Category Archives: Death, Dying, & Birth

Through a Wider Lens

It’s been an enriching and joyful process to go through pictures spanning my dad’s whole life and read the cards and online condolences through which people described him based on the context within which they knew him best. Over the past two weeks, this process has helped me to see him in a much greater context above and beyond the particular relationship I had with him—which also differed from the relationship either of my two siblings had with him.

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Every relationship is unique, and every life is composed of different relationships and chapters through which we express ourselves in different ways, much like a multifaceted crystal that is held to the light and turned to see the different angles from which the light shines through it. And yet, there are some qualities that remain more or less consistent at the core.

With my dad, some core descriptions that came up repeatedly included:

  • Kind
  • True gentleman
  • Smiling face
  • Incredibly sweet
  • Gentle
  • Helpful
  • Great athlete
  • Warm and friendly
  • Funny

I remember being at his USAirways retirement celebration about 15 years ago, which provided me with my first glimpse of who he was in a broader context, beyond just “my dad.” When it was his turn to speak, he was quite a storyteller. And funny! I’d never experienced that side of him before! Those were some of the traits that endeared him to so many.

He could also be stubborn, and that was a side I saw a lot.  As he was in the hospital on what would be his deathbed, I commented to my son about how stubborn he was being as we left ICU one day. His “stubbornness” seemed to frustrate me more than anyone else and usually had something to do with him not being receptive to my ideas and how I was trying to help him. Holding tightly to previously established preferences and opinions. But my son suggested that he was dignified, rather than stubborn. My dad was determined to do things his way. A true Taurus!

He loved his hot dogs and ice cream and refused to follow the diabetic diet. He refused to have a fistula put in his arm in preparation for the increasingly likely event of kidney failure and a regimen of dialysis to keep him alive. He wanted nothing to do with a life without hot dogs or a life centered around time-consuming dialysis treatments and not being able to go to the YMCA to exercise and socialize. This summer, whenever he told me he had a hot dog for dinner or that friends brought him one or two when they visited him, my heart smiled because I understood that my dad was an old dog who wasn’t about to learn new tricks and that he was choosing quality of life over longevity. His quality of life took a great blow when my mom died, and wherever he could find moments of happiness and comfort…was good, in my opinion.

One day back in February 2013, he was exercising at the YMCA and went into cardiac arrest. When I was on my way to the hospital with my mom, all we knew was that they used the defibrillator to get his heart started again, but it was very shaky. We didn’t know if we would arrive at the hospital to find him alive or dead. When we arrived, he was in the care of one of my best childhood friends, and we were able to talk to him. He was about to be transported to another hospital, and again, we didn’t know if he would survive the ambulance ride. But when we arrived at Albany Medical Center, he was alive and in good hands. He ended up surviving quadruple bypass surgery. Our family is so grateful for the YMCA staff, who gave us an extra 3 ½ years with him. For some reason, it wasn’t his time then.

In his novel, Illusions, Richard Bach wrote:

“Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

Always one to look for meaning, I often contemplated why my dad didn’t die that day. What was he still here on earth to learn, experience, or do?

At the time of my dad’s cardiac episode, we had no idea that my mom had pancreatic cancer. She was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer by the end of the year and passed away within six months after being diagnosed. But in between my dad’s cardiac episode and my mom’s death, they were able to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together at Disney World.

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Losing his wife of 50 years – his best friend and soulmate – was so hard on my dad, and I’m sure that was obvious to everyone who knew him. His life would never be the same. Yet, I believe she needed to leave when she did so he could experience some things and grow in ways he wouldn’t have been able to grow otherwise. For example, he had a more direct relationship with my siblings and me when our extroverted mom wasn’t in the picture doing most of the communicating. And I think that was really important for him and for us. We had nearly 2 ½ years to do that. During that time, he was able to meet his first great-grandchild (my granddaughter) and see his grandson (my son) graduate from high school.

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Two weeks before my dad finally went to the doctor for foot pain that kept getting worse this summer, a friend contacted me late at night to tell me that he walked past a particular music venue and saw my dad sitting in there alone. I reminded him that’s where my parents used to go to listen to music and added that my mom is probably there with him in spirit. My friend replied that my dad looked really sad, and I said it’s because he doesn’t realize she’s there with him. Understanding how difficult and painful it was for my dad to walk, I was surprised he went through the trouble of finding parking in downtown Saratoga Springs during the busy, summer tourist season and walking to the venue. He must have had a strong purpose or longing to go there.

