It’s pretty rare that I use this blog to post anything about my life, but I’m going to now, beginning with a little explanation of why. For those who don’t know, I’m coming out of a very difficult half-year, dominated by the fact that my dad Mike O’Brian was diagnosed with brain cancer in June and died in December.
The whole thing felt like a slow-motion car crash, a catastrophe that unfolded day by day. Initially, I kept people informed via mass email, but in September transitioned over to a CaringBridge site. There, I wrote a summary of what had happened, and (along with my mom) added occasional updates on the story as it developed. About a month after Dad’s death, I wrote the story of his last day and posted it to that CaringBridge site.
There’s more I want to document about the subsequent time, but my mom has asked that I put that story elsewhere, as she feels that the “last day” post is a good cap on the site. So the story is going here! I want to talk about the next few days after Dad died. It won’t be as comprehensive as that final CaringBridge post, but I do want to capture some of the lovely and ridiculous moments from those days.
I grew up in a suburb of Denver called Aurora. I currently live in a different suburb of Denver, and my sister Jenny lives in Los Angeles. My mom still lives in Aurora, and that’s where my dad’s surgery and subsequent care took place as well. He spent his last few months at an excellent skilled nursing facility called The Springs at St. Andrew’s, though we usually just called it St. Andrew’s.
Dad died on a Friday, and Jenny had booked a flight to Denver for Saturday afternoon. Mom and I headed out that morning to clean out his room at St. Andrew’s. As soon as we got there, we were greeted with so much love and compassion by the floor nurses, the CNAs, and everyone. Even the housekeeper came and gave us both big hugs. It’s a staff of such good people.
It was not a surprise, but it still was a shock to walk into his room without him in it. Everything else was just as we’d left it the night before. The hospice staff had transported his body to the mortuary the night before, after we’d left. We had to take a moment to absorb that scene — it had a feeling of finality to it. After that moment, we packed everything up, put it in our cars, and carried it into her house.
We called the mortuary to make sure everything was going smoothly — Dad would be cremated, and his ashes interred with military honors at Ft. Logan National Cemetery, since he was in the Air Force from age 17 to 21. It’s not that those years of service were a huge part of his identity, though. More that it’s a free burial — he was the kind of guy who would always strive to take advantage of any benefit to which he was entitled.
That afternoon, Jenny arrived and we all went out to dinner. I think we were all a bit shell-shocked still. The previous day had been quite an emotional wringer. We just started talking, sharing stories and reminiscing about my dad. We’ve been incredibly blessed through this process by the fact that all three of us have been on the same page — mentally, emotionally, practically. It was easy to make care decisions, because we were all coming from the same basic set of values: quality over quantity, better days rather than more days.
Similarly, when we talked, we felt free to talk about the full 360-degree picture of him — the parts that could be difficult, or scary, or frustrating, right alongside the parts that were generous, loving, and incredibly helpful. It felt so good to be able to speak with affection about the whole person, rather than feeling the urge to somehow beatify him once he was gone. It made our appreciation and our grief feel grounded rather than performative. I made it home late that night, after the rest of my family was in bed, and found a sweet display of special stuffed animals arranged around a sign that simply said, “We love you. We’re here for you.” It’s a good family I’ve got.
I hadn’t been home for a couple of days, so I was very grateful for my shower the next morning, and even more grateful for the chance to tell Laura about what had transpired after she left on Friday, and how it felt. Before long, though, I headed back down to Aurora, to start tackling the many tasks.
There’s an enormous amount to do after a family member dies. In the case of a spouse, there are all manner of financial and administrative contacts and errands, getting accounts and memberships set to the correct status, canceling or updating subscriptions, and so forth. My parents made this a bit easier on themselves by having most things in both their names, but just taking inventory of all the necessary work was a job in itself. Luckily, my friend Tina had provided some excellent resources for surviving spouses that at least gave us a basis from which to work.
Then on top of all this, you have to plan an event! We knew that Dad wouldn’t have wanted a religious service (and he had said so in his estate planning documents), so that meant finding an event venue, hopefully nearby. We agreed on the format — Jenny and I would give eulogies, and then we’d invite all present to share their memories and stories. This is my favorite kind of memorial service — I guess it’s again that 360-degree view, seeing the person through all the lenses of those around him. Jenny did the research, and we settled on some venues to visit the next day.
That night, at Jenny’s request, we had a Christmas-light hunting expedition. Some people in the suburbs absolutely love to light up and decorate their houses, and from the time I could drive I would always make sure to go look at wild house lights at least once during the Christmas season, generally with my family in tow. It’s ridiculous fun and always puts me in the spirit. Apparently Los Angeles (at least Jenny’s area of it) seems to lack this vibe, so she’d really been missing this event. Thus, out we went into the Aurora night!
The suburbs did not disappoint. We always pick out some destination houses (generally based on newspaper or web listings) but allow for numerous side trips as different displays catch our eye. With a wide variety of holiday music on in the car, we treat ourselves to all the peculiar and magnificent work that people put into lighting up the night. Possibly my favorite was the yard filled with, I swear, at least fifty different inflatable decorations, including a holiday avocado whose hat read “Guac-in’ Around the Christmas Tree.” As my mom said, “Look at all those guys!”
