It breaks my heart to announce that my father died today, two months shy of his 82nd birthday. He had greatly suffered physically the past four years from his Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and psychologically the past year from his advanced dementia, but it was neither of those things that killed him.
Rather, he mysteriously developed sepsis during a recent stay at a geriatric psych ward in Chicago where he had been temporarily placed by his neuropsychiatrist during a titration period of his new antipsychotics. Something went horribly wrong and he went into septic shock. I received a call late yesterday afternoon that my dad, who was unconscious and unresponsive, was being sent to another hospital in a suburb about 40 minutes away, whose ICU could accommodate him. The attending physician impressed upon me a dire prognosis and made it clear he likely would not survive the weekend.
A Prayerful, Tearful Goodbye
I got to the hospital as soon as I could after sunset and the moment they parted the curtain and I saw him propped up in his bed to accommodate the respiratory machines and I saw several small pools of cherry-red blood all over the sheets by his arms where they had extreme difficulty inserting intravenous lines in him, I knew it was time to call a priest from his and my mother’s Serbian Orthodox Christian community. The Sacrament of Last Rites/Extreme Unction had to be performed ASAP. I also asked the hospital to please send their chaplain down if that person was currently free; I didn’t care what denomination this clergy person represented.
Death in the age of COVID and Big Tech resulted in a young Serbian Orthodox priest in Chicago administering Last Rites via iPhone FaceTime to my dad. The charge nurse, who reminded me my father was comatose and could neither hear nor respond to the call-and-response antiphonal chanting the priest and I were doing, nevertheless started to get teary-eyed. I held my composure as best as I could for a couple of minutes into the lengthy introductory prayers, but the sight of my father’s blood from the botched attempts at I.V. insertion in both of his forearms made me burst into tears. Unconscious or not, don’t tell me he wasn’t suffering as a result of this excessive stabbing! How was any of this this happening? my mind frantically wondered. How did we get from his only medical problem being delusional thinking and hallucinations to him going into septic shock in the matter of days? What was being withheld from my mom and me when we tried getting the nurses and the social worker from the psych ward to put my dad on the phone and they refused to do so?
The ICU attending physician on shift at the time I was there wanted to know if I, as my dad’s power of attorney, had filled out any POLST forms or had other official documentation of advanced directives for his end-of-life care. I hadn’t, but I affirmed what he verbally told me throughout his cancer treatment: he didn’t want to live if his quality of life were to be severely compromised. He didn’t want to be “a vegetable” on life support; he wouldn’t want to have his heart resuscitated if he were to flatline.
I touched my father’s rough hands and watched the rise and fall of his bony sternum with each regulated breath. A six-foot-tall man, he weighed only 127 pounds, a testament to how cancer had ravaged his body since 2018. But he was pronounced in clinical remission in early September 2021. It was my fervent hope that his body could rebuild itself while his brain continued to lose significant volume from his advanced Alzheimer’s disease. The brain volume loss actually put him at high risk for seizures, which was the main reason why his neuropsychiatrist wanted him on Depakote; mood stabilization (he could become physically aggressive and hostile fueled by extreme paranoid thinking in an instant) was the secondary benefit.
After the ritual had concluded, the charge nurse asked if she could bring me anything and I asked for some water. She wanted me to acknowledge that if I continued to stay in the ICU I put myself at great risk of being exposed to the COVID harbored by nearby patients being treated, and I told her I understood that risk and was OK with it. I wanted to know if the hospital chaplain would be coming anytime soon. She said she was told he was on his way, and so I waited.
7:30 became 8:00 became 8:45 p.m. and all this time my mother, herself bedridden with Parkinson’s since the same year my father was diagnosed with cancer (summer of 2018), kept calling me at 10-minute intervals, wanting to know when I would come to be with her and perform my evening round of caregiving chores. I hadn’t brought her dinner, I hadn’t cleaned out her bedside commode, her sheets needed laundering, etc. She was speaking from a place of great fear because the last time I had to leave her unattended to tend to a medical crisis related to my father, she fell from her bed and seriously injured her right hip (September 2021, during the oncology visit when my father was declared to be in clinical remission for Lymphoma). I was so tired of being placed in this physically and emotionally demanding tug-of-war between the two of them and managing their caregiving needs.
