There’s an exclusive group, one you don’t pay to join. It’s one you are automatically a part of you when your heart feels like it’s been torn in two. When your Dad dies, you become part of the Dead Dad’s Club.
It’s a crass and somewhat heartless term for those who have lost their fathers. The main benefit of being in the club is that you can automatically relate to those already in it. It’s not like Greek rush where you have to get to know your Fraternity Brothers or Sorority Sisters and become familiar with their traditions. The condition of your heart is known by all other members – whether you Dad was the biggest jerk or your hero.
My Dad was both, a jerk and my hero. He grew up in Ponchatoula, LA, riding his horse bareback in the Tangipahoa river, raising chickens, and practicing kissing girls on his poor dog. (“No wonder he was such a slobbery kisser,” says my Mom!) He was an offensive lineman at Ponchatoula High School and went on to play football at Tulane University as well.
That’s when he met my Mom who was still a high school student in New Orleans. They were set up on a blind date on Friday the 13th. She says when she first saw him, she was struck by how thick his neck was (makes me giggle) and that “he was such a stud!”
The dated on and off and married in my grandparents house in Old Metairie a few years later. My Dad was a young attorney who “slayed dragons” all day long. He felt like David, fighting Goliath, helping the little guy achieve justice and get his dignity back. He was under so much stress in the early years of his professional life, trying to provide for his growing family despite making bad investment decisions. My Mom and sisters suffered because of this. He was grumpy most of the time with rays of fun and adventure on the weekends. But he was mainly a grump.
I was born after my parents had been married for 13 years. I was their 5th daughter born 9 years after their 4th. Surprise! By this time, my parents finances were more secure although still tumultuous, but the biggest difference in my Dad was that he had had a major change of heart. While he’d been a practicing Catholic his whole life, he had a moment, a conversion experience, on a retreat that was more like major heart surgery. He ended up becoming a Catholic Deacon in the Archdiocese of New Orleans with my Mom by his side.
My Dad’s assignment during his Diaconate training was to visit the AIDS babies in Charity Hospital. Can you imagine the contrast he saw on those days when he visited the hospital and then came home to his 5 healthy daughters in a beautiful garden home on the golf course? He was irrevocably touched by those experiences.
My Dad’s other “specialty” as a Catholic Deacon was baptizing the babies of unwed mothers. Much to my horror, some of these women seeking the sacrament of Baptism for their children had been turned away by hard-hearted clergymen. The women would come to our home to have one-on-one information sessions about the Sacrament and guidance on how to raise their children in the faith. Sometimes, my Dad would just sit and listen to their own stories of heartache. During their meetings, I was the babysitter! I got to play with these precious babies who’d been given a chance at life, including children who were the product of rape, despite the challenges that faced many of them.
My Dad was known by my friends to be a great adventurer. He’d take us to our camp in the country and let us run wild with minimal supervision for 2-night sleepovers, leaving Friday evening and returning us to our homes on Sunday evening. He’d buy us milk shakes and hamburgers, donuts and red cream soda. We’d swim, hike, canoe, explore – we all felt so free, and so grown up even though my Dad was only separated from us by a particle board wall with his black Labrador retriever to keep him company.
When I was a Senior in high school, my Dad’s law office was raided by the FBI – their computers and files were seized. One of my Dad’s clients was being charged with bribery of a State legislator and, since my Dad was his attorney, he was under scrutiny as well. The media went wild! My Dad’s face was on the front page of the local newspaper and on the opening story of the nightly news.
He was put on trial with 2 Louisiana state senators, his client, his client’s daughter, and his client’s CPA. The trial lasted for 9 weeks during the end of my Senior year of high school. My oldest sister, Kitty, who worked with my Dad, was listed as an “unindicted” co-conspirator and not allowed in the courtroom. The prosecution had my Mom listed as a possible witness, so she wasn’t allowed in either. My younger sister, who as born 9 years after me, was only 7 so my parents didn’t want her to be exposed to the circus of the media. My other older sisters were living away from home.
That left me. It wasn’t how I’d envisioned my last summer before college, but I went to the trial every day and sat in the courtroom. I’d go back to my Dad’s law office with the other defendants for lunch and again at the end of the day to celebrate the progress we’d made. My Dad’s attorneys had “ghost jurors” in the courtroom (who didn’t know whether they’d been hired by the prosecution or the defense) who were asked for their unbiased opinions about how they would rule on the defendants. They all agreed that there was no way my Dad was going to be convicted.
I was scheduled to go on a cruise for my Senior trip the day that the judge called us in to hear the verdict. My bags were packed and in the car because my parents insisted I go, whether the verdict came back that day or not. My Mom, sisters, and I had just gotten to Canal Place to do some mindless window shopping when we got the call to hurry back to the courtroom.
