Cartoons and Crying

You haven't seen me here in a while. I'll tell you why.

I love cartooning, I love drawing and writing and painting . . . so it suits me beautifully. I love holing up and losing hours to it, though we all know those aren't lost hours, those are hours where I'm getting better and better.

And now I also love doing coloring books for you to color. I had never really looked at my ink drawings, and thought much about "someone should color this," until my publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing, asked me to do a coloring book, after seeing my drawing vids on Instagram.

I've posted two cartoons I did about the grieving process, a while back, for The Cartoon Crier, The Center for Cartoon Studies comics paper featuring cartoons which deal with grief . . . because I'm now grieving, due to the greatest loss of my life, thus far.

For the last few months, and maybe years, I've been a little low, because my Dad has been fighting cancers of various sorts. I didn't talk about it much until lately, because that is what we do, we soldier on. We see someone we love more than life itself, who is holding his head high, and taking the treatments, and seeming to win this battle or that, and all is well, and when people ask you how you're doing, you think, well, my Dad is AMAZING, but I'm stress-eating, and mad at myself, and a little touchy, and hate cancer with a passion, with a downright VENGEANCE, and I'm tired of losing people to it, but you say, "Fine, good, goooood, how are you?"

So my Dad won some of the battles these last five years. (Not crazy about that particular terminology, but struggling for good words in this context.) My Dad was the strong mostly silent type, but when he spoke, it was for a reason, and it was usually hilarious. He was a trouper, super-practical, loving, hard-working, fun-loving, awesome.

He had skin cancer, surgery to remove most of his ear, recovered. He had colon cancer, surgery to remove part of his colon, recovered. He had bladder cancer, surgery, recovered. He had kidney cancer, kidney removed, recovered. This last bout wasn't like that. This last phone call of "results" was different.

Now, when you live long distance, you get used to the update phone calls of all sorts, like, we had to replace the well, or the jalapeños are growing great, and you look forward to talking with your folks, just to hear their dialects, because no matter where you live, you miss your family's Memphis & Tupelo dialects. And yours has grown watered down, though you never meant for it to. You maybe don't say "over yonder" as much, or use "fixin' to" for want of translation, but you hold on to "y'all" for dear life, because that is a little hint of where you came from. I feel like I still sound very Southern, my northern friends say, "God, yes, you do," and my Southern family says, "Unh-unh." So,  one of the delights of those phone calls is my parents' voices, and my Dad's laugh, and the way my parents interact with each other, and always, ALWAYS make my son, husband, and me laugh out loud. And how my dialect comes back a bit stronger, reinforced, after every time I talk with them. All so real and natural.

This last phone call was so different. Because Dad's voice seemed different, and I knew THIS round was going to be a bigger battle than most. But, he would win. Of course, he would win. My big, strong, always-there-for-me Daddy was gonna win this one, too. Oh, it might be harder. But he could do it.

Cancer had other ideas. My brother, who works at the hospital where my Dad was treated, called me separately, and said, "Teresa, this is IT. I want you to know that. I was in there with the doctor, and this time it's different." I knew I had been lulled into the deluded safety of having my parents for ALMOST forever . . . and let me tell you, I've ALWAYS been thankful for them. They know that. My brother and I talked about how we felt blessed to have the parents we did, can you imagine? How lucky we are? Wow. We are. Still.

My mother is so strong. SO STRONG. She was there at every turn, keeping the appointments and the meds and the phone calls and arrangements, and making Dad food he could eat, and making sure he was comfortable, and mobile for as long as it was possible, and buying him comfy pajamas at Walmart, when we finally talked him out of being his usual dapper self. My Dad was always in khakis and a nice collared shirt, belt, shoes, he never sat around in t-shirts and shorts - unless on a boat or the beach. But when it came to the end of his days at home, he was willing to get super-comfy, and Mom bought him some nice pajama sets to wear. My husband commented that he had never ever seen Dad anything but fully and nicely dressed, and he's right, Dad was just not the sloppy type.

These last few months have been getting work done, doing cartoons and coloring books, but also visiting my parents for extended visits. I'm glad to have work that I could do while in Florida, it's very portable work.

