Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 17, 2013

My Father-in-Law

It’s been a hard week for my father-in-law, and also all of us who love him. There will be more tears ahead. We have lots to be grateful for since Don has been healthy for most of his eighty-six years. Still, there’s the raw sense that soon our family will be smaller. Soon there’s a voice we won’t be hearing. I’m tired, as if we carry more of the world for he who can no longer, or is it just a reminder that this is a time to act slowly, to pay attention?

Writing about history, I’m in the habit of pulling the past to the present, polishing scenes I believe should be remembered. Now I feel like I’m scrambling to keep up with my own past as it knocks and invades my life. As I sat with Peter’s father, I thought of my father, too. I didn’t see my dad before his sudden death, but instead got a call at the high school where I then taught. Teachers flocked around like angels saying, “You get five days. Take them, take them, even if you don’t think you need them.” I was thirty-two, young enough so that five days was long and I knew little about the particular ways of remembering that is mourning. In a daze I listened to those kind teachers who sent me home saying, “Don’t worry about lesson plans.”

I can’t write much else now, but I wrote this about yesterday.

For My Father-in-Law

Even before we get the news of cancer

and how it’s spread, Don says, Whatever happens

now, I want it to happen fast. Like the ball

he used to play, with not one of his three sons

caring much for sports. Later that Tuesday,

I hold his hand while he sings

If I Were a Carpenter, breaking off

when a nurse caries in a razor and bowl,

shaves him, and proclaims he looks thirty years

younger. He isn’t in pain. He isn’t hungry.

The next day a diagnosis comes, with slim choices.

On Friday, no sirens blare as an ambulance brings Don

to a nursing home where he gets a bed. I lean

close to hear his thin words, offer questions:

Does anything hurt? Does something itch?

Are you hot? Do you want to take off your socks?

Do you want more covers?

No. No. No. No. No. You’re a dear girl.

He refuses even a sip of water.

I’m in pain. I itch. I want to take off my socks

and pull up the covers. I would take a thousand sips

of water. I want, want, want, and leave the room

to phone Peter. Along my way to cold air, I pass through

the parlor, where a woman in a wheelchair bends

her head toward her lap in front of an unlit hearth.

Her husband’s arm stays around her like stone.

Back with my father-in-law, I keep bending close.

A hospice chaplain arrives and says a prayer for peace.

Don says, That was love-el-y.

I say, You’re a good man.

He says, I try.

He doesn’t take a single sip of water.

Soon a light snow falls outside the window. 



  1. {{{{{{{{Jeannine}}}}}}}}}}
    I know that vigil. So much weight to it all. Noticing, remembering, drifting between memory and reality. Days thick with love and fear. If there is anything I can do please let me know. I am not that far away. xoxo

    • Thank you for capturing the feelings so well, Laura. I’ll be in touch with you soon.

  2. crying, Jeannine, very lovely. I was thinking writing earlier….scribbled this.

    He is the soul of kindness, the light of human good.
    He has embodied graciousness and humor all his life
    He is the salt of the earth, hardworking, smart, loving, curious and creative,
    He has been lover, partner, husband, and morning back-scratcher for sixty five years;
    He is father, supporter, giver of unconditional love;
    He is grandfather, always loving, doting; finder of more unconditional love;
    He is great-grandfather, whose spirit and goodness will live in the cells of his offspring and their children;
    He is Don, Dad, Pop, Papa, Grandpop, Dingle…
    And one of the most wonderful men ever. When the time comes, and already, we will miss him so very much. We are the luckiest people to have known him and had him in our lives for so long.

    • Yes he is all of those things, and yes we are very lucky even if that’s not what we’re feeling these past days. xo

  3. Magnificent, Jeannine. Thank you for sharing this. “You’re a good girl.” “You’re a good man.” “I try.” The very best of words.

  4. Jeannine, all my love to you and Peter and your family. Your poem is beautiful and so revealing. I, too, got a phone call at work. It’s such an odd memory — the things we remember, the things we can’t — but nothing about that phone call or the trip home to loved ones matter. Rather, it’s being with family, huddling together as we each cope in our own way, feel our own loss. I’m sending angels and hugs.

    • Carol, thanks for the love, angels, and hugs!

  5. Nothing forces you to live in the present more than this. There’s no way to prepare, to plan or to control. You just have to get into the boat and go on the journey, accepting that the seas will get rough but that you won’t fall out of the boat. Somehow, somewhere, the strength comes when you need it and when you least expect it.

