Death, Be Not Stupid

You know how you have those moments when all of a sudden you see your whole life?

I had one humongous such moment when I was eleven. I was in my bedroom, standing before my dresser. With my left hand I had just placed atop the dresser an object I can’t now recall. To my right, along the same wall as the dresser, was my bedroom door, which was slightly ajar.

Between dropping off whatever it was on the top of my desk and moving to the next thing I was going to do, it hit. In mid-movement, I froze. I didn’t stop much when I was a kid. For this, though, I sure did. It was like having an entire weather front move right through me.

The challenge of your life is going to be getting over your father. That’s the Big Truth I suddenly found myself processing.

As raw information goes, this wasn’t exactly a news flash. My dad, I’m afraid, was a dick. He was just mean, and always furiously angry. You never knew a guy so angry. My dad had two emotions: so pissed off he could barely see, and asleep. He even slept angry; he had a snore like a jet engine into which someone had tossed a blender.

It’s scary, living in a house with a guy like that. He was six-four, and built. I always thought he was about to kill me—or punch out a wall, or … eat the chimney, or something. I was always sort of waiting for the other (size-12, in his case) shoe to drop.

Anyway, as a dad he was pretty much of a disaster. He’d definitely already failed as a husband; he and my mom had divorced some three years earlier, and he had moved out. But my mom was 100%, full-on crazy—and not in a fun way. So it didn’t seem to me that it was particularly my dad’s fault that they’d divorced.

Really, I had zero idea why those two did anything they did. They both seemed nuts to me. All adults seem nuts when you’re a kid. Adults still seem nuts to me. But … whole other post.

I’ve written about this before (in My Runaway Mom), but one day, two years after my dad left, my mom literally disappeared. She said she was going to the store for some bread and milk, got in her car, drove away, and didn’t come back—for two years. She just completely disappeared. Two years; no phone call; no note; nothing. Gone. Vaporized. Where my mom had been was now just space.

The morning that came after the full night of my mom’s Surprise Exit, my dad returned to our house. He just … walked in the front door. He was home!

And he had a woman with him! That he wanted us to start calling “mom”!

He was married! He had a wife—who, as it turned out, made my original mom seem like June Cleaver. Yowzerfuckinbowzer, man. Talk about your evil step-mother. (Poor woman. She tried. I guess. I dunno. She freakin’ failed, I know that. But it’s not her fault that I happen to be fodder in that failure. As she was fond of saying, she never wanted children. Again: not a news flash.)

Anyway, I’m eleven, hanging out in my room, trying, as ever, to have a life of some sort. I put something on my dresser, and whoomp! there it is:

Your life’s challenge is getting over your father. If you don’t untie that knot, it will choke everything else out of you. You’ve got a giant hole in your boat, and your dad put it there. And he’s not going to help you patch it. You know that. You know that when it comes to your dad, you couldn’t be more alone. Fix that hole within yourself, or go down. That’s your life. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

So. There it was.

And sure enough: all my life I’ve been singularly concerned with coming to psychological and spiritual terms with the awful fact of my awful parents. If you start your life with parents who weren’t fit to properly tend houseplants, let alone children, you have no other business in life but getting over that fact—since, if you don’t, your life will surely be spent spinning in the vortex they placed you in. So that’s what I concentrated on: coming to terms with Mom and Dad.

One of the things that has meant is always trying my best to make sure that I would be okay if my father, right then, actually died from, say, yet another of his heart attacks.

If at any given moment I’m not ready for my father to pass away, then I know I’ve got some work to do. Because that, I’ve always known, is what I must be okay with. So throughout my life I’ve tracked myself relative to that dynamic. I’ve always asked myself if I’ve said everything to my father that I need to. If I have any avenues of Dad Trip I still haven’t been down. If any new such pockets have opened up, and now need exploring. If there are any issues at all, relative to my dad, about which I feel unresolved. And if there are, I resolve them.

I’ve been on that stuff like a dog with a bone, all my life.

And it worked! I don’t know how to say this without sounding insane, but outside of my wife I think I’m the most psychologically fit person I’ve ever met. I’m good with that shit. I did it. It took me about forty years to nail it, but I did. I know who I am in relationship to my parents.

And good thing I do, too. Because now my dad, by all accounts, is dying.

And he wants to see me.

I’m barely going. But, you know: honor thy dinker dad, and all that.

So in very short order my wife Catherine and I will fly to North Carolina, to be with my dad in the home he shared for some twenty years with his second wife, who this month three years ago died of cancer.