I'm glad I got to hold my Dad's hands and rub his arms, and watch movies with him, at home and in the hospital. Our particular favorites to watch together are Westerns, and spy movies, and monster movies like "Pacific Rim." Dad's favorites were "Shane" and "High Noon" and "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou." That might tell you all about my Dad that you need to know. :)

(Even as I write this, I find myself clumsily switching tenses, because it hurts so much to talk of him as past tense. And it doesn't seem accurate, even.)

The last movie we watched together was "Gladiator," one of my son's favorite movies. I sat in the hospice with him and held  his hand, from the recliner I scooted up next to the bed; and almost every day I would rub lotion into his hands and arms and chest and neck and face and forehead, and put baby powder behind his head and neck, and flip his pillow to cool him. We love that cool pillow thing. I knew when I could make him laugh, even though I think it hurt him, he was doing "okay." That was a comfort. One time, I told him to be sure not to pinch any of the nurses, even the female ones, and he shook his head and laughed. (You have to understand what a gentleman my Dad was, and how respectful of people he was, to get how absurd an idea the "pinching nurses" thing is.)

We conversed, though his voice had become weak, knocked back a shade or three. I told Dad how much he was loved, and how we knew we were loved. I told him that because of the man he was and the way he lived, and how he treated me, and our family, I knew I would never settle for second best. That I would have amazing friends, male friends, and never marry someone who didn't respect people and women, the way that Dad did. That his very being had influenced everything in my life, including of course, my amazing husband and wonderful son.

He was mostly lucid 'til that last day. The last day was sort of a little miracle to us, his oldest sister Carolyn, her daughter Linda May, and his youngest sister Mabel, drove 8 hours from Blue Springs, Mississippi, and sat and visited and talked. Dad was one of 11 kids. A number of them have already passed, and one sister passed, three days after Dad.

That day, Dad was restless, losing speech now and then, but it seemed he might have known. Because while I was standing next to the bed, talking to he and Carolyn, he grabbed my hand and held it so tight. He had never done that before.

Carolyn brought with her my Posh Paisley Coloring book, which she had colored almost in its entirety, short two pages. That made me feel great, in the middle of all of . . . this.

And when the nurse brought the morphine that evening, to make him comfortable, I headed home, thinking he would sleep through the night, and Mom was going to be there, so I would come back in the morning to "take over." On the way back to Mom and Dad's house, I got myself a Frappuccino at Starbucks, because I knew I wouldn't sleep much anyway, and hey, chocolatey icy goodness!

As I pulled in to my folks' drive, I got a phone call from Mom, "You need to turn around and come back, now."

When I got back, Mom and Brian (my brother) were in the room holding Dad's hands, and his breathing was heavy and strained. And they were crying. And then I was holding his hand, and I was quiet. And he was fighting so hard. I can't describe to you the horror and the hope of these moments. How much you know this is it, is this even possible, that my Dad, my DADDY, our rock, is leaving us - I know this is part of life, but I didn't want it to be a part of our life. Dad was breathing hard and straining to stay. And so we told him he could go, that he had been there for us his whole life, and he had taken care of us, but we wanted him to take care of him, and to leave if he needed to. And I looked at him, almost staring, for a long, long time, feeling like I hope he "heard" us with his spirit . . . and within ten minutes he did leave. I knew he was gone, when it happened, as did Mom and Brian. You just know. There are physical signs, there are spiritual realities. A nurse came into the room, and said, I think he's still with us, I'll check, but I knew he wasn't. He was free. He was with his Creator. On the Other Side. Whatever that really means.

And all I could do, wasn't to cry out, but was to think, Daddy, You're Free!! You are free. You won't hurt anymore, you won't have to be strong for us anymore, and thank you, God for my amazing Dad, that I got to have him all this time, this most amazing man. What a blessing. What a curse.

Afterwards, we went into the dark night, after slowly gathering up our belongings, and Dad's belongings, while his body lay there. That's what you do. It's macabre, and it's shocking. I knew that wasn't him. But still. When I got back out to Dad's pickup, that Florida night in April, the Frappuccino was still mostly frozen. It was so fast. It was so slow  . . .  but it was so fast.