As the jurors entered the room, their usual jovial, light-hearted banter with one another was gone. There heads were hung and they wouldn’t make eye contact with the families. My heart sank. My tears flowed. I knew what the judge was going to say.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. It seemed as if the guilty verdicts would never end. From what I remember, my Dad was found guilty on all but a few of the charges that had been filed against him. We cried out loud in the courtroom, gripping each others’ arms for strength. My oldest sister yelled over the sobs, “We believe in you Dad!” The gavel slammed down ordering silence. Reporters were feverishly taking notes. My life as I knew it was over.
There is no way to completely describe the despair that my family felt. As far as we knew, our home was going to be taken, our possessions, all my parents’ assets. I’d have to give up going away to college. My older sisters and I were somewhat employable at least and could provide for ourselves if needed, but what about my Mom and little sister? And was my Dad really going to go to prison? It all seemed so surreal.
We went home that night, broken. My Dad kneeled next to his bed and my sister overheard him whisper in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We felt betrayed and abandoned. With every blow, though, there always seemed to be a ray of hope. Maybe we could appeal? Don’t trials get caught up in the appeals process for years? Maybe the judge would have mercy on him and be lenient in his sentencing? Maybe?
The sentencing was in October of my 1st semester of college. The month prior, my parents drove me to Nashville, TN to begin my college career at Vanderbilt University. I had gotten an academic scholarship and they felt certain that they would be able to pay whatever the scholarship didn’t cover. I still remember telling my Dad goodbye for the last time in the parking lot of a pancake restaurant just down the street from my dorm. I was wearing short overalls and had my hair in a pony tail. It’s engraved in my memory forever. After that breakfast, my family was going to drive back home and, a few short weeks later, take my Dad to Florida to begin his 10 year prison sentence. Ten. years. The judge showed him no mercy.
My family created a new normal. It looked like a monthly visit from me to join my Mom and sisters in their weekly drive to Pensacola, FL to visit my Dad. My Dad had so many visitors that the Bureau of Prisons had to change their regulations to allow us all in. There were sometimes 10 or more of us arriving each weekend! My Dad received letters every single day he was in prison, except one day. And that day made him feel forgotten; he really despaired. Until he remembered it was the day after Mardi Gras and the New Orleans post offices had been closed!
While in prison, two of my sisters’ boyfriends asked for my sisters’ hands in marriage. My Dad knew it was coming and on the two separate occasions had arranged for some of the toughest “thugs” (as he lovingly called them) to stand behind him with their arms folded as his future sons-in-law approached. My Dad was in charge of the attached Navy base’s garden so he took a few flowers and arranged them in a heart in the visiting yard garden as a surprise for the newly engaged couples. In a letter I saved from him, my Dad talked about how it broke his heart that he was unable to walk his daughters down the aisle, but that he really was okay not having to be involved in the stressful minutiae of planning a wedding or calming a histrionic bride. I can see his mischievous grin as he wrote that last part!
This was a time of great grace for my family. I don’t know how we got through it except for God’s bottomless mercy. There were appeals going on and they were all denied. Our very last hope was an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court hears about 4% of the cases that are presented to them and overturn rulings on even fewer.
Two and a half years after my Dad began serving his sentence, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear his case! We were shocked, and apparently his local judge was, too. In a rare moment of kindness, the judge in charge of my Dad’s case agreed to let him out of prison until “the Supremes” delivered their decision!
I was in my dorm room when my Mom called. I slumped down against the door to my room, laugh-crying and took the next flight home to New Orleans as quickly as I could, a grin frozen on my face. There was a party to be had! It was a party to end all parties! The tears, the cheers, the champagne, the cigars, the stories, the relief, the joy, the transformation that had happened in my Dad physically (he’d taken up walking and yoga in prison), mentally, and spiritually. It was a mountaintop experience that cannot be compared to anything other than a glimpse of heaven.
After a few days home, my Dad went to the grocery store to touch all the produce, oohing and aahing at the quality and freshness. He’d dream about exotic recipes, wake up in the morning and rush to the grocery store to get all the best ingredients. He was always a great cook and host, but now he cooked and hosted even if the only person there was my Mom. While he was in prison, the ability to use credit cards at the gas station pump came about, so he had to be brought up to speed on technologies the we had all taken for granted, like Rip Van Winkle.
In addition to missing his family, friends, and freedom, there was one thing that my Dad had been missing intensely – his dogs. We had 2 old black Labs, and my Dad thought the only thing he really needed was a puppy. I remember driving to rural Louisiana to pick out our black Lab. We drove home giddy with the newest addition to our crew, Sam.
