by Michal Baitz
November 7th, 2021. My father passed away in Cornell Hospital while I was running on the sidewalks alongside the NYC marathon. People blew horns and cheered wildly as we got the call that he passed. They clapped and smiled and shouted as my father’s soul departed from his body. We were on the wrong side of the avenue that was blocked off, and we had to run the extra 20 blocks to get to the hospital. My father was covered in a sheet, one I was not to touch nor uncover. The last time I saw my father’s face was Friday evening, as he drifted into a sleep coma. I squeezed his hand once, one of the many goodbyes I had already given. I wasn’t sure if this one would be the final one. After all, my father kept surprising all of us, including the doctors. According to them, he wasn’t supposed to even make it off the ventilator in 2020. Yet, he persisted. He was a fighter. Was. When you see a parent suffer, and you know the only way out is death, there comes a point in time when you cannot justify your wants with their pain. There arrives a day when you think, is this really worth another day of life, when it is purely suffering and immense agony?
And then, as the death approaches, the pain reaches this crescendo – the parent you love is no longer in this world fully, but in an in-between place, one foot out the door and the other foot struggling to stay in place. If you are, I could say lucky or very unlucky, depending on how you feel, you will know what I am referring to. This time is short, maybe a few hours, maybe a few days. This place, this in-between where the person you love and know so well, so truly well, suddenly becomes a stranger, a body that is breaking and falling apart so that you cannot reach their eyes and meet their gaze because their gaze no longer exists, this place is quite possibly, in my humble opinion, where hell meets earth. And this, this is when you begin to pray not for their life but for their death. Please, God, make it quick. I cannot stand this anymore. He cannot speak anymore. She cannot see me anymore. Please, God, take my parent, if only they should be at rest, if only I should not have to witness this crushing defeat of death, please, if only to make this stop, make this suffering stop, please, I know that he is already gone, I know that she no longer recognizes her daughters, please, just end this, please, please, please – and then.
The flatlining. The last choke. The heart stops.
There is at first, this immediate relief. No more suffering, they are both at peace now. Followed, instantly after, by, “wait, no, I take it back. I want him back. Bring her back.” But is too late. There is nothing as final in this world such as death. You will never see your loved one again. Your mother is gone, and your father has just joined her. You are no longer somebody’s child.
In this way, my parents passed within two years of each other. My mother at home with her children, as I held her hand and watched her take her last breath, as the cancer in her body finally took hold of every last part of her, and a mere 20 months later, my father in the hospital, with only a few of his children, as I ran through the streets of NYC trying to make it on time.
It’s interesting to me that they both passed on days of celebration. My mother passed away on the happiest Jewish holiday, and my father took his last breaths to the sounds of applause and cheers from the NYC marathon. On joyous occasions of celebration, us children were left to mourning. I didn’t just lose my dad. I lost another best friend. And, in the more recent years, he was almost like my baby. I was in charge of taking care of him, from organizing his meals to hiring the aides that would support him to talking to the doctors and planning his estate matters. My entire day involved him. He called me every single morning, and then more throughout the day to check whether I was at work yet, or what he was having for dinner, or when his next appointment is, and when I am visiting next. Every cappuccino I make reminds me of him. When we would dine out, he would order in the beginning of the meals, to be given at the end of the meal, two splenda, he held up two fingers, in a to go cup, so he can hold it. I hear his voice so strongly as I recall this.
The other night, or really, I should say almost every night, I was watching TV with my sister, and she said how much he would have loved this, and we both laughed because of how silly it was, how he would get so happy if we would stay over and watch a movie with him. “The next one. One more episode,” he would say, without even looking back at us. It’s very hard to write all of this because he is very much alive in my mind still.
It really doesn’t make any sense to me, and the reality is hard to bear, I try not to think of it.
It felt more real with my mother. We watched as she actively died for months from the cancer killing her body and we held her as she passed, and then the entire world stopped abruptly after for COVID-19, and it felt right – that the whole world stopped when she did. Of course we shouldn’t go on like everything is normal. Everything is very much not normal. I had almost seven months of being able to stay home from work, not having to make up excuses for why I was solemn, for why I didn’t want to go out. Why I didn’t smile often. I was able to watch till the sun began to rise and then sleep till it was halfway down.
But with my dad, the world continued. I was back at work one week later. Everyone kept moving. There was no more pausing or stopping or grieving, there were things to do, bills to be paid, finances to be in order, estate planning to manage. Packing up an apartment of 47 years in less than three months. So many things to keep me going that I didn’t need to find the time to stop and process what has happened. Where my father’s body lies. Buried, in the ground. No more morning phone calls. Just when you think that it can’t get worse, it does. Losing one parent is terrible, yes, horrible, devastating, one of the hardest things I have ever had to go through, but no one prepares you for losing two. Maybe because it doesn’t usually happen, at least not like this. At such a young age, and in such a short time. Because losing two parents means you lose your home. Maybe you have a house, maybe you don’t. We never had a house, we had an apartment. One that was lived in for 47 years. Imagine all that time and energy, all the breathable memories you can almost taste and smell, so alive in your mind that they are almost tangible. Almost. In less than three months, all those 47 years are gone.
