THE AWAKE WAKE
“I am thinking about having a party while I am still alive,” my dad on his almost death bed, cancer ridden, stated with almost Zig Zigler salesman like conviction. I had gotten “the call” that my father had been rushed to the hospital by Dad himself who sounded for the first time unsure if this hospital visit would be the last one. I rushed up there, ‘there’ being New Hampshire, Dartmouth Hospital, near the college where I found my father and my stepmother dealing with the ramifications of esophagus cancer that would soon take his young life. Once we realized that this was not the end, my stepmother had decided to head back to the cabin situated on my Dad’s beloved 100 acre campground in the Great Woods of Northern New Hampshire, Strafford, north of Lancaster. I stayed put so she could have a much needed break as she had become his primary caretaker, a task surely not for the fainthearted, but for a person who loved the other with all her heart. My father was lucky to have her, surely, as I chuckled at the notion of my mother ever taking on this selfless role. Not a chance. Not a chance of his mother, my grandmother doing this either, those two women were just not made of that fabric. Bernadette was, is, and I felt so happy she was his wife. I am not sure I would have had it in me either, especially since my cancer ridden father continued to smoke his disgusting cigarettes until almost his last breath. “What’s it going to do, kill me?” he would say with his twisted sarcasm. I had been going up to visit him pretty regularly before his cancer more like a freak show exhibit as once again my father was on some business venture and I, like the rest of my very white collar family of lawyers, doctors and business people, was intrigued by his never ending gumption.
My father was fearless in his quest to find the business that would give him the combination of livelihood and joy and the campground would be the winner for him. He loved the woods, he loved the social, he loved the community and his ability to make a small living doing what he loved was the best way for him to move into his seventies. Until he got the cancer diagnosis. Dad always thought that he would blast through his life living well into his eighties like his other grandfather, Joe, his father’s father who smoked at least a pack of cigarettes and drank scotch like water every day. It was a fifty fifty shot. The grandfather he was super close to, the one who died while Dad was at boarding school in Maine at Hebron Academy, when he was only 59 also of cancer. Stomach cancer was the diagnosis back then, but in 1959 who knows if that was the cancer. Almost sixty years later, cancer diagnosis’ have evolved and become much more specific and the genetic realities that have made cancer more prevalent are only within the last twenty years. My father didn’t know about genetic mutations and drank and smoked with a Joi De Vivre since he was about thirteen years young. I hadn’t been around the endless smoke of cigarettes since I was 16 and reentering the haze and smell triggered me. I couldn’t stand to be around it and Dad as usual didn’t really give a shit. Dad was the black sheep in the family doing all of the opposite that was expected of him and this used to drive my Grandfather crazy.
My Grandfather Herbie, ran a textile company in Fall River like so many other Jewish men in the fifties and sixties and my father ended up working there. I don’t think my Dad ever really enjoyed this, but because he eloped at twenty to a Irish Scottish German Catholic girl from Newton, Mass and I came along a year later, I don’t think his track in the management career at Woolworths in Burlington, Vermont was feeding his soul or his wallet. He now had a family to support and since he dropped out of University of Vermont and totally pissed off my grandfather, I think this was his cross to bear. With his tail between his legs, hat in his hand, he went back to Fall River and began his career at the factory where he unhappily resided until I was at least fourteen. He had some other businesses afterwards but when he found this campground and purchased it I finally saw him living his truth. I loved the campground, it was a bizarre collection of camouflage, ATV’S guntoting, pot smoking Libertarians and they loved my Dad and he loved them. I don’t know how he managed to be part of the party as quickly as he did, but Dad was a gregarious outgoing and super smart guy. Super likeable too and his ability to live his life how he chose was a great example for me. He was a curious soul and the longer he resided there, the more he became a Fox loving Libertarian along with the rest of them. I was in awe.
So when he came up with this idea to have a party, I immediately jumped in and came up with the name and all we had to do was convince Bernadette. I’ll never forget her face when we both proposed the concept. It would be potluck. It would be a huge all day event, we would invite all the New Hampshire folks, all the Jewish family, all the Portugese contingent and whoever else wanted to jump on the party bandwagon. A bonfire would also be part of this wacky event, of course. And besides food, there would me much alcohol and lots of clothing layers. After all it was Northern New Hampshire in November. As we began the guest list, Dad determined who we would be asking and who we wouldn’t be asking. A couple of his first cousins would be left off the list which was fine by me. Hell when someone is dying of cancer, they make the rules, social correctness goes out the window and I was just the messenger. Little did I know that this decision would cause a war on the day of the event with me being the recipient of the fire. Of course the two cousins got wind of it and showed up anyway thinking it was me who left them off the list. Me in my codependent protective state took the brunt of their anger like it was right out of Seinfeld episode as they showed up in their Lexus with their high heels and Prada bags. Amusing and in hindsight added humor to the heaviness of the day. It didn’t feel funny on the day, but it definitely has been a topic at every family get together.
What is an awake wake? It is a celebration of life when you know someone is dying and they get to be the main guest while they are still alive. As one might imagine, this was a difficult concept for many of our family to swallow, but I was the cheer leader and no one was going to change our plans. I think losing my brother at such a young age made me look at dying with such a unique vantage point and if this was one of the gifts of losing my brother, an awake wake would soon be in the history books as one of the greatest celebrations ever. Imagine my grandparents traipsing up to New Hampshire from sunny and warm and wealthy Sarasota in the middle of November to “celebrate” their son’s life knowing he was going to die of a cancer that also took their first born grandson only fifteen years earlier. Heavy and hesistant hearts I am sure they had. Of all of the people who attended and there were at least 150, my grandparents couldn’t stop talking about this in the most positive of terms after the weekend experience. I think this gave my father a great feeling of peace. Why do we wait until someone dies to tell them all of the glorious things we learned and loved about them in a postmortem eulogy? The only advantage to knowing you are going to lose someone is that you know ahead of time. Why wait to celebrate their lives? Why not celebrate them so they know their importance on this planet and how they affected people and places by their short existence. I know this idea isn’t for everyone, but this experience with my father was life changing for not only him, but for the people in attendance.
We shared food, stories and life together with Dad and he knew his contributions without a doubt. He got to live two more months with the knowledge that he made a difference in many peoples’ lives and I think when he finally checked out, he was more at peace then he imagined. Less pissed off that his plan of smoking and drinking and outliving us all would throw our theories of health and fitness out the window, he was happy when he died. Isn’t this the point? And typical of loss, I miss my father more at each year that passes. I find myself really asking what would Dad have said, done, but I am so glad I was able to tell him what I loved about him while he was still around and coherent to hear it. Anytime I find out someone close to someone I know is dying, I always boldly suggest that they sit with the person privately and let them know all of the wonderful things they learned from them and loved about them. It is a real gift for the dying, but often it is surprising at what a gift it becomes for the ones left behind.