Tag Archives: death

The Fall of Life

orentreesFall in New England is beautiful decay.

Autumn’s appeal is not always readily apparent if you’re still blinded by summer’s glare. That’s understandable. Summer is exuberant and full. Summer is heat and life and everything dazzling in bloom as the sun splashes its warm rays on our cheeks. Summer is fun and vibrant with the sun coming out to play longer than at any point during the year. For these reasons, summer has better PR than the other seasons on which it throws considerable shade.

In the fall of 2014, I drove to meet my friend Oren Miller in the autumn of his life. It would be the last time I’d ever see him.

I, along with Sam, made the two-hour drive from my house to Lake Richmond in the Berkshires (western Massachusetts) with equal parts eagerness and anxiety. I was dying to see Oren, his wife Beth, and his two kids Liam and Madeline while they were on vacation. But I was anxious because I might slip and inadvertently say the word “dying” to a guy diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer just five months prior. Actually, I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. And when I don’t know what to say it seems I say EVERYTHING all at once, digging new holes to fill in the hole I just dug for myself and — see? This. I do this.

If you’re a dad blogger, Oren is a metaphorical giant. He took a bunch of disorganized lone wolves and created a Dad Bloggers Facebook pack. I know it sounds simple, but at the time it was unprecedented in our community. Armed only with his Golden Rule of “don’t be a dick,” he brought together more than 1,000 dads from all over the world and created an invaluable community of personal support and professional development. No small feat with such large personalities.

But when I pulled into the driveway of the sleepy lake house and saw him at the door, my heart sunk. He was now a giant in reputation only, the chemo clearly having taken its toll. Even as I gently hugged his shrinking frame, I saw his gaunt face wince in an attempt to mask the pain. And yet his eyes — sharp and exacting. Measuring everything. Calculating. Still Oren.

I don’t know what I was expecting upon meeting the family members of a man doctors said would be dead in a matter of months, but I was immediately struck by one jarring emotion.

Peace.

Despite all the emotional upheaval the Miller family had endured, I walked into a zen-like setting. I immediately saw why Oren fell in love with Beth, who struck me as sweet and loving, but also whip-smart and fiery when need be. As they joked with and ribbed one another, I could see exactly how her sense of humor mixes perfectly with Oren’s sarcastic wit.

And while Liam and Madeline were aware something was wrong with their dad, they showed no sign that anything was amiss. They immediately took Sam in the corner to play with toys while the adults sat down and chatted like old friends. Any worries I had about feeling anxious or ill at ease evaporated instantly, which is vintage Oren. He’s always more concerned about everyone else before himself.

Also, that feeling of peace is amplified when this is the view from your back deck.

I used this picture on the last blog post. That was the view from our deck in MA.

A photo posted by @orenmil on

Although the plan was to head to the Norman Rockwell Museum, Oren looked like he was struggling so I offered to just hang out at the house and talk. However, he was having none of that. He had promised his friends and family something, and normalcy was to be the order of the day. So off we went.

It was just a week or two past prime leaf-peeping season in New England, and many of the trees were already half-bare. The colors had shifted from blazing reds, yellows, and oranges to a darker muddled brown, but there was still plenty of eye-popping color to be witnessed if you looked around a bit.

We walked around in the crisp Stockbridge air and felt the pristine eyes of Nature upon us. The kids ran ahead up paths, summoned by the universal and inescapable pull of curiosity that drives children everywhere to be the first to see what’s over the next hill. Oren plodded along steadily. Always steady and sure, even when slow-going wasn’t a necessity due to cancer.

At the top of the next hill, we paused. His two kids playfully argued about who would be the next to push Sam’s stroller. I smiled as I looked out over the very same meadows Norman Rockwell himself used to garner inspiration for his next Saturday Evening Post cover. And then I saw Oren and Beth, lost in a moment together.

orenbeth

It’s easy to admire someone’s beauty in the full bloom of life. Oren was in the late autumn of his existence, yet somehow managed to put summer to shame. The symbolic journey from the tree of life to the ground below is no doubt sad in many ways. And for some, especially those who pass before their time, it’s an endeavor fraught with denial and bitterness.

However, Oren showed it’s all in how you play your cards.

