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April 4, 2012

It is Holy Week, and I am thinking of life and death, and my father.  This year, the anniversary of his death falls the week after Easter, but in 2001, April 11 was the Wednesday before.  We held his visitation on Easter Sunday and buried him on Easter Monday.  Four weeks after my mother laid to rest the love of her life, I clutched her arm and walked down the aisle toward mine.  My mother and I stepped forward with steady resolve, our eyes fixated on the crucifix hanging at the front of the church where my husband’s parents were married and where my husband had buried his mother.  One of the first things my husband said to me when I met him was “My mother is dead, you know?”  We were in a thick of dancers in the living room of our good friend Karen—she’s dead now, too—and we had been drinking too much and he kept circling me, teasing, trying to get a reaction.  That was 1999, ten days into the season of Lent.  When he told me about his mother, I stepped back, temporarily off-balance from the weight of his words, but eventually I righted myself and a year later, we were engaged.

When my father learned he had terminal cancer, he stopped watching NASCAR—one of his favorite television pastimes—and tuned into home and garden shows instead.  I took a leave of absence from my life as a doctoral student in Connecticut and traveled home to Illinois to help my mother and siblings care for him.  I knew I couldn’t let him die without my being there.  I’ve always had trouble letting things go without bearing witness to the departure.  When I was a teenager, my parents and I were halfway home from the veterinarian’s office when I demanded that we return so I could hold our old mutt Ginger as the vet’s assistant put her to sleep.  My parents were attempting to spare me the scene of her death, but I owed that dog my presence, a final act of love.  And I needed to see it.  Otherwise, I knew that, for the rest of my life, I would imagine other (im)possibilities: She had suddenly recovered, bolted out of the office, and attempted to make her way home.  I would see her everywhere, in other dog’s faces, in other unlikely places.  I would never stop looking for her.  I had no idea what it would mean to watch my father die—how utterly shattering it would be to watch him leave the world—but I needed to be there.

One afternoon, not long after I arrived home, my father was watching a pair of television hosts renovate a garden shed as I absently flipped through wedding books on the floor of his hospital room.  I wasn’t much for wedding books, or for fairy-tale-dreaming about the “best day of my life,” even without my father dying in the bed next to me.  As I scanned the book, I lighted on a page of pew decorations that struck me as beautiful for their simplicity: white paper cones filled with lily-of-the-valley hanging from bent metal hooks.  “What do you think?” I asked my dad, interrupting the shed construction to show him the page.  He looked down.  “Very nice,” he offered, and I knew then that those paper cones would be hanging from the pews at my wedding.  It was the first and only time, in all the wedding planning, I said to myself, “I have to have this.”

In one of his last parental acts, my father called a buddy who ran a local machine shop and arranged to have the metal hangers made for my decorations.  I bought the paper and the ribbons, and though his fingers were fat with fluids, my father sat in his hospital bed and helped me fold the paper into cones.  Later, after we had buried him, after I was back in Connecticut making final wedding preparations, I reminded my husband that we needed lily-of-the-valley for the cones.  I had to have the lily-of-the-valley, even though it cost a fortune and he had to get up at the crack of dawn on the morning of our wedding to drive to a remote warehouse in northeast Philadelphia to buy them.  Of course he got them.  By the time my mother and I made our way down the aisle, though, our faces were tight and we could not take our eyes from the cross.  I didn’t even notice the pew decorations.  We had only made eight anyway, enough for the first four pews on each side.  We ran out of time.

The night my dad died, we passed the hours and fought off fatigue by singing along to a tape of old Lutheran hymns on a portable stereo my mom had set up in their bedroom.  Somewhere during the first verse of “Abide With Me,” my dad began gasping for breath.  Hours earlier, his last word before he had slipped into a coma, was a question: “Why?”  As the space between his choked breaths lengthened, we fought against the horrific violence of his final moments, our voices rising, desperate:

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.

Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

By the time we reached the last verse, he was still.  We sang that song at his funeral, and weeks later, when my mother went to his grave to see the headstone set in place for the first time, the bells on the nearby cemetery chapel began pealing, the wind carrying “Abide With Me” to my mother, standing over my father’s grave.

Sometimes, the difference between a miracle and a coincidence is the thin stem of a musical note or the thread-breadth of a shiny green plant leaf in the shape of a giant tear drop.

The first spring we moved into our house, I noticed a large patch of lily-of-the-valley sprouting in our side yard.  Here in Philadelphia, it grows like a weed, and this year, thanks to a warm winter, it will bloom early, like everything else.  Already the pointed pips are poking through the earth.  Soon the green leaves will follow, then the delicate white upside-down bells hanging from the stem.

Lily-of-the-valley is sometimes referred to as “Mary’s Tears” or “Our Lady’s Tears.”  In Christian legends, the plant springs from the tears of Mary that watered the ground as she wept during the crucifixion.  Other gardeners call it “Ladder-to-Heaven.”

I think about my dad often in this journey, how he would have accepted our birth family without fuss, how he would have cradled my sister and me amid the upheaval in his silent but ever sure way.  I think about meeting a biological father without the ghost of a deceased father hovering over the moment.  Mostly I just miss him, for myself and for my mother.  But I don’t weep for him anymore.  I am out of tears, the ground beneath me long dry.

