In Celebration of My Dad and His Life – May 14, 2011
by Martha Stark
When I was in med school, I had a dear friend whose father died unexpectedly, leaving my friend totally unprepared to deal with the pain of her grief about his sudden death and filled with regret about all those things she had never told him and all those conversations they had never had.
And so began my tradition with Mom and Dad: Every year at Christmas, upon my return to Bethesda from Boston, as soon as Mom and Dad had picked me up at the airport, I would ask them, rather boldly, I know, if they were ready to die! Bless their souls that they were willing to indulge me in this way! So Mom and Dad would tell me that they weren’t quite yet ready to die – but we would then go on to do a wonderful year-in-review – all three of us stepping back from the moment to reflect upon our lives, the choices we had made during the previous year, our hopes for the upcoming year, and where we felt we were along the path of our life. And every year we would end these conversations with a re-affirmation of our love for one another – just to be on the safe side, because you never knew, for sure, when that year might be the last. As it happens, this very special tradition continued for 36 years with Mom, 45 with Dad. Having this amazing opportunity to know that both Mom and Dad were giving life their very best and were deeply grateful for how their lives were unfolding did, indeed, make it a little easier for me when their time finally came…
Even so, Dad, I do miss you terribly – your gentleness, your sweetness, your kindness, your humility, your playfulness, your loving heart, your dazzling brilliance, your cleverness, your precision, that sparkly twinkle in your eye, that amused smile, that wonderful chuckle of yours. Your wry sense of humor and your quick wittedness. Your love of Ogy and those years you spent there as a child; your excitement about trains and train schedules; your cherished collection of atlases; your passion for music (something that you and Susan shared); the pleasure you got from playing the piano and practicing the pieces over and over again until you got them just right; the delight you felt in doing your Prizewinner contests every month; the tremendous joy you derived from playing chess (you – a decorated Chess Master) and from playing bridge (you – and Doug – both Life Masters – the highest level of bridge achievement). And I know how proud you were of your years at Harvard – and of being on the Harvard Chess Team that beat out Yale four years running. And how much you and Mom loved this Cedar Lane Unitarian Church, you the Head Usher for all those years.
I remember with such delight how you and Mom loved watching Masterpiece Theatre together. And every evening before dinner, you and Mom would have your Happy Hour with half a glass of wine and game after game of Scrabble (and, later, Upwords) – for which you kept a “running tally” – Mom the high scorer in the early years, you the high scorer in the later years, and “a tie” by the end. And I just loved it that you and Mom had your nightly ritual of reading to each other before bed. It made me feel so safe, grounded, and secure in the world – and that all was well.
Dad, I loved you so much. And I loved it that we had the very same initials – MCS. You were such a gentle, dear man – with such a sweet disposition and generous soul.
I loved that game we would play with those five Chinese vases on the windowsill at the top of the stairs – we were constantly sneaking up the steps to re-arrange them when we thought the other one wasn’t looking. It was such a sweet connection that we shared.
When I was in high school, I would be talking on the phone with one of my girl friends – and you would be in the next room, working away on your contests. Whenever my friend and I would start talking about boys, I would lower my voice and whisper to my friend: “I have to talk quietly so that Dad won’t hear!” At which point you would pipe up from the next room: “I’m not listening!”
I so loved just being with you, Dad, and relaxing with you – like all those times when I would ride with you in the car to Safeway or the A&P. A special treat was going out with you to the mailbox (which couldn’t have been more than 10 yards from our front door). But whenever you were going out to get the daily mail and I was home from Boston, you would call upstairs to let me know – so that, even if I were in my pajamas, I could quickly dress, rush downstairs, and head out with you to get the mail. Our little ritual filled me with such joy.
For me then, as now, some of the best moments in life are those lived in the spaces between.
One beautiful spring morning there suddenly appeared a little bunny in our front yard. Dad and I watched as it tentatively approached the front steps of our house, hesitated for a quivering expectant moment, and then suddenly darted out-of-sight. In fact, almost every morning that spring, the little bunny would come to visit – usually along about 9:30. Although we never knew for sure, Dad and I had a strong suspicion that it was this very same expectant-but-hesitant little bunny who was visiting us every spring. So, Dad kept a daily log in which he carefully tracked when the little bunny had come (that day would score a “1”) and when the little bunny had not come (that day would score a “0”). And every month, whenever I was away, Dad would send the sheets to me – so that I too could know when our little friend had come to visit – and when he hadn’t. To this day, I have those daily logs.
