This Is…Me?

I’ve written a few blog posts on Dead Dad Day, and they serve as textual time capsules that remind me where I was, literally and metaphorically, on those anniversaries.

On the first anniversary, I was writing my comps for my doctoral program.

When we were honoring my dad’s memory at our family dinner on the third anniversary, we heard the news that Whitney Houston died. (People were shocked, but losing a 59-year old parent suddenly tends to make you impervious to premature deaths of troubled celebrities.)

But when I think back to this year’s 9th anniversary, I will remember Jack’s death.

Yes, my father’s name was Tom, but Jack Pearson is the patriarch in the popular show This Is Us.

If you’re not familiar with it, This Is Us tells the story of a fictional family across decades with the use of flashbacks (and, recently, one flash-forward). We’ve known from early in the first season that Jack died sometime between the kids’ teenage years and their adulthood. (Warning: The rest of this post contains references to the last two episodes.)

This show has been on the air for a year and a half, yet the writers chose THIS WEEK to tell us exactly how Jack died and what his kids and widow do on his anniversary. Then, two days after this special post-Super Bowl show, we got an episode on his funeral.

Many people refer to the show as a tear-jerker, but I haven’t needed the tissues until these episodes. It was a bit too real, especially so close to Dead Dad Day. I’m cool with art imitating life, but not necessarily my life, and certainly not this week.

This Is Us felt like This Is Me.

Jack dies of a cardiac arrest. My father did, too. (Jack’s was due to a fire; my dad’s was due to type 1 diabetes.)

His widow Rebecca sees him dead on the bed in the ER. Been there, done that!

In the funeral episode, Rebecca is stoic, the pillar of strength she feels she needs to be for her 17-year old triplets (er, kind of…it’s complicated). Before the funeral, I had a chat with my father’s open casket that helped me deliver his eulogy without losing my composure.

These episodes were especially emotional because I had the enormous good fortune 20180210_214854of having a Jack Pearson dad. He painted my face as Raggedy Ann for my second Halloween. He came to my loooong gymnastics meets and dance recitals and softball games. He took me on my college visits. He was a hands-on father who remembered the things that mattered to me.

 

From flashbacks in the funeral episode, I was also reminded of some of the harder parenting moments from my teen years. Jack didn’t love Alanis Morisette like his daughter Kate did. My senior year of high school, I wrote the lyrics to one of Morisette’s songs on my paper-bag book cover. Imagine my embarrassment when I took the book out in class and saw that my father had written a response: “These lyrics aren’t appropriate for high school. Perhaps next year.” GULP.

Toward the end of the funeral episode, after spreading some of Jack’s ashes at a sentimental location, Rebecca tells the ethereal Jack, “I promise you, we’re gonna be okay.”

We know from watching the 2017 version of the family, almost 20 years after Jack’s death, that this proves true. They’re all a little broken in some places, but the brokenness is what makes them interesting.

And they’re okay. When you have a Jack Pearson, or a Tom Pesola, for a dad, you know you’re gonna be okay.

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Dead Dad Day #8: Seeing the Collateral Beauty

Last year was the first Dead Dad Day I did not spend with my mom and sister. This year marks another Dead Dad Day first: I will spend it completely alone, as I am in Chicago for a workshop. The family dinner and traditional margarita will need to wait until my return on February 12.

I kind of like that I am in Chicago for this occasion, the city where Brendan and I ran three marathons to raise money for Dad’s scholarship and diabetes research. It’s a fitting place to celebrate my dad.

To some new friends and readers, celebrating “Dead Dad Day,” much less calling it that, might seem crass. Why not celebrate my father’s birth instead of his death? (For the record, we do acknowledge that day, too.)

Here’s why: it was a beautiful death.

We talk about attending a beautiful wedding and meeting a beautiful new baby, presumably because both occasions are filled with love and families coming together and rejoicing. Can’t a death be that way, too? My dad’s was.

