Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Things You Can Do In Memory When A Good Man Dies

Love isn't something you feel, it's something you do.
--Six Feet Under 

My San Francisco cousin wrote one of the nicest things on my Mom's facebook wall when my stepdad died. "I can't believe he's gone," (a pretty conventional sentiment), adding, "He was such a do-er."  It's a small thing, but nothing could sum him up any better.

When the obituary came out, they somehow left off the designated charities we had picked for official Memorializing (the supportive-housing cancer dorms we stayed in, the Animal Rescue his daughter-in-law volunteers at). The fact that they were left off means several people have called, wondering how they can remember him. We'll have the Obit (the correct one) printed out, but because the Wake isn't til this weekend (we delayed it to coincide with what would have been his big annual camping trip, because flights had already been scheduled for that), there's a lull. A vacuum. I barely know what to do with myself.

sometimes he held my foot when our hands got tired
The first six months of the year was the battle to get him diagnosed, and that was followed almost instantly by the battle to get him enough care to die in a little peace with a modicum of dignity. One of the last things he said to me in his final weeks was, "you have been a big help to me. Thank you for helping me." The only answer I had was, "thank you for letting me." It was an honor. But now that taking care of him isn't my job anymore, I fill the void with worrying about exactly how he wants to be remembered. As long as we serve beer at the Memorial, wherever he is (looking up, as he would say, with a conspiratorial wink), he will be happy. He brought it up dozens of times at the hospital, so it's safe to say it qualifies as a dying wish. Baptists will be alienated, my Mom fears, but if I have to serve it out of my shoe, there will be beer.

The first job was Cremation. I picked the funeral home because they had an onsite crematorium, and I didn't want him outsourced. The funeral director assured me he would personally remove his pacemaker (because I'd seen the Six Feet Under episode where that delayed a service) -- and he confirmed that it isn't an old wives tale -- a pacemaker really would blow the oven "sky high," as he put it.  Removing it "personally," sounded surprisingly graphic when I reflected on his choice of words later, but I appreciated the guy's straight talk. I complained just enough about the price to feel like I was appropriately honoring my stepdad's memory, that I was truly his daughter. When our bereavement specialist ticked off the array of options, I would proudly respond to each one exactly as he's taught us all over the last two decades, with "does that cost extra?" and then I would rub my thumb across the flats of my fingers in his universal gesture, always accompanied by a grin, for "how much?" My answer for every price quoted was a furrowed brow and a contemplative pause, followed by "seems high" (though it killed me to do it; it only seemed right).

I  picked up the cremains as soon as they were ready (a nice young guy came in on the weekend to get them for me), and I drove them to my Mom's house Labor Day weekend. I wanted him to be home for the Holiday. And I knew how much he hated waiting around for a ride. I didn't have any music in the car that I thought he would've especially cared about, so instead, I listened to David Cross's "Shut Up You Fucking Baby" all the way there, because he would've liked it.

Mom burst into tears as soon as I walked in with the ashes, but rallied immediately. She went into her room and came back out with her lipstick on, wearing his favorite pink dress. We wore a lot of pink at the hospital because he said it was so cheerful. Unconsciously, I had put on a t-shirt for the ride home that was the exact same pink that she was wearing. We probably looked a little feeble-minded, but so what. "Come on," she said,  putting her game face on, "Let's take him to the potluck." I dutifully buckled him back into my back seat (just as I had done dozens of times in recent months), and we took him to Church, where we stowed his ashes on a corner niche shelf overlooking the soft drinks for one last meal. 

He'd volunteered in that kitchen for the last 20-some years -- every potluck, every pancake supper, every Valentine dinner, every chili cook-off. In their Church, the menfolk do the cooking and the dishwashing for special events. Although my mother was the cook in the family (three square meals a day, or "three hots and a cot," as he would put it), he was famous for two things: pancakes, and a yellow bourbon cake with chocolate bourbon frosting. I tried to make it one time for a birthday and it didn't turn out, but I am a terrible baker. I plan to print up the Recipe and share it with everybody at the Wake. One of my baking pals is attempting to convert it to cupcakes to serve.

Just as when he was sick, everybody wants to know if there's anything they can do, so just as before, I'm making a list (in addition to the cupcakes, and all the chores I have shared out for food prep and decor). Some things on this list are very specific and unique to him, but I imagine for anyone who's grieving a loss, there will be some variation on this that would be just right.

The first thing I would tell people to do is this: 
Make somebody some world-class pancakes (or whatever it is you're famous for).
If you really cannot boil water, get famous for buying something. Be the guy who always brings that world-class pie, or donut, or kung pao chicken. My friend Jason makes Grief Brownies. He had barely cleared U.S. airspace, returning from a long work trip out of the country when I got his text: "how many people will there be? I will deliver them Friday." Everybody needs a Signature something, and it should be the best. If you can't make it, buy it. If you don't have one, get one. And then show up with it when you're needed.

