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1998: A Year to End

© 1998, by Lisa M. Roberts

It's hard to believe that this is the last column I will write with the copyright 1998. Without hesitation, I eagerly count the days for this year to end. I face the New Year utterly stunned by the joys and sorrows that my family and I have experienced in the last 365 days. Like no other in my thirty-eight years, this one was filled with more sorrow than joy, and the life passage I was called to experience has frankly left me numb.

My father, whose innate ability to tap into the power of his heart over the pull of personal ambition to influence others and to lead a remarkably rewarding life, passed away this past summer. He was taken from us by a rare form of cancer called "malignant mesothelioma." His illness was caused by exposure to asbestos thirty to forty years ago when he was a construction worker trying to make ends meet for his young family.

So while August 17, 1998 will go down in history as the night President Clinton blundered his speech to the American people, it will go down in my family history as the eve of my father's burial. And as the Clinton crisis escalates in the outward circles of my world, the loss of my father resonates in the inner circles of my heart. In truth, my husband and I lost two fathers this year. Tomorrow (December 17) is the anniversary of the death of my father-in-law. Together we end 1998 numb.

What has pulled me forward, day in and day out, over the past 365 tumultuous days? The essence of EP life -- my children, my work. The this and that of caretaking, the welcome distraction of a business start-up. While on the surface I see it all as a diversion to my loss -- managing the noise level of four kids, sifting through email, spreading bread slices evenly with mustard -- I'm aware that on a deeper level I'm pouring my father's spirit into all that I do. My father led a fully-engaged life at every turn, and when he was most worried, he was also most active. He faced combat in the Korean War, a house fire, a mid-life job layoff, and the life-threatening illness of my sister, all with a proactive demeanor. And while I cannot even scratch the surface of the strength of his character, I can acknowledge a little of the this, a little of the that, that I have picked up from him.

My father was an "EP" only once, in between jobs. He didn't take to it well, couldn't live with an inconsistent paycheck. So after twentysomething years in construction, when his union went on strike and he was in his mid-forties, he applied for a job in the school district as a custodian. I remember him sitting at the kitchen table, studying math books so he could receive the high school equivalency certificate he needed to work for the schools. When he passed the test, he framed the certificate and hung it on the wall, later to be joined by my sister's college, law and doctorate degrees, my brother's college & law degrees, and my own college degree. This was his way. Whether he was working on building Kennedy Airport or the grounds of the World's Fair, or whether he was sweeping the hallways where children trampled through during the day, he did his best and was truly grateful for the opportunity. He took pride in whatever he worked on, and took interest in whatever we were doing as well.

At his funeral, a former union co-worker and dear friend of his came up to me. "You know, your father was always so proud of you kids," Joe told me. I did know, but I eagerly listened for a story to remind me. "I remember sometimes we'd be finishing up a job for the day, and we'd be heading down the street to catch the train, when your father would stop and tell me to hold up. He'd find these old used book stores, and he'd start rummaging through the piles of used books. I'd say, 'Phil, what are you doing? We gotta catch a train!' and he'd say, 'Wait -- hold on -- my kids would love this one,' and he'd come out of that store with an armful of old books. Him with his pudgy hands and all gruff from head to toe from a day's work." Joe chuckled. "I was embarrased to walk with him, looking like that. Didn't want the other guys to see us with those books..."

Joe didn't look embarrased when he told me that story. Rather, his face was beaming with pride, remembering his old friend and his thoughtful ways. And I remembered all those books, filling basement and bungalow shelves. I passed the story on to my brother and sister that night, and the next day my brother showed up at the funeral home with a book-imprinted tie. While books put my father to sleep, they put my brother and sister through law school. As for me, my father knew to skip the end product and just hand me the typewriters. By then he had left construction for the school district, and was always coming home with their newest and latest broken down typewriters. He'd fix and shine
them up, call me downstairs, and present my new companion of sorts. I used to think he shared my interest in typewriters, but now I know he just liked to watch the sparkle in my eyes.

No one knew better than my father how I have always turned to my writing to process my feelings. But in the short four months since he was last with us, I have barely been able to express one word about my loss. When he first fell ill this summer and I'd visit him in the hospital, he'd ask me, "What are you writing about?" and then his eyes would drift away, as if he couldn't bear to hear my answer. "I'm dry, Daddy," I remember saying. "Can't squeeze a word out." As the summer and his illness progressed, and I finally did bring myself to write him a letter, he broke down before even opening the envelope. Neither my father nor I ever took well to separation.

Yesterday I brought my youngest to my mother's house at her request, so she could watch him for a few days. While there I explained to her my continued inability to work through my feelings the way I have all my life, and the angst I felt about it. Through our shared tears, she said, "Lisa, don't force yourself to do what your heart is not ready for."

Those are words I so needed to hear, for this is all the essay I can squeeze out right now. So to the one on this mailing list whose wisdom and love sustains me, and whose tattered heart I long to comfort, I want to say thank you, Mom. Once again I leave your home feeling understood. And to any others on this list who are grieving over the loss of a loved one this holiday season, I want to say skip the tree, the parties, the noisemakers, or whatever else feels too much to bear. Don't force yourself to do anything your heart is not ready for.

Lisa Roberts is the mother of four, owner of The Entrepreneurial Parent, LLC and the author of How to Raise A Family & A Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide to Home Business (Bookhaven Press, 1997). Copies of her book are available for purchase at EP and through Amazon.

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