The truly blessed among us realize the last leg of the journey is still part of the adventure. And like the leaves of late autumn, there is still time to be seen. To inspire. To bravely blaze a final path so bright and beautiful it will be imprinted in our minds for time eternal, forever an inspiration to those who saw it. And those who retell it.

And retell it we will. Not just because Oren is our friend, but because it’s the story of a man that deserves widespread recognition.

A man who learned he had less than a year to live and immediately penned this gem, giving instructions to whichever man would ultimately marry his wife and help take care of his children. A man who continued contributing to and running the Facebook group he began to help dads, even while going through torturous chemo treatments. A man who is so esteemed in our community, we decided to name scholarships after him which will be used to send financially-challenged dads to the Dad 2.0 Summit aimed at promoting involved fatherhood.

But most notably, Oren is a man who stood up and bravely fought a battle he knew he couldn’t win. And I’m not sure there’s anything more courageous than that.

At this moment, the last leaves are falling for Oren. I wish him and his family peace and as little pain as possible, and I send to them all of our heartbroken gratitude and admiration. Beth, Liam, and Madeline — I’m so sad for you. But taking a page from Oren’s book, I’m also so thankful you had him as a husband and father. And thank you for sharing him with us.

Our insufficient words and stories will never do Oren justice, but we will do our utmost to honor the legacy he leaves behind. And every autumn when the trees are on fire in their incomparably beautiful march toward winter, I’ll think of you and your example.

I love you, my friend.

orenfam

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Of Miter Saws and Roses

georgemj_wed2George is my father-in-law. I love George. Very much. I haven’t written about him since June, mainly because that’s when he died. June 21 — the summer equinox. The irony of the guy with the brightest and warmest personality having his light snuffed out on the day the sun shines the longest, wasn’t lost on any of us.

George was a man’s man.

Seriously, he was a dude. The man was a military veteran and worked as a master plumber for many years. One look at his rough, calloused hands told you he was a man who built things. Fixed things. We lived five minutes from him for five years, which means he fixed just about everything in our house. And when he was done he’d have a drink. Or 14. Because even well into his 70s he could still drink me and half my friends under the table. Then, the next morning, he’d somehow tiptoe around the oncoming hangover so he could get to the gym at 5 a.m.

George was a ladies man.

That’s not to say he stepped out on my mother-in-law. Hell no. She was his one and only. But in the middle of those 14 drinks, George would start telling stories. Stories of lost virginity on golf courses (can you say hole in one??) and bawdy tales of lively girls who populated ports of call. One time, before a concert, a total stranger walked up to George, ran her fingers through his notoriously luscious hair, and gave him $20 for being handsome. Know what he said after that? “Happens all the time.”

George was a tough guy.

Shortly before I married MJ, he took me aside one day to talk. He got me a drink, put his arm around me, and told me he loved me and welcomed me to the family. Then he told me if I ever hurt his little girl he’d cut my penis off. To convince me he wasn’t joking, he showed me a variety of tools from his basement he’d use to make it happen.

Those tools in that basement are among the things we’re cleaning out of his house, some eight months after cancer finally overcame the man I believed to be invincible. Thanks to George we’ve now inherited a bunch of useful equipment like circular saws and a miter saw and dozens of other manly things about which I have nary a clue.

George’s basement was a den of masculinity, and everything you’d expect from a hard-drinking veteran tradesman.

Except for the roses.

Black and dried with age, they were part of a bouquet. A wedding bouquet. MJ’s wedding bouquet, to be exact, which can be seen in the picture at the top of this post. The manliest man I’ve ever known had a bouquet of dried roses meticulously tucked away for eight years amidst a sea of tools and heavy equipment.

You see, George was the only boy among six sisters. He loved clothes, and his shoe collection rivaled that of most runway models. He danced around the house, he found beauty in everything, he wasn’t afraid to cry, and — most notably — he cooked. Sweet mother of crap could he cook. The man was a culinary wizard and I don’t remember a single time going to my in-laws house when George wasn’t wearing an apron and bent over the stove.

