HOW OUR BLOG BEGAN, in AUGUST 2010: As many of you know, Phil has been struggling with a very complex series of neurological issues for about 5 years. This past spring, the issues became especially intense as a result of an unexpected cognitive decline and a fall on May 15th that resulted in a head injury and further decline. And then, on July 16th things catapulted to unbelievable, as Phil suffered from a severe "electrical storm" in his brain that essentially created a status of brain death for two full days. Inexplicably, the very morning that neurologists and other medical team members were planning removal of life support, Phil began breathing on his own and his brain waves returned to a stable, while still abnormal, level. Since then, each day has been a unique journey. And while he and his body continue to demonstrate a will and capacity to live, he continues to have severe deficits and it is quite uncertain as to the path he will take. As loved ones close in can attest to, it has been tricky to keep up emotionally with all of his changes, and provide the needed support. We can only imagine the hard work Phil has gone through as his brain has taken him through such roller coaster experiences. It is our goal here to keep family and close friends apprised of Phil's ongoing story, and to build connections that honor him.

AND THEN, SEPTEMBER 11, 2010....Dad's remarkable journey alongside us culminated in a gentle, generous death.

And so, my goal here now as his daughter is simply this: to record snippets...pieces of his life that my memory offers back to me, pieces of myself as I learn to live without a dad. I hope all who meander by find life, and hope, and peace.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

your story, or mine? ok, well, how about both?!

ok, so tonight's thoughts are a bit in the realm of the abstract.

sorry, that's what happens when i have two full days to do nothing but whatever strikes my fancy.  (never occurs to me to tackle a to-do list when i have an unscripted day before me.)

what i'm contemplating is the idea of a QUEST.  grab a comfy chair and kick up your feet.  this could take awhile.

*           *            *          *          *

yesterday i picked up this book entitled How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  i want to review it and perhaps give a copy as a christmas gift to my neighbor brien, who teaches junior high language arts. (i think of him as a type of professor, as he's a true connoisseur of classic literature. read his blog and see what i mean!)  as my ability to absorb intelligent literature is fairly limited -- perhaps i should give the book to him now and then for christmas, ask him to write me a summary of what the author is trying to say.

but, i'm all for giving it a go.  the first chapter is entitled "every trip is a quest (except when it's not)".  off and on all day, i've been chewing on what it has to say.  i find myself pausing at what i've read because i feel there's some hidden way to use this new information to add perspective to dad's passing.  i believe i may do this for awhile.

he's trying to teach his readers that many stories are built to be a QUEST TALE.  and that, structurally speaking, they all consist of the same basic things: a knight, a dangerous road, a Holy Grail, at least one dragon, one evil knight, one princess.  i get it, these grand old stories.  but then he asks me to contemplate the fact that these things are often metaphorical, cloaked in unfamiliar garb.  like: the knight can be a guy next door; a dangerous road, the path from his house to the corner Circle K; the Holy Grail, a loaf of Wonder Bread; the dragon, a 1968 muscle car.  and so on.  i'm stretching.  but i like the resulting intelligent feeling that comes over me as it starts to sink in. 

but then he kinda blows my mind.  and gets me thinking about my life with dad these past months.  he says (and i quote)
the real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason.  in fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task.  so, why do they go and why do we care?  they go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission.  we know, however, that their quest is educational.  they don't know enough about the only subject that really matters:  themselves.  The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. that's why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered.  forty-five year old men either have self-knowledge or they're never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.
Whew.  ok i'm still trying to figure out exactly what a quest is, and how an old car can be a dragon.  but since professors usually know what they're talking about, i'm inclined to believe him.  if he says a quest is NOT about the stated reason, then it probably isn't. 

so where does that leave me with my dad?  it begins to dawn on me, slowly, today that

perhaps his journey through death
is not completely as it seems.

*           *            *          *          *

all of a sudden, i see myself as an average sixteen year old kid.  i'm at the ryan house, peeking my head out into the hallway anytime i see a gurney go by.  i'm an overgrown adolescent as i pass by dad's roommates' doorways, straining to see the various forms that "almost dead" can take.

