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Julia Steiny: Death Takes a Whack At Priorities

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I was holding my dad’s head and hand while he took his last breath at about 3:00 pm on Sunday last. Hugely important to me was that someone was physically present to him, during the long day of gasped breaths that become shallower, until there were none. I thought that touch would be what I would want, under those circumstances. I learned that and a lot else, since the call on the previous Tuesday, when my mother had gently ordered me home.

At that point, I was still stuck in the grove of my complicated work life. So I gathered materials I thought I would need while away, emailed myself relevant documents, and canceled only a couple of days of appointments. Like all the other many times I’d returned to the same house where I’d grown up, I was all set to conduct life as I knew it, over the internet. Surely I’d be back for this important meeting or that, to collaborate with bigwigs on creative ways to improve kids’ lives and learning. That’s what’s important, right? And it is!

But for heaven’s sake. It’ll all be there when I get back – the kids, the work and even the meetings, however rescheduled.

Life will go on. Dad will not.

We were so lucky. Soooo lucky, as these things go. A doctor at the hospital had looked Mom square in the eye and said to take him home, to accept help from hospice, and to call her kids. We gathered from distant parts of California, Rhode Island and Mexico.

Then for three days the house teemed with visitors. The “boys” from the construction company Dad had built over some 60 years came over. Dad was alert and knew them, but since he couldn’t talk much, they fussed about business, which he found soothing. He loved his business. On Thursday morning a certain collection of said boys, and my sister who’s taken on Dad’s role at the Company – though never his place -- sat down to do serious business aimed at resolving an issue Dad had long wanted to see finished. It was. Thank God. Once-angry people made agreements, shook hands, and even hugged. The mood was full-on light after that.

My mother was deeply relieved about the new atmosphere of peace after years of tension, but for her it was one high on an emotional roller coaster.

Visitors seemed to pour in and out. Bottles of wine were opened mid-day, though he could only have a teaspoon. My mother was a little scandalized, but sheesh. Why not?

Eventually the siblings pulled up YouTube songs from our childhood and sang them to him. He liked Bing Crosby’s Pennies from Heaven so much, it needed many repetitions. He could still kind of join Bing whistling the bridge. Hardest of all for my poor mother was our rousing back-up chorus to Frank Sinatra’s High Hopes. We patted her back to help her put up with the memories of happier times, when she had a house filled with young children and lots of music. Dad was having such a blast, he kept saying he was in heaven. So we pulled up Fred Astaire’s Cheek to Cheek which starts: “I’m in heaven…”

The irony of heaven’s actual proximity was not lost.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the night nurse knocked on our door very anxious. Dad had had a really hard night. Yes, please call hospice. I’ll sit with him as the others are gathered. The fabulous hospice nurse told us it “wouldn’t be long,” but then was super-surprised he lasted as long as he did. We weren’t. Always a fighter, that guy. Tough, charismatic, with a huge appetite for adventure, he’d had a life that was the stuff of best-selling novels. In the end, though, he was peaceful. He was complete.

Next week, I’ll return to the work of trying to help the lives of young people approach or exceed the richness of his.

But for now, let light perpetual shine upon him.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.


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