The Daughters and Dad
I participated in services this weekend for a family that I have known almost ten years now.
Our relationship began when I served as hospice chaplain for a woman who lived at home with her second husband. For some reason, we made a strong connection, and I visited often. I recall spending an entire overnight there with our nurse, tending to her symptoms and trying to help the family come to terms with her dying.
It was during and after that time that I met her four daughters. A couple of them lived in town and the other two flew in from their homes elsewhere. Four women, their mother and their step-father — it was a lively, talkative crew that welcomed us into their home at a significant moment in their life.
Mom died, and I officiated the funeral. In the course of helping them through all that and in their season of grief afterward, I heard about their troubled lives.
Their mother’s first husband, their biological father, had left her after a dozen years or so of marriage, with four little girls. She did her best to take care of them, but it was too much for her. She essentially abandoned them on the front steps of their grandmother, who tried but soon became overwhelmed also. So four young daughters were shipped out into various homes and forms of foster care. They grew up separately, in different places, not knowing one another or sharing life as had once been planned. There was still much unspoken about those years, but I could sense that it had not been an easy journey.
And yet, here they were. Somehow, over the years they had renewed acquaintances with each other and their parents, and had now come together to be with their mom at the end of her life. If they hadn’t opened up to me, I would never have imagined their life had been so painful and malfunctional. They seemed to handle caring for their dying loved one with all the usual ups and downs. We gradually lost touch but I knew they kept tabs on their stepfather and were supportive of him.
About five years later, one of the daughters contacted me. Her husband had died. Could I help them with his funeral? I did. And then, after a couple more years, their stepdad came on to our hospice service and I walked with them through his death and memorial.
Out of the blue last week I received a phone message from one of the girls again. I hadn’t thought of them for a long time, but as soon as I heard her voice, images of our past experiences together came rushing back in. Now, she was saying on the voicemail that their biological father had died.
I called her right back and said of course I’d be happy to help them again.
Only the two local daughters were able to participate. The others, because of extenuating circumstances, had to settle for sending flowers from afar. Oh yes, they told me they had found out that they had a step-brother too. Over the past I’m not sure how long, they had been reunited with their father and and helped care for him at the end of his life. They talked about sitting with him, caring for him, and partnering with his VA and Legion buddies to get him to his doctor appointments and out and about. They were with him when he died.
The daughter who had called me had put an extraordinary amount of effort into organizing the events this weekend. When she read her eulogy for her father at the service, she focused on his life, some of his remarkable gifts, his heroic military service, his interests and loves.
The other spoke too, and she said that her feelings were more mixed. Her dad had not been there for his daughters. She saw pictures of them together when she was a little girl, and was grateful for those pictures, but when she looked at them closely, she realized she didn’t really know who that man was. They really didn’t have a relationship. He hadn’t ever been tender or affectionate. They grew up without him. He had left them. He was absent.
Then she told of an experience she had while caring for him. He asked her to help him sit up on the side of the bed. In his weakness, as she raised him up, he fell forward and reached out his arms. She caught him and found herself in his embrace. He wouldn’t let go. She laid her head on his back and stayed in his arms for several minutes.
She didn’t know what it meant. She didn’t know if it meant anything. Was he saying, “I need you”? Was he saying, “I love you”? Was he saying, “I’m sorry”? Was he saying, “Forgive me”? Whatever it meant, if anything at all, she was there and they had touched.
And now here she was, speaking of her dad and honoring him with the rest of the family.
I pulled both daughters aside and said how proud I was of them. Even with all they had been through, even with the complicated relationship they had with their father, here they were, honoring him like the commandment says. He may not have always been honorable, but they still chose to give him honor as their father.
One of them looked at me and said, “Well, he’s a human being and no one deserves to die alone or not have a service. And he gave us life, didn’t he?”