George was a skirt-chasing, tool-wielding, repair-making, tough guy. Of that there is no doubt. But he was also a man who loved deeply and without hesitation. He could cook, he could sew, he sang to us all, danced when everyone was watching, and wasn’t afraid to cry. And it comes as no surprise he kept a sentimental bouquet of roses in his basement.

When I say my father-in-law was a man’s man, that’s the stuff I’m talking about. That’s the guy I’m trying to emulate. And that’s the man I miss dearly.

The miter saw is wonderful, but the roses made me cry.

(You can click here for George’s obituary. I’m not proud of a lot of my writing, but I’m damn proud of this)

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Writing My Own Eulogy

bi_gravestoneWhy is this narrative coming to you in the first person if I’m dead? C’mon now, a former journalist turned narcissistic dad blogger would NEVER leave his eulogy up to someone else to deliver. Which means even though I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you’ve still got to listen to me at least one more time. Thanks Internet.

Who was Aaron Gouveia? Truthfully, I was kind of a dick. Especially during my capricious youth. Someone once swore they’d deliver my eulogy with the opening line of “He’s a son of a bitch and I’m glad he’s dead.” But my mom was always kind of an asshole anyway. Seriously though, I did a lot of things years ago I’m not very proud of and if I could do it all again — well, I wouldn’t actually change anything because it truly was a blast and I had a helluva time. But I swear I’d feel bad about it. Kind of.

Things changed later in life for the same reason most men finally grow up — a good woman.

Continue reading Writing My Own Eulogy

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If I Die, Give My Wife Some Breadsticks

breadsticks“If I died, would you get remarried?”

I’m sure that’s a question all married couples have tackled at some point. The “What would happen if…” game can be an interesting peek into the mind of your soul mate, but when you have kids it takes on added importance. Mainly because you want to know that if something happens to you, your partner will be able to carry on and take care of him/herself as well as the kids.

So when MJ asked me this question out of the blue, it was actually pretty timely. Our wedding anniversary is coming up soon, and I was thinking a lot about her and how much I care about her. And yes, I admit, the macabre side of me had begun to think about what would happen if I lost her. So I took a deep breath and answered her with what was genuinely in my heart.

“Would I get remarried if I lost you? Honestly, no. I wouldn’t. And I don’t say that to score points with you now or kiss your ass — I mean it. There are a whole bunch of reasons I married you, but first and foremost it’s because I’ve never loved someone like I love you. I’ve never loved so hard, so much, so completely, so passionately that sometimes the line between loving you and wanting to throw you off a balcony is blurred. I’ve never been so fulfilled by another human being in my whole life. I’ll never be as comfortable with anyone else as I am with you. No other woman could imprint herself onto my soul like you have. Besides, trying to find someone as gorgeous as you — someone who I see day in and day out yet still gets me worked up like a horny teenager just looking in your direction — would be absolutely impossible. 

You’ve ruined me forever. I’m no good to any other woman except for you. Trying to get remarried would be fruitless because it’d be like getting to have the Mona Lisa in my living room and then having to settle for dogs playing poker. Like driving a Ferrari and then being forced behind the wheel of an ’84 Buick Skylark. Like eating at the Olive Garden after traveling to Italy and feasting on the best Italian food in the world.

You are my world. And if my world is gone I’ll carry on for Will, but my heart will be closed off to any future romance because no matter how great she is, she’ll never be you.”

I know, right? Quite a soliloquy if I do say so myself. I looked at her with a smile, confident I had just bowled her over with my passion. And then, thinking I knew the answer already and that it mirrored mine, I asked her if she’d remarry if something ever happened to me. Her response?

“Oh hell yes. Sorry, but I love Olive Garden and I’ll be needing some breadsticks.”

Happy freaking anniversary.

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Explaining Death to Your Kids

The Daddy Files household lost one of its own this week.

Red Death was our betta fish MJ brought home this summer. Will had been asking for a fish for awhile and MJ finally caved. His name—now eerily apropos—is from the movie How to Train Your Dragon because Will loves the mean dragon at the end named, wait for it, Red Death. He had a bowl, some glass marble thingies, a fake plant and a little ship. Other than that I didn’t know much about him. He was fairly quiet and we stayed out of each other’s way.

