Letting Dad Go

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I'm back from spending two weeks at my brother and sister-in-law's house in western Washington, helping care for my dad, Bob Tweit, as he journeyed from being present and with us, to still and silent, doing the work of leaving this world. Tending to a dying loved one is a huge gift in the intimacy it inspires, the love that flows in the work of hands and heart--the changing of diapers, cleaning up pee and poop, the feeding and administering medications.

It's a time out of time, when day and night blur into a continuous stream of small and large blessings and crises, and the essential primacy of tending to physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The hours may go slow as a toddler's first steps, or fast as a racing heart, but they are all dominated by the central task: keeping a person traveling between this life and the next comfortable, as pain-free as possible, and safe. 

I left Washington on Friday morning in cold rain, and drove the 1,100 miles home through snow and rain and fog and more snow, arriving here late Saturday afternoon--exhausted, and wondering how long Dad would hang on. 

Not long, it turned out. He died quite peacefully the next day, yesterday, in the early evening, with my sister-in-law, Lucy, my eldest niece, Heather, and my youngest niece, Alice, by his side. He's gone. 

I feel grateful for this end-time with Dad. The first week I was there, when Lucy and my brother, Bill, were away in Germany visiting my middle niece, Sienna, and her family, Alice helped me care for him part of the time, and then when she had to go back to school, I had Dad on my own. I got him to tell me stories of his childhood and his college years, to remember birding trips with Mom to far-flung continents, to talk about his best bird sightings.

His absolute favorite, he said, was a harpy eagle in Venezuala that was soaring only about 20 feet overhead, so close that he couldn't find it in his binoculars because the bird was too big for the field of view! (Harpy eagles' wingspans can stretch more than seven feet, a foot-and-a-half wider than I am tall, making them the largest hawks in the world.)

That was so Dad... 

Part of the extended Tweit clan out birding in earlier years (left to right, Molly Cabe, Richard Cabe, Bill Tweit, Joan Tweit, and Bob Tweit, our dad.) An affinity for birds runs in Tweit blood, unless you're me and you prefer plants...

Here is an excerpt from the remembrance I wrote using some of my favorite of the stories he told, to give you a sense of the man and the father:

Robert C. Tweit was born on July 26th, 1928, to Olav Mikal Tweit and Christine Faquharson Tweit in Orange, NJ, and grew up in nearby Mountain Lakes in the house his dad built. He ran track and cross-country in high school, and excelled in running uphill. “Everyone else slowed down on the hills,” he would say, laughing, “it was the only time I could get ahead.” He went to MIT for his undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and said that he benefited from having classmates who had returned from WWII and were going to college on the GI Bill, because they were more mature and focused on their education. 

After graduating from MIT in 1950, Bob bought a 1937 Ford sedan and hit the road for Berkeley, California, to attend University of California - Berkeley. Along the way, he visited national parks including Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone. It was Bob’s first taste of the West, and the experience left him with a lifelong love of travel, and also curiosity about the natural world. 

During Bob’s first year at Berkeley, he met a smart and lively, blue-eyed undergrad named Joan Cannon at the First Congregational Church. Less than two years later, on June 28, 1952, they were married in the same church. A year later, in June of 1953, the two picked up Bob’s last paycheck and set out a month-long tour of the West (in a newer Ford sedan) before Bob was due to start work as a research chemist at Searle Labs in Skokie, Illinois. On their way between Rocky Mountain National Park and points east, they picked up mail in Denver, and found Bob’s draft notice calling him up for service at the tail end of the Korean War. 

So instead of Illinois, Bob and Joan went first to New Jersey, and then Havre d’Grace, Maryland, where they lived for his time in the US Army Chemical Corps. Their first child, Bill, was born there in 1954. The next year, Bob was discharged, and the young family moved to Illinois, where Bob finally began work running a laboratory at Searle, and their daughter Susan was born. 

Bob spent the next 23 years at Searle developing drugs and other useful compounds, and enjoying the lab work, the research, his colleagues, and the stimulation of attending professional meetings. He was also active in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and with the First Congregational Church of Wilmette. During that time, his father helped Bob design and build the first of two camper vans modeled on VW campers. Those vans allowed Bob and the family to explore the Midwest on weekends, and the rest of the country on longer vacations. He and Joan took their kids rock-hounding, wildflower-hunting, birdwatching, hiking, camping, and backpacking from Maine to California, and Florida to British Columbia. Bob’s nature-study interest eventually focused on birds, from seeing new species, to banding them to study bird populations. 

Bob retired from Searle in 1978 with over 100 patents in his name. With the kids grown, he and Joan began another career as volunteers doing interpretive work at National Parks and National Forests throughout the West. They traversed the region from Alaska to Zion National Park in Utah. After they settled in Tucson, they volunteered at Saguaro National Monument and Tucson Audubon Society, leading bird trips and interpretive programs. ...

He and Joan traveled widely beyond North America, going on birding trips and nature-study tours to South America (from Venezuela to Patagonia) and Central America, including Costa Rica and Honduras, the latter with Bill, his wife Lucy Winter, and their youngest, Alice. They drove the Baja Highway, cruised the Volga River in Russia and the Rhine and Rhone in Europe, visited Bob’s cousins in Norway, and explored Scotland and England. They also took two extended trips to Australia, and spent time in New Zealand. 

After 23 years in Tucson, Bob and Joan moved to Denver to be nearer to Susan and her husband, Richard Cabe. They were active volunteers there with the Highlands Garden Village garden group, and enjoyed hikes and excursions in the Front Range. After Joan’s death in 2011, Bob moved to Lacey, Washington, and lived at Panorama, a retirement village, where he was near Bill and Lucy and their family. He took great joy in being the family “patriarch” and in spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Bill and Lucy took Bob with them on several trips, including to Arizona for spring training (and birding), and to Wyoming to see Susan’s house-restoration-project in progress (and go birding).

It's hard to find words for how I feel after letting Dad go: a mix of deeply sad, proud of who he was and how our family pulled together to give him as good a death as possible, relieved that he didn't linger any longer, grateful to Bill and Lucy and my nieces, and to hospice for the help; and exhausted to the bone.

What I can find words for is my determination to carry on what Dad and Mom taught me: To cherish, study, and advocate for the community of species that makes this planet home. To leave my bit of Earth in better shape than I found it. And to live with love, always. 

Last Wednesday night, as I was tucking the covers around Dad after giving him his dinner-time medications, I said, "Love you, Dad." He responded without opening his eyes, "Love you all." By then he was preparing to leave this world: he hadn't eaten in three days, and hadn't drunk any liquids for 48 hours. And still he spoke of his love for our family: Love you all

Thank you for being gracious to the end, Dad. We were fortunate to have you in our lives, and you will live on in our hearts. Always. Love you. 

Dad, smiling without opening his eyes upon my brother's return from Germany, just over a week before Dad died. 

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