I ignored my ringing phone. “Is the chaplain on his way?” I nervously asked as I peered out the curtains demarcating my father’s ICU space.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s holding him up,” the charge nurse apologized.
I sighed. “I have to go. I’m thankful I at least got a priest in my parents’ tradition to remotely perform Last Rites for my dad. I had my alone time praying for my father and giving him permission to release himself from his condition. I am slowly accepting–“
“Sorry, a phone call tied me up longer than I thought it was going to!” the dark-haired, dark-eyed young and bearded rabbi announced as he parted the curtain. He had two thick hardcover books with Hebrew writing on the bindings tucked under his right arm.
The charge nurse handed him a face shield to place over his doubly-masked face. “It’s yours to keep,” she said.
“How do you pronounce your father’s first name?” the rabbi asked. “Serbian, right? We’ve had a lot of ex-Yugoslavs here; COVID cases, I’m sorry to say.”
I slowly enunciated my father’s first name and explained my dad was shockingly dying of sepsis, which was a complete curveball thrown at my mother and me out of nowhere on the 13th when up until this time, we were receiving daily status updates that he was doing well and adapting to his psych meds OK. Clearly, I feared this development would soon have me making legal inquiries aimed at the psych ward of the Chicago hospital that sent him here, but that’s another topic for another time. I apologized for my rambling; I reiterated that I was in shock and my mind was racing in 1,000 different directions. The young rabbi placed his hand on my right shoulder as if to steady me amidst my whirlwind of thoughts.
“There’s absolutely no need to apologize. What matters now is that we are all here to stand in the presence of a loving God at this critical juncture of your father’s journey and your journey too,” he explained.
I quietly burst into tears again, taken aback by his kindness, sincerity, and spiritual power. Truly, this young man exuded true holiness.
“Rabbi, I am honored to have a spirit of interfaith fellowship provide whatever aid and comfort to my father that it can. I very much believe in the power of prayer, and I dispute the clinical assessment that my father is deaf to what we’re saying and that he’s not responding to what is said and done in his own unseen way.”
“Yes,” the rabbi slowly drew out, his eyes locked on my father’s sallow face.
“I had a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church perform the sacrament of Extreme Unction remotely via FaceTime for my father a short while ago,” I explained. “So I don’t know what’s the best way to proceed, and I will defer to your guidance.”
“That is a very structured ritual to commemorate a soul’s unanchoring from his world,” he observed, “so what I propose that you and I do instead is engage in freeform prayer. Does that sound okay to you?”
I nodded and I clenched my hands fervently in a prayer pose but it was really to steady my jittery nerves. I saw the blood drain from my knuckles the harder I clasped. The rabbi closed his eyes and raised his hands, palms up, and began to pray, first in Hebrew and then in English. I cried but did my best not to be loud about it. I looked around the room for a box of tissue, which the charge nurse swiftly thrusted to me. She was standing in the rear by the curtains. When three or more are gathered…
The rabbi then gestured for me to offer my prayer.
I first saluted my father, addressing him and thanking him for giving me the gift of life and for serving as such an important mentor to me over the years. He instilled in me the virtues of a strong work ethic and taking great pride in one’s work, doing it because you love it and doing it well; he also taught me the importance, as someone who worked two and sometimes three jobs to help pay for my brother’s and my private school education when we were kids during the tough years of Reaganomics, of sacrifice and endurance, of meeting obligations and staying true to your word to others. He was an excellent provider.
He was also an innately gifted artist who loved to sketch with pencil, scenes of his boyhood from his small Serbian village and the farm animals he and his brother tended. His other favorite subject was to draw athletes engaged in his favorite sport of fudbal/soccer. He sketched strikers scoring goals, balls whizzing through the air, goalkeepers diving in their nets to block the shots. He could draw freestyle remarkably well.
