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Love Letters: Three women describe what it was like to lose a parent

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These essays won first, second and third place in the Love Letters: What Matters Most contest, hosted by Honoring Your Wishes, a division of Iowa City Hospice. Little Village’s publisher Matt Steele served as a judge, alongside Inara Verzemnieks of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and retired English professor Syndy Conger. The contest asked writers to reflect on themes of love, forgiveness and gratitude.

Illustration by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz
First Place

Finding the Path to My Father

By Susan P. Dolphin

I accompanied my dad on his appointment with his cardiologist the day he was diagnosed with cancer. Dad was looking for a reason for his lethargy and pain, looking for a diagnosis that made sense. The year before, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The doctor told us that within a year we would know if it would progress slowly or rapidly. But now that his kidneys had become implicated, the cardiologist could not help.

“Dad, I think he is saying that it is cancer,” I said.

My dad turned and looked at me with a big smile on his face. “I have had such a wonderful life!”

Dad was called to serve his country in 1944. He joined a flight team on a B-17 after basic training, after the rest of the team had been assembled. There was one position left vacant: belly turret gunner. On his 19th mission, bombing the oil fields that supplied Hitler’s army, he was shot down. He barely got his parachute fastened—he couldn’t fit in the turret with the chute in place. Not enough room.

When he ejected from the plane and finally got the chute on and opened, it jerked him so hard he lost his boots. His plane was shot down near the Adriatic Sea. My father survived and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. On May 21, 1945, after nine months of captivity, he was freed by Russian soldiers close to the Baltic Sea, and had to hike for miles to catch a train to safety. He referred to it as his “all-expense-paid tour of Europe.”

I didn’t hear this story until I was in my mid-40s, when a high school student interviewed my father about his career in WWII. My dad had started to attend annual bomb group meetings, and it seemed to make him more whole, like a puzzle piece of his life had fallen into place. I joined him at one reunion, where a keynote speaker talked about the hike across Europe Dad spoke about so glibly. Many soldiers died during that march; Dad had won an actual lottery for a ticket on the train, and still did not have a fear of death. In fact, he never reported feeling abject fear.

My dad was the disciplinarian. He assigned chores, and made charts to track when they were done. Dad inspected our work and made us do it over if it wasn’t right. He worked hard, as I recall from my childhood. He would take care of the house, the car, the yard. He did the jobs right. He used a blowtorch to remove old paint, peeling it down to the bare wood on the outside of the house before painting it. He did it to the old house; when we moved, he did it to the new house. He tore a whole car engine apart and put it back together.

He was tight about money. He taught me to discern the difference between “cheap” and “inexpensive.” I came to realize that he didn’t offer me the moon. If I wanted the moon, I had to figure out myself how to go about getting it. That was the way he loved me. He didn’t get into solving problems for me, he left me room to figure that out for myself. I think he would have given me most anything I wanted, but I had to want that thing enough to ask for it.

My older brother Steve wishes Dad had offered fewer pearls of wisdom and more life guidance. I could relate to my brother’s longing. I still have a picture that I found in a magazine of a grandpa and his two young grandchildren sitting on a dock in winter, all bundled up in wool hats and winter coats and mittens, dangling their feet over the edge. I had cut it out, matted and framed it with the thought of it being my imagined ideal of who I wish Dad could be towards us and his grandchildren.

I was in my mid-30s when I sat down to have a heart-to-heart with him. I needed to tell him the things I had wanted from him during my childhood, and the things that hurt and angered me. He listened attentively and with compassion. I didn’t get rebuffed. He didn’t stonewall. It seemed like he really heard me and understood. So I thought he would change, be more open, communicative, loving. But that didn’t happen. He kept on being himself.

I didn’t realize it that day, or that month, or even that year, but that talk changed me profoundly. I took the risk to tell my dad how I felt about how he parented me. In taking that risk, I seemed to have opened a path of acceptance within me to let Dad be himself, and become curious about this man as a person, not just my dad. It was a path that led me to seeing him as a fallible human being, rather than demanding that he be the image of my ideal father. I learned to love him and accept him as he was.

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At Dad’s funeral, I shared what I knew about him. Steve came up to me afterwards in a state of wonder, saying, “I didn’t know that about Dad.” He hadn’t moved beyond hurt feeling yet, but has since released his resentments. “He is who he is,” Steve says.

That day, in that chapel, we picked the music, we told the stories, we laughed and cried and we felt the joy of having this man for our father. He was a hero, even though it took us all so long to find out.

Shortly before my dad passed, a job came through with Rock Hill outpatient mental health clinic in South Carolina, a VA contract clinic. Knowing that my father was a World War II hero helped my clients take a risk to open up and share their experiences in war with me. My father was a precious key to a door that is difficult for many veterans to unlock and open. For me, it was a treasured inheritance.

Susan P. Dolphin is a retired clinical social worker who specialized in working with people affected by trauma. She attended the Creative Writing Seminar at the University of Iowa School of Social Work this summer and is an alumnus of their program. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 249.

