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A Time to Grow Up: A Daughter's Grief Memoir

By Larada Horner-Miller

Synopsis

When Larada Horner-Miller’s father died in 1996, her mother told her, “Everyone grieves in their own way.”

Horner-Miller took these words to heart when her mother passed away in 2013. She discovered that writing poetry was the best way of working through her fresh grief. Eventually she penned dozens of intimate, heartfelt poems about her parents’ lives and legacies and her deep sorrow and gradual recovery. Now she has gathered those verses into her first collection, A Time to Grow Up.

Horner-Miller discusses the emotional challenges of caring for her parents at the end of their lives. Her words will strike a chord with any worried caretaker or child watching over ailing but fiercely independent loved ones.

As Horner-Miller explores the nuances of bereavement through her poetry, she provides inspiration and comfort for readers coping with the same burdens. While many of her poems explore the depths of her anguish, others exude humor and warmth—a reminder that there is still always light in the world.

In addition to her poems, Horner-Miller includes biographical sketches about her mother and her father, as well as appendices that provide coping tips, suggested activities, and resources for others dealing with intense bereavement.

Meet Dad

MEET DAD



Harold Laurence Horner

March 20, 1918 – January 6, 1996



People Instantly Know Me

In southeastern Colorado, Dad marked me.

People instantly know me.


Is it the nose

or the eyes?

My movement on the dance floor?

My smile?

My lips?

Or is it everything about me?

How do they know?


I burst with pride because I'm known as

Harold Horner's daughter.


In the surrounding ranching

and farming communities,

people take one look at me and say,

"Aren't you Harold Horner's youngest daughter?"


Many times I don't know who

is asking the question,

but with those words I always feel special,

connected, and known,

because I am proud to be:


Harold Horner's daughter




Dad's Death

My dad, Harold Horner, was a cowboy his whole life. He believed he was the luckiest man in the world because every day he did something he loved for a living. Side by side, he worked with his father on their family ranch, taking care of their cattle and horses.

            As a child, Dad experienced a “touch of tuberculosis” that forced his family to move from the humid climate of Tulsa, Oklahoma to the high dry desert of southeastern Colorado, where he could—and did—thrive. 

            Even though his health was better overall, Dad also had asthma. For him it was agony—he wanted to be outside riding his horse and helping his dad on the ranch, but he was forced to be more careful than other kids.

            Later in life, the asthma marked him as 4F (unfit for duty) when the draft came up for World War II. While he couldn’t go to war, he found another way to serve: by helping out on ranches in the community whosesons did go to war. He had many fond memories of helping our neighbors then.

            Granddad wasted no time and bought his seven-year-old a horse, and my dad took to horses as if he had ridden them his whole life. The day Granddad bought him a horse was the day his destiny was set. Dad loved the cowboy way of life at once. He worked his whole life on that family ranch, doing the work he loved.

            Dad’s youth was a time of horseback riding, calving, helping his dad on the ranch, and hilarious times attending the small country school. 

            At this time, Granddad kept busy putting together our ranch when he wasn’t working his job as a postal carrier. His postal job was a lifesaver for them; because of that job, Granddad managed better than most during the depression. For other homesteaderssurviving the depression was too hard a task. Our family ranch grew because Granddad bought out the homesteaders that couldn’t make it.

            One of Dad’s favorite memories as a young man was when he helped Mose Russell move a herd of horses by horseback from southeastern Colorado to Cimarron, New Mexico. Obviously it was a long trip, and Dad often recounted stories of their experience, mostly jokes about Mose’s cooking. 

Early in Dad’s ranching career, he leased land from a neighbor, Excel Smith, for steers, and they didn’t need any signed paperwork. A handshake between two honorable men sufficed.

            When he was seventy years old, while gathering cattle on the ranch, Granddad got bucked off his horse and broke his pelvis. Several family members rode that day and saw this unscheduledrodeo—I was one of them. His doctor said he survived this horrible accident because of his physical fitness. Luckily, Granddad had always been an active man.

            One year later in 1964, Dad got bucked off a horse and broke his hip. This altered his life; he had surgery, and a steel plate and screws repaired the damage. After a six- month period of recuperation, he rode horses again, but he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

            Later in his life, Dad enjoyed helping Bill Berg, his nephew, herd cattle on horseback from Folsom, NM to the top of Johnson’s Mesa to summer pasture. It reminded him of earlier times in his cowboy career when cowboys rode horses more often.

            Dad’s cowboy life came at the end of an era—when cowboys worked hard, rode horses, lived honest lives, and enjoyed a simpler life.

            Dad loved the cowboy life, but he also loved his family. The love of his life was Elva Marie Dickerson Horner, my mom. He had three children from an earlier marriage: Fred, Larraine, and Sue. With my mother, he had two children: Harold (Bub) and me.