The second thing I would recommend is:
Feed a stray dog, and if circumstances allow, adopt it.
All of my parents' dogs are rescues, and all were brought into the house under my stepdad's strong and grumbly protestations that he absolutely, positively, for sure, would never have another dog. In fact, he would probably just go ahead and divorce my Mom if she even brought up the subject of saving another dog. Roy is their third. He has one eye, and a wrecked voicebox from where he was either beaten, or possibly hit by a car (the vet is just guessing).
One of my stepdad's old camping pals, Bob, visited us at the hospital every few days. He showed up almost as soon as we'd made it from the ER to a room, and my stepdad's face just lit up, in surprise and delight. "How did you know I was here?!" he tried to shout (though his voice was gone).
"You're on The Internet," Bob yelled back proudly (his kids had been relaying our medical status updates via facebook).
In the midst of all the smothering and mothering and fretting that my Mom and I subjected everyone to, Bob was an oasis of pure testosterone as the two of them traded old drinking stories, swore outrageously, and compared notes on what their girlfriend Rachel Maddow had said the night before on MSNBC. 
I did not know that Bob owed his cat to our family until he told the story of my stepdad insisting that Bob and his wife adopt a stray cat that had been lurking around their campsite many years ago. Bob had no need for a cat; didn't want a cat; and was certainly not in the market for a cat. But my stepdad had apparently been  insistent. He's the one who fed the cat everyday, knowing she would keep coming around, and guessing, correctly, that she would wear down their defenses.
Eventually, Bob acknowledged they should just give the thing a name, once the gender could be determined. Pops tipped her over, announced "it's a girl," and that's how Bob and his wife came to name her Miss Kitty and take her home.
A week later, Bob dutifully took her to the vet for her shots, registered Miss Kitty with the receptionist and waited for the bill. The vet tech who brought her out, overcome with curiosity, asked Bob, "Miss Kitty?" then suggested, "You might want to pick a different name."
Bob was halfway through explaining about Gunsmoke, before he thought to ask, "why?"
"Because," the tech told him unceremoniously, "this cat is a boy," flipping him over to illustrate. My stepdad had misdiagnosed him, and has insisted in the many intervening years since, that the cat just hadn't been "mature" enough for his expert assessment.
I was riveted as to how this story might turn out. "Do you still call her Miss Kitty?" I asked, thinking how great it would be if they did.
"Naw," Bob said matter-of-factly. "Now we call her Buddy."

The third thing I would suggest in memory of my stepdad: 
Fix somebody's bike or lawnmower or flat tire, or loan them your jumper cables (with no expectation they'll be returned). If you're not handy, buy them a really good flashlight or a Triple A membership. If you can't fix their lawnmower, cut their grass.

My stepdad was known to his favorite nephews as Uncle Fix-It, and always described by his beloved late aunt as "handy as a pocket in a shirt." That was her sales pitch to my Mom when she fixed them up (though I don't think she ever admitted that's what she was doing). My mom, then-bitterly divorced from my Dad, was spending the winter at one of her girlfriends' places in Florida. He was newly widowed and drowning his sorrows nearby. Mom's toilet broke, and when she went to the neighbor's to get a plumbing recommendation, her neighbor said, "Let me call my nephew. He's handy as a pocket in a shirt." She did, and the rest is history. That was Christmas and they got married Memorial Day weekend.
His aunt was as good as her word.
He spent an entire summer re-roofing my first house with the guy who would become my ex-boyfriend. (Presciently, he assessed him as "a con man.") He rebuilt the furnace, ripped up the old carpeting, helped sand the floors, and pumped out the basement when we had a 40-year biblical flood. He was the one who had to come inside and break it to my that my dog Travis had died suddenly and in perfect health (maybe a snake bite, nobody knows).
He changed my oil, fixed the starter on three cars in a row (apparently, I'm hard on starters), and repaired a lot of pepper grinders that I would've just thrown away (I am also inexplicably hard on pepper grinders). All the useful presents I ever got for Christmas came from him -- a solar-powered weather radio and TV, a flashlight you can handcrank when the batteries die, safety kits for the car. He rehabbed every closet I ever had with extra shelves, more rods, and custom shoe organizers. Just this past Memorial Day weekend, he came over and hung extra spice racks in the pantry and added towel bars in the bathroom. "You have too much shit," he observed matter-of-factly, surveying my closet. "I don't have any shit," I protested proudly. "This is it. I have gotten it all pared down to just this."
He got a hard time for recycling and repairing absolutely everything -- things most people would've just thrown away -- but he always had an answer. "I might want to buy something with that money I'd be wasting."
To his literal dying day, he never lost his curiosity about how things work, asking the docs in great detail what his new PleurX drain would do. "It will make you feel better," one of the residents patronizingly told him. "I know that," he said good-naturedly, "I'm just wondering how will the vacuum equalize the pressure and not collapse my lung?"  A bit of a Luddite, he nonetheless loved my iPad and iPhone and could play with the maps feature almost endlessly.
When he was staying in that same hospital 20 years ago for bladder cancer, he actually repaired one of the ultrasound machines for them, mid-procedure. "Gimme that thing," were his exact words when the tech couldn't get it to work.
Whenever my Mom and I would leave the hospital, he would say, as he always did, "be careful."
"Yeah, yeah," we would say, as usual.
"No, I mean it," he would say, almost frantic. "I can't help you from here."
 "Well you bought our Triple A," Mom would reassure him. "That's good enough."