Most days, I feel like walking around with a hanging sign around my neck, “Handle with care. Broken glass inside.” I feel so incredibly fragile, ready to break into a million pieces at any moments. Some moments are so hard I almost wish it would happen.
But the thought of nothingness, of absence of any light, of vast darkness and emptiness, of my body disintegrating into the ground, scares me so, so much more. And maybe there is an afterlife to believe in, a place where my parents are happy and watching over me and still with me, and maybe there isn’t. The only thing we have control over, in anything in life, is our actions and perception. During a therapy session last year after my mother passed, I told my therapist I don’t believe my mother is near me or connected to me. I don’t feel anything. And she asked me how that was working out for me. And I answered that it wasn’t. It was horrible, I was miserable all the time. Although it is so much easier to believe in nothing, to believe my parents are gone, to believe that all those we have loved are really and truly gone forever, it is so, so much harder on us. To quote Harry Potter, “Do not pity the dead. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”
Wherever those we loved are that are now passed, they are already on that journey, and we have to believe that they are okay, or even more than okay, if you believe in the Jewish philosophy, then they are exactly where they were meant to be all along. There is nothing we can do anymore. But what about us? The survivors, the grieving, the mourning, the orphans, the daughters, the sons, the sisters and brothers, the friends and neighbors. What about the living?
For me, I had so many expectations that I put on myself after my parents died.
I instilled in me the dream that something as dramatically positive would happen to me that would outweigh the bad. I would become brave and fearless. I miraculously would became smart enough to get a PhD or brave enough to start my own company. I would suddenly meet my soulmate and have these amazing children and was full of wisdom and just become a completely made up fairytale character that doesn’t exist. In my own head, I created all of these wild expectations. I have been waiting for that “positive miracle” or “crazy life-changing moment” to show up the day my mother died. And instead, my father died too. And guess what?
I’m still full of fear. Of disappointment and bitterness, of regrets and sadness, of hopeless wishes and stable careers. None of the things I pictured came to fruition. I did not go on some wild road trip where I met extraordinary people and suddenly my life changed. No, my father was on a ventilator, I had bills to manage and things to take care of. And after he died, I didn’t get to run away to some country and create some new life for myself. I had to get an apartment to store all my stuff because I lost my home and thousands of pictures that I never want to lose and countless items that have created a shrine in my home to my parents. Where would I have put all of these things? It didn’t make sense, it wasn’t possible because the death of a parent means the death of your childhood – and with that means all of your carefree, no sense of responsibility self. You no longer have parents taking care of you. You no longer have health insurance either. You no longer have a place to go when you want to just “go home.” You need to create your own home. I knew all of this and yet I still lived with these expectations. How can I turn this horrible painful and seemingly meaningless event into something positive? I must, because how can I live with it if I don’t?
A close friend of mine told me recently, that we always hear about the crazy loud stories, the crazy triumphs, and the crazy outcomes. But what about the quiet calm stories? Just because we don’t read about them doesn’t meant they don’t exist. Did you know that there are 166,279 deaths in the world a day? That’s a lot of grieving to do. That’s a lot of stories to be told, and a hell of a lot of ones that will never be heard. So what about those? What about the quiet sobbing, the calm grieving? The soft stability. What about the 9-5 jobs that keep us together as our pieces are broken, what about the consistent dinners we make ourselves cook so we can feed our bodies, what about the order of life – of taking care of your children, of living your every day doing exactly what you need to be doing. We read a lot that it’s okay to scream. But it’s also okay to not scream. It’s okay to not cry every day too. Maybe you don’t feel this way, and maybe you can’t relate at all. But, in case you do, I am here to tell you this:
Your loss mattered, even if it wasn’t on the cover of New York Times. Your grief matters, even if your story is not being published and shared around on social media. Your person mattered. You mattered. And nothing, not a crazy road trip, not a wild bungee roping trip, not a jumping out of a helicopter story or skydiving trip will change that. None of these things will take away the pain from your loss, and they won’t gain to it. Your life is enough, just the way that it is. And there is no reason to believe in any other expectations otherwise. You don’t have to do anything at all. You can cry one second, and forget the next. It’s okay not to be okay. But it’s also okay to be okay. Just the way you are. What if instead of those expectations we give ourselves we can use instead to make the small moments that are so beautiful and meaningful into every day moments? What if we could use this pressure to motivate us to cook dinners we enjoy, or watch that movie we really love? If we add up all of these little beautiful moments, it could create a beautiful day. And a beautiful day, is something you can hold onto, during a really bad day.
During the first year grieving my mom, I was also distracted by my father’s sickness. He was sick with COVID in 2020, three weeks after my mother passed away, he was in the hospital on a ventilator and the doctors told us he wouldn’t make it. I continued to write on my blog as I processed my mother’s death and began to prepare for my fathers. After he died, I created a writing group – called The Mending Word, to create a space where others can write and share their grief in a community of grievers. This group has become part of my own personal healing, and has helped other’s process their grief. This writing I share is for me, and for you, and anyone who wants to better understand their friends or families who have been the unlucky ones to have been dumped and thrown into this new normal, this “dead parent club,” this “grieving your loved one club,” this “surviving club.” You are not forgotten, and you are never alone.
For more information about Michal, you can check out her website.
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