By Jennifer Norstrom Silbert
Exactly one year ago tonight, my brothers, their wives, and I were standing vigil over my dad’s hospice bed at my parents’ home in Wisconsin.
We expected, but didn’t know for sure, that Dad wouldn’t make it through the night.
His cancer had roared back into his life just three weeks before, and that big, strong guy quickly began to lose his independence. He went from a cane, to a walker, to bedridden so fast it was a challenge to stay ahead of his needs. I can’t imagine how humbling it was for him to accept the end was near.
I had driven out with three days of clothes, expecting to just check in on him, as we were somewhat estranged.
The message I got was that Dad had six months left. But now it was obvious he was going fast.
The hospice nurse put us in charge of his care in those last days. She taught us how to recognize the “death rattle” which would mean the end was near. We learned how to swab the insides of his mouth with morphine when the other painkillers weren’t working. And how to use a sponge dipped in water to drip down his throat when he could no longer drink on his own.
We must have called that poor, sainted hospice nurse every few hours for validation that we were doing everything just right.
No one wanted to contribute to Dad’s early demise by screwing something up.
One of my brothers couldn’t cope and had left the day before. No one knew where he went. He didn’t show up until later the next day, after my dad passed. He just flipped out.
The rest of us figured we’d take shifts during the night, but really, no one could sleep. I was exhausted and overstimulated, struggling with dangerously elevated blood pressure, a problem I never had before.
Tensions were high with the brother who abandoned us in the last days.
Well-meaning friends kept coming and going. The phone kept ringing. The Catholic priest came in for last rites. The house was overstimulating.
I was staying in a small back room filled with dust that affected my sleep. My car was blocked in the driveway by the constant flow of cars, and once it snowed, I was unable to get out. I felt claustrophobic, with nowhere to escape for some peace.
Dad passed during the early morning hours.
We watched his chest rise and fall for the last time. It took my breath away. You know it’s coming. And yet, when that moment finally arrives, your mind and body—which have been trying hard to hold it all together—just surrender and the floodgates open.
Over the next days leading up to the funeral I learned so much about the man I never really got to know.
I always loved my dad. He was a very affable guy, well-loved by most everyone. But he wasn’t able to show his emotions well. And also, he was very intense, strong, loud, and opinionated.
My mom was the center of his life and that’s where all his attention remained until her death five years ago.
He and I couldn’t coexist but for brief periods of time, or else…
But here I am—a year later—reflecting on the layers of grief I have been processing and surprised that I miss him so much.
I try to separate my feelings: those that miss the dad I knew, and those that miss the dad I wanted to have. My grief seems to come from:
- The physical loss of my dad
- The acceptance that he had his reasons for not wanting more of me and my own family in his life
- The loss of the family home, the gathering place
- The trauma of watching my dad in his final moments
- The sadness my dad never got to know my kids
- The shattered dreams I had that one day we’d all be a happy, close-knit, argument-free family
- The realization that the death of my parents didn’t do much to bring my brothers and me closer together
And although I’ve had moments tonight where my heart has been flooded with short bouts of chest-heaving grief, I have made peace with the losses.
I no longer feel as much hurt or pain.
God blessed me with a husband (who has many of my dad’s doting romantic qualities) who loves me unconditionally, celebrates me and my accomplishments, makes time for me, and taught me about real love.
I have two miracle babies to whom I can pass on new legacies and love like hell until I leave the face of this earth.
I know hurt and bitterness are like poison to the soul, and my body has told me it needs me to love it as fully as I can.
I loved my dad, and I know—in his own way—he loved me.
I am proud to be the daughter of Marv Norstrom: bigger than life, a man of integrity and honor, a distinguished veteran, a man of principles, a faithful provider, a man who desired to know Jesus to the depths of his heart in his final years, and a man who surely left a gaping hole in the lives of many other people with his passing.
As Easter approaches and we reflect on the depth of love that was shown mankind when God became man and suffered humiliation and horrific death to open the gates of eternal life, I am sure of one thing.
The love that we think we know on this earth will pale in comparison to the love that awaits us in our eternal home.
In that, I know my dad is in the better place.
Jen Silbert is a self-employed life-mentor who helps women navigate the trials of life in order to make changes that will help them find their true strength, courage, beauty, and “raw and naked” authenticity.
She is 24 years happily married to Scott, mom of two, explorer, hiker, blogger, wellness coach, contemplative thinker, military veteran, cancer survivor, and overall grateful-to-be-alive child of God.
To read more about Jen, and how she can help you “Love your body. Empower your mind. Heal your heart,” click here: JenSilbert.com.