*           *            *          *          *

someone along the way mentioned that dad gave to us even in his death.  i was a bit taken aback by that statement at the time, as the past months have seemed to be a lot about what i and my family have given to him.  perhaps in many ways, though, this idea holds more truth than i know.

take even just his extended presence in a home for the dying.  was it just for him to have the space and time, the luxury, to die in peace?  or was it, also, somehow, a bit about me?  did dad somehow know that his daughter needed to surround herself with death  in order to accept it with grace and joy? 

*           *            *          *          *


six years ago i specifically chose to actively participate in my grandfather's end of life care (who by the way, is a man so like my father that i loved him dearly from day one).  i did this in part, yes, as a way to share my love and skills with him.  but, also i wanted to walk through this time with him.  i had this sense that i was ready to experience death, that i would come to peace with one of life's deepest strains.  to this end, i dove right in and started strong.  i thrived in the privilege of assisting him with all his daily needs: dressing, bathing, toileting, eating, and beyond. but, alas, this place of warmth and joy was not to last.  when it came time for grandpa to die, during his last two weeks on earth, i had to step aside.  my heart was literally breaking and i could take it no more.  just as i specifically chose to place myself in his everyday life, so i consciously chose to remove myself.  one day, coming to visit him at his hospice location, i looked into his eyes and no longer saw him there.  i knew immediately that this visit would be my last.  i knew i would not return to him until he was taken from me.  so much for the embracing of the death and dying process.  imagine my dismay to discover that not only was it was acutely painful and sad, but it was also totally and completely impossible for me to bear.  there was no way to create meaning, purpose, context.  i felt no growth, no maturing. just deep and unretractable sorrow.  the active pain lasted for many, many months, and i never gained that perspective that i had so innocently thought i could choose.

fastforward just six short years.  so what do i do, now that dad is in my mom's and my care, and clearly he is dying?  no one i love has died since grandpa.  so no new development here.  i just might be that 45 year old man who's never gonna get it.  but fortunately, i know this journey, this quest, is not about me, but only what i can do for dad.  as long as my heart and mind don't break, dad, i am there for you.  i'm here to help you finish strong and fully loved.

but as i look at myself now, wandering around and about the hallways of the ryan house, i wonder.  did dad, forever the giver, somehow make parts of his dying story all about me? 

the thought humbles me.  i want to reject the idea, even the very sound of it.  but as certain details run through my memory, i realize this could be the truth.  in living through dad's quest, with each and every gift he gives to me -- a conversation here, a sudden look of recognition and delight there, smiles, sparkles, tears -- gradually i change.  i begin to experience the closing out of life in an entirely new way. fitting. as it should be. timely. purposeful. beautiful. painful, yes, but very right. and wholesome, and good.  what a gift, this growth, this knowledge of all that death can be. 

all of a sudden, i'm no longer the kid who can't get enough of death.  or the old guy who can't soak up anything new.  perhaps i've simply shifted to a better version of the me i've always been. at least when it comes to the part about the dying.

*           *            *          *          *

ok, so i'm still not quite sure about where the princess and the evil knight come in.  or how it is that dragons can arrive on the scene dressed as a car.  but, true to form, i think the gifted professor would say that i'm on the right track. even if i'm not quite there.

*           *            *          *          *

if i'm going to keep writing i've got to share the floor a bit more than i have so far!  now that my pressing need to share the unfolding details of dad's story has passed along with him,  i'd love to become more of a conversation starter.  

with this in mind, yesterday i checked in with karli, our most free-spirited commenter to date (and boy do i love her for the way she shares her heart!).  she told me that she's been holding back, out of love for me and respect for my dad -- and thought that others may also be.  well dad and i are ready to take you on! 

so perhaps i'll do as my uncle mike suggests, and end every post with a question.  he says it will help you bring your own life experiences to the table.  so here goes:

(if i can enter this abstract world of really smart readers, so can you!)

can you conjure up any quick examples of other real-life things that fit some aspect of THE QUEST? 

dangerous roads? 
holy grails? 

something from your own life -- or something made up, from your fast-moving imagination?  i'd love to hear what can be learned on that creepy scary road, or while slaying that awful dragon.

thanks for giving of yourself.
xoxo k.