But a cloud still loomed. If the Supremes didn’t overturn his conviction, he would have to return to prison to serve the rest of his sentence which made his time home seem like we were just delaying the inevitable. Summer arrived and I went on a road trip to visit some friends in Washington, DC. The day after arriving, on election day 2004, I called home to check in. My Mom said she’d been waiting for me to call because the United States Supreme had unanimously overturned the ruling in my Dad’s case! The statistical odds were staggering!! Unanimous?!? I screamed! I jumped up and down and cried! I went directly to the Supreme Court that day to the very building where the judges had just issued their ruling and where they had just been presented with their next big case, Bush v. Gore (hanging chads, anyone?).
In my family, we refer to those next few years as “the honeymoon years.” Dad wasn’t a jerk or in prison. Post-prison Dad was my hero. He had endured public, private, and professional humiliation and had come through the other side bravely and with dignity. The Louisiana Bar Association refused to reinstate him as an attorney so he had to create a new identity, one outside of the practice of law. Even more painful, the Archdiocese refused to reinstate him as a Deacon so he had to create a new identity, one outside of the Diaconate.
So he turned to another passion, fishing. My Dad and my older sister Beth started a charter fishing company. Dad bought a super boat with twin engines that he named the Delta Dawn and a camp down near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Venice, LA. Beth’s job was to advertise the charter fishing services, and my Dad’s job was everything else – to cook all 3 meals, change the sheets and clean the camp, and take the guys out all day fishing! He would come back completely wiped out and blissfully happy, his dog Sam with him on all of the trips. The open water made him feel so free in contrast to the prison cell shared with 5 other men.
Two years after his release from prison I moved to Washington, DC to work. Driving back from a kids’ overnight camp in West Virginia where I had been a counselor, I got a call from my Dad on my 1st cell phone. He sounded very sober. The signal cut in and out, but what I did hear was that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, the same cancer that had killed his own father. He was optimistic, though. Prostate cancer is very curable, but his tone was in stark contrast to the party we’d been living since his release.
After further testing, the cancer he had was identified as being very aggressive, having already metastasized. As a result, my Dad was given 3 months to live. The wind was knocked out of us again. My Dad underwent several series of chemotherapy and radiation to beat the cancer and was left weak but alive and courageous. Every day he was beating the odds. Every day Sam would sit at his feet sensing that he was sick. She would lick him over and over again, trying to heal him.
A year after his diagnosis, my Dad was still in the thick of the battle. I felt compelled to move home because my relationship with my boyfriend, Brian, was progressing, and I didn’t want to regret not spending time with my Dad while he was still alive and I was still single.
I moved back into my childhood home with my parents and younger sister. My Dad got up every morning to make me a hot breakfast, get my help on the daily New York Times crossword puzzle, and see me off to work with an insulated mug of piping hot coffee.
Six months after being in New Orleans, Brian came in town and proposed to me. My Dad’s health was holding steady at “partly cloudy,” and it was time for me to build my own family. We got married in September 2005, one month after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city of New Orleans. We planned a new wedding in about 48 hours, me crying through it all. In the end, we moved our wedding to Washington, DC, where we were going to live after the wedding anyway.
A few weeks after getting married, Brian and I found out we were expecting our 1st child, my parents’ 9th grandchild. The pregnancy was difficult with lots of stays in the hospital to keep the contractions at bay. My Dad’s health was failing and the stress of it all took a big toll on me physically. I flew home once during the pregnancy, after a night in the hospital with contractions, against my doctors’ recommendations because I already had a plane ticket and didn’t know if I’d get to see my Dad again.
When I was 8 months pregnant and on bed rest, my sister Connie called me. She was crying. She said, “Caroline, you need to come home.” That’s all I remember from the conversation. I called my OB and asked if it was safer to drive or fly home with all the health issues I was having. She said it was too risky to go. I said firmly, choking back the tears, “My Dad is dying! I am going home! I am asking your professional opinion about which mode of transportation is safer. Flying or driving?!” She conceded that driving was safer. We packed up our stuff, including an infant car seat just in case, and headed to New Orleans.
We stayed overnight in Alabama, my belly contracting all the while. We arrived in New Orleans the next morning. It was Sunday. My Dad had been in the hospital and had come home by ambulance a few hours earlier on hospice. He was in the living room on a hospital bed, two fans rigged up with a series of sheets and heavy blankets to manage his body’s inability to maintain his temperature. He went from freezing cold to burning hot in a matter of minutes, so it was a delicate balancing act to keep him comfortable.
