jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

The Song and My Father

Christmas, 1966

Christmas, 1966

I’ve been wanting to write something. I’ve been wanting to write two somethings, actually.

One something begins like this.

It finally happened. Today, driving in the minivan, I heard the Christmas song that makes me cry every time I hear it. Tim has sat me down in July saying he wanted me to hear this new song he really likes, has put earphones on my ears and played it, this Christmas song that is not new and that he doesn’t really like. In July. And I have cried, an actual sniffling, fanning your face, crinkly chin cry, that always ends with us laughing (me through tears) at my Pavlovian response to this song.

The other something begins like this.

I am now the age my father was when they took his life away from him. My mother’s December 1978 Christmas letter reads:

“Things went smoothly until this week has seen Bruce arguing with a loaded gall bladder. The gall bladder is winning and in a few days, if not sooner, “stoney” will be parting with some of his original equipment.”

Her 1979 Christmas letter begins: “Many times over the last year I have rehearsed writing this letter; trying to make it sound believable. The past year wasn’t a good one…”

These two things, the song and my father, will not be separated.

The song is Little Drummer Boy, but not just any Little Drummer Boy. It’s Bing Crosby’s and David Bowie’s Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy, preferably the full recording that begins with David Bowie knocking on Bing Crosby’s door, the two trying to connect and figure each other out before singing together.

The song was recorded in 1977. I was 6. Now I am 42.

My father was 42 the winter of 1978 when he went into the hospital to have gallstones removed. Mid-surgery, the doctors came out to my mother in the waiting room and said my father had terminal pancreatic cancer. Given the option to have him sewn up to return home to die or gutted with an experimental surgery removing his gall bladder, pancreas, spleen, most of his stomach and so on in order that he might possibly live, my mother chose the surgery.

Of course, I’ve reflected on this over the years from my point of view, remembering my mother telling us that my father wouldn’t be home for Christmas and all of January and February. I recall learning how to give him his insulin shot; staying inside during the following summer every day to watch Butchie so that my mother could take my father back to work; listening to the pump on his feeding machine every night as he slept in the living room downstairs. I’ve definitely reflected on that, as only a self-referential artist in grad school can… ad nauseam.



I’ve also thought about this from my mother’s point of view in recent years. Given that choice, having Butchie and the rest of us, between the ages of 17 and 5, all waiting at home, what would any of us have done? And her, with no education, no real job skills, bullied by an eager young doctor with a new procedure. (My father didn’t actually have cancer, by the way.) I think of her standing in that hospital often, and all the days and nights that followed for the next 18 years while she held my father up.

But I’m ashamed to say that this winter is the first time I thought about it from his point of view. I could be my father this Christmas. Except he was the only breadwinner. And he had five children, two with significant disabilities. My father went into the hospital for a minor surgery and returned home 70 pounds lighter. He would be tube fed for the rest of his life with a nasal gastric tube taped to his face for nine years, would have small strokes and large ones, ulcerations and bleeds, infections and nausea. To say they took his innocence and inner peace would be an understatement.

It took awhile for him to return to us, but mostly he did. He loved to eat, and so he ate. Every night. He pinched my Mom’s bum when she walked by. He watched war movies and snuck cigarettes and hid vodka for extra after-dinner drinks at our neighbors’ houses. He listened to Benny Goodman at top volume, wore the most colorful argyles pulled up to his skinny knees, even with swim trunks, and he had teddy bears he’d talk to when he was feeling especially sick. He loved everything about Thanksgiving and Christmas, and he read The Night Before Christmas to all of us every year, no matter what, no matter how old or disenchanted we grew. Don’t get me wrong, he was no Mother Theresa, but he lived as fully as he probably could.


Christmas, 1991
Reading Twas the Night Before Christmas,
Dad’s IV pole in the background

My dad did not like this Bing Crosby/David Bowie song. I remember sitting on the couch with him when I was nine or ten, craving connection, pointing to the MTV video and saying, “Oh, Dad. Look at this! You’ll love this!” And although my dad loved Bing Crosby and he loved Christmas and he loved me, he had no place in his brain for David Bowie. None. I think he said, “What is this shit?” (He also loved the word shit.)

I am now the age my father was the year they took his life away from him. And no matter how awful he felt (his last words to my mother were “Shit’s up.” which meant he was feeling lower than shit… ), no matter how hard things were for the next eighteen years, he hauled his weak body and strong spirit through four high school graduations, four college graduations, a med school and law school graduation, and two weddings. He read the Night Before Christmas for eighteen more years. Could I have done it? Hard to say.

The original mash-up, David Bowie singing Peace on Earth and Bing Crosby singing Little Drummer Boy, two people who didn’t know each other and probably didn’t understand each other, sitting around ostensibly on a Christmas Eve in the late 70’s, making room for each other’s shit. I can’t explain why but it still gets me every time.

19 comments on “The Song and My Father

  1. Janice
    November 30, 2013

    Ahhhh. Papa Groeber. He is so proud. So very, very proud. Beautifully written.

