Tomorrow, it will be a year since my Father-in-law died. A year that’s been full of watching my husband go through the hardest struggle I’ve ever had to watch him face.
It’s one thing to think about the inevitable event in the future – the fact that everyone at some point will lose a parent. Several of my friends have already been through this. But if you haven’t experienced it yet, it’s something you ruminate over late at night. You think about that day and what it could mean for you.
A wise person once told us that anticipatory grief never takes the place of actual grieving and they were right. No matter how much you try to prepare yourself, it still is a sucker punch to your gut. As you watch your husband’s dad lay there getting sicker and weaker by the day, then the hour, you tell yourself that surely nothing could be worse than this. But there is something but worse than this. You just don’t know it yet.
First, the relief that they’re out of pain overtakes you. You’re grateful for that. You’re also grateful for the fact that you don’t have to watch them hurt anymore. Because That. Is. Awful. The see-sawing back and forth hoping that the rattle of each breath will be the last one but knowing that a last breath means that they’ll finally be out of reach, out of reach of pain, but out of reach from you forever.
When the end finally does come, you’re so damn grateful. And then the men from the funeral home come and carry his body out and you tell yourself that he’s not there anymore and it doesn’t matter. Except it does. Because now he’s really gone and he’ll never be in the house ever again.
Hospice comes and breaks down the hospital bed and you’re so freaking glad to get that sad piece of furniture out of the house. Except – you realize this is the sad beginning of the process that you’re about to go through, a process that will slowly strip the person you love and reminders of them out of your life. Pills get picked up and his dress uniform comes back from the cleaners. And you feel relieved because that death rattle is gone but the house seems strangely quiet. You go outside and see the first firefly of the season and realize that the last time a firefly made you cry, you were seven and had left them in a jar overnight and they had died. You see the look of hopelessness on your husband’s face and your heart wants to explode from grief. Surely, you can make it through this and things will get better.
And it does in a way but it doesn’t. Casseroles come rolling into the house. Fried chicken arrives. The only thing green that shows up is a broccoli casserole and that doesn’t count because it’s covered in Velveeta and buttered Ritz cracker crumbs. You smile faintly when you realize that you’re with people that consider macaroni and cheese a vegetable. You’re grateful that when people don’t know what to say, they try to help in any way they can so they cook. Cans of cream of mushroom soup get opened and they find their way to the house in casserole dishes. You look at potatoes made five different ways and feel comforted.
You head to the farmers market because you need to do something that feels normal. You cry when Dave from VG’s bakery fills you up a box full of pastries, gives you a hug and charges you a pittance. You’re so grateful for small kindnesses because when your heart feels so sore, these small kindnesses remind you that there is something out there beyond pain. You go down to the river and watch your husband burst into tears because he will never fish with his dad again. Then you both eat a cinnamon roll. You feel exhausted and numb and sad. You run the rest of the day fueled by carbs and caffeine.
Then the memorial service happens. You wait in the receiving line for hours. You meet many people who you do not know. You hear stories about your husband as a child. You hear stories about your father-in-law as a child. You feel like you are serving no purpose and you realize that’s just because you feel empty inside. You feel guilty because the hug you get from your own Dad feels so comforting and it makes your heart hurt for your husband even more. You have never felt more strongly in your life the desire to scoop up someone’s pain and carry it for them. You hug your friends that are there and you realize that you’ve never felt more grateful for them.
The next day, you get up and feel like a zombie. You meet at the funeral home. You watch the little kids skip merrily around the fire engines that are there to travel with you to the grave site. You get in the car to travel to the cemetery and on the way there, you see a bum on the side of the street with his hand over his heart. You wish you could get out and hug him. You watch your husband watch his dad be buried. You listen to the horns play “Taps” and feel grateful that the people that are playing are good horn players. The last thing you want your husband, a French horn player, to be subjected to at his father’s burial is crappy horn playing. You look at your husband and you both smile because you know you’re thinking the same thing. You feel grateful for soft Kleenexes. Bagpipes are played. You think of an ex-boyfriend who played the bagpipes and you’re so grateful that the man next to you now is named Marcus. And the funeral is over. And having to leave that grave site is one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to watch your husband do. Again, your heart feels like it can’t contain your grief.
You go back home and eat more casserole. You go back to your house and surround yourself with cats. You both sob because last Memorial Day is the day that one of the furbabies you referred to as your firstborn died in your arms. You get back in the car the next day and get some of the flowers from the grave site to put in your compost heap. You know Lester would have liked to know that his funeral did something to improve your tomatoes. And you feel like you never will feel normal again.
It’s after all this happens that you feel so alone. I’ve found that people in the South (and probably anywhere) are wonderful in the immediate aftermath of death. You couldn’t feel more cared for. It’s later when your body is consumed with rage and fury that they don’t quite know what to do with you. They don’t want to hear the mixed bag of emotions you’re feeling because they’ve got theirs locked down tight. Truth has no place there because truth is ugly. And it make you feel even more alone. Because the father that my husband buried was a good man. But he had his faults and his pride and anger caused him to leave this earth too soon. And sometimes my husband wishes his dad was still alive just so he could tell him how angry he is at him. And then he realizes that it would have the same effect that it had when he tried to do this when his dad was alive. And all the sadness that made your heart feel like it would explode? Anger replaces it and again your heart feels like it would burst from the fury that pulses out of it.