Yet, still those blessed flowers grow.

Here they are, this Holy Week, already breaking from the earth.

Here I am, eleven years later, so many more lost, so many more found, still climbing the ladder, my feet on the white bells, clanging out the “Eventide” as I clamor toward the sky.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    April 12, 2012 5:49 pm

    And now I am missing my dad. Such great memories, Jenny–thank you.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 14, 2012 12:08 am

      Hugs to you, Becky. I can’t imagine having lost both parents. You and your sisters are such an inspiration to me, and the ultimate definition of family love and survival.

  2. April 5, 2012 3:00 am

    When I saw the photo at the beginning of your post it tugged on my heart instantly, thinking of my mother walking me down the aisle at my own wedding; my father’s death; and all the bittersweet emotions that come with that.

    As I began to read this post at work earlier today I began tearing up immediately. I should have known better – a comment you left on my own blog that was so simple meant so much to me and caused me to tear up. Why I would try to devote some random moments during a hectic workday to try and digest your writing is beyond me.

    So tonight, after dinner and laundry and painting, I cleaned up, settled into the couch, and read the whole post. There is a quiet reverence that your writing demands. I am so blessed to know you, to have learned from you. I hope you truly know how beautiful your writing is, and how deeply it touches people.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 5, 2012 12:11 pm

      Cat, your essay about your dad and the house that you grew up in has remained so visibly present to me all these years later. Thank you so much for leaving your note and for your kind words. They mean so much to me. Happy Easter!

  3. Michelle Hazelrigg permalink
    April 5, 2012 12:54 am

    I remember very vividly walking into your parents home to visit your dad on the day that he died. I was overwhelmed with grief when your brother told me as I walked through the door. I felt horrible for the intrusion on your family in that prrivate moment. But in Spinner fashion, your mother welcomed me in and spent a few moments with me. As I was struggling with my own mother’s terminal illness, your family, maybe unknowingly, gave me great comfort. I also remember that Easter being at Church, with my mother, and seeing your family. Your mother was so strong and was still the one giving comfort, smiling and singing through obvious pain. (Your then fiancé even joking that I may need a mongoose for my snake problem.) Your family gave my family the blueprint for what was about to happen to our mom. Seeing the beauty of life, even through death, as we hold on to the promise of eternity. For that I am always thankful. I find myself reflecting on my relationship with my mother on this and every Easter week, and also remembering your family during this time as well. You are truly blessed and continue to be a blessing.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 5, 2012 12:10 pm

      I am so touched by your note, Michelle. That day after my dad died is such a blur that I remember very little–other than having to go tell my grandmothers. Telling my grandma Spinner was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. My dad was the last of her sons. She buried her husband and every one of her children. But she, like my mother, are incredibly strong women, and I drew from their strength as well. You remind me that, even in our sorrow, we have so much to give to others. You just gave something to me by leaving your comment. Happy Easter to you, and to your family!

  4. Linda Durnil permalink
    April 5, 2012 12:09 am

    The tears came this time. The writing is a joy & a blessing. We think of your Dad often. We had great times together. So glad that your mom & I get together & talk by e-mail. Love, Linda

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 5, 2012 12:07 pm

      Thanks for your note, Mrs. Durnil! I’m so glad that you and Mr. Durnil and my mom have remained friends throughout all these years, too!

  5. Dina permalink
    April 4, 2012 5:20 pm

    I am going to blame the fact that my shirt is soaked in tears on the pregnancy hormones. I was crying as soon as I saw the picture of you and your mom walking together. I don’t know that I have ever read anything that has captured beauty, pain, and joy so well and all at the same time. The flowers, the sickening loss, the incredible love for your dad and Peter, the journey you and your mom had to make together. I am so grateful that you write. Love you!

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 5, 2012 12:07 pm

      Let’s blame it on the pregnancy hormones if only because we can and I love that you are pregnant. 🙂 xoxo

  6. Nancy Minton permalink
    April 4, 2012 4:29 pm

    Always a joy to read your writings, Jenny. You were VERY blessed to have such wonderful parents, and they were VERY blessed to have you and Jackie. You make me want to write too, only I am not nearly as talented.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 5, 2012 12:06 pm

      Thanks so much, Mrs. Minton. I agree, blessed all around. As I tell my students: There are plenty of people willing to tell us that we’re not talented enough to write. Don’t be your first critic. Write! 🙂

  7. Judy permalink
    April 4, 2012 4:20 pm

    How blessed you have been, Jenny. Blessed to be a blessing. I wish you and your family a most joyous Easter.

  8. Donna Brandis Ehler permalink
    April 4, 2012 4:15 pm


    As I have done this week, I think about your Dad every Holy Week. He was such a good man, and he was richly blessed with such a wonderful wife and family.

    I thoroughly enjoy each of the chapters as you write about your journey. You are such a talented writer! Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

    Easter Blessings to you and all of your family.


    • twinprint permalink*
      April 5, 2012 12:03 pm

      Thanks so much for your note, Donna. Happy Easter to you, too!

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