I was used to my December birthday blending into the larger framework of holiday celebrations. Growing up, it seemed like there were always school Christmas concerts. In college, there were finals. As an adult, a seemingly endless buffet of fun and obligations.
But one recent year was different.
That year, I spent the anniversary of the day I made my dad a father in his hospice room. And that year, my brother spent my birthday in his woodshop, handcrafting the box that eventually would house my dad’s cremated remains.
My husband, daughter and I had spent Thanksgiving in South Dakota with my family and my father, who recently had been admitted to the hospital due to complications from aggressive cancer. We had just arrived back in Colorado when we got the call. My dad had suffered a brain bleed. They couldn’t do anything for him. He wasn’t drinking or eating and they didn’t think he would have long.
My little family got back in the car and made the seven-hour trip back to my home state to say goodbye.
My daughter, born ten days before my birthday, spent her first birthday with teary family members in a hospital room. She was too young to understand what was going on. I was heartbroken that she wouldn’t have real memories of her incredibly loving and proud grandpa.
Dad hung on.
Despite having lost control of his left side, not having any appetite or real ability to swallow food, he didn’t die in the first few days, as was originally anticipated. He stabilized and was moved into a hospice house. After a week, my husband and daughter headed back to Colorado, while I stayed behind with my mom, brother and sister.
The hospice house was as homey as it could be. Local quilting clubs had donated homemade quilts, so dad was always nestled in beautiful, soft creations. The common area had a lovely two story stone fireplace, grand piano, big screen television, games, movies, books, and a long wooden dining table at which to gather. But you couldn’t escape the smell of disinfectant or the constant presence of medical staff.
Dad had spent the vast majority of his life within 50 miles of his birthplace. He was invested in every community he had lived in and in all the people around him. As a result, he had a steady stream of visitors. Even though my dad had a difficult time speaking, he knew exactly what was going on and who every single person was. His siblings and their spouses, nephews, nieces, cousins and various other relatives were faithful about coming. Dad was never alone, which was just how he liked it.
The weather was bad on my birthday, and dad didn’t have as many visitors that day. We had all gotten into a bit of a routine—playing cards, visiting, crying, even laughing with whoever stopped by. I took up knitting, an activity that allowed me to listen to the stories about my dad from visitors and easily be set aside to help my dad drink water or roll into different positions to avoid bed sores.
It was hard not to feel sorry for myself that day. Instead of celebrating my birth, we were ushering my dad out of this life. Instead of the annual phone call when dad would tell me all about the day I was born, I was holding his hand, wishing to hear the story one more time. But he couldn’t put those words together.
While I was so thankful to spend the time with him, I was crushed that my time with him was coming to an end. I’d never hear my birthday story from him again.
It was dark by the time my brother made it to the hospice house. He was covered in sawdust and smelled of oiled wood. He was carrying a simple wooden box. My brother, a woodworker by trade, had spent the day creating the box my dad’s cremated remains would be buried in at the Black Hills National Cemetery. Roughly the size of a shoebox, it was impeccably handcrafted from mahogany and trimmed in a contrasting wood.
Building that box was probably one of the hardest—and most selfless—things my brother ever could have done. He knew our dad would appreciate the effort, so he brought it in to show my dad.
I had been feeling sorry for myself for having a tough birthday, but that seemed petty after realizing how difficult the day must have been for my brother as he was crafting my dad’s final resting place.
Typically, my dad’s hospice room was a fairly jovial place. Filled with stories and teasing and doing our best to be present in the time we had and not worry too much about what came next. But when my brother brought the box in, it became crystal clear what was coming. My mom, dad, brother and I held on to each other and cried. We could no longer avoid the finality of the situation.
My dad was so proud of my brother and the work he did. He kept stroking the satin smooth box with his still-strong right hand. Even though my dad was usually the biggest softy of our family, his tears dried up first. It was almost like a loose end had been tied up and he was relieved.
After my brother left, my mom, dad and I decided it was time for me to go back to Colorado to my own little family. Dad had already survived on little sips of just water for almost two weeks, and was relatively stable. Even though we knew he wouldn’t get better, no one knew how long he would survive.
There wasn’t anything else I could do.
While I’m sure everyone appreciated my being there, I wasn’t serving any need. But I was needed in Colorado. My husband supported me wholeheartedly, but it was difficult for him acting as a single parent of a one-year-old daughter. My co-workers were amazingly supportive, as well, but they were stretched thin.
I am blessed with a wonderful and practical family that does not fall apart in times of crisis. Not only were my brother and sister within fifteen minutes of the hospice house, a couple of dad’s siblings were within half an hour. There was a circle of love and support available at all times. And they all understood and supported my leaving.
The hardest thing was making peace with not being with my dad when he took his last breath. Not being with my family in the immediate aftermath. Not getting to hold his hand anymore.
I went back to Colorado to be with my husband and daughter to try to muddle through life as best as I could knowing that at any time my dad could be gone. I called him every day just to ask a few yes or no questions and hear a raspy “love you.” But I never saw him alive again.
Dad held on for two months and six days in hospice. Six days before my brother’s birthday, he died surrounded by family in the early morning. After I received the call, I fell back asleep and had a dream: My dad was happy, whole, and gave me a huge hug.
It’s been two years since I spent that bittersweet birthday with my dad. Since then I’ve tried to celebrate the day instead of spending the day in mourning. I’m trying to build up good times to help soften the sadness from the day.
And I try to remember the vital lessons from that year I spent my birthday in the hospice house. A beautiful box, but not for me. A reminder that the most worthwhile things are often the hardest. How unconditional love and the support of family make the hardest things more bearable. And the importance of lovingly ushering out one generation and living for a new one.