When The Wrong Parent Dies First

Does that make me a monster?

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My father was six weeks away from turning 68 when he had a massive heart attack and died while taking a shortcut through a sporting goods store.

He wasn’t one to take things slow — he walked briskly, he had a fast-moving brain, and in the end, he died fast.

December 28 is a special day for me.

I called my mother.

“Do you know what today is? It’s Dad’s birthday.”

“Jan. 4?”

“No, that’s Fritz’s birthday. Today is my father’s birthday, he would have been 102 years old.”


She hits the non-existent volume button on her phone, and I hear clicking noises for a while.

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“He was lucky,” she says.

“I don’t think dying at 67 is very lucky. And he’d only recently retired.”

“Well, he got to avoid everything I’m going through. I wish I’d died sooner.”

My mother launches into one of her monologues about how awful everything and everyone in the world is, and how she’s lived too long.

I’ve argued with her before — I’ve said there’s no expiration date on life. We’re not living in a "Logan’s Run" society where people over 40 are killed, but I see her point.


She doesn’t have it easy and it’s part of who she is to make everything 10x harder than it needs to be.

Less than a year ago, before my mother needed 24-hour care, she was in much better shape. She could walk, see, hear, and still felt joy from time to time.

She was narcissistic, antisemitic, misogynistic, and mean, but she still had her iron will and some cognitive ability.

She can’t get out of bed and spends her time dredging up painful memories, such as the time instead of taking our cat Ron to be fixed by our regular vet, she took him to a cheaper one who botched the job. Ron died the next day.

My mother didn’t go to her son’s memorial or her grandson’s wedding, but she cries every day over a cat who died 40 years ago.


The good news is at least when she’s crying about Ron, she’s not ranting about the flood that’s coming to only her side of the levee, the crooked country, AKA Ukraine, and how her family who she rejected most of our lives aren’t stepping up enough for her.

My parents are dressed in blue and look unhappy

What if it was the other way around?


I can’t help but think what would it have been like if she’d been the one to die before my dad. Does that make me a monster?

My father would have loved living in a retirement community and I’m sure all the ladies would have had crushes on him. As long as he could take the bus to the deli, the discount movies, and the occasional opera, he would have been happy.

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Like my mother, he would have been as independent as possible, but he wouldn’t have terrorized those who helped him. He wouldn’t have insulted his care people by calling them know-nothings or criticizing their English language skills.


My father was always supportive of me and would have continued to be so. He wouldn’t have wished I’d lose my house so I would have been forced to live with him and he wouldn’t have called me a terrible writer or hated Andy because he stuck up for me.

I’m sure we’d still talk on Sundays, and he’d insist on me calling once and hanging up, so he could call me back and pay for the call even though it would be unnecessary.

When he was no longer able to cook, I’d make him schnitzel, chicken paprikash, and strudel. I’d promise to eat slower, learn to type, and break up with butter.

Holidays would be about family and happiness, and he wouldn’t have made everything about himself.


The major difference if it had been my mother who died, not my father, is my father wouldn’t have rewritten history and talked smack about my mother, even though they were divorced.

My dad had the hat and was ready to enjoy his retirement


I can’t change the sequence of events. So, 34 years later, I’m still angry that it was my dad who died, and I still feel cheated that things worked out as they did.

I know life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t help me feel any better.

Yes, I’m grateful his death was quick and that he didn’t suffer slowly as his senses disappeared, and his brain became a bizarro world of conspiracy theories, betrayals, and delusions.

People wonder why I didn’t cut my mother out of my life a long time ago and why I put up with her abuse.

I do it for my dad.

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Christine Schoenwald is a writer and performer. She's had articles in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Bustle, Medium, and Woman's Day.