He needs to move into an assisted care facility. Now. He’s in terrible shape.

He doesn’t want to. He’s afraid to live alone anymore—but he won’t move into a home, or let anyone take care of him in his.

And though he asked me, a year ago, to arrange for him to come live near Catherine and me in San Diego, at the last moment of that Big Move, he backed out. As I’d known all along he would.

Poor guy. He’s just so … deeply, deeply tweaked.

Anyway, now Cat and I are doing this thing, that middle-aged people do, with the parents. (And with, in my case, the sibling. Who lives in Hawaii. Whom I’ve seen once in, like, thirty years. Man. Some family.)

I’ve arranged for Internet service to begin at my dad’s house the day we arrive. While I’m there, I’m pretty sure that being there is what I’ll be blogging about. I can’t imagine I’ll be thinking about a whole lot else.

You guys rock. Thanks for reading me.


Related posts: I Just Found Out My Mother Died–Five Years Ago; My Stepmother Passed Away; Unhappy? Reject Your Loser Parents.

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  • Karin

    John, this will be hard but there might be some beauty too. Thinking of you and glad you will be blogging about your experiences.

  • Patrice Wassmann

    May you find the peace that passes understanding. May your father’s passing come quickly and peacefully. Lean on the Lord. Praying for you.

  • I know what its like to lose a parent. I also know what its like to lose a parent that you have a difficult time relating with. Its a touch place to be, its still heart wrenching, but you do what you have to do anyway.

    I will be keeping you and Cat close in my thoughts. Have a safe journey.

  • JoAnn Mitchell

    Dear John and Catherine,

    All will be thinking of you and praying for you. Understood much about your life situation during your formative years. I am sure it has contributed to your kind heart and compasion for others. You honored God/Christ/Spirit by not turning your pain into bitterness and taking it out on others in society.

    Bless you making beauty from ashes.

    I do not know the author but a excellent book discussing this type of father is called: The Blessing.

    Many of us; especially men never receive the blessing from our earthly father and that leaves a whole in us. The book explains how to fill the space; receive that blessing; even if our earthly father does not.

    I am sure everyone’s prayers and thoughts will be with you from TWC.


  • You and your family are in my prayers.

  • Whoa, this will obviously test how ready you really are. I hope you give yourself the grace to jump forward and backward through your years of progress during this intense time.

  • Skerrib

    John I’ll be praying for exactly what you wrote about–that you & your dad will keep saying everything you need to, and that you will keep doing the work to keep yourself healthy amid, well, a shitty situation (you cussed first; I take that as license). I think your response of kindness toward your dad is amazing, and beautiful, and all that stuff that God is somehow able to do in this messy life.


  • Skerrib

    (and I’m really glad you’ll still be online–is that weird?)

  • Not to me it isn’t. I think it’s really sweet.

  • You make me feel lucky, like a bullet-dodger.

    My family was plenty dysfunctional growing up – dealt with alcoholism, among other things…

    But both my parents were always very decent people – hardworking blue-collar folk who tried the best they could, gave their three kids what they could (maybe with a lot of yelling and insults thrown in), but plenty of love, too. I compare us most to “The Simpsons” for a TV family. My parents are actually why I feel a bit appalled whenever I see somene talking about how their family disowned them because they’re gay, or transgender, or whatever – while my family is pretty straight, I mean… I remember taking family visits every two-weeks to my (very messed up) brother when he was in prison. I mean, a member of my family not only made himself “weird” – he *actually did something WRONG* and my parents still accepted him. Dissapointed in him, sure, but they’d never disown anyone or put family out in the cold for anything.

    All I can say is to do your best to make peace. I hope you do. Don’t let the past matter too much, try to let now matter, I guess. It’s all your father has left, right?

  • Shannon

    John, You are one of the people who make me stop and think. For that I am profoundly grateful. You are also one of the people who make me feel. For that I am indebted. I guess my word of encouragement for you is this: Imagine now being through this whole season of your life, you father’s eventual passing, on the other side of it and realizing that God has a way of turning our trials into testimonies. God Bless, -Shannon

  • Wow.

    I’ve never related more deeply with a blog post.

    I fiddle around with the emotion (or complete lack there of), of what it will be like to get the call that my Dad is finally dying or has died, or whatever. But, I don’t think I’m quite as secure about it as you sound. I still have this small hope that when my Dad kicks it, some of my emotional bullshit will die with him. It’s not realistic, I know, but it does help me breath on certain days.

    I’ll be reading along. Thanks for putting this out there.

