Finding Closure: How a Gravestone Helped Me Say Goodbye

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Just by chance, the grave plots my parents purchased happen to be near my home, so it only made sense that after my father’s death that I would be the one to drive to the cemetery to meet the funeral home’s representative to determine the exact location of their plots. When I arrived, an older man climbed out of the funeral home van parked alongside a grassy area. I waited nearby as he and his assistant tromped about the grass with a measuring tape and clip board, arguing back and forth about where the grave was located. As I stood there listening to their bickering, a sense of indignity swelled up inside. This might be just a  job for them, but it was my father they were talking about, and their callous attitude was painful to witness. I kept up a brave face, but the little girl inside wanted to kick one of them in the shins and tell them to shape up and show some respect. (I’m really glad the little girl inside didn’t win that particular inner battle.)

After the coworkers finally agreed upon the exact location of the plots my parents purchased some forty-odd years ago, the gentleman used his foot to push aside the grass and uncover a small metal plate marking their eventual final resting places. After verifying the location imprinted on the metal place, he kicked the grass back in place and bent over to press a thin wire in the ground with a white flag attached. The name Sasser was scrawled in black sharpie across the attached thin square of fabric.  It was all so matter of fact, just another day, another coffin to bury in the ground with only a last name on a piece of fabric to give that coffin any identity of the life that was buried inside.

A couple of days later, we buried my father with our family and dear friends gathered together to remember the man who had loved me from the day he and my mother brought me home. It was a hard day, but it helped to be surrounded by those who loved and respected him. After the last visitor said their goodbyes and went home, I drove the few blocks back down to the cemetery to make sure the workers had finished their work. As I walked among the pots of flowers strewn over the newly laid patch of grass, it somehow felt as if my dad had just disappeared. Even as the edges of the grass grew back and blended in over the following weeks, I would find myself driving out to his grave just to make sure things were okay. Sometimes on really hard days, I would go and simply sit nearby the tiny patch of grass where he was buried. It made the ache a little less, the worry a little less heavy, just to sit there in the quiet.

And finally today when I visited my father’s grave, his marker was in place. As I approached and saw the bronze and marble marker, I expected to experience a new wave of grief. Instead I felt relief. When I saw his name emblazoned on the bronze plate along with the words reminding the world for generations to come that this man, Charles Paul Sasser, this soldier who served his country, this man buried in this place, this man was a beloved husband and father. With his marker in place, I finally found closure.

Today I found a moment in which I could rest. My father’s grave is no longer a place where he has simply disappeared from this earth but instead a place of acknowledgment. And that marker on the ground? It is simply an extension of the permanent mark he left on my own heart and in those who he loved, and I can finally be at peace with that.

 

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In Gratitude of a Father’s Service to His Country

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I likely won’t get through this without crying, but Veteran’s Day was never about celebration anyway, so I’m okay with that.

Every Veteran’s Day, I’ve known exactly whom I wanted to honor. Stationed behind enemy lines as an Air Force aircraft mechanic during the Korean Conflict, my father was the bravest, most stoic man I knew – and while he spoke very little of his time in combat, his commitment to his country was of paramount importance to him. He firmly believed that his time in the military turned him into a man with discipline and strength of character and often voiced his opinion that there was little wrong with the young men in our country that couldn’t be sorted out with some time serving their country. He spent his entire career working for the Air Force, first as an enlisted airman and then as a civilian. He was part of the 4950th Division, serving as the lead mechanic on experimental air craft, meaning that he could rarely talk at home about the top secret projects he worked on. There were times he left in the middle of night to catch a military hop halfway across the world to repair an aircraft just enough to for its crew to hobble back home. When a blizzard shut down most of Ohio in the late ’80’s, my father spent several days with his men at the base. And when an aircraft needed to land without the benefit of any landing gear, he was one of the first to be called as a consultant to help the aircraft and crewmen land safely (they did).

But it wasn’t until his last years as he fought valiantly against the encroaching loss of memory and speech to Alzheimer’s that I learned things about my father’s service that I’d never known. One day when my mother dropped him off to visit me, he brought along a box of mementos. I expected him to share a nice collection of rocks or old silver dollars he’d collected over the years, but, instead, he opened the veil for a few short moments on a career that was mostly shrouded in secrecy.

