When I was in the hospital following my first son’s birth I was introduced to the wonderful world of parental paperwork.
First came our portion of the form for the birth certificate.
Under “mother’s name” I wrote my mother’s name, and under “father’s name” I wrote my father’s.
Embarrassed, looking furtively around the room as if the paperwork police might charge in the door and take away my writing implements, I realized I needed to cross that out and get used to the idea that this form wasn’t for me; it was for our child. I was now a mother and Jim a father.
(In my defense, forty-five-and-a-half hours of unproductive labor–not that I was counting–and a crash C-section had not heightened my mental acuity.)
Talk about form over substance.
It was that ministerial mistake that drove home for me that the generational roles had changed irrevocably and overnight (well, technically, over the course of two days and nights–again, not that I was counting). Jim and I were parents, and our own parents were grandparents for the first time.
In the space of three weeks, Jim’s impressive life stresses included moving to a new home in a new state, launching an internal medicine practice, becoming a father (a process that was accompanied by numerous medical complications for yours truly), and taking his medical boards. Yet, but for a few brief moments during my medical crises at the hospital, he remained utterly unflappable.
Equanimity, thy name is Jim.
His even temper, his willingness to listen but to make his expectations clear, and his complete honesty were hallmarks of his parenting style.
Toward the end of Jim’s life, our friend Bob asked him where he got that rare kind of honesty. He said, honestly, that he hadn’t thought about it. After a moment’s reflection he added it was probably largely his own father’s example: he had faith in other people, but called things as he saw them, and never lied to his children or anyone else.
Sugar-coating was itself a kind of dishonesty for Jim, and after he was diagnosed he never held back from our still-young children the truth as soon as he knew it. It was unthinkable to him not to give a straightforward answer to any question.
During Jim’s illness, neither that nor anything else about him as a person, as a father, changed. I cringed and wanted to run from the words–“pancreatic cancer,” “death,” “dying”–as if the words were what carried the weight.
He realized that the truth, knowing what is coming, is capable of freeing people to experience love in its most basic form, and that part of the trauma for newcomers to this business of death is in not knowing, not having answers to the haltingly-posed questions no one wants ever to have to ask.
As terrible as the truth sometimes may be, it constrains the multiple horrors of imagination, and Jim’s honesty with us allowed us to give him the only gifts we could and the only ones he wanted: to come home from the hospital, to be surrounded by people who love him, to tell our children what he needed to tell them, and finally to be able to tell him we were letting him go.
We’ll miss him forever, and he will forever be these beautiful, honest children’s father.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon