Final Farewell to My Father
Sunday we said a final farewell to my father. Maybe you never stop saying goodbye. I don’t think I will.
Dad passed away eight months ago from acute pancreatitis. (Some like to know these details and I don’t mind sharing them. Our minds are quirky and some hang on details like sopping sweaters on hooks.)
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Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge was one of his favorite spots for bird watching and photography — two things that he loved late in life. Squaw Creek is home to the rare loess hills that roll the length of the Missouri river floodplain. Loess, pronounced “luss,” is ancient, wind-blown soil.
Loess, pronounced “luss,” is ancient, wind-blown soil.
The refuge includes 7,440 acres of wetlands, grasslands, and forests along the eastern edge of the Missouri River. Some rare specimens of native plants, remnants of a once expansive native prairie they say, can be found here.
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Moist soil plants such as milkweed, smartweed, and wild millet grow during the warmest months of the year before the marsh areas are flooded in the autumn. Now, at the tail end of summer, the refuge remains lush and verdant. Monarch butterflies — along with their doppelgangers, Viceroys — flit from bloom to bloom of pale hibiscus blossoms.
Button trees and cottonwoods line the edges of the refuge and spotted throughout are lily pads hanging lamely in the air. Without the buoyancy of life that is given and reflected from the water, the pristine majesty that you might imagine of the lily is reduced to the tragedy of elephant ears hanging limply and presented for ghastly display on spikes. If you look closely, you can spot their rust-colored seed pods like watering-can spouts turned expectantly skyward, hoping to entice the rain.
This is where the brutal economy of nature butts up against the impressive fecundity of life. It’s unforgiving and selfish, but so fruitful that there is no need to hoard its bounty. Similar to our clutching and grasping of time and of those who have run out of it, or who perhaps are close. While all goes back to the earth and nothing is wasted, it is also true that our deeds and kindness, and our love matters.
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Monarch butterflies are returning to the reserve now in search of milkweed to lay their eggs upon. They will lay only one egg per leaf to prevent predators from greedily gobbling them all up in one fell swoop. This again is the economy and fecundity of nature.
Just as the Monarch lays egg after egg knowing that many will perish, we love people with our whole hearts knowing that they will one day escape us and abscond from this life to an unreachable and unknowable place. This is love. When we love, we are choosing suffering.
When we love, we say, “This is going to hurt — maybe not now, but one day — and it’s worth it. It’s so incredibly and undoubtedly worth it.”
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In the autumn, water is pushed back from the dam through grates, and the marsh areas are flooded for migrating waterfowl to find respite and to feed on the moist soil plant seeds. Over a million snow geese will crowd into the refuge on the Central Flyway heading to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
This time was my father’s favorite for visiting. It’s also the same time that he fell ill last year. The silver lining is that I was able to spend two months with him in the Midwest — having spent the prior 15 years in the mountains and on the East Coast — right before he was admitted into the hospital for stomach pain.
That night, the concrete slabs of the slanted sidewalk were still warm as I placed each bare foot gingerly and held the weight of him, helping my dad walk toward the car. The same sidewalk I’d skinned my knee on at least 100 times before as a girl. The same one I was scolded for running down too quickly, lest I skin said knees. The very one on which my dad would take my picture each Easter.
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They pushed the water back through the great drains of the refuge that autumn and flooded the lush landscape, at the same time the doctors tried to clean up the great flood caused by the necrosis of my father’s pancreas.
“It’s just like cleaning up after a house flood,” the surgeon said.
“First, we pump out the extra fluid. Then, we’ll go in and clean out everything that’s sustained too much damage — rip out the rugs and remove any furniture that’s damaged beyond repair. Then, we will try to salvage what’s left.”
I held his waterlogged hand in mine — as only a little girl could hold her daddy’s hand in hers — for what would be the last time in our lives, and the water sloshed under his skin from the pressure of my thumb as I stroked it. On some level I knew that the rushing waters couldn’t be held. His body succumbed to them the next day. It was mid-December.
I, too, was pulled under for a time. Swept away in a tide of grief and guilt and anger and despair and longing. … Spring, unbidden, came again and the waters began to dissipate. Unlike nature, love knows no economy, only fecundity — only fruitfulness. The loss of someone you love is not also a loss of love. While at times it does resemble emptiness; it is more of an echo, a ripple in the surface of a still lake, that reminds you that it was there and just how deep it was.
Unlike nature, love knows no economy, only fecundity — only fruitfulness.
Sometimes I call out, “Dad!” just to remember what it sounds like and what it feels like in my mouth when I say it. Sometimes I sneak into his closet, open the pocket of his coat jacket and breathe deeply, trying to catch his scent. And in these moments — instantly — I’m fully submerged.
It is both sorrowful and beautiful. It is a hibiscus plant helplessly anchored to the earth’s ancient soil and overtaken by rising waters. And in the same stroke, it is a lily pad’s beauty — once bereft, a giant leaf gasping mid-air — now restored to the tranquil floating of its effortless majesty.
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This story also appeared on Medium.