  • Rhonda Sayers

    I can relate to your story on so many levels. My mother died 12/01/10. When she died, we were at peace, because I let mercy and grace flow through my heart toward her. I had compassion on her because I knew although she sucked as a mother, her mother was way worse. I became grateful for the things I learned from her, even if the only things I learned was “How not to do it”.

    May God comfort you and your family as only He can for the difficult time ahead. Shalom.

  • Well, as you know, been there done that. I will be lifting all 4 of you in prayer.

  • Tim

    Parents are people, and people aren’t perfect. It’s a wonder any of us make it to adulthood with any positivity. I hope this chapter in your family’s life bears abundant fruit and lots of healing. You’d think it would be a humiliating experience for a dad who has virtually needed nothing from you, to begin, at this late date, to be dependent. But humility is a shared experience. It opens a window forward and backward for both parent and child to be vulnerable and teachable. This is an adventure. An opportunity for amazing discovery and depth. I know that someone as deep as you, John, will need spiritual decompression as you dive and resurface. Cat will help you with decompression, I imagine, but my greatest hope, is that your dad will have as much a positive impact on you as you will have on him. Maybe dad was a horribly Ill-equipped man for fatherhood, but what he lacks, God can supply. I hope, John…since no promises are given in regards to our relationships with family. But hope is often all there is.

    I hope you hope. I have an inkling that deep down, your dad hopes too.

    Hopes and prayers to you and your family.

  • Patty

    John, the true positive I see in your situation is your early realization of the crippling environment you were raised in. It didn’t change anything physically, didn’t improve the people your parents were; but it did enable you to develop more fully as you matured. If you hadn’t had that moment of blinding truth you might have struggled through your life, to this point, jumping through rings, trying to be a Beaver Cleaver son.

    God blessed you with that insight. And He will provide the comfort and insight you need through this trauma. He will never ask you to carry a burden you can’t bear. Plus, we are all here to share the load with you.

  • so get this post, in every way. i have more to tell you guys, but no time right now.

    i will say this: when daddy died i felt free. FREE. and as much as i love my mom, i am sure i will feel the same way when she dies.

  • Praying for you guys John.

  • Susan in NY

    I’ll be praying for you and your family.

  • I’m thinking that spending this time with your sister might be the most difficult thing. Praying God will supply whatever you need (He will!) in this situation.

  • cc

    We lost my mother-in-law last summer and it seems that most of my friends are dealing with either a recent loss or the possibly fatal illness of a parent. In a way, John, I suspect this time might be the closest you will get to a “normal” (expected? developmentally appropriate?) relationship with your parent. Your dad: strength and independence fading before your eyes, you: tending to his needs and summoning patience you didn’t know you had; this is all part of that honor thy father and mother rule that faithful folks have lived for thousands of years. Granted, it’s the part that never crossed our minds when we sat in Sunday School class learning the commandments, rolling our eyes at the thought of obeying curfew or otherwise observing #5 when it came to our overly strict/mean/old fashioned/or totally insane and damaged parents, but it is most likely the more important result of the fifth commandment.

    My advice is don’t be surprised if this “normal” part of your relationship with your dad feels anything but. You will surely be surprised by what lies ahead. Keep writing through it and accept kindness wherever it is offered. And know that your readers will also be praying for you. I’m not talking about the platitude-y conversational interjection: “I’ll pray for you. Buh-bye.” We’ll be faithfully interceding for your and your family.

    Peace be with you.

  • dennis

    Hi John, having been around you at that time I too was scared by your parents especially your step mom. I remember your father having little or no time maybe it was just no patience for young boys running around the house maybe thats why we hung out at the park all the time. I remember your father had numerous trophys or plaques that showed him as salesman of the year. You seemed proud by that fact. It’s too bad he didn’t pour more into your life and maybe he would of won the father of the year trophy. I’ve often thought back on those times and wondered what had happen to you and Nancy. Its wonderful to hear that through out all this God has kept you well and I’m am glad that he has a special purpose for your life. Say Hi to your father for me

    I will keep you in prayer


  • With you in spirit and in prayer, John, while you are in NC, where I was born myself. My guess is that this will be a deeply spiritual time for you. Glad you will be able to write in real time, if you feel like it. God’s peace and blessings.


  • RoeDylanda

    I’m a hospice volunteer, and some amazing things can happen when difficult people are nearing the end of life. Sometimes, though, they’re just *worse* and trying to settle scores. Keep your boundaries healthy, let Cat patrol the perimeter, and I hope your Dad can finally connect with you in a healthy way. Good luck to you.