But Will loved him. Once he got past the stage of wanting to touch Red Death all the time, the fish was actually pretty useful. He had to be fed two times a day and that was Will’s chore. He learned to count out five little pellets each time and gently drop them in the tank. If it was quiet and you listened closely, you could actually hear Red Death eating.

On Monday I was walking past the bowl and noticed Red Death was motionless. That’s not all that uncommon since he’s always been kind of lazy. Or as lazy as a fish can get. I tapped on the bowl but he didn’t move. Then I poked him with my finger. Nothing. And immediately I began to dread what I would tell Will.

Unfortunately my son is no stranger to death. He was only 1 when my grandmother died, but he was 2.5 years old when my grandfather passed away. Old enough to warrant an explanation that didn’t go exactly as planned. But the bottom line is he understands the concept of death and knows that’s what happens when people get really old and/or very sick. MJ and I made a decision to be “appropriately honest” with him about these things. It’s tough but I truly believe it’s the right way for us to proceed.

So I went downstairs and asked him to come up with me. When we got to our bedroom we had the following conversation.

“Hey buddy, do you remember what happens when animals get really old and sick?”

“They die.”

“That’s right. And you remember that most animals don’t live as long as people do, right?”

“Yes dada.”


“Well bud, I have some bad news for you,”
I said as I picked him up and showed him the bowl.

I never told him Red Death had died. But he looked at the bowl, saw the fish floating there, looked at me and just knew. His eyes began to water and his face contorted with sadness. He looked at me with pleading eyes and wrapped his arms around my neck.

“Dada, I don’t want fishes to die. I want fishes to live,” he sobbed as my heart broke.

After he had calmed down and the hard tears subsided, I asked him if he had any questions. And, because he’s a 3.5-year-old, you know he did.

“Dada, why did Red Death die?”

“Well, he was old and he wasn’t feeling well.”

“Was he sad?”

“He was only sad because he had to leave you and he loved you so much. But no Will, he wasn’t sad. Wanna know why? Because you took care of him so well and loved him so much, so there was no way he could be sad.”

“I did love him so much Dada. But I don’t want him to leave. Can we keep him even though he’s dead?”

“I’m sorry buddy, we can’t. We can’t keep dead animals just hanging around.”

“What do we do with him?”

Crap. I actually hadn’t thought about that. But when I brought in MJ and asked her what she thought we should do, the confusion just grew. Do you know what my wife—a 33-year-old grown woman—wanted to do with our dead betta fish? She suggested we bury it. Out in the yard. And she wasn’t kidding either. She thinks all dead things should be buried in the ground. Even fish, which is enormously confusing since they live their lives underwater.

So it was left up to me to dispose of Red Death’s earthly remains. I’ve never owned a fish before, but in all the movies I’ve seen it’s always straight to the toilet. So that’s what I suggested to Will.

“But Dada, that’s where we poop and pee.”

“Well we’re not gonna poop and pee on Red Death buddy. We’ll put him in there when it’s clean and we’ll flush him. Because all that water eventually goes to the ocean and that way Red Death will be home.”

Hey, I didn’t say I never lied to Will. But then he caught me off guard.

“OK. That’s a good idea Dada. And then Red Death will get eaten by a shark,”  he said in a matter-of-fact voice.

“Why do you think Red Death is gonna get eaten by a shark?”

“Because sharks eat smaller fish and Red Death is smaller than a shark so it’s OK.”

Holy crap. There it is. I guess all the nature shows we watch have rubbed off on him, and he now has a fundamental grasp on how the food chain works. Circle of life and all that jazz. Whatever you wanna call it, Will gets it. And armed with that knowledge, Will made his peace with Red Death’s demise.

We brought the bowl into the bathroom and Will told Red Death he loved him and gave the side of the bowl a kiss. And in that instant I saw he was sad, but it was also clear he possessed a grim and reluctant understanding. And suddenly I was a little sad. Not because our fish died, but because my little boy seemed suddenly so grown up. And as he grows up, I become more and more cognizant of the fact that I can’t protect him from sadness, hardships and death. It’s a tough pill for a protective parent to swallow.

I didn’t just flush a dead betta fish down the drain tonight. I watched a little piece of my son’s childhood innocence disappear. Sure it’s necessary and probably a positive in the long run. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

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