You are my Sunshine

You are my Sunshine

Today I want to talk about someone who often does not get enough credit for all that he does: Dad! Obviously, I talk about my mom a lot and people know that I was very close with her, but not many people know very much about my dad or the role he has played in my life. So in honor of Father’s Day, I wanted to focus on him.

For the past three years, we haven’t really celebrated Father’s Day. Come to think of it, for two of those three, I wasn’t even in town with my dad. I think in our minds we thought that since we generally ignore Mother’s Day, it wouldn’t be fair or just felt uncomfortable honoring just one parent. But my dad has been so much more than a dad to us; he has had to try to fill the place of another as well.

From the beginning, my dad has been one of the most involved people in my life. Now that there is some distance between me and my childhood and adolescent days, I can look back on those times and realize that for 20+ years, his world revolved around us. During his real estate days when both of my parents were working full-time, my dad made a point of taking us swimming once a week after school, no matter the season or how tired he was after a long day. He sang “You are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine” to me almost every night. And when I was just a baby, he would put me on his shoulders and we would dance around the living room to his old records, a Saturday night tradition that continued to evolve until my Saturday nights were no longer reserved for time with Dad. I remember one day he took me out of school early in first grade so that we could go to the State Fair and he let me have a candy apple and I pretty much thought he was the coolest dad ever. The time that I came home the night before our elementary school’s art competition and said I wanted to enter, he set up all our paint supplies and stayed up late with me as I finished. He is the one who taught me how to ride a bike and coached me in swimming, diving, and softball, and passed on his love of Carolina basketball to me.

NC State Fair, 1998
NC State Fair, 1998

But when Mom got sick, he took on a lot of other roles, too. As my mom balanced going through treatment and working full-time through the years, there were inevitably many times that she couldn’t be around for all the activities and moments that occupy children’s lives. There were a lot of times when she just didn’t feel good from the side effects of treatment. In fact, in many ways Dad has been there more than my mom, simply because there were many times that my mom just couldn’t be. Dad is the one who kept our household running. He packed lunches, was in charge of dinner, did the laundry, chauffeured us to school and all activities, and volunteered for all school functions. He made birthday cakes and helped with homework. In high school,  he became The Band Dad. He was the parent who showed up to every single marching band competition, track meet, concert, dance recital, and play. He didn’t do these things because he felt like he had to; he did them because he wanted to spend time with us and be a part of our lives. Looking back on childhood photos and memories, I realize that we were accustomed to being a team of three before we ever had to be.

father's day montage

But one of the toughest roles that Dad embraced and did so well was as a caregiver to my mom throughout her twelve-year battle with cancer. In this way, maybe the greatest thing I have learned from him is the true meaning of “in sickness and in health.” During the final years of her illness, he brought her breakfast in bed almost every morning. He went to every doctor’s appointment that she wanted him to be at but also respected the fact that sometimes she wanted to go alone. I watched him gently help her into the house and into bed after her weekly chemotherapy. On the nights that she was sick he stayed up all night taking care of her. He never treated her like an invalid and never let her illness define who she was. And he always made sure that life continued to be as normal as possible for me and my brother. When he sensed that we were gloomy or upset about the situation, he did his best in his dad way to bring up our morale.

The thing about caregiving, though, is that generally speaking, no one outside of the immediate family really witnesses how much they do and sacrifice. After visiting in the spring of 2010, my grandmother said to me that she had never realized just how much my dad did to take care of Mom and keep our house running at the same time. I was so surprised by her comment because of course, I saw it everyday and just assumed that everyone else knew as well. So much of my mom’s every day battle was fought behind closed doors that people just don’t realize how much caregivers do. It’s a job that not everyone is cut out for and which does not lead to any honors or even positive outcomes.

Christmas 2010
Mom and Dad, Christmas 2010

After my mom passed away, my relationship with Dad changed a lot. It has gone through many phases and reiteration of phases but that’s a story for another time! The main thing is that no matter how frustrated or angry I may get with him sometimes, he’s got a pretty good track record of being an amazing dad. I admire him for his faith and devotion to his family so much. He’s had some very hard roles to play throughout my life and no one could have filled them as well as he has and come out on the other side still smiling and so full of life.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I love you so much.

relay me and dad3
Relay For Life of UNC 2014

 

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Laid to Rest

Laid to Rest

Ever since entering Year Four, all three of us in my family have known that there was something important that we still needed to do: find a place for Mom’s remains. My dad tentatively broached the subject about a month ago and I agreed with him that it was time and we were ready. All that remained was deciding where and when we would do it. Now, it might seem bizarre that we have waited so long to do this. Some people might argue that in order to have closure, we should have done this years ago. But three years ago, neither one of us were ready. Upon her request, my mom was cremated. I personally had no preference or opinion in the matter, but I will say that today I am glad that her choice of cremation has allowed us the freedom to wait and decide how we wanted to handle her remains.

