My father died 20 years ago this March. He was 80 and had fallen on the ice while he was at work outdoors. He was self-employed and had been very active. He broke his hip and the inactivity got the best of him.
Within weeks, he had developed tumors in his bone, brain and lungs. His doctor told us that my father had only about a month to live. Soon, he was admitted to Mercy Hospital and began slipping away from us fast.
I went to the funeral home and made arrangements for his upcoming death. I wanted to be prepared while I was still thinking straight. There were four children in our family. Mom had died in 1976, leaving Dad living alone. My siblings had families of their own. I remained the closest to Dad, living only a few minutes away and calling him every day.
Now I was losing him and I wanted to show him the respect that he deserved. The night before he died, my sister and I sang to him. He was being given pain medication and was out of it. But I hoped he could hear us. We sang “You Are My Sunshine,” a song my mother used to sing around the house.
When he finally passed away at 4 a.m., I washed his face and assisted the nurse in putting him in his shroud. He was still warm and soft. I didn’t want strangers to do for him what I could personally do. He had taken care of me all of my life. I wanted to take care of him in death.
When he was ready, the orderly and I wheeled him down to the morgue and we lifted him off the gurney and put him in a refrigerated drawer.
The next day, I went to the funeral home and assisted in dressing him. He was cold and stiff. I looked up at the funeral director and said, “He’s not here anymore.” It hit me then. Dad was really gone.
Then it was time for his wake. Children often feel confused and left out when a family member dies. I wanted Dad’s grandchildren to feel like they were participating, so I asked the children to be pallbearers. The pallbearers consisted of myself, my husband, my 8-year-old nephew, my 12-year-old niece, my 30-year-old niece, my brother-in-law and my cousin Jack, Dad’s oldest nephew.
The two youngest grandchildren carried the head of the casket. It gave them something to focus on. They felt needed and part of the ceremony. Dad would have been proud of them.
He was laid out for two days and many of his customers came and told me stories of his generosity to them. The funeral home was directly across the street from Dad’s church, Saint Teresa. Father Berg, the pastor and also a personal friend of mine, read my eulogy at his Mass and the choir sang my parents’ favorite prayer.
A few weeks later, I was standing at my living room window and missing my father. We had been best friends – cooking together, playing cards, watching movies and sharing our lives. He had always been there for me.
So there I was, looking out the window, when I noticed the local nursery school kids were out for a walk. They had walked by many times before, always silently. But that day, they were singing “You Are My Sunshine.” I felt a joyful connection. I can still hear those voices, 20 years later, and I am at peace.