Dad loved soccer so much he coached in the AYSO and won an award for it back in 1981, with me playing midfield and my brother on goal. He dragged my unwilling mother to indoor soccer games to places as far away as Ontario, Canada (now that’s a family road trip!) long before the MLS was a thing in this country: Chicago had a champion team in the Chicago Sting, who played in what was to become the United Center on the city’s West Side. I loved wearing the black-and-yellow team apparel, the same colors endorsed by a notorious South Side street gang called Satan’s Disciples. I was also quite fond of my father’s boorish behavior at those games and, much to my mother’s vocal displeasure and objections, I followed his lead with cussing out the referee and even dumping a can of beer on the head of one who made a bad call one game against Sting player Karl-Heinz Graniza! My father roared with laughter at my roguish behavior as an 8-year-old tomboy while my mother recoiled in horror two seats away. I would do anything, however illegal, to please my dad and especially to make him laugh. I knew how hard he worked, the long hours he put in as a diesel engine truck mechanic who would come home from Mack Trucks 6 days a week reeking of diesel fuel but I loved the smell somehow. In the past 7 months of his life, when he was cognitively in steep decline, he nevertheless would regale whomever was within earshot with a detail-laden tale or two of his happiest anecdotes of his work life, working at Mack Trucks and taking Mark and me out to White Sox games after his Saturday shift ended. My father was a gifted storyteller.
After saluting my father, I saluted his parents, his two siblings, his nephew who died by suicide quite young, and my brother who also died young and unexpectedly, entreating that they all greet my father so that his crossing into the Afterlife isn’t a disorienting and lonely experience. I fervently prayed that my father be forgiven of his sins and purified in his God’s grace so that he can experience complete and total restoration into the Fullness of Being which is his true state. “Restore him into the radiance of Your fullness, I humbly pray, so that we can one day meet, and know, and remember, and love one another again. Amen,” I concluded, certain the rabbi wouldn’t notice I snuck in a well-known verse from my Gardnerian Wiccan catechism into my conclusion.
“Amen,” the rabbi solemnly echoed. And he reached out to touch my shoulder once again. “Ever-merciful God,” he announced, “I also ask You for the blessing of fortitude for Ana. Give her the strength she needs in the coming days to properly tend to what needs tending, and help her in her continuing caregiving work for her mother. She is a powerful testament to the love and nurturing stemming from her parents; let her father’s many legacies live on in her. Amen.”
“Amen,” I echoed. “And thank you.”
And so it concluded after a solid 20 to 25 minutes of standing and spontaneously praying, moved by the Spirit. Our words seemed to resonate in a cosmic space of Being and Nothingness that will echo true for all time. I did not mind the invocations of and addresses towards the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For my part, I know my Holy Powers inspired and witnessed me: Hekate, Hermes, Nephthys in particular.
And Veles, especially Veles.
My Father, Avatar of Veles
If there’s one thing I can objectively look upon in my family dynamics from earliest childhood onwards, I can see that spiritual/energetic lines were drawn from the outset that had my mother and my brother placed in one camp, and my father and me in another. Quite simply, my mom and Mark resonated with and emanated the frequencies of celestial/diurnal/Cosmic Law-Giving Entities, whilst Tata (“Daddy” in Serbian) and me were unequivocally chthonic/nocturnal/Life- and Time-Destroying Powers.
Like all human beings, my father was a flawed individual. Deeply so. He had a penchant for cruelty that I observed in more than one domestic violence situation that targeted my mother. I remember one horrific fight in particular when I was 9 years old that had my mother barricading herself in the main bedroom, where I was hiding from the hurled objects and my mother’s screams. I saw her attempt to hang herself with her own bathrobe belt. In front of me.
My father burst through the door.
