Dressing Dad: A Daughter’s Post-Mortem Reflection on Dying Part 1 of 3.

February 3, 2013

The Kairos Network Blog was nearly dormant in 2012. The reason? Well, my own father’s decline and death in November. The entire year for me was one of endings and closure. As my father declined, my children approached the rim of a much more empty nest, my marriage began to permanently change, I went through some depression, menopause wrote its final chapters in my body: my hair grew more grey, my eyesight dwindled and I got the first hints of a double chin. It was nearly impossible to distinguish these events in lived experience. Our inner lives and processes get intertwined with our parent’s physical death. How do we make meaning within the totality of our still unfolding lives? In support of that question I share highlights from my recent journals in the next three blogs. Part 1 below. Last two to follow. Check them out too if you dare.

Part 1: Journal notes from my last visit with Dad and return home.

Part 2: My post-death meditation encounters with my father.

Part 3: An account of dressing my father’s body at the funeral home and burial.

Dedicated to my father: Hugh Robert Denney

by Jeanne Denney

October 15

Dad is sleepy and non-communicative most of the day. In another world. Not so interested in things or news. Meanwhile I have a day of sadness and depression, weeping in contrived trips to the bathrooms or bedroom. From here my life looks small, failed and illogical. I become aware of the difficulty of it and how I look to them. We manage to go to Apple tasting for an hour with the wheelchair (this is an event at the family retail nursery). I breathe with effort trying not to remember home.

Later I shop and cook dinner for Dad and Betty. I simply enjoy them with clear knowledge that it is ending. Dad comes to the fully set dinner table to eat his soup. He moves with greater difficulty than my last visit and ceremonially slow in his jeans with the pressed crease. He focuses hard to get the noodles in his mouth so that he can barely listen to the talk, while Betty with round shoulders politely asks questions about work and children. Folded napkins, butter and salt. Everything just as it should be. The touching and implicit pride in this. It is if we are laboring not to break impossibly thin porcelain tea cups. While we eat my feelings range wildly: I can’t possibly live this way and I wish I could live this way. I am ashamed of my crazy, chaotic life and I am proud of it. I hate New York and the East, and I can’t wait to get back to it. Two things always true. Which means, as usual, that my heart is both open and closed. That I am afraid to feel all that is here to be felt. How much I want it to stay just as it is in this moment.

October 16

Dad sleeps all morning. He asks no questions until tonight when he just asks: “Things going ok for you?“ I say “Well enough”. Unlike any other visit of my life, that is all he asks and all I say. We collude to avoid the deeper questions. Don’t ask, don’t tell. What he doesn’t want to know and I don’t want to say?: That I am suffering with depression and lost in life. My marriage is coming to an ill-defined ending and no one can see the future. That he is dying.

Dad in his chair gazes behind me at the window. “What are you thinking Dad?” “Nothing”, he says like a zen sage, “Absolutely nothing”. What a relief.

October 17, 2012

Much progress today. We work on estate stuff. I arrange for a bath aide to help with dressing and showers. Cooking, shopping, lists of things like insurance policies, the lifeline replacement. Later respite in my father’s garden after the storm and wind. Small stems broken on the large heads of dahlias full of water, sunken to the ground. The candidates debate as I make bouquets out of dahlias and roses. Then the blaring Fox news spin. Dad for the first time is disinterested. The President looks old, not like someone who is going to confidently win, like someone just out of a foxhole. Like Lincoln in the middle of the civil war, heart heavy. Heartbroken. The sorrow of being human swallows me as I arrange the wet, broken flowers. I put them everywhere, on tables, counters, on either side of the TV.

Dad dozes next to me. He still gets up for the bathroom but has been having accidents on his way for several days. We aren’t sure when to challenge his independence. Later I ask him again what he is thinking as he gazes out the window again. “Oh?….(long pause) Life is good.” He says. “Life is very good.”

October 18, 2012

On plane at the end of another hard day. Long. Today the men of businesscame: the accountant and the lawyer, my brother. We cornered him in his recliner. He is declining faster now and the checks needed to be written. The obvious and unspoken reason is that he is dying. It is time. He was confused at times. He understood, but it took time. He knew he wanted to do this some day but kept forgetting. He wrote them for the wrong amount at first. His hand trembled. He was so proud of his money. He struggled to keep the pen in his hand. But in the end just said graciously “It is no problem. I don’t need it.” As he let it go he lightened. We took our checks and said thanks. It felt like an accomplishment, but somehow a weird, not so proud one.

