By Donald Schell
Wednesday, Day 1: hearing and telling, “My dad died”
5:30 a.m. New York time, my phone wakened me. It was my wife, Ellen, calling from San Francisco. 2:30 a.m. there. She said it simply, ‘Donald, your dad has died.’ I heard it but had no idea what to do next. Ellen spoke to my stammering silence, ‘Come home now, your mother needs you.’ Clarity.
Downstairs in the lobby, I told the night clerk I was leaving - “I have two more nights, but I’m leaving now. My dad died.” More than check-out: I needed to tell someone.
When I caught a cab, I told the cabbie, “JFK,” and as he pulled out added that I was grateful for his service because my dad had died. At the terminal I thanked him again and tipped extra, a thank you? Or penance for beginning his day with a death? Maybe both.
At the airport time dragged (or seemed to stop) until we got called for boarding. Soon we’d be airborne and I could sleep and maybe wake up closer to knowing dad had died. My quick silent prayer on the jetway surprised me – “Dad’s death is enough for the family to deal with just now,” I explained to God. Then stumbling over which of the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews would be flying to California on other flights, simply added, “Keep us all safe.”
I leaned my seat back, closed my eyes and welcomed merciful sleep, but an hour and half later, much too soon, I woke up thinking, “I’m flying home because my dad died this morning,” and wondering whether any of the other passengers were flying home for a funeral.
The man next to me began light chat that eventually went to his work, and when I learned he was a physician like my dad, I wanted to tell him. I must have been looking for the opening. “My Dad was a doctor too. I’m flying home because he died this morning.” My voice didn’t break.
He asked how my dad had died and invited me to talk about him.
For some months Dad had been worrying about a cluster of small physical ailments and mental lapses. Ever the physician, he was putting pieces together and wondering if he’d begun a decline (and what it would mean for him and for my mother).
My new friend wanted more diagnosis. I told him about Dad’s heart history, his childhood rheumatic fever, the damaged heart valve that had to be replaced twice, and his bypass. Combining his history and his dying in his sleep, my companion said it sounded like a heart attack. We agreed it seemed like a quick, easy end to a long good life.
I told him how dad’s flying a B-17 in World War II made him want to become a doctor and spend the rest of his life saving lives if he could. Then we landed.
I drove the hour south to San Jose repeating aloud, “My dad died.” I stopped the dark mantra when I left the freeway, then started it again when I pulled into the driveway of my parents’ house, now “Mother’s house.”
Mother welcomed me with a hug and tears. Ellen too. Dad’s absence was a silence in the house. Ellen told again how she and our daughter had driven down at 3 a.m. and what a good job my brother had done. He’d been down visiting mom and dad for dinner and had stayed overnight in their guestroom, so he was there for mother when she woke to find dad not breathing.
When Ellen arrived Dad’s body was still on the floor where my brother had done CPR until the paramedics took over and then stopped it. Ellen had pulled back the sheet to see Dad’s face. She told me he’d looked like himself, surprisingly peaceful after the CPR, very still, but with a little color left in his cheeks and not yet cold. Now his body was downtown at the funeral home. It would be cold. He’d been dead for just over twelve hours.
I wanted to see Dad’s body. The funeral home insisted they needed two days to ‘arrange the features’ and ‘prepare for a viewing.’ I was frustrated. It had seemed simpler with Ellen’s dad.
Ellen and I stayed over at mother’s house. We slept in the guest room under the Monet prints Dad had found so fascinating. “I think the impressionists understood how the optic nerve and the brain work together to see,” he’d said. At dinner that night we’d been seven. We’d set the funeral for the following Friday. Drifting toward sleep, I thought, “It was our first dinner here without Dad.”
Thursday, Day 2: remembering
I spent the morning writing an obituary. Harold Newton Schell, October 30, 1921-October 15, 2008. Remembering felt good. After lunch Ellen and I drove back to San Francisco.
