A Time to Every Purpose

In the last weeks of his life, I would talk to my dad on the phone frequently.

He was in Montana. I was in Minnesota. It was January, and at the same time his heart and lungs were deteriorating, my body was busy helping those same organs grow inside the baby I’d been carrying for more than 40 weeks. Completely, utterly, I was in The Middle Place, sandwiched between the start and end of life’s cycle.

When I was the baby, it was my dad who was in The Middle Place. I was born, and a few months later, my dad’s dad died.

Thirty-five years later, Paco was born, and 16 days after that, my dad died.

A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, indeed.


Because I was so heavily pregnant during his final decline, my dad and I didn’t have a face-to-face goodbye. I would talk to him on the phone, with him in the hospital and me laboring to breathe as I sat on the couch in our tiny house. Similarly, my brother was far away, in Japan, with his 7.5 months pregnant wife and five-year-old daughter. Five months before his death, my mom had filed for divorce and turned her attentions to a new boyfriend in California. Thus, my heroic sister single-handedly walked Dad to the grave as she cashed in all her days of leave and drove, again and again, the ten hours from Denver to Billings.

He was decency incarnate, my dad, and I loved our conversations on the phone. Although a quiet Finn by nature, he was an astute observer, listener, and question asker–skills that find special life over the telephone wires. We discussed his health, of course, but also my teaching, his grandkids, life in Duluth. After the traumatic delivery of Paco, when my dad realized we were struggling to cope, he asked a question–so charming to me because its phrasing revealed his farmboy roots: “Can I send you a cheque so that you can hire a girl to come in?”

He was a love, and yet his body was done. For decades, he’d lived with chronic bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, allergies, eventually a heart attack. By the age of 66, his lungs and heart were exhausted.

When we would talk on the phone each day, and he would tell me, his breathing more labored than mine, how much he loved seeing photos of his new, his ONLY, grandson, how much he loved seeing pictures of Allegra cradling the new baby, how much he couldn’t wait to see them both,

it was as though my opera singer father was engaging in a kind of overtone throat singing. There was his voice, but there was also a simultaneous rasp of air, sort of a thick hitch in his breathing, with every word. The sound was distinctive and ran, literally, as the underlying accompaniment to our conversations.

And then one day, after a few close calls, one involving emergency intubation,

he rolled over, exhaled, and died.

At that point, he was alone. My sister was in Denver attending to her job, about to drive back up to Billings. I was recovering from a C-section in Minnesota. My brother and his family had gotten on a plane in Japan the day before and were above Detroit during that last exhale.

He died alone.

There is a saddest story in my life, and it is that my dad died alone.



There is a happiest story in my life, too, and it is that my dad and I shared a birthday. Every year, come March 25th, we had Our Day. Even in his absence, March 25th is Our Day.

This week, this March 25th, he would have been 78 compared to my 46. For the first time in my recollection, I was sick on my birthday, largely bed-bound with the same virus that laid the kids low last week. First, there was a fever, then painful lungs, then a developing cough, then a vise-like headache, then a draining nose, but most of all, a complete lack of energy.

I spent Friday, March 22nd, in bed.

I spent Saturday, March 23rd, in bed.

I spent Sunday, March 24th, in bed.

On Monday, March 25th, my eyes flew open at dawn. Although I had been sleeping sitting up, propped by pillows, breathing was still work. In fact, it was the sound of my breathing that had awakened me.

The sound that pulled me to consciousness was like an overtone throat singing noise–a rasp, a hitch. I woke up thinking, “DAD. That sounded like Dad. That was Dad.”

Thusly, we started Our Day together.


Inside me, forever with me, the very breath I exhale,

there is my dad.


Family Dad







17 responses to “A Time to Every Purpose”

  1. kmkat Avatar

    What a wonderful tribute to your dad, who, btw, bears a slight resemblance to Your Beloved Spouse in the that photo. I think it is the big smile that caught my attention.

    My mom died around noon on December 1, 1984. Elder Son was born at 1pm on December 2, 1984. That sucketh, as did your experience.