  1. karen, you're awesome!

  2. Karen and Tim, Dad and I have been moved to tears at least three times as we have followed Phil's journey through your eyes. Your thoughts have embellished true meanings for family, panic, loss, pain and most of all love.
    We humans think we have everything figured out and yet we don't have a clue until we experience it. You guys have been through the wringer, stretched and crushed in the swells of the unknown. Yet here you all are on the other shore and everyone is still standing. God's grace and your love for Phil got him safely HOME and kept you safely here.
    I observe that this man was truly loved,ie. the amount of thought that went into his care and comfort; I'm sure that he was experiencing that love like never before.
    As you described just holding him when he cried, I'm not sure you understood the "perfect" comfort you were giving him in his last days. Phil was grieving for himself, he needed to be held. There are certain sadnesses that no other human being can share with us... we must do it alone but because of the Holy Spirit we are never alone, alone. ("rejoice with those who do rejoice and weep with those who weep") Sharing the rhythm of breath is so "heart to heart" and "soul to soul". I feel sorry for those who have never experienced such depth of relationship ... and you rightly called it "privilege".
    We love you guys and I'm amazed at how much I have learned from your experience. I only thought I knew and appreciated yo; now I really know and appreciate you.
    You know ... infinity ... Mom and Dad

  3. Dearest friend.

    How tender, thoughtful and purposeful you are...your reflective gift to others in your time of loss embraces me with the warmth of true blessings. have posed a task. The "QUEST" - How does it weave in and out of our lives? How do we acknowledge it's as not to miss the lesson...yet not risk tainting its potential by taking notice of it?

    Joseph Campbell gets at this. He is probably footnoted in your professor's treatise. Campbell's work concerning the Hero's Journey gets to the core of what you are tackling.

    As Campbell puts it - a hero is either thrusted into a journey, gets lost and finds himself on a journey, or he volunteers. In all cases - he is ready for the journey - whether he knows it or not. The purpose of the journey is to personally transform...but only because he is to bring enlightenment or knowledge back to the greater good - to his community.

    I think the dragons, dangerous roads and holy grails slip in and out of our own "hero's" journey. Sometimes we are thrusted into a situation we would not normally choose, sometimes we are not even aware we are on a journey or we actually seek it out, because at that moment we are grounded in our need and abilities to take whatever it is to task.

    The key in all of these experiences is to, as Joseph Campbell says..."Follow your bliss." When we honor the gift of life by following our bliss - we not only offer thankfulness to the universe for life, we have something to give to the rest of our community. To me this seems to be the ever changing QUEST...what your dad gracefully did every day - live in bliss - always part of his hero's you continue to do today.

    I love you.

  4. Second that, Tim!
    Karen, just remember: you asked!

    OK so I don't know how articulate this will be, as I'm pretty wiped out, but since you did ask for some "quick examples" I will give you a few of my "dragons:"

    French fries (will they ever be slain?)
    Cigarettes (done and done. Over it. Dead.)
    An ex-husband. Or could he have been considered the dangerous road?? Or maybe my holy grail???? Mike and I were just talking tonight about my ex-husband, actually thanking God for him and his role in my life or I may have ended up in Atlanta, perhaps never meeting Mike, and who knows what my salvation story would look like!?!

    My quest is becoming a better woman in Christ. Maybe french fries and cigarettes and a bummer of a first marriage don't seem like exciting or significant pieces of an adventurous quest, but I can certainly relate them to my Christian walk. Then again, I can find Christ in an Adam Lambert song (Whatdaya Want from Me?)

    Apologies for the disconnectedness of this sleepy blur of thoughts.

    "dad gave to us even in his death." Your dad's journey and passing and surrounding events are a part of my quest, too (i know, i know, it's not all about me.) He certainly gave in death, to many people: of course family, the Ryan house staff, and those of us who have been following your blog... I am deeply moved by the outpouring of faith and love and support from everyone here, and I know it has created in me a deeper sense of security in what's to come. I feel so warm and "embraced" by this community of faithful believers as a side effect of your dad's passing (even though it's NOT. ABOUT. ME.) I hope your dad knows (i'll tell him someday)that the end of his time here on earth has certainly touched something in me (of all people!) So, I think, for this chapter of my "quest" your dad was totally my Wonder Bread.

