Sunday, December 16, 2012


As a child, I loved nature and the outdoors. When I needed some alone time, I would often grab a plastic milk crate and, with that in hand, climb one of the pecan trees in our backyard.  High up in the tree, I would place the crate upside down in the branches and sit on it so I could relax as I felt the breeze blowing through the limbs and watch what was going on below.

One thing I've found since my dad went on ahead is a renewed feeling of that love for the open air and the peace that it gives me; it makes me feel some of the connection to my dad that I, like many others who have lost loved ones, am seeking - so much so that we often end up noticing, watching for, and even collecting things that remind us of our loved one.  Just like I did up in those tree branches many years ago, these days I find peace in the sight of a rainbow or a particularly magnificent sunset or a bird that seems to be looking right at me for an atypical amount of time.

A few months after my dad died, I mentioned in conversation with a friend that I derived a little bit of comfort in having some of my dad's things with me - an old shirt of his, a pair of his socks, a book of his with the corners of some pages folded over where he had marked his place.  My friend, who had been through the loss of a parent before me, told me that she understood, and she predicted that at some point I wouldn't feel as strong of a need to hold onto my dad's things because I would feel connected to him through my memories instead.  She may be right, but I'm not there yet.

For as long as I can remember, my dad had a favorite pillow.  He was always a little particular about things that affected the quality of his sleep; I guess that came from getting up so early to run for so many years.  For years while I was growing up, he had an orthopedic-type of pillow that he slept on every night; he even took it on road trips so he would have that one instead of having to sleep on a hotel pillow.  There were several instances when he left his pillow behind in a hotel room, and, when he realized his mistake, he called the front desk at the hotel and with his usual friendliness persuaded an employee to mail it back to him at home.

When I went to the hospital to be with my dad when he first got sick, I brought a pillow from my house.  The pillow case was one that my daughters had tie-dyed months before; I thought it would be good to have an extra one at the hospital for Dad or whomever was staying there with him to use, and I knew the original design of that pillow case would differentiate our pillow from one that was hospital property.  That pillow ended up following us along during the whole time Dad was sick, going with us from the hospital, to rehab, to the hotel where we stayed when we took Dad to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke, to my parents' house, to the hospital again, and finally back to my parents' house.  When we brought Dad home from the hospital the last time, we bought about a dozen new pillows to use to position him to try to keep him comfortable in the hospital bed; we encased all of them in blue pillow cases which we'd also purchased just for that purpose.  The pillow in the tie-dyed case wasn't needed anymore, and so I took it to sleep on, first at my parents' house and later at my own house.  I sleep on that pillow every night now; it, like the outdoors and like some of Dad's things from when he was healthy, bring me some comfort in an unexplainable way, especially at night when I seem to need it the most. 

The pillow that followed us

I imagine that it is a universal struggle for those of us left behind to decide what to do with the belongings of the person who has gone on ahead.  Dad would tell us to get rid of it all; he'd think we were being silly and sentimental, and he would point out that it's just stuff.  And it is, but his possessions marked his place in the world, and, in a way, I feel like they still do.  

Everything that changes in my parents' house - even in my house and even in the world around us - is something that takes me further away from him.  The first few times I was at my parents' house [I know I should just call it my mom's house, but sometimes I revert back to referring to it as theirs] after Dad died, I found myself looking around for dust - not to check my mother's housekeeping skills but because I had read somewhere a long time ago that household dust is made up of mostly skin cells, and so I reasoned that some of Dad physically was still there.  I felt - and I still do to some extent - desperate to hold onto anything that has the possibility of making me feel connected to him.  

Along the way, we've cleaned out and gotten rid of some of Dad's stuff; we donated some of his suits and most of the many pairs of running shoes that were crowding his closet.  It felt a little like ripping off a band-aid, except for the fact that it still hurts afterwards too.  Again, I am sure he would have wanted us to give those things to someone who will use them, but letting go of any of it is still a really hard thing to do.  I just don't want to lose any more of him.  

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