Four years ago today I lost my father-in-law to a long fight against a genetic liver disease. He was a father above all else in his heart, and he was a unique father figure to me from the beginning, stopping at restaurants I loved making friends with mine, visiting the horse farm where I worked smoking with no care for the rules. He’d show up in Madison without warning and fill a home up with ease and laughter. He was always available – to fix up the house, for a run to the airport, to show up on a rough day. For margaritas at sundown.
It may sound cliche, but he died as he lived, as much on his own terms as he could. It was October 2015 when the prognosis worsened, and rather than visit the hospital daily for transfusions he chose to live out his last days as big as he could. You hear that from time to time – if you’ve ever known anyone who was dying.
The dying don’t always have the time (strength, health, energy, etc) to conquer the world the way they hope to when they walk out of the hospital for the last time. Larry, in that way, was lucky I suppose. Friends and family (and nurses) started showing up the way I think we all hope people will at the end. It became common to find an unexpected car in the driveway and Larry holding court in the garage smoking one of his brown cigarettes, regaling his visitor in private. As a family I think we all shared a curiosity to know what he shared with each person in those moments – which often turned into hours. They were his gifts to them, and we will most likely never know.
Many days Papa Lars would pull the folding chairs into the yard to enjoy the sunshine and tell stories (it was a particularly warm and sunny fall that year). His voice was starting to change ever so slightly, that shifting muted sound a voice changes to as death peeks its way through. We would sit around him, asking questions, reveling in the stillness of those moments – that also turned into hours – happy to simply be and be together. What could possibly be more important than spending time with the people we love? A question that has shaped me into who I am today. Especially when we know our time is limited.
How do we miss this lesson as the dying leave us? How do we find ourselves wrapped up in things that don’t really matter from day to day once the sharpness of death has passed? I do not know. What I do know is that I will never forget how warm the earth was that fall, how something in the ethos seemed to grant Larry one last beautiful season here on earth.
To try and write Larry out on paper is like trying to hold onto the wind. He was a rogue wave, a rebel, a gypsy in his own time, full of curiosity for people’s intricacies and full of fierce love for those closest to him. He was a man who as a boy at the age of five (he loved telling this story) remembered coming home from school, sitting at the bottom of the stairs and asking how long he had to “do this”? Eighteen years was the answer. He loved to share the feeling of dread that overtook him.
There are certain people in our lives who seem so completely themselves, so big in a way, it’s hard to imagine them as children. Picturing a little Larry at the bottom of those stairs completely dumbfounded why he’d have to go to school for the rest of his life is an image of hilarity and charm I carry in my heart – so completely him from such a young age.
As weeks turned into months, we feasted. We celebrated. We took long walks along the lake that Larry loved and back roads to old haunts that were dear to his heart. Sometimes we’d arrive somewhere he’d been looking forward to going and he’d have to lay down or we could only stay for a few minutes because the truth was he was dying – colostomy bag, cold sweats, morphine, fevers. It didn’t sway his spirit, though, determined until the very end to get every last flavor, to eke out every last drop.
The seasons turned to winter, the holidays came, and Larry beat on, thinner, weaker, smoking in the house now (who would say no to a dying man?). He slept more, now in a hospital bed in the lower living room within ear shot of all the life that filled the house. My heart ached more as we continued to fill the kitchen with smells he could no longer taste. My heart broke inside as the days passed because I had watched how my own family changed so completely after my mother died, and I ached with this knowing. I did my best to feel brave and be supportive. We all did, for each other and for Larry.
I know that I grieved in some ways before he was gone because I knew some of the pain that was coming – to all of a sudden realize you had to speak of someone you love(d) in the past tense, to miss the feeling of their hand in yours, to recall the sound of their voice before sickness and death had changed it.
One morning we were sitting in the lower living room putting together the last of a puzzle that we’d been working on for days. I remember the room was so filled with sunshine that day and the house was oddly quiet. We were waiting … (he was waiting) for his oldest son and daughter-in-law to get into town. Larry was now in a steady morphine induced coma – another wish he had made us promise to. He asked us early on for that kindness at the end, to not be shy with drugs when it was time and to please not sit around and stare at him while he died. (We did our best.)
Within the hour of their arrival he was gone, surrounded by the people that mattered to him more than anything, as much the way he might have wanted it. The puzzle we had completed that same morning was of two Adirondack chairs overlooking the water. The words at the top were Welcome Home.
It seemed oddly poetic even then – the timing of it all, the things that Larry loved surrounding him to the last, his passing shortly after his son made it home, the last few pieces of the puzzle laid down hours before, the song in the background about wooden ships, another about the dock of the bay.
That one still finds each of us unexpectedly at times, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. Today it followed me everywhere until I remembered why, a sweet reminder of a man we loved and lost, a visit from beyond, an insistent spirit making sure I heard his hello.
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