  • (Folks: Dennis was one of the great friends of my childhood. He’s the guy second from the left in this picture. We just talked on the phone together, for the first time … gosh, since sometimes in the early 70’s. We were very close growing up. I still think of him as the best natural athlete I’ve ever known. Our whole lives were sports! Anyway. Good stuff.)

  • Mindy

    May the force of peace be with you. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers for safe travel and emotional resilience. I’m so glad Cat will be with you –

  • The existential angst that even the best of parents leave with us is tremendous. Whenever I’m reminded of your childhood and the parental hand you were dealt I am saddened for the boy that you were.

    I was adopted, and in my 30’s I searched for and found the maternal side of my birthfamily. The reality of that family was ugly and painful. I have a hard time understanding how some parents can allow or cause horrific things to happen to their own children. As hard as it is for me also to understand how a mother can give up her baby, I’m so lucky I was given up. My siblings, four of them still living, were not so lucky. If my birthmother became disabled I do not think any of her children would even consider assisting her.

    Safe travels to you and Cat, and my prayers that you find a tenable solution for your father.

  • Allyson

    Man, you use words well.

    Thank you for sharing this part of your life and I’ll be praying for you and Catherine as you make this trip.

  • Regardless of how angry or bitter we are about how things went or could have gone in our families and childhood, I believe that one of the greatest duties we can serve is to help our parents during these transitions and to show them our deepest love and compassion – to be a guide and protector during this time.

    It wasn’t easy or pretty, but my experience with helping my mother die six years ago changed my life in a way that cannot be described. Good luck to you and Cat on this trip.

  • John, prayers with you and your family as you go through this process, which is, well, complicated.

    My parents divorced when I was ten, and my dad and I hadn’t had much contact since I was 14 (I’m 38 now) for reasons I can’t adequately explain. I was hospitalized a little over a year ago, and my mother asked me if I wanted her to let my dad know. I said ‘sure, why not’, and lo and behold he called me. We’ve talked on the phone a few times since then, and are actually having lunch on Thursday.

    My mother was also not really in a position to raise children post-divorce (lots of drug and alcohol abuse, abusive boyfriends, a suicide attempt, a bipolar diagnosis, which is what put me in the hospital), although she never completely checked out and did try her best.

    And, like you, I’ve been trying to get over this shit ever since. I’ve not been as successful, but I’m trying. Its taken a long time to recognize the deep sense of woundedness that these traumas can inflict, and folks who haven’t experienced it don’t really get it.

    So I’m having lunch with my dad on Thursday, and the question I of course want to ask is ‘why did you check out on me for the past 24 years?’ Probably not the best place to start, though.

  • vj

    Hey John, when my mom passed away 7 weeks ago, just a week after being diagnosed with cancer, it was a great comfort and blessing to me that we were able to say our final goodbyes and anything else that maybe I might have regretted not saying if she had died suddenly. Obviously you’ve made an effort to work through all those potential ‘final words’ in your whole healing process, but I hope that this opportunity to connect in some way with your dad will be a blessing to you both.

  • Rodney Wilson

    A lot here. You’re spectacular to have survived as a relatively normal person. Good for you. Peace to your father and your sibling and to you as all of you tie up this loose end and bring things to a close. Grace and peace.

  • berkshire

    Always something to be learned from our experiences–then, and now, and soon.

    Whatever comes, stay in the heart center, and give thanks for all of it.

    Much love is sent from afar to you and Cat, your sister, and your father.

  • Erika

    Hi John,

    Compared to you & so many (most?) others, I basically grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting…and I still have both my (really good) parents. So I won’t claim to have *any* idea how you’re feeling and what you’re going through, but I thank you for sharing – you’ve really helped me to understand a lot about people, and to be even more thankful for how blessed I’ve been. I’m a very quiet, never-comment type person but I just wanted to tell you I’m praying for you and your family, for strength and that amazing peace only God can give.

  • Suz

    You figured that out when you were 11???? In addition to everything else ( humor, depth, compassion yadda yadda yadda…) 🙂 you have an amazing mind! Thank you for sharing it with us. Your clarity is almost scary.

  • Jeannie

    Sorry to hear this John. I think our relationships with our parents at the end of their lives can still be very emotional and difficult – even if we haven’t had much to do with them over the years. I hope this time with your dad is better than you think it may be. I wish you, Catherine and your father, peace.