Betty drives me to the airport for the red eye east. Dad gets up from his chair to hug me goodbye. The goodbye is poignant but not remarkable. It is just like it always is. I don’t think “Oh…the last goodbye.” I just think: “This is the father who has always loved me, who has always hugged me and told me this”. This love, this staple of my life…I notice that I don’t think it is going anywhere.

October 19
It was wonderful to be met by Nick at the airport. I am startled seeing him standing outside of security in a suit at 5:30 a.m., touched that he parked the car. We tear seeing each other like long separated siblings or neighbors after a hurricane, the eruption of gratitude can’t be explained. What do I do with this old and real love? Yet it has to change, is changing, is partly over. He sometimes blames himself as if the workaholism that has plagued our union could have been different. We talk and joke all the way to his office, sharing war stories before I drop him off and he disappears into the revolving doors of the office building on Park Avenue.

October 20
Back from Portland I find myself at home in a garden so unlike my father’s. Mine in midlife ironically an essay on failures, his garden at 91 a burgeoning collection of abundance, color and grace. Largeness and bounty. Roses still overwhelm his front walks reaching up to the eaves of the house to bloom their last. Large tea roses mainly in pinks, oranges, whites and yellows. It reminds me of my mother’s house after she died which had so much residual order that it stayed in place for years after. My father’s gardens astound me with his love and perfection, administered through high quality soil, chemicals and the old horticulturist’s expertise with roots honed over 80 years of gardening. Wherever he lived there were gardens, his places of prayer and respite. Him coming in from the garden whistling or singing with armloads of broccoli, kohlrabi or flowers saying “Look Mother, here. For you.” She greeted them with delight or dismay. Late in life more dismay, more mess in her perfect house. She would have to can, freeze, arrange or clean up after them.

This season Dad directed the gardener from his command post at the recliner, pointing with his cane and giving orders in bad Spanish. In the front of his house in October were still rows of copious peppers, red and green. Huge red and orange begonias burgeoning out of their planter boxes. The things he throws in the compost as dead would look good in my garden. In my yard: things hanging by a thread.

Writing this evokes deep sorrow. My failures as a caregiver swarm like a pestilence of flies. What was not received in the family: that is where I staked my flag. I therefore suffered. And suffer we have this summer and fall. The marriage cannot go forward, it can’t seem to end and it cannot return. We are crawling to the finish line of parenting bloodied and raw as war buddies. You will not be reminded of my parent’s well tended house and gardens here. We are in pestilence and drought of spirit.

As if to help make this completely clear, the deer ate every flower that bloomed this year. Black mildews and white mildews erupted variously. There are gangly arms of petunia without flowers and overgrown butterfly bushes, a garden full of weeds, beds full of weeds, a long row of hostas mowed to nubs by deer, dry vertical stalks everywhere, signs of our undoing. I read them all as signposts of the failure to thrive. When I returned home from my last trip to Portland there was an invasion of every kind of fruit flies, black flies, all circling themselves the kitchen. Garbage overflowing. Cats fighting, stressed and peeing everywhere including the bathtubs sensing Paradise lost. This cacophony sets an alarm of anxiety through my system. It is still muffled, rhythmically moaning as if under a pile of laundry waiting to be discovered. It says “Things are not well”.

I remember this poem by Machado that Bly talks about all the time…

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left. And I wept. And I said
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you ?”


Where did my embarrassing disarray or my parent’s intense order come from? Theirs wasn’t healthy, but it was something. My life isn’t healthy either, just 5/8″ closer to a weird truth of being human. Still… who wants to live here? My marriage is failing, or…maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is blossoming into its own beautiful death, that death a process full of embarrassment and riches.

Dad has numerous accidents in the bathroom a day now and forgets what everything you just told him five times. Still, he looks more peaceful than he ever has. He is no longer cursing Obama or interested in the election. He is not attached to his money or the judgments of people he had all his life. He is blithe and grateful. He takes in the sun saying “It is so nice to have you here.” He reaches for my hand. How the mess and the release from all that we don’t need any more go together. Uncoupling things is a wild metamorphosis bringing you to the root of being, the place of pens and hives and bees. The place of honey and ink.