The next day, we spent the morning resting and dealing with some of the online tasks, and then ventured out again, to check out event spaces. We started with lunch, though, at a sushi restaurant where all the sushi is on conveyor belts — you can order from the menu if you want, but it’s easier and more fun to just grab a plate off the belt when something good-looking passes by. They’re small plates, with a small charge for each, so you end up making a meal out of lots of different choices. It was incredibly enjoyable.
We chose that restaurant because it was reasonably close to our first stop on the Aurora event venue tour. Rather than name the venues (because some of these stories are pretty silly), I’m just going to number them. Venue #1 was quite familiar to me, because I had spent a bunch of time there about 15 years ago. See, I work for the University of Colorado Boulder today, but back then I worked for the umbrella IT organization that serves all CU campuses, which include locations in Colorado Springs and Denver. At the time, we were going through the process of selecting a new student system to replace our antiquated mainframe, which would soon no longer be supported. All those vendor demos took place at Venue #1, because it was more or less centrally located between those three campuses. Oh the many PowerPoints and awkward live tryouts I witnessed there.
We spoke to the Sales Manager for this place, a lively character named Roxie, who took us through all the details in clipped, colorful sentences. The most memorable part works better as a spoken story than a text story, but I’ll give it a shot. She’s laying out for us all the various pieces involved — the catering, the tables, the video projection, the sound. She says, “So I’m thinking we’ll put a podium up front that anybody can speak from. Mike will be up there.”
At this point I jumped in, a little agitated. “No, no, no,” I said. “This is not that kind of service. He’s being cremated. His body will not be present.” She looked at me, utterly bewildered at what I was on about. My sister then realized my misunderstanding, and clarified that Roxie meant “Mic will be up there”, as in “microphone.” She then turned to Roxie to explain that my Dad’s name was Mike, and we all had a good laugh.
Venue #2 was listed as an event venue on a web search, but when we arrived we found its full billing was actually “Sports Bar and Event Venue”. Even the front door was in full sports bar mode — neon beer signs, Broncos posters, et cetera. This was immediately feeling hilariously wrong, but we’d come this far, so in we went. It turned out that the event manager was unavailable at the time we arrived, but her assistant led us to the venue space.
To get to the venue space, you’re pretty much going through the bar itself, which at this time of day (like 2pm on a Monday) had several guys sitting around loudly, good-naturedly, and (I suspect) drunkenly arguing about some kind of tournament or something. We’d catch bellowed phrases like, “Well I was in first place until THIS GUY came along and put up HUGE numbers and I was like WHAT THE HELL???” The picture of a parade of elderly mourners coming through here was getting more amusing by the minute.
Then we went into the space itself, which was dominated by an enormous bar, along with a few widely scattered tables and chairs, with several steps down from the bar area to a larger floor. There were large windows that overlooked a golf course. That part my dad would have liked, but the rest of it… yeah, wrong ambience altogether.
Jenny had had a somewhat confusing conversation with the event manager for Venue #3. As we were driving out there, she explained that the guy had a fairly thick Indian (i.e. South Asian) accent, but she believed he had said we needed to go through the restrooms to get to the venue? This seemed super wrong, but we drove out there anyway, to a spaced-out strip mall, and started looking for restroom doors near the address. There was a big curry place there, and pretty soon we figured out that she had probably heard “go through the RESTAURANT”, but that the message had gotten garbled a bit.
We went into the restaurant, and indeed connected with the event manager, who took us into the space. He started explaining how the space worked. They had their own fog machine. They had laser lights. There was a space where our DJ could set up, or a stage for a band. The dance floor was strategically located between all these features. As he walked off explaining some other thing to Mom, Jenny whispered to me, “He definitely does not remember that I said this was for a funeral service.” No kidding.
We got back to the car and laughed our heads off. Venue #1 was the clear winner! I did not expect it to be quite so difficult or weird to find good choices for event spaces in Aurora, but those three were the top contenders, and two of them turned out to not be contenders at all. I mean, they might be great for a birthday party or fantasy football draft or something. Memorial, not so much.
That night Jenny made a delicious dinner for the 3 of us, after which I headed home. She was leaving the next day, but we found time to have one more delightful lunch together. Our curry-flavored explorations the previous day had put us in the mood for Indian food, so we searched around for someplace nearby that had a good buffet. I found it at a place called the Yak & Yeti.
When I told my mom this name, she was incredulous. “Is that really the name or are you being funny?” I couldn’t see what was funny about it until my sister started singing, “Tweedly-deedly-deet! Tweedly-deedly-deet!” to the tune of “Rockin’ Robin.” Oh yakkin’ yeti yeah we’re really gonna yak tonight.
Once home, we made some final decisions for the event, and my sister called Roxie to get the process started. We also started sifting through photos to include in a video slideshow. Jenny’s husband Ryan kinda blew my mind by activating Apple’s facial recognition software to immediately identify all pictures that had my dad in them. I knew I’d need to find the Windows version of that, which I did, though it was never quite as satisfying.
Finally, she was headed to the airport. It was strange — these four days following an awful event were weirdly wonderful. I felt carried by the deep kinship I had with my people — not just blood kinship but true spiritual and emotional kinship — and I hope they felt a little bit carried by me too. When my dad was in his last few hours here on planet Earth, we told him he could go, that we’d be okay. And at least for those four days, we were.