Friday, Day 3: tears
I woke in the dark – Ellen wasn’t in bed. I listened. She was writing on the computer in the next room – keyboard sound…then sobs. She caught her breath and was back. She’d wakened and decided to write something about dad –
‘Harold was my father-in-law for 33 years. My own father died when I was 29…my father-in-law’s heart had dodged a lot of bullets, as a premature infant taken by Caesarean section from his mother who was dying of brain tumor, from rheumatic fever that damaged his heart valve as a child, from two heart surgeries to replace the damaged valve and then replace the worn-out replacement fifteen years later. That good, faithful, wise heart loved so much and endured…that good heart. Shakespeare came to mind, Horatio’s words at Hamlet’s death: ‘now cracks a noble heart.’ I cannot think of a human being of whom the word ‘noble’ is more appropriate than Harold Schell. ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’
Horatio’s ‘noble heart,’ she told me, loosed her tears, imagining what courage had kept dad going and living well for so long, before ‘it cracked.’ Heartbreak. She’d lost her second father.
My older daughter and her partner arrived from England. Driving down to San Jose again, we each told our stories of the last two days, how we each heard of Dad’s death, our travels now converging, and more tentatively stories of him.
At the viewing an attendant showed us into a hushed, windowless room. Dad’s body lay in a draped cremation casket covered with a colored satin sheet up to his neck. When we scheduled this, they’d offered to dress him, but mother said, ‘No, please don’t. He’s dead.’ Dad would have enjoyed the Monet print they’d hung on the wall above him, but his “arranged” features look like someone else pretending to be him. This face they’d made from his flesh had lips pursed in a tight thin line. Even in sorrow or deep thought, his living face seemed ready to smile.
I wanted to speak to a body I knew. What here was familiar? I studied his chin. It looked right, despite the face above it. Then I lay my hand on his forehead and knew this is what I was looking for. I must have done this when I sat on his lap as a child. I knew every contour of the skull beneath the cold skin. I closed my eyes and spoke it silently to myself, “It’s him. No – his body, not him. He’d dead.”
Another crowd at mother’s house for dinner. Fortunately the church kept delivering food.
Saturday, Day 4: space
The flood of sympathy notes amazed me with vivid descriptions of his character, some from people who had only met him a time or two. More friends than I’d realized knew the man I loved.
Sunday, Day 5: Church and Mother’s birthday
Too soon after Dad’s death, it was Mother’s birthday.
My mother still works half-time as a Presbyterian minister, but this first Sunday after Dad’s death she wanted to go to a church where no one would know her. We went to a colleague’s church. Tears.
After church fourteen family members gathered in a hotel downtown to eat and celebrate mother’s birthday. We did actually celebrate with plenty of food and more talk. She welcomed the feasting, though with some tears.
My dad died and we can’t get enough of one another’s company. He would have enjoyed these gatherings, though at recent dinner gatherings he’d spoken less and watched more. But we felt his steady affection and, if he missed a joke, he’d ask to hear it again.
Day 6, Monday: the orphans’ club
Home again in San Francisco. I’d asked my oldest friend from college, K. to spend the day with us. Forty years ago, my first year of seminary, he was visiting when his father died five thousand miles away – I remember the distance. Mine died when I was three thousand miles away.
We gathered in our kitchen, my old friend, my daughter and her partner, Ellen, and me. One by one I ask for the stories of lost parents, stories I already know. K. talked about his father’s death and why his father hadn’t told him he was dying, and about his mother’s death, and about the feelings that linger. Ellen told of hearing about her father’s heart attack, how he collapsed on the dance floor at a wedding rehearsal party, when she was also three thousand miles distant. My daughter’s partner talked of the slow disease that had wasted his father’s mind and body in a death that gathered family and began the grieving before the dying that made the death sadder because it was such a relief. Ellen told the story of my dad’s death again. Phone call from my brother. Drive down.
Paramedics. My daughter said she was not part of this orphans’ club and didn’t want to be soon. I promised to do my best to keep her ineligible for membership. Ellen’s dinner is a little feast, chicken and a Mediterranean rice with nuts and dried fruit bits.
For the last few days of his life Dad hardly ate anything, but he’d been losing his appetite for a year. My rock of strength who’d taught me tenderness grew thin and frail. Until I was thirty, this man whose love I knew so well never said the words, ‘I love you,’ or hugged a greeting or a good-bye. The love was evident in every way, and when I began greeting him with a hug, he seemed to welcome it, and with good-bye hugs, even began to reply in kind to my, ‘I love you, dad.’
So it was thirty years ago, that I began drawing strength from holding his muscular back in a hug. Then for the last few years, I’d felt the bony ridge of his spine and the plane of his shoulder blades beneath his sweater and wished I could pour strength back into him.