    My dad in 2003 was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer and was given 3-6 months. It turned out to be three. It was the first time for us that we would be saying goodbye to someone so central to our lives. It was all breathtakingly fast and sometimes surely it seemed the rapids would overturn the boat. We came out on the other side shaken, changed, some traumatized, others stronger, more thoughtful. With our mom, it was a 7 year decline but in the last few months those rapids got strong again. Still, we stayed in the boat and got through.

    There is never a time when life is more real and transparent. It transforms you and you get to decide if that is good or bad.

    I needn’t tell you what you already intuitively know, Just know that we are with you, thinking of you, praying for your family. In the chaos, sadness and horror there is a quiet beauty to be found and I know you’ll find it. Peace be with you and your family.

    • Susan, thank you for the beauty and wisdom in your reflections, which will keep me good company.

  6. You and your friends are such wonderful writers! I don’t know Peter’s Dad …but he sounds like a wonderful man! But I think of your father often….and always with a big smile! We had so many great times together!!! Thinking of you …love you guys!

    • Joy, Peter’s dad is also one it’s hard to think of without a smile, even during this hard time. It’s nice to think of all our fun times and your love. Sending love back.

  7. I’m so sorry, Jeannine. Your poem is lovely. And I like what Susan Bailey said above, about this being a time that’s transparent somehow. It’s very like the feelings I had when my husband’s grandfather (who we were close to) passed away last year. Maybe your FIL is passing on and not you, but you are all gathered at that invisible doorway, where everything is somehow more vivid and yet more still than any other time. Peace and hugs to all of you.

    • Rose, thank you for your beautiful words. Transparency, layers: yes. He is a lucky man to be leaving behind children, grandchildren, and his first great-grandson who all adore him and I believe carry on his sweetness.

  8. sending hugs, Jeannine, to you and your family

  9. Dear Jeannine, A sad time. My prayers are with you. Love, Sally


  10. Beautifully put. Grief pares us down to what really matters. Spending time, holding a hand, giving a smile or loving word. These are the eternal medicines of the heart. And they work both ways.

    • You are so right. Hope to see you soon.

  11. Jeannine . . . so lovely, that poem. I wish I could write now, but I’m in the rapids, too, on that boat Susan describes so well. I was present at both my parents’ bedsides and my in-law’s. I suspect this time I will get the call.

    • Candice, I’ve been thinking a lot about you these past weeks. The bedside, the call: I have to think that whatever happens is the right way. I’m certain all ways are hard.

  12. Jeannine, your poem is beautiful, so crystal clearly telling it like it is. I’m sorry for your impending loss, which is loss already.

    Grief goes on and on, mixing itself with the rest of life. If you can bear to, the sadness will mix with a bittersweet joy and a sense of having done your best and been your true self with the dying person. All that you are doing matters to him.

    I lost my mom in October after her not-even-five-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Like you, I reached out and out and out, but nothing could be done except to be present and loving, which for her seemed to be enough. A day or two before she stopped eating and closed her eyes (two weeks before her passing), we took a trip to a nearby lighthouse. She was in pain and drowsy from meds, but she wanted to see it. So we went. We sat in the car and looked at the Sound and at the lighthouse, and then she nodded, it was time to go back. Most of the way home she didn’t say a word. I knew it was to be our last trip. I said, “Ma, I know it’s scary, but I’ll always be there.” She said, “I know, sweetheart.” That memory has helped me during these months of grief.

    Take care, Jeannine.

    • Oh, Toby. I can understand how that memory of a few perfect words, water, and a lighthouse sustains. And your words will help me today, and onward.

  13. Oh Jeannine, would that I could fill the room with citrus blossoms, sunny and sweet, and serve you hot tea and nourishing sandwiches. If I lived closer, I’d bring you soft slippers and fluff your pillows, too, and urge you to rest your weary head. That’s how I know best to help. But I’m not able to do anything like that, not from this distance. So I’m doing all that I can–which is to say that I’m praying for a peaceful and pain-free transition, for all of you, and I’m swaddling you in my thoughts. xoxo

    • Your words mean everything, Melodye. Truly, I can smell the citrus, and thank you.

  14. I know no one better at paying attention than you, dear Jeannine. So much love going out to you and Peter. Those days of holding and waiting are hard and fraught. I wish I could bring sweet cups of water for all.

    • Thank you, Amy. I have to believe the cups of sweet water we want to give are as important as those that get sipped.

  15. (((((hugs)))) Thinking of you and yoaur family.

  16. Jeannine, somehow I missed this. You brought tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart. I’m so glad your father-in-law isn’t in pain, but wish you weren’t, either. Please know my thoughts are with you and Peter.

  17. Sending love and prayers to all of you, Jeannine. xo

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