Since that night, I keep thinking over and over, almost like a mantra, Tennyson's "Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all." True that. And, I found out the other day that Tennyson died on October 6th, my birthday.

We didn't have a funeral, or a graveside service. We had a Celebration of Life service at the church he loved so much, in Panama City Beach.  At the service, the pastor was gentle and soft-spoken, though a bit evangelical for my taste, but I get it, I was raised that way, my church taught me to take every opportunity to share the gospel, because it might be your chosen audience's only chance to escape hell, so I understand where he was coming from, though I don't subscribe to that set anymore. And we chose some great music for the video presentation, "I'll Fly Away" and "Keep On The Sunny Side," and we all sang together "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," though my aunt Kathryn and I agree it was the WHITEST way you could've sung it, too chirpy and fast, and we were hoping to aim for something more . . . well, SPIRITUAL. I hope Dad got a chuckle out of it, anyway.

I find that little things set me off, and some days I'm almost fine. I can't smell cigarette smoke without crying, because of someone smoking at a critical time, and that's a strong sense memory for me. The latest smoke-crying incident was at the bus stop on the corner. And I cried uncontrollably the first time I drove by the Starbucks where I got that drink the night he passed. When someone asks me how are you doing, I lie and I say "fine, and you," most of the time.

I can't find words to say how much I loved my father, and how I will miss him. This great, loving, hilarious, humble, faithful, handsome, strong, solid, respectful, classy, Southern gentleman, who grew up picking cotton on other people's farms in Mississippi, in a family with ten siblings, and loved Jesus. This man who could fix, build, wire, plumb, figure out anything. Who was a Navy vet, who joined the Navy to get to go to college on the GI Bill, but they dropped the program right before he got out. So he found another way. He never went to college, but he will always be one of the smartest people I'll ever know. And one of the funniest, too. What a great man. What a great legacy, and what a great loss. That was my Daddy.

I hope you'll be gentle with me and my family for a while, while I catch up to speed again. When I'm overly sensitive because you shared that you prayed for a parking space, and I think that's a waste of a good prayer, feel free to call me out on it, but forgive me for telling you so. Forgive me for not updating my social media platforms, or for unfriending you on Facebook or calling you out when your answers are too simple, and your judgment too harsh; forgive me when my judgment is too harsh; or for not coming out for drinks or coffee, or for canceling that comedy set I thought I was going to be so excited about. Forgive me for dropping out of workshops, and not wanting to come to events and parties. Forgive me for leaving the room to go blubber, because I saw a man who looks just like Dad, from a distance, or just because I needed to blubber. Forgive me for thinking we give people too many easy answers when they are grieving, as if we have to answer this deepest pain. We don't. God is so big. He gets me. If you don't, well, I'm not losing any sleep over it, and neither is my mama. And this, life, death, happens to all of us. It's not romantic, it's not magic, it just . . . is. My faith isn't in the trash, like I show in the cartoon, happens to some people . . . because my faith isn't a property gospel, where if God likes you enough, you get money and an easier life. My faith is one where I know Jesus did everything right . . . and he got lied about, maligned, cheated, arrested, betrayed, tortured, and crucified. And then he got a lot of followers who do the same to him, every single day. Jesus taught us, life isn't fair, if he taught us anything. And, death has nothing to do with fair, does it?

Right now I think I'm in the anger phase. It's been six weeks, and I'm beyond upset that we spend trillions on machines of war (the whole world) when maybe we could have cured cancer by now.

I don't have regrets, my Dad knew I loved him, and nothing went unsaid. And we cared for each other, my whole life. Same with my bro, same with my mom, same for my husband and son. We feel really, really blessed, and really really sad.

Art is a respite for me, so is writing. So is holing up and blogging and binge-watching Peaky Blinders. If you are someone who actually knows me, please know that I need a lot of support right now. Mostly notes (short ones of sympathy or just say great things about my Dad) that I can read again and again. Not phone calls so much, or interaction, if I were prescribing it myself. At least for now. I don't really want to talk much, this blog as evidence to the contrary . . .

Thanks for listening.