A Loss Hard to Express

Dennis McMullen

Careful readers (and people who have memories better than mine) may recall that I mentioned a tragedy at the beginning of summer, and said I would tell you later when I was able to. I guess this is the time.

I began writing my annual Christmas letter this week, and I had to write it down – what happened – for the first time. I have been actively avoiding this, and as Pedro said, unhealthily bottling it up, and it’s time to write. This will help me begin to heal from the loss of someone important to me, and desperately important to Tara: their father, Dennis.

Dennis died on May 13th of this year. He was 69 years old. His health was poor, with serious comorbid conditions partially resulting from a history of substance abuse and a lifetime of smoking, compacted by a remarkably terrible diet, Monster energy drinks which he consumed all day long, and a refusal to get any kind of exercise. So it was not a shock, but still, there was no warning, and it was a shock.

May 10th, he called me. Exhausted by Covid isolation mostly self-imposed due to his high risk, Dennis was on his way to Seattle for a short road trip from his Oregon home. The way he explained it to me, he had to get away from his roommate and he had to look at something other than the four walls of his room. I found out later that he was also meeting an old friend. And I’m glad he wasn’t alone. On the way, his car had broken down in Longview, Washington: right across the river from me. I went right over and picked him up and we spent all day together while waiting for his car repairs.

We were married on the Fourth of July, 1995 in Grants Pass, Oregon. He was reluctant to have children because he was estranged from the children with his first wife, and he thought he was incapable of being a decent father. But he gave in to my pressure and in 1997, Tara was born. After my maternity leave was up, he agreed to be the stay-at-home parent while I went back to work, and he bravely forged forward through a terrifying first week alone with an infant. But after that, they were bonded forever, and I never saw a parent and child so dedicated to each other. It stayed that way the rest of his life.

Dennis with my stepdad, Jim.

He was diagnosed with hepatitis C (back then it was sort of a death sentence), so he began some difficult experimental treatment. His father got cancer so we moved cross country, then his father died. I was working full time, rotating shiftwork and he was full time at-home parent and we had no family or friends in the area. Too many stressors at once and our relationship fell apart rapidly. We lost trust completely and it got ugly and scary. Our divorce was fraught with anger and distrust. We were in California courts for years and years before it was all settled, and later we moved to Oregon and were back in court again. Luckily, I had a partner tell me to open my heart. Dennis opened his too. I don’t know how it went from such a nasty place to such a good one, but for the past ten years or so, Dennis and I had been pretty close. We shared so much history that no one else could ever know, and we shared the amazing Tara.

I think this was some kind of Brownie group ceremony, from when we lived in California.
Tara was about to get a ride to school on Dad’s motorcycle.

We regularly spent time together in the last several years. He lived in an apartment that didn’t allow people to work on their cars in the parking lot, so I told him he could use my garage. Dennis loved working on his vehicles and brought over all kinds of tools and parts and oil and a jack that is all still in my garage at this moment, waiting for him to come use it. He was always trying to escape his roommate (a kind, generous man who is overly talkative and social compared to Dennis’ introversion). Dennis wanted to be first in line any time I needed a house-sitter, and was happy to keep an eye on the chickens, the cat, and the houseplants. He didn’t know he was usually the only person in line, and I relied on him. I seriously don’t know how I’ll manage my house during all my trips from now on.

We both would periodically boost each other with gratitude and support. I think we were both sorry for what we had done to each other in the past, and wanted to be clear that all was forgiven. He would call me sometimes when he was feeling down, or lonely, and needed a friendly voice. He would call when it had been a long time, just to check in. Sometimes we called each other to coordinate some kind of plan for Tara, or to alert each other when we were worried about Tara. Dennis was an emotionally responsive friend. If I ever expressed my own loneliness or discouragement, I’d find a card in the mail, adorned with dragons or faeries, or something he remembered I would like. Sometimes he gave me gifts – out of kindness, or I don’t know what. This past ten years was not romantic between us, never flirty, and the gifts came with no expectations. We were true friends.

When it came to parenting I was not as good at emotional support. He was the more sensitive parent, so I covered him for things he was not able to do for Tara. Dennis struggled financially and I made sure Tara’s financial needs were taken care of. I paid for his gas so he could visit Tara, and when a visit included an overnight stay, I paid for his hotel. He really couldn’t pitch in for any of Tara’s ballet expenses, or school field trips, or clothes, or college. So I took it on as my role. I loaned him money to buy a new car, and he was paying me back, $25 or $50 a month. As of May he had paid off half of his debt and never missed a month. I still have the tally on my phone and haven’t had the heart to delete it.

We were a good team as Tara became an adult. I joked about it to friends. When Tara had a catastrophe, Dennis was the parent who would show up with hugs and ice cream, and I was the parent who would make a checklist and an action plan to fix things. What will I do without his support? Who will be Tara’s emotional parent now?

