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.

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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.

Dead Dad Day #7

Today marks the seventh anniversary of my father’s death, the most life-changing event I have experienced that now serves as my “before” and “after” marker. I have always honored Dead Dad Day, as I refer to it, as a kind of Sabbath, a day I do not conduct business as usual but spend time reflecting on the painfully beautiful unraveling it caused me.

I have written about my rituals on DDD before. Some years I didn’t work on February 11, some I did. Some years I reread sympathy cards, some years I didn’t. What has always been the tradition, though, is a family dinner with my crew and my mother, sister, and brother-in-law. We have a margarita, one of my dad’s favorite adult drinks, toast to a wonderful, complicated man, and share memories.

This year is different. A shared meal is not possible now that we’ve moved 1,000 miles away. Had we been home, it would not have happened anyway, as my sister is in the home stretch of her nurse practitioner program and has class from 1-8 tonight. And though I have always kept the evening of February 11 clear, tonight Owen has a make-up basketball game. Having him skip it would be a very UN-Tom-Pesola move.

Life has changed for us all, as life tends to do. And for the first time since that terrible day on February 11, 2009, when my 59-year-old father unexpectedly died in the middle of the night due, in essence, to Type 1 diabetes, February 11 feels…normal.

I will continue to honor this day, of course. I am looking forward to a great day at work. I will attend a College Board workshop on examining PSAT data, participate in a lower school PLC meeting on math curriculum, finish the annual report to our endowed fund donors, and discuss ways we might compbasketballact the curriculum for our advanced upper school students. After school, I will help coach the middle school Girls on the Run team, our first meeting of the year. Then, we will squeeze in a family dinner before heading to Owen’s game to watch #66, the next generation of my father’s #33, play a great game.

 

I am also donating $33 to Spare a Rose, a foundation I fortuitously learned about last night. My father and Owen were lucky to have been born after the discovery of insulin, but just because insulin exists does not mean all children have access to it. To coincide with Valentine’s Day (the day we buried my father), Spare a Rose asks people to give the value of one rose to help provide diabetes supplies and insulin to children in degoofyveloping countries. How can I not support that?

So, cheers to you, all of my family and friends who have supported us on our journey of grief these last 7 years. And, cheers to a father who consistently supported me with love and kindness and encouragement. I hold my memories a little closer and dearer today.