It’s one thing to be aware of the stages of grief and how people deal with it. It’s another to be caught up in them. One minute my husband feels like he might be at peace with his dad. The next minute, he’s so filled with Rage that it doesn’t even feel like his body can contain it. Then Sadness slinks in, makes itself at home in your house and drinks all your beer. It belches loudly and wonders out loud if he can bring his good friend, Depression, to sleep on your couch for a while because he’s a little down on his luck at the moment and just needs a place to crash. Guilt flits in and out, leaving the door open so the cats get outside. Acceptance says he’s going to stop by, but the party’s almost over and you realize that Acceptance won’t be stopping by and that he’s as full of shit as he always was.
Grief is a thief in the night that whispers in your husband’s ear while he sleeps “You have no father anymore” so that the refrain plays over and over in his head during the day. It’s the voice the tells you both that if you ever have kids, they will never know one of their grandparents. Your husband tells you that what was even worse than burying his dad was burying the hope he had. The hope he had that he could find some way to break through the resentment his Dad felt towards him and find a way to make their relationship stronger. This grief is as acute as it was the day his dad died, even almost a year later. So I tell him to write his Dad and tell him how he feels. That we’ll burn that letter and sprinkle the ashes on his Dad’s grave and tell him goodbye again. And I feel cheesy and trite and useless for having such a simplistic idea. But I pray with every fiber of my being that it will help. Because this is a good man who hurts and I love him more than I ever thought possible.
A year later you’re out for a walk and see the first fireflies of the year. You realize that every time you see a firefly for the rest of your life, you will be grateful and your heart will hurt. And then you hug your husband.
Right before Marcus’s Dad got too sick to eat, we brought over soup beans, cornbread and Black Bottom Banana Cream Bars. I knew his dad was a fan of banana pudding but I wanted to do something a little different.
My dad has always been a fan of banana cream pie – it’s his “birthday cake” every year. One year I added a layer of chocolate to the pie and loved it. So I definitely wanted to use chocolate. A few years ago I had a banana bread pudding with a whiskey sauce and it was wonderful. So the next time I made banana pudding, I added Irish whiskey to it and loved the combination. Pie crusts aren’t hard but people can be intimidated by them so I went with a graham cracker crust. I like it better than a regular crust in this because it mimics the vanilla wafers in banana pudding without getting soggy. The butteriness of the crust mixed with the bittersweetness of the chocolate is perfection. Every time we make these bars, we think of Lester.
Black Bottom Banana Cream Pie Bars
Makes 9 good-sized servings
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 15 crackers)
1/4 cup butter, melted (1/2 stick)
1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 ounces semi-bittersweet chocolate
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour, measured and then sifted
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons Irish whiskey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-3 ripe bananas
1 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup superfine sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the graham cracker crumbs in a medium bowl, mix with brown sugar and pour in melted butter. Stir well. Place this crumb mixture in an 8×8 baking pan and pat it evenly into bottom of pan. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Let cool.
Melt the chocolate with the 3 tablespoons cream in the microwave on medium power until the chocolate begins to melt. Stir well and microwave until the chocolate and cream are a smooth liquid. Pour over crust and smooth over it so that the chocolate completely covers the crust. Place in freezer and let cool for at least ten minutes.
Over medium-high heat, heat milk in a saucepan until it’s warm. Set aside and let cool. You want it to still be warm but cool enough to touch without burning yourself. Place a strainer over a medium mixing bowl and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. When the mixture is thick and smooth, whisk in the flour and salt. Slowly pour in the warm milk, whisking constantly. Transfer back to the saucepan.
Cook this mixture over medium heat. You need to stir this mixture constantly because you don’t want the bottom to scorch. It will begin to thicken so that it looks like pudding. Large bubbles will begin to appear. Taste the pudding mixture (Do this carefully so you don’t burn yourself!) and see if you can detect any taste of flour. If so, cook for another minute or two and taste again. When you can’t detect any taste of flour, remove from heat. Whisk in the Irish whiskey and vanilla.
Pour the pudding into the strainer to catch any lumps. You’ll want to have a spoon handy to gently stir the pudding in the strainer so make sure all usable pudding is in the bowl. Let cool for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, slice bananas and place over chocolate crust in a single layer. Pour the pudding over the bananas, using a spatula to scrap sides of bowl and even out the pudding in the pan. Let the bars chill for at least four hours in the refrigerator.
Before serving, whip cream until soft peaks appear. Add sugar, stir and let sit for a few minutes and then stir again. You have two options to serve this. You can spread the whipped cream across the entire surface of the bars. If you do this, let chill for a couple of hours before serving. Or you can simply top each bar with a dollop of the whipped cream. Serve.
Note: Do not store bars in a metal pan and make sure they are wrapped well so they don’t pick up off odors in your fridge.