A few days before he went to the doctor, a family member dreamed my parents were dancing together. It was one of those dreams that felt more real than real, if you know what I mean. My mom was in full, vivid color, looking so happy and vibrant as she danced. Although she was dancing with my dad, he was in black and white and didn’t seem to realize she was there dancing with him. Surprised to see my mom, the dreamer exclaimed, “You’re not supposed to be here!” And my mom replied, “Well, I am! And I always have been.”

*   *   *   *

Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes what seems to be a cruel twist of fate is merciful. We just can’t see the whole picture from where we stand.

A diabetic with significant cardiac history, my dad had a rough summer that included six-hour bypass surgery to correct a circulation issue in his leg. That was followed by a recovery period, and in the midst of recovering, he ended up back in the hospital for a sore on his foot that resulted in his little toe being amputated and another recovery period. After being discharged from the hospital, he spent a couple of weeks at a rehab center and in less than a week after being discharged from the rehab center came down with the pneumonia that claimed his life.

During the last few weeks of his life, I worried about how my siblings (one local, one not) and I would care for our dad when he got out of rehab and was being his stubborn or willful or dignified self. Like when my dad and I came back inside after our first wheelchair excursion outside of the rehab center on a beautiful day, I dashed into the restroom for about 15 seconds, only to find him wheeling himself down the hallway toward the main entrance when I reemerged. A custodian witnessed it and had a look of combined shock and amusement on her face. I felt like the parent of a toddler, who must be ever-vigilant. It was a strange feeling to have in relation to my dad.

I became anxious about how he would fare living on his own in his split-level house with stairs all over the place. On the way home from rehab, I reminded him that there was a walker on each level of the house that he was supposed to use, and he exclaimed that he wasn’t going to use any walkers and then took off like a racehorse when we arrived home. Again, I felt like an anxious parent trying to get him to follow doctor’s orders that he claimed he never remembered hearing. How could I help him when he wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do?

I wondered how long this would go on, how long he would need a caregiver at the house, and whether he would need to go into a long-term care facility at some point. But throughout this time, I kept hearing my mom’s voice in my head assuring me: Don’t worry. This isn’t going to take long. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but two days before he died, when he was back in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, I found a dead cardinal in my driveway. I’d never seen a dead cardinal before, and my dad loved cardinals. When I saw the cardinal, I had a sinking feeling that he was not going to make it this time. And although my mortal heart was breaking, my intuition assured me that it’s okay because it’s his time.

My dad would not have wanted to live a life in which his freedom was restricted. In the end, it seems his swift death was merciful. He didn’t have to languish in a nursing home or undergo dialysis. He didn’t have to observe another wedding anniversary without his beloved wife and passed on in time to spend their October 19th anniversary together in spirit.

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As much as I will miss my dad, I realize that losing our parents is part of the natural course of human life. In recent years, some of my friends have had to face the tragedy of losing a child. And a couple of my kindergarten students suffered the sudden loss of a parent. I have not lost a child, and I am not a child who has lost a parent. What I am experiencing is within the natural cycle of life. It is to be expected.

My parents loved each other so much, and although he kept going the best he could, my dad’s life would never be the same again after losing my mom. With a love like that, it’s not unusual for the surviving spouse to follow close behind. So I really feel it was my dad’s time to go. In the end, pneumonia wasn’t a thief that came along and stole him from us before his time. It was a swift, merciful ride to the other side that saved him from declining health, a restricted lifestyle, and continued mourning. That he was able to avoid that kind of pain and suffering brings me peace.


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The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2016. SHARING IS CARING, and I appreciate my work being shared with others! Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (River-Bliss.com). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. In other words, I put my heart and soul into my writing and photography and want to be credited for it and have some traffic sent my way. It’s the high vibration thing to do!  🙂 

Sitting by the Fire

It is with sadness that I write about my dad’s passing eight days ago. He succumbed to pneumonia after being in ICU for five days. He died less than two and a half years after my mom died of pancreatic cancer, which isn’t unusual for couples who love each other greatly. As difficult as it is to lose my dad, for many reasons (that I will share in a separate post), I feel it was his time, and that certainty brings me peace.

