I know how to bake a loaf of bread. I don’t know how to plan a funeral.
My dad died three weeks ago, 18 months after he was diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer, and my mom, sister and I have been figuring out what to do for his memorial services next month, when the extended friends-and-family circle will gather to honor him.
When my grandmothers died — one in 2016 and another in 2017 — all I had to do was show up and let my grief be my guide, but this time, my mom, his wife of more than 46 years, knows she can’t do it all alone.
There have been times when it's felt overwhelming, and the outpouring of support has shored me up for the process, but I didn't realize I was self-soothing through baking until I pulled a loaf out of the oven the other day. Smelling the familiar sweet nuttiness of the yeast and flour, I felt a calm reassurance. One day at a time, one task at a time, one decision at a time. When I'm faced with something I don't know how to do, I can focus on the things I do know how to do.
That's the kind of advice my dad would have given me.
With the exception of a few spells of good health, my dad was in pain. Misery wasn’t a feeling he knew well. The perpetually positive and upbeat friend to all became the unsure, always nauseated patient in need of help from others and seasick from the treatments that were supposed to prolong his life.
From the outset, we knew this disease would take his life sooner rather than later, so we got to work making as many good memories as we could.
When he felt good, we’d go down to the creek just south of town and skip rocks, stopping by his favorite place to buy one of his favorite craft beers on the way out. When he felt poor, we’d watch Andy Griffith and eat tomato soup. There was a lot of Andy Griffith and tomato soup.
Thanks to nurses, spiritual leaders and the steadfast care and support from my mom and their close circle of friends, my dad found some peace during his last few months. My sister and I visited every few weeks. My parents were able to celebrate their 46th anniversary last fall in Colorado, revisiting the same places they saw on their honeymoon, which they took exactly one month after a chance meeting at Silver Dollar City in Branson when they were still teenagers.
Their love story followed them all the way through their last days together, when he was in need of constant care and I caught her whispering the many adoring nicknames she had for him in his ear.
My dad was a serial entrepreneur, running several very different companies over the course of my childhood and raising an adventurous set of daughters. He was the kind of guy who could easily pivot from one career distributing educational VHS tapes to dentists to another where he planned all the bus routes for the small school district in my hometown. He was elected to the city council and served for more than a decade, making $100 a year for the job. Eventually, he found his final calling: selling real estate, where he could fulfill his lifelong dream of being a full-time helper by helping people achieve their dream of owning a home.
During his final year, his community returned the favor.
His co-workers, churchgoers, clients and longtime friends brought banana pudding and chicken enchiladas and chicken noodle soup. They mowed the yard and built a ramp on the deck in the backyard. Friends who lived far away shipped cases of ginger ale and coffee K-cups, and friends who lived close by took him to chemo treatments and blood transfusions.
He planned his funeral and picked which songs he wanted on the playlist. He gave his car to his best friend. He braved saying what felt like final goodbyes to people he loved, again and again.
But now we’re trying to be brave and go on without him and come up with a celebration worthy of such a patriarch. He was such a great party planner. In college, he was part of a crew of guys that hosted these giant pig roast parties every year, which were more like small music festivals, complete with local bands and custom T-shirts and a theme song they sang onstage to kick it off. He could still remember the lyrics.
Long after the pig roast days, he loved setting the energy and tone of a business meeting or an evening at home. He was the kind of boss who played the classical radio station on low in his office, and when he was camping, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks from the car stereo. For years, he coordinated the church's annual free Thanksgiving dinner not because he was good at making mashed potatoes but because he was good at leading a group of volunteers to serve 300 people without the mashed potatoes getting cold.
My dad was a quintessential Midwestern grilling guy whose indoor cooking activities when I was a kid were limited to pasta and sliced kielbasa in red sauce and fish sticks and macaroni. But I remember him cooking them with gusto, and washing the dishes when he was done. And because you can't watch "Days of Our Lives," a show he never missed, without a good sandwich, my dad learned how to make a good sandwich.
My dad wasn't known for his cooking, but at 5 feet, 3 inches and living in the humble house his wife grew up in, he was the tallest, richest man around.
Just as his happiness with my mom and his service to others guided him to lead such a full life, his legacy will guide us as we live ours.