This past Christmas, my family and I saw the critically-panned movie Collateral Beauty (we all liked it; I cried more than I should have). I’m going to borrow that term here because I think it’s apropos—in the midst of the worst day of my life, I was surrounded by collateral beauty. I couldn’t see it then, but I see it now.

Though he was only 59 and his death was sudden, my father died in bed, hopefully with no pain, and definitely with no prolonged suffering. None of us had to watch his mental or physical decline. That was a beautiful gift.

My family and our network banded together that day – my sister’s future in-laws came to the ER that morning to check in on us. Amy, my Marble Jar friend, instinctively came to my house to cry with me. My mom’s sisters drove up from Connecticut after they got the call. My husband’s aunt came by with subs, reminding us to eat. My sister-in-law and her family brought pizza that night. My parents’ friends descended on the house that evening for what my sister and I affectionately call “the fake wake.” I don’t know how religious all of those people were, but it was the first time I felt what it meant to be “lifted up in prayer.” Their presence was a beautiful gift.

My favorite photo from this time, if one can have a favorite photo of a procsimplefuneral, is a slightly grainy one from the collation after the burial. It is quintessential Pesola Girls. I gave my dad’s eulogy, and at the reception, many friends and family shared remembrances. My mother served as the evening’s MC, a role my dad typically played, and offered the mic to my sister to say a few words, and she lost her composure. My mom took the mic back to give my sister some time, and I wrapped her in my arms and reassured her she could do it. There’s so much pain in this picture, but it was also a beautiful moment of our new Pesola family unit of 3 figuring out our new world and new roles, and my cousin Lisa captured it perfectly.

I often think about my death. I have written my will and my obituary, and I’ve assigned people to my eulogy (you know who you are!). I could attribute this morbidity to surviving the sudden death of a parent at a young age, but really, Amy will tell you I’ve been talking about my death since I was at least 5—hey, it’s gonna happen sooner or later. I can only hope my death will be as beautiful as my dad’s and that my surviving family will recognize it as such…with time.

And so, on this 8th Dead Dad Day, I celebrate how my mother, sister, and I have navigated our new worlds since that day. I again thank all of you for lifting us up in prayer – on February 11, 2009, and today. And I toast my father and the death that brought me so much pain but also so much beauty.

Five-Minute Friday: Lift

(Note: “Five-Minute Friday” is an activity I participate in based on Kate Motaung’s blog, linked at the bottom of the page. Each week, Kate posts a one-word prompt, and people write for five minutes straight, free-write style with no editing and no over-thinking.)

This week, my father would have turned 67, so he has been on my mind more than usual lately. With this prompt, I immediately thought back to a card he sent me, one that I easily recalled in the wake of his death. I no longer remember the occasion that prompted him to send it to me, but I wrote the text of the cover in a notebook I keep that contains clippings my father sent me over the years – Reflections of the Day from The Boston Globe, strange newspaper articles (“Princeton mulls ban on nude run” reads one headline).

The message from the card is this:

I did not have an easy road to travel, but every time I reached the point where trouble was so deep that I thought I could go no farther, someone came along to help me through the deepest drifts. I didn’t always know who these people were, but I always knew who sent them. – Jeanne Morris

I love living in Cincinnati. Moving here last year was one of my life’s better decisions, but living here also means I have less chances of encountering the people my dad has sent over the years to lift me up when I needed it.

My dad was a dentist, and as such, he had an extensive network of colleagues and patients. In the seven years since he’s been dead, I have had random people come up to me to tell me they do not know me, but they recognize me from the pictures in my dad’s office and need me to know what a wonderful guy/dentist/doting father he was. Such encounters always caught me off guard since they occurred in the places I least expected it – at my former school’s library during a new parent reception, in the produce aisle of the grocery store – but I always appreciated them for the gift they were. I didn’t know these people, but I knew who sent them.

This week of my dad’s birthday, I might need a little lift. I will be on the lookout.