My whole body was so swollen from high blood pressure that, to pass the time, my sisters would take me on walks in a wheelchair with my feet propped up. We were quite a sight! Fortunately, my cousin’s wife was an OB in the area, so I was in touch with her in case I started up with contractions again.
On Wednesday morning, I woke up with some bleeding. We called my cousin’s wife and she had me come in. My blood pressure was through the roof, well into the 200s over 100s. She sent me to the hospital to be induced since childbirth is the cure to high blood pressure caused by pregnancy. Every time I’d think about my Dad, my blood pressure would skyrocket and I’d start to black out. The anxiety was debilitating.
My Mom was there with my husband to keep me occupied as the labor progressed. My sisters showed up, too. I didn’t know it at the time, but the “paperwork” my Mom was doing while we waited for me to dilate was my Dad’s death certificate. She knew he didn’t have long and it can be an administrative feat to get all the paperwork completed.
After seven hours of labor, baby Julia was in pretty bad shape. Her heart rate had dropped because the umbilical cord had been around her neck, so my cousin had the nurses put their little bodies onto my giant belly, and used their very pointy elbows to get her out immediately. Sunuvagun, that hurt! Once she was born, it took what seemed like an eternity to get her little body jump started, but she eventually began crying.
Birth and death in the same moment. My daughter was entering this world as my Daddy was gradually leaving it. As she took her first breaths, my Dad was taking some of his last. As my baby nursed on me for the first time, my Dad was being gently nursed by my sisters. They were both totally dependent on those who loved them. While my Mom was contemplating the enormity of the moment, her phone rang. At the 11th hour, not knowing he was actively dying, the Archdiocese had reinstated my Dad as a Deacon – dignity restored again!
After lots of ups and downs in the hospital with my blood pressure and the development of pulmonary edema, I was hesitantly discharged from the hospital on Friday. For whatever reason, labor hadn’t cured my blood pressure issues. I was desperate to get home to my Dad, fearful he would die before I arrived. My husband drove me and our new baby home from the hospital. Our families were waiting. His parents had flown in from Maryland to help with my Dad and see their 1st grandchild. It was an emotional introduction. I was crying before I even got out of the car.
I walked into the living room, dizzy with rising blood pressure, and presented my little girl to her grandfather. He reached out and whispered, “Oh!” It’s all he had the energy to say.
I sat by his bed a few hours later and he was able to whisper to me, “Not much longer…” He wanted his wife, his girls, and his dog to keep vigil with him so we all slept at my parents house. We even let the dog cuddle with him in his bed – it hurt him, but he loved her so much.
I spent the next few days in bed, nursing the baby, feeling like I was going to black out, fearful that my blood pressure was going to send me into seizures. I would get up on occasion to pat my Dad’s arm, and my sisters and I would sing a song called “Press On” that brought him great comfort. The line that stands out is “I will fight the good fight with all my heart and soul until the day that I’m with Jesus, the day I’m finally home, the day that I have won the crown.”
Brian told me that he had to get back to work in DC. We decided he would leave on Friday. Friday morning, before the sun had risen, my sister Kitty tiptoed into my room and whispered calmly, “Dad has died. Come to the living room.”
My Mom had lit candles and placed them near him. He lay there peacefully, at last freed from his pain, his spine straight for the first time in weeks. Kitty placed his Deacon’s robe over his still-warm body. My other sisters came out of their rooms one by one. There was a supernatural peace that filled the living room. His suffering had ended. His dignity had now been fully restored. He had finally won his crown, and my sisters and I were instantly inducted into the Dead Dads Club.
My Dad’s funeral was the most beautiful celebration, rivaling that of his return home from prison. There must have been a dozen priests celebrating his funeral Mass. The Church was packed – there was standing room only. My Dad had touched so many lives through his professional career, his service to the Church, and his relationships with those in his family and community. There were three eulogies, two by close friends who were also Deacons, the 3rd by a woman with cerebral palsy, Denise, who had become best friends with my Dad years before.
Today, on Father’s Day, as I sit with Sam snuggled up beside me in my own home with my husband and 4 children, I really miss my Dad. I miss his big bald head. I miss him taking me out to breakfast. And then taking me out to lunch a few hours later. I miss doing crossword puzzles with him and going out on the boat. Oh man, I miss being on the water. I miss his over-the-top stories that ended with laughs that made him grab his chest in pain, a vein popping out of his forehead. I miss his meals that could have fed an army. I miss his schemes and pranks. I miss seeing him love my Mom, his dogs, and his daughters. It’s not fun to be a member of the Dead Dad’s Club, but I’m so very thankful that I have such fond memories of him to hold me over until we meet again.