I discovered my father was a consultant to NASA. Who knew? I didn’t. He never bragged about it, despite the prestige and respect it would have garnered. He didn’t care at all about those things. He cared about people, about helping others and doing the right thing by those he encountered. Fame and accolades were never an attraction for him.

I also found a small card tucked away in the box that stated that my father was an essential emergency responder and should be allowed passage and support when the card was presented. Again, I had no idea.

My father died this past summer, and even now, I sometimes feel completely adrift when it hits me that this man – the rock of my childhood – is no longer here to tell me everything will be okay. I miss him terribly, and I am so grateful for every memory he was able to share before it was too late.

And so today as I remember my father and the life he gave in service to his country, as well as the pride he took in quietly contributing where and how he could, I honor not only his sacrifice but the kind of man he became because of his service to our country. I am deeply grateful for so many who, just like my father, contributed and continue to protect the freedom I enjoy today.

I can’t call my father this Veteran’s Day. Oh, how I wish I could. If it isn’t yet too late for someone you know, take a moment this Veteran’s Day to thank them for their sacrifice. One day it will be the memory you hold dear when, like me, the gratitude simply resides in the heart because the words have nowhere else to go.

Also published on Huffington Post.

Not Quite Ready to Finish the Long Goodbye

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I have a stack of unopened sympathy cards sitting on my kitchen counter. They’ve been there for almost a month now. Some have arrived in my mailbox and found their way onto the pile, and my mother has delivered a few more.

I can’t bring myself to open a single one of them.

Grieving isn’t new for me, and it’s been a long, long road – this journey of saying goodbye to my father. Ronald Reagan called his Alzheimers the “long goodbye”, and he was right. Since the day my mom called to tell me the news six years ago, it’s been an incredibly difficult, painful but often beautiful experience.

20130517-192504.jpgI remember the first time I met my parents for breakfast – something that had become a weekly tradition – and my dad couldn’t say my name. He knew me and enjoyed our conversation, but he just couldn’t form words the way he used to. He was restless, so we left the table and found a seat on the bench in the front of the restaurant while waiting for my mom to finish up. We sat there holding hands, much like we had when I was a little girl. No words needed, just love flowing between us. It was a sad but lovely day, because I understood that even if my father couldn’t say my name, he could still love me.

I recall the family dinner where the noise and chaos got the best of my father. He sat on the couch, rocking back and forth, a few stray tears wending their way down his cheeks. My mom squatted in front of him, put her forehead against him, and spoke softly while she stroked his head until his distress was gone. It made me cry, but it was also the manifestation of true love. I gained a deep respect for my mother that day, because I witnessed her vows of “for better or worse” lived out with tenderness and kindness. I understood that while Alzheimers might changed the dynamics of relationships, it couldn’t change the foundation of relationships.

IMG_3479And then there were the field trips that Dad and I took while my mom ran errands or went to appointments. When something we did sparked a memory, he got excited and – using sweeping gestures, pointing, and single telegraphed words – struggled to share that memory with me. I loved those times together, because they gave me back a tiny piece of my father who was leaving just a little bit more every day.

And I remember my last real visit with my dad. I’d flown in late the night before from a business trip to New York City, and I hurried to my parents’ home before a busy day of meetings began. I sat and just held his hand as he lay in the hospital bed that had been moved into the guest room. I told him how much I loved having him as a father, and that as a child I completely took him for granted. I told him that I thought it was the best compliment anyone could pay their father, because it meant that he was my rock, that I never worried if he’d come home. It never occurred to me that it was possible for fathers not to be consistent and reliable. I never doubted that there would be food on the table or clothes or vacations. And when I messed up, he forgave me and helped me solve my problems. Tears flowed freely for both of us as I talked, and he mouthed a simple thank you to me. It broke my heart that I was losing my father, but I felt so very blessed to have the privilege of telling him what he meant to me.

