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August 16, 2020

A Letter to Honor my Father’s Passing.

To my beloved family and friends:

This Sunday marks the third month since my father’s passing. It happened on a Sunday, a family day in our home as we grew up.

My sister and her husband had come that day to fix lunch for my folks, and I went that night to fix dinner. We talked and laughed at the dinner table, and with assistance from his caregiver, he ate shrimp and broccoli with a side of roasted potatoes.

It initially appeared to be a regular day, given his illness and increasing decline, though my mom later confided that he was having a particularly difficult day. We had only recently begun discussing end-of-life care with his doctor, realizing that treatments and procedures for ongoing congestive heart failure didn’t seem to be working.

And later that night at about 10 p.m., I got that dreaded call from my mom that something seemed amiss; he had taken a turn, with a drastic change in breathing patterns. The troops rallied and came home to the mother ship. 

He passed later that evening surrounded by our mother and most of his children and their spouses. I am sure it was exactly the way he would have wanted it. He never wanted to be anywhere else but home.

It is only now that I can come up for a breath of air and bring his passing front and center. I’ve delayed expressing all the gratitude that has been lingering inside. I know how lucky I am. I had my father until I was 62. He had even called me on my birthday 10 days before, wishing me a good one. It was one of the most memorable calls of my life. At 92 years old, my mother is still going strong, emerging as a wonderful matriarch holding things together, and is determined to stay at the house—as was my father. 

She leaves everything untouched. His socks are still folded; the bathrobe is still hanging on the bathroom door; his house keys and watch are on the dresser; his cubic calendar is still turned every day to mark the date.

Grief is, for every one of us, unique and unto itself. Most cultures express loss through a withdrawal from the world and an entry into a period of grieving. I was no different. I couldn’t talk about it at first, but crawled into deep silence, enveloped in a tidal wave of sadness, huddling and staying close to my mom and immediate family.

With the pandemic lockdown, we remained a skeletal crew at a family business where I work. We received Shiva pastries the third week after his passing, so I learned more about the Jewish period of mourning (which is also a time of withdrawal). 

Time. Time. More time. Time to mourn and reemerge.

The immediate family held a small private service at our neighborhood church, an oddity of sorts in this pandemic, but beautiful nonetheless, replete with lifting song and prayer. His 16 grandchildren, however, missed this, and many still have expressed a longing to goodbye. We hope to soon give them that chance.

We were all moved by the outpouring of love and condolences. My father has been honored with the planting of trees in Israel and all sorts of novenas and daily masses. He has been referred to as a mensch and righteous Gentile by our wonderful Orthodox Jewish friends and clients. 

“May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” wrote one. 

From another, 

Knowing how you kids treated and cared for your Dad and Mother makes you and us in the Jewish community kindred souls in observance of the commandment of Honor thy Father and Mother.” 

It doesn’t get more beautiful.

But most of you knew him simply as Mr. Shewfelt and his family as Dad, “Our Hero.” He was a beautiful, honorable, and humble man from a humble background, and for that, he was beloved by family and friends. That is how we wish to remember him. 

I still imagine him walking through every doorway and presiding over the dinner table with his enduring wit. His spirit pervades our daily lives. I have listened to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” quite a bit, written as the United States entered WWII. It speaks to me profoundly of the good men and women we all know who have led quiet, loving, simple, but extraordinary lives.

Many of you have lost at least one parent, if not both. We are now more greatly bonded in our common humanity. For all your kind cards and letters, your sharing of your experiences with grief, I am forever grateful, and I keep each one of them in my heart—some in my purse. I forever remain your friend, a companion in this life journey, and hopefully, like my father, a teacher and guide for the generation to follow.

Lastly, I wrote my father a long letter a few weeks before he passed. Many men experience unique challenges as they age. Common concerns include:  

Am I still a man? 

Do I still matter? 

What is the meaning of my life? 

Am I still loved

I will leave you with some of the words I wrote to him:

“I send this letter knowing that I have no idea of what frailty and loss of physicality, body pain, and weakness can do to one’s mind. Nor what it does to the heart and soul, or how one deals with the loss of so many beloved friends, family members, and peers as time relentlessly marches on. It must be crushing and a reminder of the final sunset that, at some time, beckons us all.

As to what may be the meaning of life, of any life, I might know your witty response to what you may consider a nonsensical question. But, to me, your life has meaning, and I dare say to all of us. You are simply there; you have always been there—day in and day out—and will continue to be. Despite age and frailty, you remain a towering figure for many, and I know that I still find guidance in the things you do and say.

So in those moments when you can’t stand the sight of the walls in the den, or you close your eyes to stay calm during those moments of constant stomach pain, or when your lack of physical strength makes you weary and think life is terrible, know that we see this and try to understand this. But we also see a beloved father whose meaningful life has given us all the courage and strength to go out and create our own lives. That love is powerful and indeed may be the ultimate and most meaningful reason for life itself.”

I wish you all much love and many blessings,

Kristin

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