Chapter 2 – Disinheritance, Death and Unconditional Love.

My dad passed away in a hospice bed in the wee hours of the morning on Christmas Eve, after a soul-crushing year of being a widower, and a tumultuous last few days at home. His bedroom was invaded by a slew of strangers – well-intentioned, home health aides who stepped in around the clock during his final days, when his trusted caregiver walked out because my sister was “abrasive and attacked her character.”

The hospice nurse who called to tell me of his death said that thankfully he passed peacefully, hand to his face, with my mom’s picture beside his bed. He deserved that. At 83-years-old, he died just as much of heartbreak as he did of prostate cancer. He celebrated Christmas with his wife again, on the other side.

We had a long conversation the week before things went south. He was lucid and loving. I shared a core memory from 5th grade when I told him that wanted to be a famous journalist. He replied “only if you’re not the president first.” He believed in me because I had believed in myself from an early age. He told me he was proud of my kids. He always valued work ethic and we all had it, he said. Before we hung up for the final time, he whispered that we would all be okay. Those simple words carried a lot of weight, and will become more clear as my story plays out. It was the best, last conversation.

My dad got his final wish on Christmas Eve in that hospice bed. He had relentlessly prayed three times per day for 363 days to meet my mom in heaven. She passed away on the Winter Solstice, one year earlier.  He spent most of that year alone in a big house with his Golden Retriever, pining for her. He had loyal friends from his great legal days who stopped by weekly to be his sounding board for stories about my mom. We talked on the phone and I emailed him pictures of my mom every week.

It took months after my mom passed the year before, to find my place in his life again. We had been in contact, but distant for four years after my divorce. I left my husband because I fell in love with my now wife. Although my former husband and kids and I found our way, my actions created deep division with my mom, fueled by my siblings. I had a strong relationship with my parents my whole life. We were friends, confidants, travel companions, and respectful of each other.  My divorce opened a window of opportunity for my siblings to push me out and knock me down.  However, my dad stayed quiet. He didn’t react. He didn’t lash out. In fact, he reached out on the side.

When my siblings became the executors of my parents’ living trust, and he signed on the dotted line, they loosened the reins and I was allowed to visit his home in Wisconsin without incident. He told me everything. It was like the floodgates were opened and he was free to be my dad again.

He told me that he was frustrated to still be alive, that his oncologist advised him he would be a “goner by spring,” if he stopped treatment after my mom died. But he was still hanging on, against his will, all summer and fall. I would just nod and say I understood that he loved us, but he simply missed mom more and was ready to be done here on earth. He didn’t want to pretend. He was past caring about what the world was doing around him. He missed her.

From the kitchen table to his reading chair, he re-lived their blind date in 1960 over and over again. I could turn it into a movie scene at this point, it is so vivid. He walked into her dormitory at the University of Wisconsin (the same dorm that I lived in 33 years later) and said it was love at first sight. Her blue eyes and radiant smile captured him, and her personality won him over. She was his first date, his only date, his forever date.

We created a photo album together to pass the time, and talked about every picture as if it were the Mona Lisa. He asked me to put post-it notes next to each with the year and how old my mom was. She never aged a day and you couldn’t tell the difference between her at 40 or 70 years old. He was right. Although he put her on a pedestal, he was a great man himself.

He was an honorable dad. A family man. A proud man. A veteran. A son of an immigrant. A brilliant mind. He was never the life-of-the-party, rather a booth-in-the-corner guy. He loved scoring a deal on a shirt from Farm and Fleet, and he’d drive across town to buy cheaper gas. He had a successful career and the means to live more high-end, but he was humble, never flashy.

I was his youngest, and the only one with brown hair and eyes like him. That felt special. He was a top criminal prosecutor. He had command of the law and the courtroom. He had a presence. His work was hard. Sometimes it made him hard.

He lived for his family. He never missed my games. He showed up in the bleachers in a suit and tie. He valued our vacations. He found peace in a trout stream and on a road trip listening to Buddy Holly. Even with kids of my own, I was still his daughter.  We continued to share about our lives. His in the law; mine in fitness and business.

In the years after my divorce, when I was removed from all family gatherings, he surprised me by offering to fly to Michigan for my daughter’s high school graduation. My mom came, too. It was the first and only time I spoke or saw her after my divorce. My dad embraced me, my kids, my now wife, her family, and my former husband. He was kind to everyone. He was happy to see that life was moving on here. He loved my home and seemed surprised that my businesses were thriving. I wondered what my siblings had told him, but I didn’t ask. I enjoyed the good.

My dad laughed as my wife’s little girl scooted a pink race car under his legs. She swam through his legs, on the living room floor, like I used to in our backyard pool when I was her age. My mom stood off to the side, arms crossed and silent. They reacted wildly differently and it started to fall into place for me. She didn’t like how it looked from the outside. It was a tarnish she couldn’t rub off. He was relieved that we were all okay.

My Dad saw past black and white

 He was able to see messy middles & beautiful endings. He didn’t offer his opinion or approval, he simply offered love. Years after that visit and my mom’s passing, we had deeper conversations. He shared the hard news of disinheritance with me. He said it wasn’t his job to tell me, but he wanted me to know. We both felt the pain. He told me that my brother, with help from a lawyer friend, helped my mom disinherit me. He said my brother “just took over.”

“They kept warning her,” he said. “They told her that you chose a different family and were no longer a part of ours. They said ‘that woman’ and her slew of kids shouldn’t benefit from anything of ours.” It wasn’t his wish. But my dad stood by my mom, like always. He dropped his head and slumped his shoulders at the kitchen table. This situation was outside the power of this powerful man. 

He gave me the honorable gift of telling me on his own. He told me about the uncomfortable legal meetings.  We embraced. We cried. By my next visit, we had moved on. We went back to talking about  memories of my mom.

In his driveway, on my final visit, he looked back at his home. He told me that he was leaving his suit coat from his honeymoon, and his wedding ring to my son. He said that the photo album we made together was the most valuable thing in the house to him. He told me in sobs, that he loved me and my mom did, too. Those statements that have carried me through.

I told him that I would share this story. I’m proud to be his daughter. He is free of pain and suffering. His final gift to me was unconditional love. 

Trina Gray and Her Dad

Trina Gray

Fitness Entrepreneur, Journalist, Speaker, Wife, Mom
Blogger on Navigating Love and Family Estrangement