As the saying goes, nothing in life is certain except for death and taxes. We hope to lessen the affects of both of those certainties: tax breaks, eating healthy, tax deductions, exercise, and praying for no one falling and breaking a hip. But the older we get, the more likely we are to come face to face with the inevitable: the loss of one – or both – of our parents.
At not-quite-fifty, I’m a little old to take on the orphan moniker, yet with the loss of my father last month, there is no one around who sat with me when I had the chicken pox at six months, slept in my hospital room when I was five and had my tonsils removed, or went to the ER with me when I fell off a chair and broke my arm when I was in the second grade.
When my mother was dying in 2010, I managed her impending loss with lots of butter, cooking all her favorite dishes to coax her into just one bite. When she died, I dealt with the loss by traveling to numb the pain and then decluttering my life down to what would fit in my car by moving to Ohio to start fresh with John.
Perhaps all that butter greased my heart and made it a little more pliable and flexible so that I could take that big ole leap of faith. Deep down I know that I could have never have made that move while she was still living. My mother was tiny in size but her big personality demanded geographical closeness to tie us to her apron strings.
While my mother hoped to tie me down to hold me close, my father was always the one giving me the wind to soar on my wings.
Go work. Travel. Explore the world. Search for what will make you happy.
Five months after my mother died, I sat down with my father and we reviewed a list of what big tasks I’d have to undertake to fix up my house to sell it. Then, we looked at the seemingly low offer the We Buy Ugly Houses Guy had given me earlier that day.
After some quick calculations, he looked me in the eye and said: “Debra, take the money and run.”
And I did.
Daddy’s impending death was nothing like my momma’s. She lingered for twelve weeks after her lung cancer diagnosis. Daddy slowly shrunk thanks to advancing emphysema.
On July 7th, Daddy was sent to the hospital. After five days there, the doctors suggested a transfer to an acute rehab hospital with the goal of rebuilding his strength. Giving him an opportunity at some quality days ahead. We’d had a good conversation on Tuesday afternoon, he sounded strong and praised the surprisingly tasty hospital food and bemoaned his inability to watch the Western Channel in the hospital.
He was dead the following Tuesday. He passed away at 12:18 AM as I sat by his beside, sitting vigil as he’d done for me during numerous childhood illnesses.
After settling in at the rehab hospital, he had a panic attack and a heart incident. The doctor sent him home to my sister’s late on Friday night with hospice care. When my daughter visited him on Saturday, she told me I needed to get back to Texas. Now.
It’s hard to be the one that moves away. To not know when to hop a plane and when to wait.
I arrived while he was still coherent: he shook his finger at me and told me I should be working, not visiting him in Texas. Thirty-six hours later, he was gone. And barely a week after arriving in Texas, he’d died, we’d had a wake, buried him, and I was back home in Ohio.
In some ways, being the one that moved away meant that I’d already in some ways mimicked the traveling part after Mother’s death as a way to manage grief. You prepare to have already said goodbye when you last visited, even though you hope for one more hello. But there had been no last favorites to cook to entice a few bites out of him. No banana pudding, no blondies, no brisket.
Back in Ohio, though, there was no where to run. There were no closets to clean out, except my own. There was no need to bake or deal with casserole dishes left by those tending the grieving.
I lost my appetite and struggled with sleeping that first week, waking around three each morning…
It was a relief when John was finally awake, too. Him heading to the shower signaled a normal day, a new normal for me. I felt the first spark of moving forward when I began slicing a cumber for a salad and that crisp, clean scent hit my olfactory glands.
As my friend Becca is fond of reminding me, life goes on. And, the truth is, the man who encouraged me to take every business opportunity that came my way – be it in Mansfield, Tulsa, Washington DC, Chicago, or Dayton – would have been shaking his finger at me if I were to linger too much in the sadness and not tend to the important things. Work. Writing. Taking care of my home. Caring for myself and for John.
So, when grief overtook me, I turned to tasks that embodied caring and tending.
I cleaned the Tupperware cabinet. Though nothing in there is officially Tupperware, I still call that collection of storage containers the Tupperware cabinet.
I emptied a drawer in my dresser, ridding the space of sweaters I’d never wear and workout clothes that were worn out. Then, I took two bags of clothes to Goodwill.
I diced onions and sliced more cucumbers. I made large batches of boiled eggs and chopped fresh tomatoes. I bought the first of the local corn and remembered enjoying corn on the cob in the summers with my father, corn being one of the few vegetables my father would eat besides potatoes.
I cleaned my office and found a spot on my bookshelves for the small cedar chest my father kept on his dresser.
I went to the dry cleaners to pick up clothes. Then, I matched John’s suits with shirts and matching ties, a very zen exercise for my overly exhausted mind.
It must have been a man who said that death and taxes are the only certainties in life. Because I know for sure that dust on furniture and dirty dishes and hungry humans are other real certainties. I may not be able to avoid the taxes and it’s been made very clear that I can’t skip death’s visits to my world. But I can channel my grief through dealing with the dust and the dishes and feeding hungry bodies.
For without my sanctuary of this space and my ability to find nourishment for my soul in household tasks, I don’t know how well I’d manage the rest.
About the Author: Debra Smouse
Debra Smouse is a self-admitted Tarnished Southern Belle, life coach, and author of Clearing Brain Clutter: Discovering Your Heart’s Desire and Clearing Soul Clutter: Creating Your Vision. When she’s not vacuuming her couch, you’ll find her reading or plotting when she can play her next round of golf. She’s the Editor in Chief here at Modern Creative Life. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.