We had his calling hours and memorial service yesterday at his church – the culmination of a week of tremendous activity. There were many meetings and lots of work involved in creating a video slideshow for the church events and working around numerous, unprecedented technical glitches that arose. I went through boxes of my parents’ photos to assemble photo collages to display in large frames on easels. Wrote a eulogy. Found a new, loving home for his cat. Visited with my two adult children and nine-month-old granddaughter, who traveled from out-of-town.

In other words, I attended to the usual tasks that fall on the closest relatives immediately after someone dies. But I also did something not so common in our culture: On Tuesday, I drove to Bennington, Vermont to be present for my dad’s cremation, as I did when my mom passed away. And that might sound morbid, but it wasn’t. It was transcendent.

I was not with my dad when he passed away. I couldn’t make it to the hospital in time but was able to say goodbye to him over the phone. I told him that I love him and thanked him for being such a great dad. I encouraged him to let go and assured him that everything is going to be fine. We are going to be fine, and so is he, for he is about to go on a wondrous journey. I told him I’m so happy for him because he will soon be with my mom, his beloved wife of 50 years. His last words to me were: I love you, too.

I couldn’t be there when he died, but I was able to show up for his cremation, which felt like another part of the process to witness with love, light, and presence.

When my mom died, I pushed her cardboard coffin into the crematory retort and then retreated to my car to meditate for a while before walking around Bennington for a few hours until her cremains were ready to be picked up. But with my dad, it was different. The funeral director invited me to come and go as I pleased. He left the crematory door unlocked and placed a chair next to the retort for me, along with two bottles of water.

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I sat next to the crematory retort for an hour and a half meditating on my relationship with my dad. I remembered good times and reflected on all the ways in which he expressed his love. The small but meaningful gestures, such as vacuuming my car, filling my gas tank, and taking us out for dinner. And larger gestures, such as when he helped me out financially when I needed an implant for my front tooth and when I was getting divorced. How he and my mom made it possible for me to attend the private college I felt so drawn to, without having to take on much student debt. The family vacations that usually involved amusement parks, such as Disney World. How he always had my back and conducted himself in such a kind and dignified manner, which made me proud to call him my dad.

I also visualized any sadness, grudges, regrets, and human weaknesses and impurities burning away until only love and light remained. Until only spirit remained, released from any human shortcomings – his or my own. That included any negative feelings or resentments I harbored because, at the personality level, my dad and I were so different, and I challenged and disappointed him in many ways. He was a traditionalist with a worldview that was much more conservative and black-and-white than my own, and through the years I came to accept that rather than try to change him or get him to understand my worldview and choices. For instance, when I got married, I wouldn’t let my dad give me away because I did not consider myself an object to be transferred from one man to another. I’m sure that all the explaining in the world couldn’t help him understand that because, with my dad, you didn’t question tradition. You just followed it. So I let all that burn away until only love and forgiveness (for him and for myself) remained.

I sat there and told him everything I wasn’t able to express when he was alive. Sometimes we don’t recognize the different ways in which people express love in the best way they know how. We might not realize that the questions and comments that seem so judgmental on the surface arise from a spirit of deep love and concern. Our communications pass through our human filters and so often get misinterpreted. And we build walls to protect our fragile egos. And we build histories, stories, and communication patterns that are often so hard to rise above. And we don’t say what is in our heart because the patterns are so entrenched. That’s what I got in touch with in the crematory and allowed to burn away. I bathed all that in love, and it transformed into nothing but love.

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I recalled the scared look in my dad’s eyes during the last few days of his life because he sensed something was different this time. How he absolutely refused to engage in a conversation I initiated about hospice care, and it felt like just another example of him rejecting what I had to offer based on my knowledge, experience, values, and sincere caring. How I couldn’t be there when he died because I had needed some distance from a situation that arose, in order to maintain my strength and sanity. How I felt I could support him better from a distance that last day of his life, not knowing it would be his last day. I let all that burn away until only love, forgiveness, and an appreciative sense of humor remained.

I essentially composed his eulogy (which I will share in a separate post) while sitting in the crematory. The tears I cried were mostly tears of appreciation and gratitude for all the ways in which he expressed his love and continued to love and care for me, despite our differences. I appreciated what a steadfast provider he was for our family and for having such a stable, secure childhood. I appreciated the ways in which his traditional worldview was challenged to the core by some curveballs life threw his way and how he responded with love every single time. I appreciated how much he and my mom loved each other.

