Remebering My Dad (A Memorial Service Program)

Wood card, illustration, booklet
Illustrated portrait for the cover of a memorial service program.

Brace yourself, today's post is a personal one.

2012 did not start out very nicely for me. The second week in January, my dad's girlfriend called to let me know that 'your dad doesn't want anyone to know, he doesn't want to make a big deal out of it, but he checked himself into the hospital about a week ago. They've found a mass on his pancreas and they are testing for cancer.'

Up to this point, my father, 72 years old, had been quite healthy. He lived a somewhat unconventional yet simple life. My parents divorced when I was five years old, and although I always knew he loved me and my siblings, we were never as close as any of us would have liked. When I was maybe ten, he had moved east of the mountains to the country, about a 4-8 hour drive from Seattle (depending on which location and season we were traveling), and I only saw him about once a year.

By the time I graduated high school, I had toughened up enough that my feelings toward him were rather indifferent-- I didn't really confess to caring if we saw much of him or not. A friend, by way of her story, warned me to change my attitude before it was too late, in a heartfelt blog post about her father. I heard the warning, but like everyone does, I felt like I had time. Then last summer, when my father visited and met my second son, Noah, for the first time and barely interacted with him, I was angry. I ignored his later pleas to get the kids on skype so he could talk to them, mad that he didn't talk to them when he had them in front of him. Maybe it was a protective instinct of some sort, but I was pushing him away as much as I could, punishing him I guess.

When I got the call that he was in the hospital, I was concerned, of course. And I was nervous about how I was going to care for him during and after cancer treatment-- I have my hands pretty full with two young children and a business to run. Caring from him on the other side of the state was not going to be an option, he'd have to move in with me, I thought. I was told that we were going to get the test results on the following Monday and then they'd layout the treatment plan. So I waited, assuming that once he began treatment, I'd need to devote time away from home, I was saving up my time away for when he would need me most. The test results did not come back on Monday like they said. On Tuesday, things became suddenly worse.

As a big snowstorm was moving in to Seattle, everyone was trying to get out of town. My sister and I got on a plane to Spokane just before Sea-Tac airport was shutdown. A very kind cousin, that I barely knew, took us in.

We arrived late in the evening, after patient visiting hours were past. Our first visit with him was Wednesday morning, but he was already in a coma. We hung around the hospital most of the day, watching him sleep, not certain if we were waiting for him to wake up or not. I mean, we were waiting for that, but not really sure that it was a possibility. His condition left him a little jaundiced, which made him look surprisingly healthy, kind of like a nice sun tan. And then, for the first time, the doctors mentioned his Cirrhosis. This was not a shocking diagnosis, considering he had been a high-functioning alcoholic for most of his life. The part of this new information that was more distressing was that it made any sort of operation on the tumor, impossible. The treatment plan I had been waiting for was never going to happen. I didn't know this before, but your liver is responsible for blood clotting. If your blood cannot clot, you wouldn't survive any sort of surgery. And what made me angry, at the doctors and at myself, is that I wasted those few days at home, waiting for the diagnosis, his last few days that he was awake and talking.

As I was parking at the hospital the next morning, the doctor called and said he needed to speak with me as soon as we got there. He told me my dad's kidney's failed in the night, and there was really nothing productive they could do for him anymore. He was heavily dependent on life support. They could treat the kidney failure, but they couldn't treat the cancer (pending diagnosis) because of his liver, and he was not a candidate for a liver transplant, due to his age, drinking history... and of course the cancer, since they give organs to candidates most likely to live the longest. We were asked to make a decision about how long to keep him on life support.

In movies, they don't ask people to turn off life support after only a few days. I thought that was only something you have to decide after they've been in a coma for years. I had never known anyone to check themselves into a hospital and die before they had completed a diagnosis. Or even die, for that matter. And nothing could ever have prepared me to have to gather consent from my siblings to follow through with what we all knew for certain what he would want. Surviving only on life support was not at all something he would have wanted. Being sick was not his thing-- he was never sick. He thought he was going to live to be very old. Afterall, his mother had lived to just a few months shy of her 100th birthday. And he was healthy as a horse.

Memorial service program booklet
Memorial booklet with biography and photos from different eras of life.
Legacy Family Tree, Illustration, Funeral
Family Legacy Tree, designed by Real Card Studio
Six months later, my four siblings and I were finally in the same room at the same time for the first time ever. Being rather easy to please, that alone would have sufficed for a fitting tribute to my dad. We had a very small service, officiated by my father-in-law, with a very casual luncheon at my house. It was "come as you are", as dressing up and being fancy was not really my dad. (Neither was a church service, but being the planner of the event, I added a little bit of what I wanted, too.)

My determination that funeral or memorial programs should be a keepsake for the family was born in me when I was designing my grandfather's funeral program a few years ago. Rather than a canned order of service and "mug shot", as my friend Kim put it so perfectly, the piece needed to be more meaningful. In his last career (he reinvented himself several times), my dad owned and operated a logging mill, so a wood veneer booklet seemed very appropriate.

I had a nice photo of him for the program cover– he was a rather handsome, outdoorsy man– but it didn't feel right. In the years that I've been making cards and invitations for a living, every time he received one of my 'fancy' letterpressed cards, he complained that he liked better the ones I used to draw by hand myself. I remembered this, and so I decided an illustration of him was the way to go. I don't know that I could sell my own illustration services, but I think it worked for this personal project.

A mainstay of the memorial service programs I have worked on has become the family legacy tree. (I still need to post about the one I did for my dad's mother last summer-- the family tree is rather impressive in size). Since his family had recently received the big family tree, I did a more informal and hand-drawn looking version, with just my dad's offspring.

Memorial programs should do better than just give people something to follow along. It should at least be something enjoyable to read, and especially worth keeping.

Rest in peace, daddy.

Veneer stock donated by Northern Sheer Veneer. Photography by Fresh Outtakes. Illustration by Real Card Studio