Gunnar and I have a summer home on the ocean in a fairly secluded area in Marion, Massachusetts. Our house is at the very end of the street. At one point, Dad asked me: “If Gunnar were to be out of town and you got sick, then what would you do?” To which I responded: “Well, we do have neighbors on one side of us.” To which Dad, with a twinkle in his eye, responded: “But what if you got sick on the other side?”
Some years ago, Dad and I were visiting Doug in Pittsburgh. We had accompanied Doug to the Annual Barbecue run by the Tennis Club of which Doug was President. One of Doug’s tennis friends came up to the three of us, and introductions were made. His friend then turned to me and said: “Your brother is such a good tennis player. Martha, do you also play tennis?” To which I responded: “No, sadly, I don’t – I only play badminton.” At which point Dad, without a moment’s hesitation, piped up and said: “Well, maybe you could play bad-tennis!”
A few Decembers ago, I was trying to complete my 50,000 miles for the year so that I, as a Frequent Flyer on American Airlines, would be able to renew my Platinum Status. My plan was to take an overnight round-trip flight between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon – by way of Dallas, Texas – that intermediate stop in Dallas enabling me to secure the additional 6,350 miles that I would need to bring my grand total for the year to over 50,000 miles. The entire trip could be done between 3 pm Saturday and 11 am Sunday. I knew that Dad would appreciate my strategy, so I told him about my plan. Without skipping a beat, Dad challenged: “But suppose the pilot decides to take a shortcut!”
During their later years, when Mom and Dad lived at the Charter House in Silver Spring, it was important to Dad that, every Tuesday, come rain or shine, he be perched at his station on the Spring Street bridge over the railroad tracks (several blocks from the Charter House) – so that he would be able to ‘‘greet” the daily 4:12 pm Capitol Limited train as it approached the bridge. And so, for years, every single Tuesday, at 4:12 pm sharp, there Dad would be – stationed expectantly at his post on the bridge. In the early months, as the train approached the bridge, Dad would wave excitedly – but nothing would happen. There came a time, however, when Dad’s persistence paid off – and the engineer of the train began to acknowledge Dad’s presence with a little toot of his horn as the train approached the bridge – much to Dad’s delight!
But one day, Dad, per his usual, waved excitedly as the train approached the bridge – but there was no toot. Devastated, Dad went back the next Tuesday, positioned himself at his usual spot on the bridge, and waved excitedly as the train approached – but, again, no toot. And the next several Tuesdays – but no toot. So Dad, not to be deterred, decided to try a Wednesday at 4:12 pm – but there was no welcoming toot – Thursday – no toot – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – no toot. Heavy of heart, Dad tried, finally, a Monday.
So there Dad was, at 4:12 pm, at his station on the bridge. He waved excitedly as the train approached – at which point Dad was greeted with a heartwarming crescendo of “Toot! Toot! Toot! Toot! Toot!” Dad and the engineer of the train had re-connected (to the delight of both) – and so began Dad’s “new routine” – to the bridge to wave to the train and his friend the engineer every Monday at 4:12 pm.
But after Mom died in 2003, Dad fell into a depression with which he struggled for the rest of his life. Dad missed Mom terribly – and, without her, Dad didn’t quite know what to do with himself. He ached with loneliness.
A few months later, I was visiting Dad at the Charter House – he had moved into a smaller apartment in the same building, an 11th floor apartment with a lovely view from his balcony. We were relaxing together in his living room – both of us, quite frankly, rather depressed – and missing Mom.
I could see that the door to his balcony was blocked by a stack of his papers on the floor. So I asked him: “Do you ever go out onto the balcony?” He said: “No.” I asked: “Why not?” He said: “Well, I guess I’m afraid that I might jump – so I keep the papers there to block my access to the balcony.” That seemed like a reasonable enough explanation to me, so I said: “Oh, OK.”
Then he asked: “But would you like to go out onto the balcony?” And I said: “No.” He asked: “Why not?” I said: “Well, I guess I’m afraid that I might jump!” Dad paused and then said: “Well, maybe we could make a pact and then both of us go out onto the balcony at the same time!” I thought about that for a while and then asked: “But which-a-way would we want the pact to go? Would we be agreeing that neither of us would jump or that both of us would jump?” We looked at each other and suddenly burst out laughing – both of us now secure in the knowledge that neither one of us was so alone after all.