Dear father fading. You have taken your turn into the land of the white birds, your turn toward Canaan. He is in a boat now heading to sea relatively happy. If he is sad, he is not expressing it. Who would have thought this liberation, coming as it does with its dropped spoons and soiled clothes, would be so complete? Yesterday he was reading grocery store fliers. A month ago he would have been too proud, now he isn’t. Which opens the door to me owning my gardens, overgrown, gangly, dry, weedstricken, and poor. Poor gardens still hold something dying but real. Something waking. Something bringing its essence forward to fail in exuberance but to succeed in heart, in humble trying.

Here in this sunlight of failure I put my flag, hoping one day for tall, tall roses and the delights of wealth and the deeper order that falls from the skies and rises from the earth naturally.

Jeanne Denney is a therapist, hospice worker and death educator in the Greater New York area. Her website is http://www.jeannedenney.com and email is jeannedenney@gmail.com.

If you are a friend of Jeanne, don’t worry, the depression described here passed. It is presented as just part of the elaborate dance of death.


21 Responses to “Dressing Dad: A Daughter’s Post-Mortem Reflection on Dying Part 1 of 3.”

  1. Dear Jeanne–
    I did not know what you were going through this past year. Thank you for writing from the other side…even if ‘just’. I am loving your story about your father’s decline and passage. Thank you so very much for sharing it with us. You are loved…

    • Beth thank you so much for reading and responding. It was a good process for me to write this, but thought it wouldn’t be of much interest to others…good to know. And more to come. Would like to hear what you are up to as well.

  2. Sue Peel said

    Wow – so honest, so real… And the Taco Bell Ad kind of puts in all in perspective!!!


  3. Sue Peel said

    To explain, somehow while I was reading this the appropriate following ad popped up and I thought it was part of your blog. It seems like your Dad’s kind of humor!!!!


  4. Jenni Leinbach said

    Hi Jeanne,
    I was a student of Mark Brady’s at ITP and met you when you did a joint seminar together at Menla… I relate to your experiences both as a novice hospice volunteer and one who sat with both her parents when they departed. I honor and thank you for sharing the wide universe of your emotions and reflections on this most poignant loss. May you be held and loved as you grieve.
    Jenni Leinbach

  5. Theresa altebrando said

    This was wonderful to read about your dad. Sorry to hear about you and Nick. Hope your depression is getting better.

  6. Oh Jeanne… such beauty in this suffering; so much love here.

    • Thanks Amy. I guess I couldn’t ask to convey more than that. Something I know you know much about and are in the middle of too. Would love your writing here if you ever feel moved. Even in its raw form.

  7. April Voorhis said

    Jeanne…once again you share your beautiful “self” with such an open heart full of truth and honesty. Don’t worry about your home garden as you have nutured and feed the most important of God’s
    flowers through your work. Wishing you many, many blessings as you continue on your journey 🙂

    • Ah, April, thank you for this wonderful reminder. And a little compost and some deer netting this next season might help as well, but there is nothing like his gardens. Great to hear from you!

  8. Patricia Johnson said

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Your emotions reflected mine so similarly when my dad was dying with Alzheimers. That slow release of watching him go, helped me knowing he was happy–as you saw as well. Look forward to more of your blogs. Blessings to you.

  9. neal levy said

    So beautiful, Jeanne—-sad, funny, deep, real. Thank you for helping me to feel as I read along.

  10. Thanks Neal! Glad to hear you here and that you could go there. j.

  11. Jeanne. Your visually lush, visceral writing style reminds me of how I felt reading “Under the Tuscan Sun”. You captured for me the paradox, the simultaneous tragedy and lyrical humanity of the time with a parent during their last days on earth. It brought me back to my own journey with my Mom three years ago now. Thank you.

  12. Deanna Brown said

    Beautiful, Jeanne—-thank you so much for sharing this

  13. […] This blog post: Dressing Dad: A Daughter’s Post-Mortem Reflection Part 1 of 3. […]

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