Dennis and Tara

The day we waited for his car to be fixed, he asked if I still wanted him to housesit when Pedro and I would be on a road trip in southern Oregon. I did, with gratitude! We talked about Tara and their partner Cameron. He was relieved to have finally received his COVID vaccination. He was scared of the world and the changes happening. The racial tension, the political digging in of heels, the degradation of public trust in government and police, mass shootings… all of it was reverberating inside him and he told me he was convinced our country is on the brink of Civil War. He really believed it. It made me sad to see how genuinely afraid he was that day. He kept checking the time, and the sky, and expressed how worried he was to have to drive into Seattle after dark. At 6pm that night I took him back to the auto repair shop. We hugged goodbye and said, “See you soon!” I texted him the next day and asked how the drive went. I never heard back from him.

On the 13th, around noon, I got a call from Tara who asked me to sit down. I made some stupid joke and Tara told me it was serious. So I sat down. I don’t even know how my poor baby got the words out. They told me that they had received a call from the King County (Seattle) Coroner that their dad had died. Tara didn’t even believe it at first but took down a name and phone number and asked me to call them back because they were too distraught to absorb anything. I called and the Inspector was relieved and pleased to hear from me. He said he had a daughter exactly Tara’s age and was agonizing about what 22-year-old Tara must be going through as the Next Of Kin. He was so glad there was someone else who had Tara’s back. He was super helpful and understanding and said from what they could tell there was nothing suspicious about his death. He was found in his hotel room that morning. He explained that Tara had some time to decide what to do with the body, and after that, King County would take care of the body if Tara didn’t want to. He explained that Dennis’ car was parked in a city lot downtown Seattle, but the keys and all his personal items wouldn’t be released until there was a decision on what to do with the body.

It was all too much. I called Pedro and cried. I canceled my upcoming plans and called a hotel in Corvallis and packed a bag and went. The first night at their apartment all we did was watch a movie that Tara chose for its good feelings, and Tara, Cameron, and I curled up together on the couch. After the movie I said goodbye and stayed at the hotel to give them space. Cameron’s dad had died three years before. Just imagine all their sadness.

It was agonizing. In the morning, to spare my kiddo from having to do it, I called Dennis’ sister and sister-in-law and told them what I knew. I had never had to do that before, and those phone calls were brutal. They, in turn, had to tell their mother that she had just lost her third child. Then I looked up a couple of people who I knew were part of his life, and messaged them on facebook. Those written conversations were much easier.

After our divorce, Dennis spent many years in a relationship with a woman who had a daughter the same age as Tara. Dennis “adopted” this daughter as his own, and Dennis became a parent that the other young woman could rely on. He was as dedicated to her, and to her son, as he was to Tara. So Tara had to share the news with their sister, and then become the new reliable person in place of Dennis.

Pedro talked to me after the second day and asked if there was anything he could do, and I asked him to please come to Corvallis and hold my hand. He did.

On the fourth day we rented a UHaul and a storage unit, then drove to Dennis’ home about 40 minutes away and thank the gods his roommate was home. We told him what happened and he was also in shock. “I’ve been messaging him for days,” he said. “He wasn’t responding.” He gave us permission to go into his apartment and pack up all of Dennis’ stuff. Pedro, Tara, and me, all in varying states of overwhelm, filled the UHaul and emptied it into the storage unit, then filled it again and emptied it again. We were putting our hands on his life: his guitars and sheet music, his leather jacket, his knife collection, his password book, his laptop. His bed linens. His TV. We packed multiple boxes full of toys that his grandson played with during visits. I took down his CDC vaccination card that had been pinned proudly to the wall and that really hit me hard.

He was an active member of AA and NA groups as long as I knew him.

When we were done filling the storage unit, Tara suddenly wanted one of their dad’s shirts. But the shirts were near the back and at the bottom. We would have to unload half the unit, and who knows which box it would be? But Tara insisted, and we sort of understood that the need was primal. Pedro and I began unpacking the unit, and Tara found the exact shirt they wanted. I was glad we had agreed to help.

The next day we shared breakfast with the kids and left. We all needed to get back to our lives. Tara had two weeks left of college and we discussed whether to postpone graduation so they could grieve. The idea of postponing graduation after six years of college with only two weeks left was catastrophic, and Tara steeled their heart and put grieving on hold. I don’t know how they did it. But three weeks later they passed all their finals exams and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology.

And Dennis couldn’t be there for graduation.

New pain was inflicted for most of the year, as Tara, Next Of Kin, had to continue to deal with the estate, and residual issues. For example, while Tara at first wanted to leave the body with the coroner (“It’s not my dad,” Tara said. “It’s just a body.”), Dennis’ sisters insisted that he be cremated, and the remains sent to Tara, and they found cremation services and paid for it. This whole process took six weeks, and Tara had to fill out forms for the authorization of cremation and the creation of death certificates. Tara is now grateful for that decision, but it dragged that part of the ordeal into June because it took so long.

But with the delivery of the remains came the car keys finally. So Tara drove the 2 1/2 hours from Corvallis to my place, and together we drove up to Seattle to retrieve the car and soothe the anxious parking lot owner. He had been calling and threatening Tara about the vehicle, despite Tara explaining that they didn’t have the keys yet, and also by the way, “My dad just died; can you give me a break?” The car’s steering wheel was locked and we struggled with it for an hour before calling my brother who lives in Seattle to come help us get it unlocked. Then Tara drove their dad’s car, and I followed, the 2 1/2 hours back to my house from Seattle. We arrived at my place, they hugged me goodbye, and immediately got in their own car and went the rest of the way home. It was a hard day and only partly because of the 10 hours of driving.