I distinctly remember going to pick her up. It was exactly a week after she had passed away and the day after her memorial service. My brother had returned to school and my dad asked me to come with him. Even though I had no desire to come along, there was an unspoken understanding that he couldn’t do this alone.There aren’t many cremation services in our area, so it was a long drive, made longer by the fact that both of us were dreading what we had to do. When we arrived, I stayed in the car; I refused to step foot into that building. After a short amount of time, my dad emerged from the building carrying a paper bag. He got into the car and placed her on the floor of the backseat. I refer to it as “her” because at the time, I very much felt like it was her. I peaked around the back of my seat and peered into the bag to see a box. Tears immediately sprang to my eyes and I cried silently in the front seat as we drove away.

We had arranged to have dinner with some family who lived in the area, perhaps as a way of making this trip just a little less painful. But I could hardly swallow my food and I remained silent throughout the meal as everyone else tried to lighten the mood. We had gone to a popular restaurant and I remember there were lots of families with their kids milling around, laughing and carefree. I looked at those little kids with their mothers, laughing and running to them for comfort, and the pain was magnified. “My mom’s here too,” I thought bitterly, “sitting in a paper bag in the back of our car.” And I wondered at how just a few days ago I had been almost as innocent as them.To my recollection, the drive home was mostly silent. I spent the ride alternating between trying to ignore the bag’s presence and sneaking glances at it. Waves of anger periodically broke through the sadness as I thought about how she should be sitting here with us. I just honestly cannot adequately describe the heartbreak of bringing your mother home in a paper bag. I felt sick to my stomach and at one point I had to ask my dad to pull over so that I could gag on the side of the road. For the remainder of that summer, the bag sat in our living room by the mantle for me to glare at or ignore every time I walked through that part of the house. As we retreated into our grief, no one ever brought up what we planned to do with it, except to consult my grandparents to see if they had any preference. Eventually it disappeared from the living room and it wasn’t until two years later that I even asked my dad where he had put it. I just couldn’t bare it. So you see, we weren’t ready.

Three years later, our hearts are in a different place. We no longer feel like a broken family, but a family that has worked hard to overcome difficult times. Nonetheless, when my dad walked in my room on the morning of June 6 telling me he wanted to spread her ashes that day, I was still taken aback. I am a planner and I like to prepare myself for things, so spontaneously deciding to spread my mother’s remains was not the way I had envisioned it. There was a moment of panic. “We can’t just get rid of her!” I thought. But Dad’s reasoning for doing it that day made sense. On June 6th, 70 years ago, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, a pivotal moment in the eventual downfall of Nazi Germany. Not only does this date appeal to my history buff father, but, as he put it, it’s also a moment in history that is important to our family. If D-Day had not occurred or had been unsuccessful, perhaps our family would never have been created, being that my mom’s family is French and my dad is American. The possibility of their union could have been completely altered had that day in 1944 not occurred.

So, on June 6, 2014, my dad retrieved that famous paper bag from the closet where it had sat the past three years. We assembled in the front yard and opened up the box. It was surprisingly heavy. Dad said a few words and we proceeded to spread her ashes throughout her garden, where she had spent so much time lovingly nurturing these plants to life. Her camellia, the garden outside my bedroom window, the rhododendron, the mountain laurel, the irises, the Japanese maple planted in her honor. Handful after handful. We walked down through the woods to the creek that runs behind our house, where my brother and I used to play and where my mom used to walk, and we scattered some ashes in the water, watching as they descended and mixed into the creek bed. A part of her will always be in this place. We saved a little to one day bring to France, where we will return part of her to the little town where she grew up.

walk in the woods

For lack of a better word, metaphysical is the best way I can describe the experience of being reconnected with the physical aspect of my mom after three years. There is such a division between the body and spirit and yet, it was impossible to ignore that at one point, this was once my mom. At first, we used a cup to scoop up the ashes and spread them. But I didn’t want to treat these remains as if they were some kind of hazardous material; this was Mom! These ashes were made up of her hands, the ones I had held on to so tightly as a child and kissed goodbye three years before. Her lips that kissed me goodnight for eighteen years. Her feet and legs that carried her all over the world. Her incredible brain, her heart, her tan skin. Even her cancer, that Terrible Thing that took over her body and ultimately led to her demise but that was undeniably a part of her as well. I wanted to hold all these things that used to make up her being in my hands. This moment of spreading her ashes would be the last time that I would ever touch her again. So instead of the cup, I used my hands and I held her for the last time.

It was a solemn affair but at the same time, I think we all felt a lot of comfort in returning her to the Earth and a place that she loved. And I was even more convinced that waiting to do this had been the right thing. We were at peace now, no longer resentful or engulfed in sadness. It’s an age-old adage, but in some ways, time really does heal. Dad later said to me, “It was like being able to celebrate that we’re still a family, like saying ‘Hurray hurray, we’re still standing today, thank you Mom for sending us on our way.'” Not only is this little phrase catchy, but it really describes the sentiment of our task that day. Just as we recognize the importance of the 70th anniversary of a day that changed the course of history and many people’s lives, we celebrate that while the day in our family’s history that altered the course of our lives has changed us forever, we are still standing.

 

Hurray, Hurray, we’re still standing today,
Thank you Mom for sending us on our way.
-John Sowder