  2. chlost Avatar

    What a sweet teling of your dad’s story. My dad died over the holidays 2005/2006. We don’t know exactly when he died. My uncle found him and he’d been gone for quite some time. It pains me to think of him dying alone. He had just visited with us over Christmas and had left suddenly. I can’t help but wonder if he had not been feeling well then, and if I had been able to convince him to stay, he may have been with us and we could have done something for him. Dads and daughters have a special bond. I feel him nearby sometimes as well.

  3. Choochoo Avatar

    Your dad sounds like he was an awesome guy 🙂

  4. Jeni Hill Ertmer Avatar

    When you sit down and write a piece that is a sentimental one, a tribute, you really do know how to pull out all the stops, don’t you? I never knew my Dad. He saw me once when I was 10 days old and a week later he died of cancer. That was 68 years ago this past October. I grew up with my Mom and her parents and though there were 10 other grandchildren in the family, I nudged my oldest cousin out of first place in being “Grandpa’s Girl” simply because I lived with him and Grandma. I was 12 when he died 56 years ago this week -and a date I thought I’d always remember I now am not sure if it was March 27th or March 28th. Either way, There are certain times of each year that my system doesn’t respond to things in its normal fashion as depression sets in in varying degrees on or around the anniversary of when this one left, or another family member passed, the loss of a wonderful friend -and I thank you today for writing this piece as just two weeks ago I lost a very, very dear friend. At the time of her passing and funeral, I was taking meds for depression and anxiety -which do help immensely except that they block the emotional release then of tears which is a much needed way of cleansing ones emotions. Yesterday and today, I deliberately “missed” taking those two meds so tonight, reading your piece, it gave me the emotional impact to be able to let those feeling come out and the tears came on. Thank you for sharing your story about your Dad, your love for him and for helping me by being able to read this and be able then to let go of some of the emotions that had been held back until now. Peace and love to you for your excellent writing skills. Jeni

  5. C-leen Avatar

    And I’m starting the day with a tear in me eye. Well done, girl.

  6. Erin Avatar

    This post broke my heart. Then I read the comments, and it broke all over again.

  7. Patois42 Avatar

    What a grand thought that he is there with every breath. Beautiful.

  8. lime Avatar

    and with the reading of this there is a hitch in my own inhalations and you take my breath away. hugs to you dear one. just hugs and love.

  9. actonbell Avatar

    Such a lovely, beautifully written tribute to your father! And happy birthday, Jocelyn, may you never feel alone.

  10. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar

    I’m glad I didn’t put on any mascara yet. That is so lovely–your bond and your memory.

  11. Jess Avatar

    This is so beautiful. I was born on my grandmother’s birthday- her first granddaughter. She died right before I met (in person) Todd and the kids and Daphne shares our birthday. This baby is due nine days before that birthday and it makes me miss her so much more.

  12. pam Avatar

    My own Dad passed away a couple of days ago and can really appreciate your sentiments here Jocelyn. Although my Dad was not alone, dementia as an illness can separate us from family and friends – I hope they find a cure to take away its ravaging effects one day.

  13. Secret Agent Woman Avatar

    Ah, Jocelyn, I’m sorry. And glad he lives on in your heart. And floored that your mom chose to leave rather than wait out that last half year. And… mostly just sorry.

  14. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    He must have been quite a man–and he definitely raised quite a daughter.

  15. Bone Avatar

    Saying this was a wonderful tribute sounds so lame in comparison to the words your heart has written.

    I’m going to go see my Dad. Soon. Thank you.

  16. ilyanna Avatar

    Just want to reach out and give you a hug. Cheers to you, and your dad.

  17. Meg Avatar

    I can hardly imagine the swirl of emotions as you recovered from Paco’s birth and welcomed him, all the while knowing each day that you were saying good-bye to your father. Those daily conversations must be imprinted on you. I have to think that though he was alone physically when he died, he was hardly alone emotionally – clearly you had a close bond and he felt it, too. And what a touchstone March 25 will always be for you – a special connection. Thank you for sharing your story; now I understand better the heartfelt comments you have left for me, on mine.

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