Dennis’ white car still sits in my driveway and I drive it around the block once a month and it still smells like him, which Tara must have experienced during the drive from Seattle. I can’t bear to touch anything inside it but what I have to. I haven’t cleaned it, or moved his CD collection, or the other odds and ends in there.

The storage unit saga lasted the longest. We knew Dennis had a storage unit, but it took a couple months to find it. They refused to give Tara gate code access to it because there was no will. Tara showed them the death certificate listing them as Next Of Kin, but the place flat refused. They said it would require a court order. But Tara checked and courts were backed up, so it would be months to get on the calendar, and Tara would have to pay the storage unit for all those months, plus they couldn’t afford the court fees, so they begged them to please just let them grab the stuff. Tara explained that the contents were only baby shower gifts belonging to her sister: of no value to anyone in the world but their sister. Tara suggested that they inspect the unit themselves to see it was the truth. But they refused. After two months of this, I rented a unit myself, just to get the gate code. I gave the code to Tara, who went in there with the key to the unit to open it and just take the stuff, but apparently the company anticipated this and had put their own padlock on Dennis’s unit, even though Tara had paid up the account. This battle of wills went on all summer and fall and Tara alternately came up with new plans – such as to show up on the day the stuff would be auctioned – and each one fell apart. Finally, last month, the unit went to auction and it’s all over with. Tara never did get the baby shower gifts.

So my Tara has had new wounds inflicted from May through November. And I have flinched each time.

Tara recently was hired to a position with good pay and good hours and it will be enough to live on. They told me that with school done, and money taken care of, they could start grieving. I’m glad to hear it.

During one of Tara’s visits this summer, I asked them to bring all his accumulated mail and a briefcase that we had used to cram everything official-looking into while we packed up his home. Tara had not wanted to go through it alone, and wasn’t sure what to look for. I sat down with them and we went through everything. There were a hundred unpaid hospital bills. I looked it up and found out that legally we don’t have to pay them. There was nothing else we had to address.

Among these piles of papers were multiple pages from Dennis’ Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous homework. He had, over a period of who knows how long, made gratitude lists of who in his life he was grateful for, and what about that person made him grateful. Every single list included only three people: his two kids, and me. I had no idea I was this valuable to him. I had no idea he felt so alone. I am so glad he trusted me and knew I was there for him when he made the lists.

I am grateful for serendipity. Whatever it was that broke his car on May 10th and sent him to spend the day with me, I am forever grateful. If he had died without a recent visit, it would have been an additional layer of distress that I would have had to process. Tara hasn’t really wanted to talk about it all year. But when they are ready, I can tell them everything I remember from that day. His childlike sense of humor, his preoccupation with his phone, his nervous smoking on the deck, his silly Monster drinks, the funny sounds he made while thinking his thoughts. It’s all right there and fresh. I would give that day to Tara if I could.

16 thoughts on “A Loss Hard to Express

  1. Both Peggy and I are thinking of you and Tara, and your grief, Crystal. And ever so glad that Pedro was there for you and that you were there for Tara. Take care my friend. You obviously continued to play a vital role in Dennis’s life. Curt and Peggy

    1. Yes, oh thank goodness we were all there for each other. Dennis and I were there for each other too, while he was still here. We are a tiny, non-traditional family: Dennis, Tara, Me, Cameron, and Pedro. But we are beautiful together. It’s a big loss to have one of us missing. Thank you both for your love and support.

  2. I remember you telling me about this a while back while it was still fresh pain, Crystal. Boy did I understand then and now. It will take awhile but will always be part of you both. Glad you had Pedro to help you through and Tara had Cameron. It’s hard to get through life alone. I hope writing all this out helped purge some more pain. I hate those monster drinks. TS drinks them too but is vigilant about diet and exercise. Hang in there, kiddo. I hope the holidays treat you kindly this year. I know you have so much to deal with. Lots of love and hugs.

    1. Thank you, Marlene. I know you are right: this loss will always be with us. I know his life was often hard and he struggled more than ever, during the pandemic. In this way, Dennis is released from that daily pain. But oh, I know he would have chosen to continue to live, to watch his kids and his grandson. I know Christmas will be better this year than last. Both Pedro and Tara will be at my house for a few days and we will enjoy and love each other. ❤

  3. I can relate to the loss of all the practical things Dennis did for you. After my husband Michael died, I suddenly realized that it wasn’t just about the loss of his love and companionship, but all the knowledge, and memories and the things he did for me had disappeared from my life as well. Thanks, Crystal.

    1. Charles, I am so sorry you lost Michael. I’m glad my post resonated with you. It is still amazing to me when someone knows me well enough to do something for me that I would particularly like, and Dennis did that, even fifteen years after our divorce. And what you say about shared knowledge and memories is one of the most painful parts of the loss, for me. It’s these intangible things that hurt the most now that they’re gone. I wish you continued healing. ❤

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