“ROGATI!” my mother shrieked at the top of her lungs. I knew the Serbian word well: it was a euphemism for “devil” or “demon.” It literally translates to “Horned One,” a thing you would say in reference to Satan without saying “Satan” because you don’t actually want to summon Him by naming Him. So you make a reference to His horned head instead, and accuse anyone of demonstrating demonic energies by sharing this distinctive, horned trait.
From 1982 to 2021, I heard my mother hurl that epithet at my father more than once, and as his Alzheimer’s worsened in the late summer of 2021 to the point that I had to call the local Sheriff’s office on my father on three occasions within the span of as many weeks, on charges of a domestic violence nature (physical aggression directed at me or my mother, fueled by his paranoid thinking and delusions that my pit bull and I were actively poisoning him), I saw my father relish being called “Rogati.” He began to embrace it, to own it.
The more I honed into this energetic frequency, the more I began to discern that my mother was kind of on the right track, but misguided: it wasn’t demonic, “Satanic” energy that Dad was emanating; this is a misapplied Christian mythos label. Instead, the energy was pre-Christian, chthonic. Dad was being Veles in a world that only had space for Perun and Perun’s values, in other words. Dad had to keep being relegated to the roots of the World Tree, change shape to dragon form or serpent, and stay there. Don’t emerge to the surface world! That was his big mistake: he would surface with the full force of chthonic Power, and he wasn’t welcome. He knew he wasn’t welcome, and he, like the protagonist of H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful tale from 100 years ago, “The Outsider,” would embrace “the bitterness of his alienage.”
“Ja sam ROGATI!” / “I am ROGATI!” he would thunder, stomping in his work boots, before storming out of the house to retreat into the backyard or the garage, dig through his piles of mechanics’ tools, and eventually cool off in temperament. He also would bring to mind Shakespeare’s Caliban from The Tempest or The Creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Something “clicked” inside me during his identification with this negatively connotated term. I had had the “Rogati” label thrown at me as well (Serbian folklore attests to horned goddesses, not just gods) by my own mother, especially in the past year of pulling double caregiver duty for both her and my father. “You two are exactly alike!” my mother would hiss at me through clenched teeth if I said or did something that upset her or failed to meet her exacting standards. “Not just one Rogati, but TWO in this cursed household!” she would yell, her hands thrown up in despair.
“You really are your father’s daughter!” she would spit at me.
No wonder I always instinctively sided with Veles in the retellings of Slavic myths I could get my hands on. Just like I always favored the Dragon instead of Saint George.
I am my Father’s daughter.
I’ve never known death to come as a total surprise because there are always warnings given in advance. Usually, I will dream of a family member’s passing up to 3 weeks in advance like I did with my brother in 1990 and I told him point blank upon awakening, if he carried on with his plans to move to San Diego that summer, he would die in an accident there. (My brother knew he would, he replied, and he accepted it.)
I did dream during the wee hours on the the morning of January 5 a strange dream of my father, deceased but still in the highly disassociated, delusional state of cognition that characterized his Alzheimer’s disease in life, showing up on the landing outside the entrance to a hellish parody of my childhood home. I was alive and in my present body, standing there with my first husband and wondering where my mother was, when my father slowly ascended the stairs, eyes bulging, apologizing because clearly he wasn’t at his work site anymore. He asked for help. I woke up horrified and in a clammy sweat.
Less than 5 days later, I had an outright nightmare that serves as an unequivocal death omen in my family: dreaming that your teeth are falling out. I dreamt the morning of January 9 that I was standing in a darkened bathroom, angling to examine my teeth closely in front of the mirror. I picked at my teeth and they started breaking off into huge jagged heaps that fell into the sink. I awoke crying, knowing this could only mean one thing (I honestly expected my mother, and not my father, to die this month).
An eerier death omen was the way that Vesna, my pit bull, tilted her head back yesterday morning after 9 o’clock while facing the western wall in the dining room. She just sat in front of it and began uttering a series of blood-curdling howls in response to a stimulus neither my mother nor I could see. Less than 12 hours later, I would receive the call that my dad was being transferred to the new hospital’s ICU because his vitals and oxygen were low and supposedly no one knew the source of his infection.