Day 7, Tuesday: weary
No energy. It was early as usual when the alarm went off, but up? Slowly. Wearily. That afternoon, like several others, I took a nap because I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Day 8 and 9, Wednesday and Thursday: the banquet
Each day we drove to San Jose, the dinner gathering was larger. My father’s sister and her husband had arrived. More nieces and nephews too. More grandchildren – our next generation’s two priests, my son and his wife from D.C. We crowded ourselves in tight to eat. Food just kept coming.
“On this mountain, I will make a feast for all peoples, and take away the mourning veil that covers the nations.”
My dad died and we talked, told stories, and laughed. Sometimes someone cried. We talked of dad’s medical practice, family vacations, old history a generation or two back, and we pieced together our few tiny glimpses of his B-17 bomber missions in World War II. Questions we’d like to ask him sneaked up on us, and his stillness, the answers he couldn’t offer silenced us for a moment.
Day 10, Friday: the funeral
Our youngest son, my brother-in-law, and my sister-in-law made our gathering complete. Mother had asked Judy, her Presbyterian pastor colleague, to preach. I was on the platform to lead family rememberings, one of three Episcopal clergy (my son and his wife, also vested, sat by me to lead prayers). I looked out on the church where I’d grown up, where my parents and grandparents had grown up, and surveyed the faces. My Jewish son-in-law and his parents, friends from our Episcopal church in San Francisco, second cousins I hadn’t seen for thirty or forty years. Faces I didn’t know - people who would tell us afterwards that they’d been dad’s patients, ministry colleagues of mother’s.
It really was the promised mountaintop gathering in Isaiah, all peoples. This healing work was holy and deeply human.
We gathered a lot of people to remember and give thanks for Dad’s life, worked to say what we believe and see how true it rang, we cried and took the time to feel our loss. Then after a long and noisy reception (in which we just avoided reciting ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which would have delighted my dad) family adjourned to mother’s house…for half a dozen large pizzas, another feast.
Day 11 Saturday: good-byes
Saturday began the good-byes. Our two sons and a daughter-in-law, two cousins, my aunt and uncle soon to follow. No one wanted to break the group, but beyond that, good-byes felt plain risky. We knew more clearly than we’d like to that every one of us was mortal.
Day 12, Sunday: my friend’s church again, more Gospel, more tears
The Gospel reading – Jesus choosing two commandments to summarize the whole of God’s law – to love God heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what church is for. My dad joked that no one ever truly became a doctor, and that he was just “practicing” medicine. We’re glad to be back here just practicing Christian life with our little bits and pieces of loving our neighbors and accepting their love. We drove back to Mother’s for another big family dinner.
Day 13, Monday: more good-byes
Driving my older daughter and her partner to the airport, I told them about the end of Mom’s, Dad’s and my visit with them in the U.K. eighteen months before. I told them how we’d gotten lost driving from their place down to London. The M-1 was closed and detours sent us off the main road without further directions. I was driving and Dad was navigating. We had good maps, but the old pilot for all his pride in reading them kept losing his place. At a rest stop I quietly asked mother to take over. “I can’t do that to him,” she’d said.
Our last afternoon in England, I took them to see Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe. At lunch before the play, mother wasn’t at the table when Dad said, “I was afraid one of us might die on this trip.” He was already thinking about it, watching his health, knowing he needed to make his peace. After the play he said, “Shylock was right. The Christians weren’t acting much like Christians.” It concerned him.
Day 18, Saturday: All Saints Day
A week and a day after the funeral Ellen and I drove down for an intimate All Saints Day celebration at mother’s church. Judy, mother’s clergy friend presided and Mother preached. We sang “For All the Saints” with a young M.D. colleague of Dad’s accompanying us on piano.
After the service he gave me a flu shot from the store of vaccine that the Medical Society had asked Dad to dispense, and then he told a story he said would have made my Dad smile and laugh. Only an hour before Dad’s funeral, this friend was seeing patients in clinic, and one had a cardiac arrest. The young doctor had gotten the man’s heart going again, turned him over to the paramedics, and made it to the funeral just as it began, and yes, the patient had made it.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company. He contributed "What Would Jesus Sing", and "Searching for Sacred Space" to Music By Heart, (a collaboration of Church Publishing with All Saints Company's New Music Project).