 

Second Place

Sweet Dreams

By Amy Walker

Will you stay with me, he asks
Am so sorry, I keep falling asleep
Just close your eyes,
his hand in mine grows cold
I won’t leave you.

Please write this all down,
I want you to have my stories,
he says
Just tell me and I will capture them, I promise
I will write every word.

Will you stay with me, the little child asks
I am afraid to close my eyes
Think of happy things,
he kisses me goodnight
To chase away all the bad.

Will you stay with me, I plead
I am scared of thunder in the dark
I’m right here,
he calmly says
This too shall pass.

I cannot stay with you, he whispers
I don’t want you to be afraid
Will you still see the things that matter,
I ask
He smiles, I will find you from the other side.

 

Third Place

Vignette

By Mary Potter Kenyon

It was an unseasonably warm October day. Mom and I had conversed comfortably in the car on the way to and from her doctor’s appointment: about my recent blog posts that mentioned her, how much she liked the new LIVE sign I’d purchased to hang on my wall, her concern over her cat being attacked by some feral felines. I’d assumed if she’d wanted to discuss more serious topics, she’d have brought them up.

Back at her house, I helped her out of the car. She swayed a little as she stood, so I grabbed her arm to steady her. She clung to me as we made our way to the back door. When she expressed the desire to stay outside, I settled her in a chair before getting her coffee and cigarettes from the kitchen. There was no sense in arguing — it may have been those very vices that had caused Mom’s cancer. It was too late for that, and pointless. On the contrary, my siblings and I seemed in agreement that she should have anything she wanted.

As I set the cup and cigarette package on the small white table in front of my mother, I asked if she’d be alright if I headed home to make supper for my husband and children. She nodded. I remember leaning down to kiss her cheek then, and while I’m certain I would have told her I loved her, I can’t recall actually saying the words.

Once inside the car, I started the engine before glancing back at Mom. She was looking straight at me, a gentle smile on her face. She raised her hand slightly, giving a little wave. It was that one small gesture that undid me. My throat filled with tears, and I could barely breathe. I quickly looked away, not wanting her to see me cry. My mother is dying, I thought as I headed down the driveway. My mother is dying. I sobbed all the way home.

There is so much we didn’t talk about that day. In fact, we hadn’t mentioned the inevitability of her death in any of our conversations after her diagnosis. I’d been with her when the doctor informed her she had lung cancer, had heard her whisper, “I wondered what it would be.” We never talked about death, or fear, or even faith, which surprised me, considering how important her religion was to her. There were no last-minute lessons, no pleas or after-death directives.

More than six years after Mom died, in the winter of 2017, unhappy with my job and searching for possible answers from the enigma that was my mother, I re-read letters she’d written me, a memory book she’d filled out and the odd notebooks and partial journals I’d inherited. By then, I’d unexpectedly lost a husband and 8-year-old grandson as well. Still raw with cumulative grief, I needed a mother to turn to. And there she was, in the words she’d repeatedly written.

“Always be grateful for what you have.”

Raising 10 children in poverty couldn’t have been easy, but my mother had never complained. On the contrary, she’d managed to convey appreciation for even the smallest of things: sunshine for drying copious loads of laundry, plentiful fragrant flowers in the yard for decorating tables, a roaster pan filled with cookie dough or crispy chicken netted from Dad’s weekend butchering.

“Follow your natural talents and utilize them for good.”

There was never a question that each of us was born with an inherent talent; it was a matter of discovering that gift and following it. Our mother believed we children could believe it ourselves, even when bullying damaged our self-esteem. Her own gifts were apparent in the way she made our home a haven. Multi-talented, she could concoct delicious meals from garden produce, eggs, the chickens we raised and the government surplus supplies that preceded the food stamp program. She created colorful wall hangings, rag rugs and beautiful quilts from scraps of cloth, and drew pastel pictures of her children. She was the kind of woman who, at the age of 42, picked up a kitchen knife and a piece of wood and decided she’d carve a statue. She then honed her artistic talent to begin a home business that sold well over 500 pieces of her art.

“Love others.”

This message varied in how it was conveyed, to the individual promise in our childhood that she loved us “as big as the sky,” to her example as a woman who always put others first.

Reading Mom’s words last winter, it occurred to me that she’d already said it all. There was nothing more she could have said that she hadn’t already modeled in a life filled with creativity, integrity and faith. Her last lesson was in facing death with dignity, grace and the firm belief she would soon be joining both our father and Our Father.

That October day was the last time I was alone with Mom before she suffered what we assumed was a stroke from the brain radiation she’d endured. My next visit was to take my turn caring for a mother who struggled to walk or communicate. While her gentle smile remained, there was no more shared conversations. In the ensuing days, my siblings and I cared for her, watching her drift into unconsciousness and die on Nov. 3, my birthday.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see my mother sitting outside at that little table, a cigarette in her hand, a cup of coffee in front of her. Her face is lit by a beatific smile, her eyes filled with love. She lifts her hand to wave.

“I love you, Mom,” I reply this time, waving back.


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