So my dad died, and I wrote these things that are helping me feel a little better

I sat for a really long time with my Dad Sunday afternoon. His labored breathing was like a metronome, a weird combination of great labor and steady rhythm. His eyes were vacantly half open, and it’s reasonable to assume (I did at the time) that he had no idea I was there. It was lunchtime, and I was headed to see my mom, only intending to stop in with dad for a moment, because the death bed vigil for a man no longer there seemed ridiculous. But I sat, for just a minute.

Every so often there would be a hitch in his breathing, and I would look up quickly, into his eyes, hoping it was the end. But then the metronome would resume.

Once I’d been there an hour, I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t a painful afternoon or a pleasant afternoon, it was simply time suspended, a day with me in my mind and Dad in his. But as the sun started to fade, I realized that if there was any light making through Dad’s sunken, half-opened eyes to the brain behind, it was likely the last fading sunlight my father would ever see.

Sharing that moment suddenly mattered to me a great deal. He was an artist. The light was the thing:

Malfunction has a way of clarifying function. As dementia etched away my father’s brain, he lost the ability to draw and paint. But from the window of the Albuquerque apartment where he and my mother have lived in recent years, he could look out at the Sandia-Manzano mountain chain and just watch that great big New Mexico sky. He didn’t know much, but in the moment, he always knew what the clouds were doing.

I’d take him for a drive, and we would stop for a short walk (it was all he could do) in the bosque. He would stare at the twisting forms of the old cottonwoods and talk about them, pointing and composing paintings in his mind.

The project now, beyond the relief of it being over, is to carve my way back through the last half dozen years of dementia and rebuild the memory of something else.



  1. My dad died in 1981. He had an incurable disease, likely brought on from being a mechanic. Even though he lived 16 years after his diagnosis, it still hurt like hell when he died. It’s been 31 years, and I still miss him. My dad was a musician, so for him, rhythm and tone were all around. As an artist, it sounds as though your dad saw the world in a way most of us don’t. Sorry to hear about your dad.

  2. John:

    So well written, and so close to home. My sincere condolences.

    My mom passed away just two weeks ago under eerily similar circumstances. She too, has had dementia – for about the same 6 years. Somehow what you wrote has made me feel a little better too. As such, I’d like to leave some words with you by Juanita De Long:

    All these have made me happy;
    They are part of me;
    I shall become part of them.

    Bless you for the thoughts. Wayne.

  3. Thanks for the lovely piece. Sorting out a parent’s passing is always a daunting task. You definitely captured your father’s artistic spirit. Thank you.

  4. My dad passed 10 years ago yesterday. Died of aggressive liver cancer. His final hours were under the mercy of morphine to keep the pain in check. His last hours were a review of his life.

    Although I was not present – my brother told me the story as dad related it. I guess it was a personal re-accounting of his life.

    My brother was extremely moved in experiencing dad telling his story during his final hours.


  5. I’m so sorry for your loss. Much as we know the day will ultimately come when a parent passes over, nothing prepares you for when it actually happens. Both my parents are gone now and, painful as it was, I feel very fortunate to have spent time with them in their final days and to have been with them when they passed over into the spirit world.

    As you so beautifully stated, the task now is to rebuild the memory of something other than the illness and the sorrow surrounding it. May memories of happier times with your dad sustain you during this difficult time.


  6. This Thanksgiving I deliberately made new dishes that reminded me of my parents, grandparents and others. Either the content or style of the dish brought back complex memories.

    Your writing triggered more memories.

    Thank you.

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