The news of Elizabeth Edwards’ death has truly shocked and saddened the nation. Even while battling breast cancer, Edwards was the driving force behind her estranged husband’s 2008 presidential bid and a great advocate for universal health care. Most importantly, though, she was the loving mother of three children, along with her son Wade, who died in a car accident in 1996 at 16 years old. Edwards had been steadily preparing her young children to deal with her passing, but the death of a parent is not something one can prep for, like a test. At any age, the loss of a parent is a shock to the system that takes years to recover from.
As I’ve mentioned a few times here and there on this blog, my father died in January 2008 of cancer, eight days after he was diagnosed. Of course he’d had the disease for years unbeknownst to any of us; he was already in stage 4 when the small cell carcinoma attacking his lungs was detected. My Dad was a self-employed carpenter, a builder of custom homes who’d spent his adult life working like a bull seven days a week, so it seemed natural that he’d started to slow down at age 63. He’d finally started to think seriously about retirement, which was such a relief. I was getting worried that he was going to work himself to death.
As fate would have it, I was at my parents’ house when my Dad’s cancer really took hold. It was Christmas Eve 2007, and my Dad wasn’t feeling well. He had a cold – or so we thought – one that by the afternoon seemed bad enough to warrant a visit to the Emergency Room. “You’ve got double pneumonia,” the doctor told him. My Dad came home and spent Christmas with double pneumonia, watching his kids and grandkids open presents. Despite the fact that he was just over a week away from death’s door, he got down on the floor with my daughter, who was 2 at the time, and put together the dollhouse he’d bought for her. He was so tender that day, gingerly plugging the plastic pieces into one another, helping us put the sticker decor in place, as if he was somehow aware he was building the final house of his career.
We stayed at my parents’ place until December 27, the last day I saw my father alive. I don’t even think I really talked to him that day because an old high school pal and her mother had come to visit. My Dad was downstairs with double pneumonia, I thought. I went down to check on him and he shooed me away as usual. “Don’t kiss me!,” he growled. “I’m sick!”
I got the call from my mother on New Year’s Eve. “Carolyn, your Dad has cancer. We’re in the hospital. I’ve gotta go.” I knew right then and there he was going to die. I was in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. “My Dad has cancer,” I said, and I went into the grocery store and bought every item I could think of. Fruit, vegetables, bread, cookies, drinks, you name it. “We need to have a party,” I said. A toast to him, and to everything that had come before the moment I knew my Dad was gonna die. I even bought Brach’s candy in bulk to remind me of my childhood.
“My Dad won’t allow himself to go through chemo and become fragile,” I thought. He was a bull, a workhorse. He’d let that cancer stab him swiftly, dying like a Samurai, with dignity. He wasn’t going to drink organic wheat grass and start doing yoga; he was going to die like a man. Eight days later, on January 7th, he did just that.
When I finally cleaned my Dad’s bathroom out over a year later, I noticed a bottle of “No-Rinse Body Wash, Shampoo & Incontinent Cleanser” that my mother had brought home from the hospital in the cabinet. I remember reading the “protocol” on the back of the bottle, thinking, “My Dad would never have wanted someone to apply this ‘to the affected perineal area and remove with a moist washcloth.'” I can just imagine my father using his last breath to shout at my mother, “God damn it, Terry! Get that spray away from my butthole!” I’ve kept the blue and white “Bedside-Care” bottle on my dresser ever since then, just waiting for the right moment to share its contents with the world. I guess the time is now.
Like John, I knew my father was going to die, but there was no preparing for his death. It doesn’t matter how long a parent is sick, or how old they are, you’re never prepared. My dear friend Mindy’s mother died only days before my Dad did, and she’d fought stomach cancer since the mid-80s. Mindy surely had a chance to brace herself for her mother’s inevitable passing, yet she grieved for the loss just as long and hard as I cried over my Dad’s sudden demise.
When I shared the news of Elizabeth Edwards’ untimely death with my mother tonight, I said, “They took the wrong one there, don’tcha think?” My mother replied, “I don’t know about that. She must have been in awful pain.” “Yeah,” I said. “But I mean, why would a person like that have to go through everything she did when her husband’s still walkin’ around here…”
My mother cut me off, finishing my thought. “Bein’ a dink?,” she suggested.
“Well, she went to a better place, and he’s still walkin’ around this Earth bein’ a dink!,” she said, as if repeating the sentiment was enough to prove me wrong.
“You have to be a pretty religious person to accept that type of explanation,” I countered.
“Don’t you believe you go to a better place when you die?,” my mother asked.
“I dunno. I wish I felt more convicted about that,” I said.
“Well, for one thing,” she offered, “nobody who goes to heaven ever comes back, so it has to be a really great place.”
I laughed. “I suppose that’s true,” I said, telling her I’d quote her on it. I only hope Elizabeth Edwards’ children can come to the same sort of understanding. They will eventually grow to accept her death and to learn and heal from it, but they will leave this Earth still unprepared.
Photo by Josh Hallett, via Flickr
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