  5. so karen, you know how afraid I am of my parents dying...especially my dad. Even though I know that our separation will only be a "short while" (so I'm told). I have heard all my life that our time here on earth is so very brief compared to living eternally with God...but the fact is that the only thing I have to compare that with is the life I'm living right now. And it doesn't seem like such a blink of the eye. It really doesn't make me feel any better to think that the time here is nothing compared to eternal life. How can I make any kind of a comparison when I've only experienced one side of that said comparison? It's only after we leave this life that we'll have any inkling of what "eternal" really means, and for now, you're really missing your dad, and no matter what you're told, and what you have to look forward to, he's still there, and you're still here. What I guess I'm really saying, is that when my dad dies, he'll still be gone, and I'll still be waiting and waiting and waiting for the "brief time" that we're apart to be over. Reading you're journey through the last few months of your dad's life has given me more courage that I might not fall apart like a little baby when mom or dad move on after all. That maybe I can be strong like you were/are, and help them move through it gracefully. Help ME move through it gracefully. Don't get me wrong...I am still praying daily for the second coming to happen soon so we can all go at once. I'm really fine with stadium seating for that type of event.

  6. So... It's been a long day at school and just before logging off the computer for the night, thought I'd check into the blog and see if there were any additions. Well a little more mind stretching and education for the day! Thanks so much, Karen, for passing along and processing these thoughts with us! I definitely think you found a book for the professor.

    I can't really add any particular thoughts as to a personal quest other than what you've described, Karen. Any other dragons from the past seem to kinda pale in comparison to those we're dealing with right now. I did definitely contemplate how the above narrative could be seen from dad's eyes. Definitely the journey he was on was filled with its challenging share of dragons, holy grails, princesses, and one of the toughest roads you could travel. I look forward to sitting next to him on the banks of the river of life, eating some fresh fruit of life, and getting his whole take on what the process was like on his end. Undoubtedly, he had some really captivating things to communicate during the last couple months and I can't wait to hear what they were! (Cheryl, I hope the heavenly picture I have in my mind is accurate ;)

    A kind of unrelated thought: I was chatting with a new Young Life friend, Kyle after club tonight and he was really gracious to listen about my current situation. He's the only person I've talked to in depth up here about it so far. He was really insightful and reminded me that our interaction with Christ really is a relationship. He loves us and isn't this domineering tyrent who can't deal with our emotions. When we look at the Psalms, we see numerous tyrades of why, why, why. God wants to know how we're feeling and is big enough to deal with us when we're ticked off and are struggling to see the big picture. I think he waits sometimes till we come to him in honesty to let him know how we're feeling.

    Just some more rambling thoughts from the north country.


    P.S. Karli, I tend to view french fries as the princess as opposed to the dragon! :D Especially if they're from McD's, In n Out, or ChicFilA!

  7. susan, i love the genius way you think!

    it's cool that you bring out the idea that the only reason to gain self-knowledge is to bring your new layers of goodness to your community.

    this is what your life is all back. to your students, your pups (and those ever ailing pigeons!), your parents, and (best of all, from where tim and i sit!!!) to your neighbors. xox

    oh -- and for all of the rest of us reading this, perhaps you'll need a quick brush-up (or introduction!) to Joseph Campbell.

    here's a great education site i found:

    (couldn't link it, so cut and paste it into your url)


  8. Am I lucky or what? I read a blog and learn I'm getting a present and confirm that my wife is truly a genius through and through!

    Although I don't always acknowledge it, each day is a quest of sorts--I make the trek to the Circle K for my morning sustenance and see through the cloak of despair to look into the eyes of those that are a silent part of our community. I think about tithing and wonder what form it must take to be considered the right kind of tithe. Is it 10% of the wealth I carry in my pocket--blue-gray lint? Or is it measured in kindness--a banana and bottle of water. Perhaps the grail is in me...kindness towards others our mission. Teaching has taught me that I'm fortunate and my students deserve kindness, love, and compassion. We may be the only one's offering it to them. My dragon---making the choice.

    Thanks, Karen, for posing your questions...Brien