Mom and Susan always loved poetry – and, as I have matured, I too have come to appreciate it.
A beautiful, well-known poem by Mary Stevenson, entitled FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND, captures beautifully, for me, the way in which Dad and I “held” each other –
One night I had a dream –
I dreamt that I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Across the sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand – one belonging to me and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
And noticed that many times along the path of my life,
there had been only one set of footprints.
I also noticed that this had happened
at the very lowest and saddest times in my life.
This really bothered me, and I questioned the Lord about it:
“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you,
you would walk with me all the way.
But I notice that during the most troubled times in my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed you the most,
you would have left me.”
The Lord replied: “My precious child,
I love you and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you saw only one set of footprints,
it was then that I was carrying you.”
Dad and I talked a lot about death and how one could prepare for it. It comforted us both, I guess, to name it, to anticipate it, to plan for it.
At one point, I said to Dad: “Well, you’re not dead yet!” To which Dad, with a wry smile, responded: “Well, not entirely.”
Of his roommate at Country Meadows in Pittsburgh, where he spent his last years, Dad said: “My roommate is a zero.” After a short pause, however, Dad added: “But then he probably thinks I’m a zero!”
I asked Dad one day: “Dad, where do you think you’ll go when you die?” To which Dad, somewhat unexpectedly, responded: “Well, I don’t know – but I’m not all that crazy about the United States!”
As Dad got near the end, he told me: “I’m getting ready to go. I just hope that I can go quietly and painlessly.”
Over the last few years, Dad and I had had a number of conversations about how he might ultimately choose to die.
At one point, Dad had said to me: “Martha, you’re a doctor. How would I do it?”
I had said: “Well, you would need to keep drinking water in order to keep yourself hydrated – but then you would, basically, stop eating.”
Dad had replied: “So if I decided to die by starving myself to death, when would I start?”
To which I had replied: “You would start when you stopped.”
To which he had replied: “Well, could I stop once I started?”
To which I had replied: “Oh, yes, you could stop once you started and then start again once you stopped!”
To which Dad had replied: “Well, I’m glad we got that clarified!”
Shortly thereafter, Dad, having just turned 98, decided that, indeed, his time had come – and so he stopped eating. It was his choice. At the time of his death, he weighed no more than 90 pounds. The doctors said that he died of nothing in particular – but I know that Dad died of a broken heart. When he died, amazingly, he had no medical diagnoses and was on no medication. He died in peace, surrounded by love. He died with dignity. He was in no pain. He was ready to go.
And so it is that he let himself go quietly and painlessly into the night. I’m sure that he has joined Mom and his sister, Nancy, whom he adored.
The Chinese Ring Puzzle was one of Dad’s and my favorite pastimes – 86 steps to remove the interlocking metal rings from the horizontal metal loop; 86 steps (in reverse order) to get them back on. Dad and I played this game for over 50 years. All I knew how to do was to take the rings off; all Dad knew how to do was to put them back on. And so, for more than half a century, we handed that puzzle back and forth to each other – sometimes many times over the course of a day. We never tired of it.
And whenever I would come home from Boston, the little puzzle – all assembled – would be up in my room, waiting for me. I would immediately take the rings off and hand the puzzle to Dad, who would then put them back on and hand the puzzle to me. Back and forth, back and forth – the entire time that I was at home!
And the very last thing that I would do before returning to Boston would be to take the rings off the loop and hide the puzzle somewhere for Dad to find when I was gone. But I was always secure in the knowledge that the puzzle would be put back together again by the next time I saw Dad.
But, Dad, now that you’re gone, there’s no one to put the puzzle back together for me.
I miss you so much, Dad – all the ways in which you “held” me and took care of me. Without you, the world is a lonelier place now – it’s like there’s a hole in it – where you used to be.
The author of the following quote is unknown – but it really resonates for me: “There are things that we don’t want to happen, but we have to accept; things that we don’t want to know, but we have to learn; and people whom we can’t live without, but we have to let go.”
In closing, to you, Dad, I say as I used to say when you were alive: “I don’t know for sure where we go when we die – although I, too, hope that it won’t be somewhere in the United States; but, wherever you and Mom have gone, know that I will look forward to joining you there, when my time comes… All my love, For Always and Forever...”