  • Brighid Rose

    I do have to say you are very lucky to have figured that out at such a young age, but then it doesn’t sound like they left you a lot of choice either. It took me until about 36 to even quit trying anymore because none of my efforts matter. I give you so much credit for still being there for your dad at this stage of the game. I don’t even talk to my family anymore out of self-preservation. You are way ahead of me. All credit to you!!

  • Don Rappe

    I remember when my Dad died 47 years ago. I was 27 and studying math at Cal Berkeley. He had been feeble minded for 5 years and lived with my Mom in Chicago. It seemed to make a great tear (rip) in the world as I understood it. There was an emptiness I found hard to believe. How could the world still exist with him not in it? It made it difficult for me to live in my atheistic world. Although I could not believe in the existence of God, I came to believe that God loved my father. I was fortunate to meet a Lutheran chaplain at Cal who was also a Nietzsche scholar. When my mind began to crumble back towards the absolutism I had been taught in our 3 room parochial school, he asked me: “Don, you’re not becoming superstitious are you?” It was a turning point in my spiritual journey. Now, I welcome you to the world of those of us who no longer have physical parents. For many of us it’s a big thing. I’m sure it depends on our ages as well. May God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, bless you and your Dad and all your family.

  • Cheryl Hannah

    Dear John,

    I don’t know if this will help you put things into perspective, but it was a tactic that I used when still married to my abusive ex. Unless your father repents and puts his faith in the grace of God through Jesus Christ, this life is the closest thing to Heaven he will experience. For me, that marriage was the closest thing to Hell that I will ever experience thanks to the same grace.

    Plant seeds, water them, and perhaps God will grant a last minute harvest like he did with the thief on the cross. You won’t regret it no matter what.

    And btw, I am not recommending “niceianity” that is boundaryless as opposed to following Christ in showing mercy.

    Prayers for you in a difficult task,

    Cheryl H

  • I have to disagree with this suggestion. Death bed proselytizing is extremely disrespectful. If John’s father shows any desire to have this conversation, then by all means, they should have it. Otherwise, it’s just adding tension and division into an already tense time.

    John, you have my best wishes. Death is always difficult, no matter what the circumstances.

  • laurie

    john shore. you came out of this forgiving.can’t say i are a much much bigger, more loviing person then I. To think, our sermon was about forgivness just today..and i am having some inner tantrums about it..I really have a new appreciation for you..and newfound respect.

  • Cheryl Hannah

    There is more than one way to plant a seed and water it. One way is through acts of kindness, especially when they are undeserved. It’s God’s kindness that brings us to repentance, and humans are usually the agents of that kindness.

  • Barbara

    John, thanks for this post and the others, which I’m wading through. My dying mother was moved by hospice into my house two days ago, very suddenly, and we had to put her in the living room. She’s not happy, we’re not happy, but we’re all trying to cope. Mom has always been paranoid but it’s now very, um, colorful. Your “15 ways to cope” is going to become my commandments, and I will read them every day.

    My father was a bastard like yours, and when he died 13 years ago Mom started living her life and making friends for the first time. COPD and an inoperable aneurysm took away a lot of her independence and she’s been bitter about never having a chance to live as she liked. Last week we thought she wouldn’t live through the night and today, I’m half-convinced she will outlive me. I might not take that much.

  • I’m only 27. That’s what I keep telling myself. I’m practically a child. No one expects me to be able to forgive my family yet for the horrible scars that are their legacy. (Metaphoric scars; I was never hospitalized or needed to be due to physical abuse.) And yet I keep trying to forgive them, if only to get that hate out of my heart. They don’t care what they did to me. It doesn’t hurt them. It hurts me. I know that, and I simply can not do it.

    There is a church very near my house. I have started to pray again and I think perhaps going there on Sunday may be good for me. It is the only church in my town that is open and accepting of gays so I think I might fit in there. The fact that this church is the one that is half a block from my house seems like some kind of sign.

    Hmm, do Christians believe in signs and superstitions? I haven’t been one in so long, I’ve forgotten.

  • Diana Horel

    Wow, this is me.

  • Jill

    Mr. Shore, I knew there was some Big Universe reasons why I recently found you + your lovely self. I’m only at the iceberg tip of getting to know what’s going on in your powerful mind, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride. (sorry for the mixed metaphor–typing too fast.)

    Anyway your dad was my mom, and your mom was my dad. Ironic how ironic life gets. Just as Amazing how we find the faith needed to sustain us through the 7th ring of crazy to get to… not as crazy as before. Which I call progress.

    Looking forward to reading more adventures… thanks for you being you.