A less dramatic omen, but nonetheless telling, was the fact that the wall clock I keep in my home office and whose batteries I had replaced last week stopped working this past Monday the 10th. Just randomly stopped working.
Journey Well, Tata
I am no stranger to grief and the grieving process; I have been attending family funerals since I was seven years old. That being said, despite my devotion to chthonic Deities and my training as a Death Midwife, one simply cannot emotionally prepare for death. I’m feeling the same physical sensations as when Mark died: an oppressively heavy weight against my chest. A complete and total loss of appetite and disdain for bodily functions (I’m sure I’m dehydrated but I can’t bring myself to drink water; I’m sure I need to pee after sitting and writing for the past 2 hours but I can’t bring myself to rise from this chair). I’m alternating between high spiritual functioning of performing rituals and lighting candles and fumigating my dad’s belongings in his room in the house with incense and praying before my ancestor altar and before the altars of my various Gods of Death and the Underworld and total non-functionality. I’m catching myself staring off into space or at the massive oak trees in the backyard, gnarled and snow-coated. My father’s cat, Marinko, is visibly agitated and was yowling quite piteously for hours earlier today; my mother and I are convinced he knows of Dad’s death. I’ve had spells of sobbing that come and go. Memories of a two-week stretch of real happy times with my father in October, before I placed him and my mom in respite care so I could take a needed one-week vacation from caregiving duties, flooded me with sadness. Me and Dad at a local Oktoberfest, drinking beer by a public bonfire. Me and Dad walking the dogs at an amazing local forest preserve and dog park. Me and Dad enjoying a simple barbecue lunch of Beyond Meat Italian “sausages” and corn on the cob.
My Tata is gone from my sight…for the time being.
I will never stop being his little girl, his foul-mouthed tomboy daughter who poured a can of beer on a referee at a soccer match when she was 8 years old.
I will be forever grateful for his gifts of my work ethic, my hyper-responsibility towards others, my tendency to be the breadwinner in a domestic partnership, my artistic abilities, my gardening skills, my penchant for rescuing stray and unwanted cats and dogs.
I will forever imbue his dark magick, his spinning of tales, his chthonic wisdom that expresses itself through spells conducted in darkened forests, chants by frozen stream beds, whispered words on cemetery winds. Dark and brooding magick. That’s my father’s magick. Saturnian. Inexorable. Patient. Effective.
I know you struggled to accept my identities as a Witch (he was never comfortable with that word) and a Queer woman who thrives in her independent, sovereign, actualized Selfhood. In many ways, I shocked you because I didn’t “turn out” in a way aligned with your cultural values and expectations.
But if you look harder, you will see that I have, indeed. Just peel back those Christian onion layers to find the Rogati at the heart of it all.
Journey well, Tata. I will grieve your absence every day. For the next 40 days in particular, I will follow our cultural customs and taboos to ensure you don’t become an earth-bound spirit–in particular, a hungry ghost. I will not cremate you, another fear of yours born from paranoid distortions wrought by your Alzheimer’s disease. You will be given a proper Serbian Orthodox burial. The zito will be offered. The rakija proffered to those who come to your grave to pay their respects. May you never hunger. May you never thirst.
You are fully seen by me, Dad, your darkness and your light. I thank you for your gifts.
I love you.
Postscript: I’ve Set Up a GoFundMe Campaign for His Funeral Expenses
My mother is deeply ashamed that we’ve had to resort to this, but I’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for his outrageous funeral costs. The final bill came from Burnett-Dane Funeral Home (here’s the link to Dad’s obituary) and we owe just over $13,000–$2K more than the initial estimate I was presented the day after Dad died.
I am grateful for any donation or for people sharing the link if they can’t afford a financial contribution. My profound thanks to everyone who has donated so far!