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Coupling

Goodbye, Pa

Going through the pain of my father-in-law's death, my own marriage grew in ways big and small.

By Tracy McArdle
July 26, 2009

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There are certain pivotal moments in a marriage -- buying a home, having a child, losing a job. These events, by their very nature, take a relationship to another level. They can bring you closer or highlight your divisions.

Another big one: the death of a parent. You see another side of your spouse when he or she loses a parent. You’re not “the kids” anymore. You become the older generation. Hopefully, as was the case when my father-in-law died last year, it makes you appreciate your mate and your marriage in ways you never did before.

I remember when my mother’s parents died within three years of each other. It was stressful. My mom, a nurse working full time, assumed the burden of daily visits, medications, the insurance company, the endless Medicare paperwork and phone calls, and when the time came, the nursing home, hospital, and lawyer meetings. My father supported her every decision, including moving my grandmother to my sister’s old bedroom. And when both her parents were gone, an exhausting combination of relief, guilt, and sadness arrived, and my father asked my mother what she wanted to do. She wanted to escape the last three years. They sold their house, my father quit his job, and they moved to the Cape to start a new chapter.

When my husband, Nat, lost his father in March of last year, it was unexpected: the dreaded phone call after dinner. After Nat finally hung up, he looked at me blankly and said, “My father died today.” He seemed only to be realizing it as he said the words. The empathy I felt, and the powerlessness to help him navigate this sudden nightmare, overwhelmed me. How could I comfort him? I couldn’t.

He left immediately for Vermont to be with Sally, his mom. We had a 15-month-old, and I was seven months pregnant and working. His work schedule was hectic. I was tired, huge, and uncomfortable. Instantly all these things fell away. I pictured him driving the snowy I-89 and I-91 alone, with three hours to think, to remember, to question. To cry. It was unbearable in a way no challenge in our relationship had ever been.

I did small things to help. I called his friends. I wrote the obituary notes. I listened. I drove with our son to Vermont the next day. Seeing my husband with his family -- minus “Pa” -- during such a difficult time gave me new insight into his strength. To our families we are always the same person, no matter how we evolve outside them. I’d known that Nat was my rock; now I saw he had always been that in the family he grew up with. I saw that his sometimes not showing emotion did not mean he didn’t have any. I reminded myself never to criticize that again. I saw how all of his three siblings looked to him when a decision had to be made -- and he’s the second youngest. I saw how his mom needed him. Months later, Sally told me what it meant to have him there that awful night. I couldn’t have imagined how she would make it through that night. Or the next morning, or the day after that. But I knew she could, because Nat was there.

The next night Nat bought a portable fire pit and built a blaze in his parent’s backyard, which overlooks splendid, generous pastures leading to the Green Mountains. The siblings’ spouses and I remained inside while Nat, his brothers and sister, and his mom savored the full moon and snowy peaks as they shared their fondest memories of Pa.

Later, after my father-in-law was cremated, Nat and the others wanted to scatter his ashes at sea, his father’s wish. Suddenly another bone of contention -- Nat’s fishing addiction -- became a godsend. His small boat took the family to their beloved spot off Vineyard Sound, where they scattered flowers and worshiped at my husband’s church, the great outdoors.

A year later there are still pieces to pick up. His father’s tools and clothes remain in the house. Paperwork and finances need organizing. Sally considers moving.

“Don’t worry,” I told her recently when she mentioned the dread of packing up all those years. “Nat will help you figure it all out.”

“He will?”

“Of course he will,” I said.

Tracy McArdle is the author of Real Women Eat Beef and Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa. She lives in Carlisle. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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