And so a month after his funeral, the sympathy cards sit unopened. Maybe some day I’ll have the fortitude to read them, but not today.

Today I’m just not quite ready for the long goodbye to be completely over.

You can find this essay on Huffington Post, where Lisa blogs about life, being a mother, wife, friend and woman in tech, and the world of open data and civic tech.

Why We Need to Show Up for the Hard Stuff

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The text came when I’d already crawled in bed after an exhausting day of meetings.

I almost didn’t read it.

I almost left it until morning.

Lisa, I’m here at Mom and Dad’s.
I think you should come.
He likely won’t make it through the night.

I laid there in the dark for a moment, almost upset that I’d read it. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be there for this – the end. I didn’t want to see my dad like that. I didn’t want to do any of this.

On the long drive down to my folks’ place, a wash of fear swept over me. What if this – how my dad was now – what if this was how I remembered him? I didn’t want that memory to be the one that came to mind when someone mentioned my dad years from now. I wanted to remember him as the self-reliant, confident, kind man that he was before Alzheimer’s. I didn’t want to recall their guest room with the hospital bed, the wheelchair, him in his hospital gown. I didn’t want to watch my father slip away from me, leaving me without a dad to lean on for the rest of my life.

I think we’re often like that with things in life that fill a need for us. We don’t want them to change, and if they do, we don’t want to witness it. I think it’s why we work so hard to “fix” the people in our lives who’ve changed into something other than our ideal of who they could or should be. I think it’s why we avoid the mirror as we get older; it’s easier to believe we are still as we once were. As long as we don’t really look, really acknowledge it, we can continue as we see ourselves in our own mind’s eye in whatever ideal form we want to believe is still true.

We spent the night sitting vigil at my father’s bedside, telling stories of some of our favorite memories of him. We laughed, we talked, we cried. But we did it together as a family. And when Dad’s breathing would stop for what seemed like forever, we’d grow silent and listen, wondering if this was the moment we’d have to say goodbye. We held his hand, kissed his cheek and told him we loved him. It was one of the hardest nights I’ve been through, but it was also one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

There is a purity that comes into our experience when we are willing to see it for all that it is, to face the hard parts as well as the good. And when we avoid the difficult part of our relationships, the harder, uglier side of life, we may get to keep a prettier picture in our head, but we lose out on experiencing the full beauty of the journey. I learned that night that there is beauty and poignancy that will never be exposed through the easy moments in life; we only discover those when we show up and face the hard parts with courage – even when we don’t want to.

As I drove back home the next morning, I felt peace. Not because I was losing my father but because I’d been there for him, I’d shown up for the hard stuff, and I would carry with me the complete memory of him – all of it. I’d remember him as a young man heading out to work while I stayed home with mom. I’d recall him teaching me to drive and giving me advice about boys when I was a teen. I’d have my memories of him talking to my daughter as she followed him around his yard. And I’d hold close the memory of our family gathered around him, making sure he wasn’t alone in this last step of life. The whole of that memory is far better, far more precious, than any single memory would ever be.

You can find this essay on HuffingtonPost as well.

My father holding me, 1966.

My father holding me, 1966.

Sometimes Words Aren’t Necessary

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My dad and I have birthdays two days apart, so growing up we often shared one Red Velvet Cake. Somehow it made it more special. He’s been on my mind a lot this week, I think because our shared birthday is quickly approaching.

He’ll be 81 and is struggling with some of the beginning stages of dementia. Although his memory is better some days than others, the thing I see him struggle with the most is just being able to find the words to say what is on his mind. The thoughts and emotions are there, but all too often he works to bring out words that just won’t cooperate.

We met last week for breakfast, my parents and I, and his hearing aid was being repaired. It meant that he missed out on even listening to our visit. It had been a particularly rough week for me, and as I shared some of my worries with my mom, Dad sat quietly across from me smiling from time to time. And as we readied to leave, I reached out to hug him goodbye. He simply gathered me up in a long hug, kissed the top of my head, and said all the words I needed to hear.

“You’re mine,” he said. “You’re mine.”

Sometimes words really aren’t necessary.