            Dad’s nickname for me was Shorty—I loved the sound of it. It was our special connection.

            As a couple, my parents enjoyed a variety of passions: dancing, traveling, attending activities in our close-knit community and surrounding area, and loving their family.

            For the most part, Dad was healthy until his seventies. By this time, he stopped riding horses and used his pickup to do most of the ranch work. A series of illnesses warned Mom and me that age was creeping up on him. For a couple years, he had yearly stays in the hospital for breathing issues. 

            Today, seventy isn’t that old. But my dad was a heavy smoker most of his life. In 1988 he began to suffer the consequences; emphysema, asthma, and forty-plus years of heavy smoking had finally caught up with him.

            In March of 1993, we celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday with a dinner and dance at the school gym in Branson for 200 guests. His breathing had worsened so much he couldn’t dance the full circle of the dance floor.

            The doctor diagnosed Dad with congestive heart failure that same summer, and he struggled with the restraints of the diet foisted upon him. He chose no treatment; that cowboy didn’t want to spend his last years in a hospital. 

            Without any cause or warning, Dad’s health changed two years later. I was teaching in Albuquerque, New Mexico when I received a frantic call from Mom: “He can’t snap the snaps on his shirt. It seems he forgot how. Say nothing to your Dad, but please come as soon as you can!”

            As soon as classes were over for the week, I drove home. I watched my seventy-eight-year-old father struggle with that simple task and many more. He looked at his fingers like they were foreign objects out of his control. I helped him finish snapping the snaps on the front of his shirt and cuffs and worried about his sudden change.

            That evening we played our usual game of Rummy, and he had trouble identifying the numbers on the cards. I whispered, "Dad, that is a six, not a three." I didn't want to hurt his feelings and whispering softened the blow to us sitting at the breakfast bar. What was happening?

            For the remainder of the weekend I scanned Mom's face, seeing the distress and fear. We knew something was wrong. He didn't seem to notice the changes, though, and that helped us manage this new stage in his life.

            Mom took him to the doctor the next week. 

            After several weeks of testing and no solid answer, the diagnosis from a small town doctor was strange: Parkinson's disease, which made little sense because he had no tremors. The doctor never gave Dad a different diagnosis, and the medical world never solved the Parkinson's mystery. 

            After this, he progressed to the point of not being able to talk—his lips moved to form words but they just wouldn't come out, and his left hand curled up in a ball.

            His intense, frustrated glaze locked in on me. His frightened eyes searched mine for the words. Sometimes I finished his sentences; other times I had no idea what he wanted to say. He struck the table with his clenched fist, more desperate each time it happened. Now he couldn't do the simplest tasks without help.

            The internet of today wasn't in place then, so I had no place to research his strange symptoms. I struggled with Dad's changes that charged forward with no clear explanation. He suffered no pain; he just couldn't talk. His physical strength weakened.

            His decline from August to November was drastic. By Thanksgiving, Mom needed help to handle his physical demands, so a neighbor came to help get Dad out of bed every morning and back in bed every evening. It became too much for Mom, isolated fifty miles from the nearest doctor and hospital.

            Being Dad's main caretaker exhausted Mom, so we agreed to put Dad in the Trinidad nursing home at the first of December. Our plan was not long term, just a month break for her. She had such mixed feelings about our decision, but she needed time to regain her strength.

            We worried that he might remember that his mother had died in this nursing home, but he didn't know where he was. He was slipping away for sure. 

            Dad's stay in that nursing home started out fine but ended with too many mistakes by the staff.

            After several mishaps there, I met with the nursing home administrator about Dad's treatment and exploded, listing our concerns. Mom and I found Dad flat on his back often. He needed his head elevated at all times when he was in bed because of his breathing problems.

            The final straw was finding him late one afternoon, laying flat again with his pants wrestled down to his knees because his diaper was dirty. He knew he had soiled himself, and we had no idea how long he had laid in that mess. We knew he'd felt the ugliness because he had tried to pull his pants down and get out of them. That's what bothered me the most. 

            With him not able to speak, we wondered if he knew what was happening. This proved he did, to some extent.

            After a sad, tearful Christmas watching Dad in the nursing home, he got pneumonia, ended up in the hospital, and never left.

            At this point, we had such limited options. We planned to put Dad back in the nursing home after his hospital stay until we found another solution, but the administrator refused to readmit Dad because of our meeting, so we had one choice—home health care.

            That type of care was not available in 1995, fifty miles out in the country, but I found ways to do it. I had the hospital bed ordered and had a visiting nurse drive the long distance out to Branson three times a week. Mom and I hoped it might work.

            I returned to Albuquerque to go back to work after the holiday break.