Get flowers for somebody who's around to enjoy them. Not just for funerals. All the time. Not as an either/or. "In lieu of" is a stupid phrase. You can do other nice things too. But order the flowers.
This is the subject of minor controversy in our family. Neither my dad or stepdad ever bought my Mom many flowers. In fairness, they widely quoted my mother's token protest, "they're a waste of money."
But unless you have a tendency to blow the grocery money on hookers and florists and leave your children
starving, flowers are never a waste of money.
As much as my stepdad complained "just another thing for me to mow around!" he loved them as much as Mom and I do. He planted a million of them, at home, and at the Church, where he spent countless volunteer hours, mulching and digging and mowing.
Mom cut flowers at our dorms and in the V.A. gardens and brought them to our hospital rooms every day.
When we arrived at the V.A., we were greeted with a beautiful orchid from Tom and Michael, who'd thoughtfully sent it ahead on their way to their summer vacation cruise. Of course we didn't know then we only had four days left.
Never one for sentiment, it was a little surprising that my stepdad immediately asked us to take a photo of the orchid. "Can you put that on the internet?" he asked.
"Sure!" I said.
"Can you tell Tom and Michael it's from me?" We facebooked it to them immediately on their Caribbean adventure.

When he died, nobody sent my Mom flowers.
There wasn't a traditional funeral with a traditional visitation and maybe her pals were relying on her "philosophy" that they're a waste of money. (Hell, for all I know, they just gave her the cash, figuring all new Widows have a tough go of it, but I doubt it.)
He wanted to make sure the food gays saw his orchid.
A couple days later, a lovely bouquet arrived from his nephews. These were the same nephews who all switched their facebook profile pics to a photo of him. I was beyond touched, even moreso when I zoomed in and realized the photo they'd selected was one of him flipping off the camera. That's about right. She'd raved about the arrangement, so when I showed up with the ashes, the first thing I asked was, where were the flowers. I wanted to see them.
"In the garage fridge," she said. 
Maybe this is a new custom? Another Episcopalian thing I'm unfamiliar with (like no one bringing her any food).
She was just "trying to save them" for the Memorial, hoping they'd last.

One day at the V.A. hospice, a giant arrangement (about as tall as I am) showed up in the family kitchen/lounge for veterans and their families: a tower with dozens and dozens of green and pink and red roses. No fillers. No carnations. It had to have come in on a hand truck or dolly. The nurses told us a Bride had sent over a centerpiece from her wedding, thinking it might brighten the veterans' days. God bless her.
That's my recommendation: almost everyone gets flowers for some special occasion, whether it's a wedding or an office Christmas party or a conference. What a great idea to take them to a V.A. or a nursing home, where the residents probably don't see them often.
Whenever a veteran dies at the V.A., the nurses drape the body with a quilted U.S. flag for the last ride out to the hearse. Not especially sentimental myself, I have to admit it's achingly touching.
That's a real rose on his shroud. I stole it.
Unimpeded by sentiment, as much as I hated to judge (and know my mind should've been on weightier things), I was also dimly horrified to notice they top this quilt with a plastic carnation.
I quietly removed it. While we waited for the funeral home representative to arrive, when nobody was looking, I walked down to the lounge and quietly stole three roses (two pink and one red) from the back side of that bride's centerpiece. I put those on top of his quilted flag. (Because sometimes you have to improvise.)
("How much?" I could imagine him saying, rubbing his thumb across the flats of his fingers. "FREE!" I would've told him, and he would've winked, "the best kind.")

One of the things I notice people saying a lot after somebody dies is how much it reminds them to tell everyone around them they love them, while they can.
You could all sit down and watch more Oprah re-runs too, I guess.
Most people agree it's nice to hear "I love you," I suppose, and it is, but talk's cheap.
I have no memory of whether or not my stepdad ever said those words to me, or whether I ever said them to him. Maybe we did. I don't know. Probably. But I do know he re-built my sump pump, and pruned my dogwoods (almost beyond recognition), and fixed my water heater. And I know I kept Sweet n Low in my purse for him for the last 20 years (though I think artificial sweeteners are horrifying), and that I fought for his life every day for the last six months as hard as I would fight for my own. I spoke for him when he wasn't able to. When that battle was lost, I fought for the best, most peaceful death that could be managed, and when that didn't go so well, I just held his hand. 

You could tell more people "I Love You," but no one in my family ever does. Because it isn't something you feel, it's something you do. How are you fixed for cupcakes? Kung pao chicken? Has the grass been cut? Are flowers on the way?

My stepdad was a do-er. When a good man dies, DO something. Send flowers. Make pancakes. Cut a widow's grass. Do their laundry. Go get their oil changed and fill up their tank.

Go have a "piping hot cup of coffee" or an "ice cold beer" with someone while they're around to enjoy it.

When you pay respects, pay respect. 

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