Monday Mourning: The Death of a Father

I like to break things and put them back together in a random, yet tasteful, order. I am the author of the nonfiction book Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt (Simon & Schuster, April 2009). I wrote a book of poetry, too—BOYGIRLBOYGIRL (Finishing Line Press, June 2012). I make mosaics and do photography—nature, portraits, etc.—too.
My blog is here: My website is I've been using social media since most people were born, so I'm all over it.

DW:  Who was the person that died?
LFM:  I lost my dad, Harvey Miles Miller, on July 5, 2012. It was a loss in the most poignant sense. Like losing a part of your body. Physical.

DW:  How old were you at the time?
LFM:  I was 49, about to turn 50 in three months.

DW:  How old was your Dad?
LFM:  My dad was 75, and that's far too young these days. Fathers should live until their daughters can do without them, which means forever.

DW:  Was it a sudden death or did you know it was going to happen?

LFM:  Dad and I were diagnosed with lymphoma about two weeks apart. Mine was the slow-growing kind, and his was fast. He needed chemo right away. He probably started it in August or September of 2011, and October 31st, Halloween, was his first serious repercussion from the chemo. It might have been a couple weeks after his third treatment, and I was scheduled to leave early to turn my daughter into a zombie. I was pretty excited—and lucky to have a boss who would let me leave early to paint my daughter's face. But I got the call as I was leaving work that my dad might not make it, so I went straight from work in Owings Mills to the hospital downtown.

My dad lived. And he lived the bunch of times after that, too. When he was stuck in the rehab facility for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's, he had a really tough time emotionally. Dad didn't have a single hobby except watching the Orioles and the Ravens and working. He was bored out of his mind. I saw him cry for the first time since his own father died, which was the only other time I ever saw him cry. I believe in crying, and I have no problem with men crying. But for some reason, it is far more painful to watch your father cry than it is to see just about anything else.

Ultimately, the cancer was cured after the fifth treatment, but the condition he had before the chemo, aortic stenosis, had gotten worse.

Dad collapsed at home at the end of June, and my mom found him lying on the floor, where he'd probably been for awhile. She called the ambulance, and the doctors determined that he'd had an unusual heart attack, one caused not by stress but by low blood pressure from the aortic stenosis.

We became a little hopeful because we learned while he was in there that they'd recently developed a new kind of surgery for it that didn't require an open chest. He wasn't a candidate for that because of his many years of smoking three packs of Kool's a day. But he could do this. Or at least I thought so. He just needed a heart catheter, a CT scan, and an exam by two surgeons willing to say he was not a candidate for the traditional surgery.

The problem is that the hospital couldn't think to do the tests out of order. If Dad wasn't feeling well enough or didn't pass a test, they postponed the cath. And he just sat in the hospital bed all day. Why didn't they get the surgeons' opinions that day? Or the 30-minute CT? Both? They had plenty of time.

People who go to hospitals die waiting.

DW:  Did you and your Dad talk about death?
LFM:  My dad said he was done and wanted to die. I took it personally. I felt like he should want to live because his daughters loved him so much. I was being selfish maybe. Or was he? No, I was.

On the fourth of July, 2012, my daughter played with School of Rock's Show Team at the Catonsville Fireworks. My mom came with us, and we dropped her off well after 11:00 p.m. We got home and unpacked and were in bed probably around midnight.

The phone rang at 4:00 a.m. It was time. My sister came to pick me up. When we got there, my dad was saying, "OK, they're here. Hurry up. Let's get it over with." He said, "I'm going to die." He was having trouble breathing because his blood pressure was so low, and the meds couldn't keep it elevated anymore, so they were going to start the morphine. He kept saying, "Ugh. C'mon. Hurry up." I told my father I loved him, and he said, "I know." And that was about it.

We watched for about an hour and a half until he took his last breath sometime around 7:00 a.m. It was like someone let the air out of your tire at 4:00, and it was finally empty, three hours later, and you just couldn't go anywhere. You were flat.

DW:  Had you experienced any other deaths in your personal life before he died?
LFM: I lost both of my grandparents, my father-in-law, close personal friends, close family friends. Death is old hat. Too bad you never get used to it.

The worst death happened right after my daughter was born. My dog had been suffering with kidney disease for a long time. I knew it was time for him to go at the ripe age of nine. It wasn't fair, really, because death is rarely fair. But I told Beowulf that he had to wait until Serena was born because I couldn't risk her health. So he did. And so after about two weeks, we called the vet to come euthanize him because we had decided, long before, that the day he was too sick to bark at the mailman—which he could ALWAYS do—that was the day. And he didn't bark at the mailman.

The vet came, and the dog was in Marty's (my husband's) lap, and friends were gathered around. And right before the needle went in, he let out a howl that still haunts me to this day. Was he saying, "Thank you! I love you!" or was he saying, "No! Stop! I'm not ready yet!" I wish I knew. I would feel better with the "I love you" version. He did not go gentle into any good night.

DW:  Were people supportive of your grief or did they shy away when you were grieving?
LFM:  No, and thank heavens for Facebook. I found more friends in my grief than I'd ever found in my joy. Does misery love company? They should get married.

DW:  Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with your Dad?
LFM:  No. I loved my dad so much, and he always showed that he loved me—my family, my friends, everyone. He was genuinely affectionate and hilarious and giving. He was loud and boisterous and shockingly rude sometimes, but there was always a payoff. The waiter he'd insulted would get a gigantic tip. I think we'd had two serious fights in my entire life. One was over politics; the other, Diet Coke.

DW:  Was he buried or cremated?
LFM:  Dad was buried. His stone unveiling was in July. It's a beautiful stone. He would've appreciated it because he loved my mother's and my taste. The font was Folkwang. My mom wants me to remember that for when it's her turn, but I keep having to look it up on my texts. Now I have this interview. Folkwang. Remember.

DW:  Did you learn anything about the grieving process that you'd like to share?
LFM:  I think I cried every day for a year. I had to drive past the funeral home every weekday except Wednesday on my way to work. I might have cried less on Wednesdays because I work from home that day.

Give yourself way more time than you think you need. Indulge every whim. When someone you love is gone forever, you need comfort. Take it in beer, food, exercise, indulgences. My dad used to say to me and my sis, "You want it? I'll buy it." We did some estate thing with my mom one morning, and we were at this place for lunch and went into the mall where I saw a $200 bedspread. I heard my dad say, "You want it? I'll buy it." I did want it. I felt that he bought it for me that day, even though I had to pay for it.

But don't indulge forever. Give yourself a year, and then get your shit together. You can't dwell in misery, but you need to languish there for a little while. You have to! I mean, this was your dad/mom/grandmother/wife/husband/lover/child/friend. Child? Forget it, man. Take two years.

I gained 15 pounds from beer in the year my dad died. Once the year was up, I started Atkins. I've lost 14 pounds.

DW:  Were any songs played at the memorial that were important to your Dad?
LFM:  We didn't play songs at the memorial, but the last movie we watched when my father died was that documentary, Young at Heart, about the old people singing rock songs. Consequently, I can't get through a moment of "Fix You," by Coldplay, without bawling. I hear Chris Martin wrote that for Gwyneth Paltrow after her father died. There's another song by Kathleen Edwards—"Scared at Night." Can't get through that one, either. That one is about watching someone you love die. 

I've done that now with two dogs, a grandmother, and a dad. It's harder than giving birth.