            On January 6, 1996, Dad died in the hospital before we could bring him home. I wasn't there when Dad died. Uncle Tanky Doherty phoned me at roughly 2:00 A.M. that Dad was dying and I needed to come. A family friend, Modene Verquer, drove me to Trinidad, Colorado. 

            On the drive, I closed my eyes and prayed for Dad's healing but a deeper prayer emerged from my soul: a prayer for God's mercy and grace.

            Snow covered the pastures as we sped by and power lines danced by my peripheral view. With urgency, I wanted to push the car faster down the road, but this winter wonderland blurred into a vast white haze. We arrived one hour too late. 

            His death certificate listed the cause of death as congestive heart failure. The Parkinson's diagnosis never showed up again.

            I was sober eight years at the time. My recovery was a huge help through the loss of Dad. Dad and I had been so close my whole life. Ours was a volatile relationship with lots of disagreements over major issues, but we had reconciled and found a deep peace in our relationship.

            This time was a blur. I helped Mom organize Dad's funeral, stayed a couple weeks after the funeral to help, and watched how she handled her loss. Her small frame sagged with the unbearable weight of it. Her eyes had lost their sparkle. She felt lost; her husband of forty-three years had died. Their ranching lifestyle had ensured that they were together all day long every day and she yearned for her life partner who had always been there.


Mom's Grief Process

            Mom showed me how to grieve. She was fine one minute, then she would cry and be in her deep sorrow for a while, then it ended. This cycle repeated itself, and it worked for her. She also jumped right back into her life in our small ranching community.

            I became Mom's primary caretaker long distance. I visited as often as I could, and we talked on the telephone. We spoke of Dad often. 

            At first, Mom bought herself lunch once a month and visited Dad's grave in Trinidad, Colorado. She talked to him like he was still there. It was their date. She yearned to be near him.

            Her involvement in her church supported her through her loss. She prayed and cried. Her faith grew during this time, and she drew strength from her God.

            Mom danced alone around the living room to Molly B's Polka Partyon Saturday nights—dancing had been a regular part of their lives. Then she listened to old country music shows to help her deal with the loss of her dance partner on the night they danced the most, Saturday!

            Her attendance at activities in our small ranching community continued—she didn't stop living! Mom attended her craft club. She enjoyed basketball games where she sat in her favorite seat and hollered for the Bearcats, like she always had. Now she sat with Doris Goff instead of Dad.

            I watched Mom and took note.

            She took her time to get rid of Dad's clothes and personal items. That gave her the opportunity to gift many of Dad's clothes to her great-grandson when he came to visit a few years ago. His eyes lit up when Mom asked him if he wanted them. He wanted them when no one else in the family did, and Mom loved that. 

            Anniversaries were hard—their wedding anniversary, his birthday, and the anniversary of his death. What made these days harder for Mom were calls from well-intentioned family and friends who called on those memorable days and then talked about everything else but Dad. She told me she so often wanted to scream, "Talk about Harold, please! Ask me questions. Remember fun times we had. Speak his name. I need to hear his name."

            I have spent all of my adult years within four to five hours of my parents, so we were close. Dad and I started a Christmas tradition many years ago. He loved it when "his two girls" dressed alike, so every year, I bought his Christmas presents for Mom and me: an outfit alike.

            Preparing for our first Christmas without Dad, Mom stated in a tearful whisper, "You don't have to buy our Christmas outfits this year." I continued buying them every year until she died—a small piece of Dad kept with us over the years. 

            Mom healed; she grieved, and she continued to live and enjoy her altered life without Dad. She managed the family ranch and did a fine job. She traveled. She was most happy when her house was full and she was busy in the kitchen preparing a meal for her family or friends. Mom had transmuted every tear, every lonely night in bed, every time she heard their song, "Four in the Morning," and wept, and every sorrow into a life well lived.


My Process No Poetry When Dad Died

            When my dad died, I didn't write poetry to get clarity, to heal myself, nor to see the events of my life as a part of my process. I wrote but not to deal with my loss.

I focused on Mom—that's what I did, and I danced and worked.

            We talked often about Dad, our loss, and our grief. I realized these conversations were important for both of us to heal. I learned that from her and relished her wisdom—I listened. Her tender care of herself demonstrated to me how to do this mysterious thing so many don't understand how to do: grieve.

            Time healed Mom. She managed her grief and lived seventeen years without Dad, in relative comfort and happiness. 

            I wanted that for myself when she passed. Here's how I did that.



About the author

Horner-Miller received a BA degree in English, a minor in Spanish, and a master’s degree in integrating technology. She spent twenty-seven years as an educator. She now co-manages her family ranch with her brother. Horner-Miller lives in Tijeras, NM with her husband, Lin, & cat, Jesse. view profile

Published on November 27, 2017

Published by

50000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

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