my dad, and know that I am one year closer to seeing him again.
On January 24, 2014, just 10 days before my 31st birthday, I lost my amazing dad. After 42 years of marriage to my mom and a career that took him from hospital accountant to COO, my dad’s life ended at age 62.
In the span of a month, Dad went from healthy to gone, after a domino-effect fight with several bugs, including a MRSA-derived cellulitis bacterial skin infection, followed by what we believe was H1N1 influenza, then pneumonia, then a serious and not so well-known complication: ARDS, or acute respiratory distress syndrome, which put him in a medically-induced coma for four weeks before his body succumbed.
Some of what happened is still a mystery, but we do believe he was immunosuppressed by the cellulitis, and possibly something else that remained undiagnosed.
My eulogy, shared with attendees at my dad’s memorial at Sea Island Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, SC, on February 1, is below.
I love you, Dad.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Beaufort, South Carolina over the last month, visiting my dad in the ICU at Beaufort Memorial. But last week, I was on a business trip. I had been upgraded to a Ford Mustang at the airport car rental, and as I roared around town to my appointments, I thought about my dad in ICU and how his very first car was a 1965 Ford Mustang.
Then, last Friday, my mom and sister called to share the terrible news.
As I flew home that evening, I watched the sun set, and spoke to Dad and told him how beautiful the first sunset without him on this Earth was, and thanked him for making it for me. I thought about how I was flying Delta Airlines home to say goodbye to my dad, and how he had made so many trips out of Atlanta on Delta over the years.
As we landed in Atlanta to make my connection, the flight attendant came on the intercom to let us know that we were landing at “Terminal D – as in David.” My dad: David. Then, I gasped as I remembered that it had all come full circle, because back in 1983, my dad had been on a business trip, received a call sharing the happy news, and flew home to Atlanta to see me be born.
And this week I connected another full circle moment: the last time I saw my dad awake was on Christmas Day, in my driveway. The last time my sister saw my dad was a few days before, in her driveway. And back in 1971, my dad proposed to my mother where? On her driveway.
The hardest part about grieving my dad is that he always had the right thing to say. He would know what to say to me, to my mom and to my sister in a situation like this.
My dad’s words were sometimes a piece of career or financial advice, like when he told me to go with a balanced 401K plan earlier this year. A couple years back, he advised me to “build my personal franchise” at work. And of course, he went over my health insurance benefits options with me at several jobs over the past nine years.
My dad’s words were often a story about his childhood, like one he told me very recently about his family’s terrier Brownie. Brownie used to chase cars, but one day, the pup chased a car down the street, and as the car turned right, poor Brownie ran smack into the side of the car. Brownie never chased cars again, he said. There must be a lesson in that.
But mostly, my dad’s words held profound weight, stayed with me, and will continue to do so going forward.
In April of last year, I was laid off from my last job. I somehow managed to start a new job about two weeks later. He sent me a text message congratulating me that consisted of just three words: “You are amazing.” And when my husband got a promotion at work just a couple months ago, he told us that he was proud of both of us.
Back over Thanksgiving, my dad observed me playing with my nephews. He noticed that I had formed a special bond with them, and made sure to tell me that he thought I would be a great mother one day.
Even now, after his death, I have found his words. Just yesterday, I was looking at Dad’s Bible. In the book of Psalms, I found his favorite verse highlighted, with a personal note included on why he liked Psalms 91 the most. What a gift.
And just this past fall, my dad shared an article with my mom, my sister and me called, “What the Dying Want Us to Know About Living.” I came upon this email the other night, remembering when he first sent it with an audible gasp.
The main point of the article was this: “What the dying want us to do — and wish for us to know — is to regard our lives as precious moments making up our days. They want us to focus less on the big picture of building a large body of evidence that proves our accomplishments, and more on the true wonders in our life — the kind where we find unexpected beauty that will be remembered with a wistful smile.”
So Dad, this is what I aim to do. As I go through life now, with you by my side, I will cherish the small moments with my family, and focus on the true wonders of life. Because none of us can predict –- certainly we did not predict — when life might end for us or our cherished loved ones.