As my dad’s body burned in the crematory retort next to me, I reflected on all the ways in which he expressed love for us, acknowledged our relationship and humanness, and honored the spirit that unites us. The spirit of love and kindness. It was a powerful process, though not one that many in our culture choose to experience or even realize is possible. By the time I left the crematorium, I felt so light and filled with love and light and appreciation for my father. I felt his light shining so brightly.

Lyrics from India Arie’s song, “I Am Light” came to mind:

I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside…I am light.

I am not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain…I am light.

I am not the color of my eyes, I am not the skin on the outside…My soul inside is all light.

While waiting to hear that my dad’s cremains were ready to be picked up, I drove around and decided to take a walk before dark. I ended up in Old Bennington and couldn’t resist parking near an old church with an adjacent cemetery. It seemed like a perfect place to walk with my camera.

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Not knowing anything about the history or looking for anything in particular, my intuition led me through the cemetery, and I came upon poet Robert Frost’s grave.

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How perfect, I thought, for that day I took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.

There are many cultures in which funeral rituals, including cremation, are not performed by professionals out of sight of grieving family and friends. The image of open cremations on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India comes to mind. Families gathered around the funeral pyre watching the body burn, coming to terms with mortality and relationships. What do we gain by keeping the care of our dead at arm’s length? What do we lose?

Being present for my dad’s cremation was such a positive, healing experience for me. I wish it were more commonplace in our culture…even as I see my dad in my mind, bristling and shaking his head, wondering how on earth I could think that way. Knowing he’ll never be able to understand me but loving me just the same.

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If you’re not doing so already, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Instagram!

The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2016. SHARING IS CARING, and I appreciate my work being shared with others! Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (River-Bliss.com). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. In other words, I put my heart and soul into my writing and photography and want to be credited for it and have some traffic sent my way. It’s the high vibration thing to do!  🙂 

The Splendor of Newborns and Snowflakes

In the final weeks of my daughter’s pregnancy, she seemed delighted that I would wear three hats during her labor: mom, doula, and photographer. The morning after Ava was born, I was eager to return to the hospital. Although my role as doula was done, my role as photographer had only begun. By the time Ava was born, I was so sleep-deprived from three consecutive nights of compromised sleep that I forgot to play around with my camera settings and do what needed to be done in low light, handheld situations without flash. Now that I was rested and had my photographer wits about me again, I yearned for another chance! And of course, there is no joy like holding a newborn!

I was eager to photograph Ava before she left the hospital and became adorned with the fashionable layers of this world – clothing and props that would cover her essence and make her look more of this world than a sweet mystery just arrived from who-knows-where.

Before leaving, I glanced at the living room window and noticed snowflakes floating down so gracefully, glistening like diamonds. It reminded me of a tear that ran down Ava’s cheek soon after she was born. From a particular angle with the ambient lighting as it was, it looked like a silver river trickling down her cheek. That was my instant association when I noticed the snowflakes glistening so silvery and bright in the morning sunlight.

I went outside to head to the hospital, and when I got to my car noticed that the snowflakes landing on it were well defined. It was an ideal time to photograph snowflakes!

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I watched one snowflake fall from the sky and land on the frosted car window and wanted to photograph it instantly, before it was affected by its surroundings. When a snowflake comes in contact with other snowflakes or a surface kissed by warm sunlight, it quickly changes and loses its pure form. I wanted to photograph snowflakes right when they landed, before their lovely mandala essence dissolved.

And then I realized how extraordinary it was that this was happening when I was on my way to photograph a newborn baby. Could there be a more perfect visual analogy? Gazing into the windows of a newborn baby’s soul and observing the exquisite, six-pointed mandala pattern of a freshly fallen snowflake evoke a sense of awe and wonder. Both are sights to marvel at.

I had attempted to photograph snowflakes for the past two winters and never had such a rich opportunity. What a gift to wake up to such delightful snowflakes that morning! And what a gift to hold Ava and look into her eyes, which were like dark, infinite pools. Cradled in my arms, she looked around as if taking in the great mystery that surrounds her and wondering: Where am I? What am I? Meanwhile, I was beholding the great mystery I found in her eyes, wondering: Where did you come from?

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For a moment, I imagined her passing through a veil of forgetting before entering this world. But mostly, I surrendered to the mystery. Held it in my heart and let it fill me as I floated in the peaceful pools of her eyes.

And that’s why there’s no joy like holding a newborn.

(happy sigh)

The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (river-bliss.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.