“My dad has Alzheimer’s. We have to close the practice. “
“What?! Your dad is 55. What the heck does that even mean?!”
“I don’t know, Jess, but it’s bad. It’s going to be bad.”In that moment, neither of us understood the impact Jim’s illness would have on the family, and on Dude, in particular. In the succeeding years as Jim’s illness progressed, I was excited when Jim still remembered who I was and was touched by the fact that Dude visited his dad in the nursing home as often as possible, lighting up as he would tell me about the moments he shared with him each time. We both understood the importance of constant contact with Jim and I’d encourage Dude that, no matter the circumstances, that contact was essential. He agreed. The last email Dude ever sent to me contained a photo of his dad at Falling Water, an outing the two of them shared just shortly before Dude died. I remember the excitement in Dude’s voice as he recalled the fun they had visiting that landmark and then he exclaimed, “I’ll email the picture I took!” He was close to his dad. And, as Jim’s illness claimed more and more of his mind -- but not his spirit, sense of humor or faith – Dude struggled, too.
I always knew I would attend Jim’s funeral. I had never imagined attending it without Dude.
As I drove up yesterday, I anticipated things. I looked forward to seeing all of the family. I didn’t think the funeral would be as hard on me, but it was incredibly difficult. Not only was it the first time I was attending a family function without Dude, Dude and his dad were so much alike that as I listened to the eulogies, I felt like they were talking about Dude. Technically, Dude’s funeral was the first family function without Dude, but I was in such shock, I didn’t remember my name and can’t really recall one detail of that whole day. This time, I was alert and it was painful. Really painful. I cried for his mom and brothers. I cried because I always thought Jim would make the best grandfather and he didn’t get that opportunity. I cried looking at photos of Dude when he was little and remembered the stories Jim would share. I cried because as much as Jim was not my father, he was a part of my life for 12 years, I traveled this long road with Dude and now it was over. I cried because the two of them were reunited in heaven.
Dude’s family has always been welcoming to me, but they’ve been even more loving and supportive in the wake of his death. It was wonderful to spend time with all of those with whom I was familiar and to meet a few I hadn’t met. This time I ate my whole lunch – at Dude’s funeral, I didn’t touch it – and the reception was full of love and laughter and
Then it got hard again. Ava asked if I wanted to go see Dude. Of course I did! I tell her at least once a month that I need to come up and see him. Yesterday was the day. The first time I would get to see Dude’s grave. I expected pain that would split me in two to creep into my heart. I even asked if I needed to stop on the way to get a bottle of wine and a bucket of Sarris chocolate to make it through this experience.
As we drove up to the cemetery, we passed his high school. At Trinity High School, they are named the “Hillers” because their school sits on a hill. And, Dude was King of the Hill – class president, prom king, you name it. Just past his school, we approached these beautiful gardens that held tombstone after tombstone. We found the undertaker’s house and went in to find out exactly where Dude was. He highlighted a map and off we went. The mausoleums were right by a lake – just a beautiful spot. As we were getting out of the car, we looked up, and this graceful deer ran right in front of us. I reached for my phone to take a photo and the deer was gone. The sun shone down, and despite what the thermometer said, it did not feel cold.
I walked up to the first mausoleum and opened the door. There were walls of marble slots with names and birth and death dates. My parents and I looked and looked and didn’t see Dude. This was the one the undertaker said he was in, but we couldn’t find him. We went inside the little room contained within the big building and looked. No Dude. We went in the building next door. Again, we searched and searched to no avail. There were a bunch of chairs in the middle of the room, so I sat down and pivoted to try to get a better look. Frustrated, I called Ava, but she didn’t answer. Back to the other building we went to look again. This time in the little room, we find a note someone left and family photos of him and a candle with his name, but where on earth were his ashes?! Now, I am getting really mad and Dad offers to go back to the undertaker’s house to ask again. He does, and comes back and says Dude is up high. We look and look. No Dude. At this point, I sink into the chair tucked in the corner leaning up against what look to be empty graves because there are no names on them. I yell “Dude, where ARE you?” and just relax my hand on one of them and continue to look. About 30 seconds later, the door opens. It is the undertaker. He runs in saying that he had totally forgotten that he just moved Dude into a bigger grave last night and has yet to put his name back on the grave because he is about to put his dad in and will put both names on at the same time.
“Where is he? I asked.
“Right where your hand is”, said the undertaker.It was a very difficult, but very special day.