    • jen groeber
      November 30, 2013

      Love that you knew him, Jan. And his teddy bears and argyles and penchant for martinis and the word “shit”. Your comment almost made me get the chokey voice…

  2. dvb415
    November 30, 2013

    Wow, Jennifer. Wow, Wow, Wow. What a story

  3. jen groeber
    November 30, 2013

    Thank you for always reading. Really. It means so much late night as I’m scanning the pics and proofreading, knowing that at the other end of this there will be people who care to read the story and who get it.

  4. Judi
    November 30, 2013

    Once again I am reduced to tears. I weep because he cannot see the amazing woman you have become, what you have overcome and what is still to come for you. All I can say is …..holy shit.

    • jen groeber
      November 30, 2013

      Well, now I am speechless. Thank you for those fine words. If my father could be here to read my writing he may well say, “What is this shit?!” But he’d love, love the babies I made, that I know. Again, so grateful for your comments and following.

  5. Carly LaVigne
    November 30, 2013

    You have a gift for words and I was very moved by this particular piece. I am also nearing the age that my mother was when she died. She was 42 and had struggled with ALS for five years. She, too, had a peg tube but also was on the ventilator for the last two years of her life. It is strange to reach these milemarkers of life. Thank you for sharing and inspiring me to continue my poetry that I have written about these difficult times. You are more courageous than I am by making your writing public. It was a pleasure to be your teammate many years ago and to now reconnect through your writing.
    All the best. Carly

    • jgroeber
      November 30, 2013

      Officially crying now. Thank you for those words. If you only knew how much I admired and respected you, dear teammate. Something about the way you always brought calm, dedication and wisdom to the sport of field hockey and everything you did (do). I remember when I found out that your Mom had been sick, I had an Aha moment. I knew we were sisters somehow and there it was. And I make my writing public in part for this very moment. So thank you for affirming why I decided to do this very weird thing that I sometimes doubt. I’d be honored to read your poems any day (and maybe turn one into a little visual art moment, too.) Thank you.

  6. Carly LaVigne
    December 3, 2013

    Thank you so much for your kind words (my turn for tears).  I always smile when I think of our time together at Yale.  When you were in goal and I was sweeper,  it was like a coordinated wall of defense and trust. It’s a bit ironic that we both were the last lines of defense.  Sounds like a metaphor for our lives growing up.  Hmm..  An idea for a poem is coming to mind… You always made me laugh when times were difficult.  I was very sad when you graduated and knew that there was no one left  on the team that I connected with.  It was a good three years and I thank you for being such a big part of that time of my life.
       I just love your writing and your artwork.  Although I have no children,  I feel very connected to your experiences and the emotions that they evoke.  That feeling of connection is something I find so sustaining and yet it is the most elusive thing for me at times.

    Happy holiday season and I look forward to each new edition of your blog.  I am not as skilled with words as you are but would be honored share my poems with you.

    Your friend,

    • jgroeber
      December 8, 2013

      I never thought of that, the last line of defense. That, my sweeper friend, might have to be a post someday. Something about being stoically cheerful in the face of too much offense… Ah, if only you lived closer! I would totally go for a run with you and your lovely dogs and we could dish on life and maybe I’d convince you to share a poem. 😉 Consider yourself officially (re)connected and if you’re ever anywhere in the Boston area message me on FB. Please. Your friend, too. Jen

  7. kellyinrepeat
    December 8, 2013

    Wow. I finally had the chance to read this and I cannot stop thinking about the line, “My father did not actually have cancer, by the way.” I honestly had no idea that we both spent time this December writing about our fathers and this song. Maybe one day, our daughters will do the same? I am having a “shit’s up” night and from now on I will be using that phrase frequently. It seems that this time of year makes all of us a bit nostalgic, a bit wistful… at my dad’s annual family reunion, he told the crowd some of the phrases that his dad (who died of thyroid cancer in his early forties, when his youngest son was just four) used to say. I will share a few of them with you now and hope that maybe one or two of them will weave themselves into your family history (it will be a fair trade for me using “shit’s up”)

    1. He would say, whenever he handed keys to his car to my dad, “Drive reckless.”
    2. When he would drop my dad off at college he would say, “Write when you get work.”
    3. When helping with spelling tests with the words that started with P, but sounded like F (phone, psychology) he would say, “The P is silent, like in swimming.”
    4. When kids walked in the house and did not shut the door all the way he would tell them, “Shut that door because we can’t afford to heat the whole outside.”

    I never knew my grandpa. He died the year I was born. I feel, though, that I knew him because of those phrases and because they are now part of my dialect. I am sad that your kids won’t know your dad, but I sure hope they grow up saying, “Shit’s up,” because that is awesome and I bet he’d love it. Much love to you.

    • jgroeber
      December 11, 2013

      Thank you so much for sharing these. I love “Write when you get work.” My father would have totally said that. Totally. We talk about Pop-pop Groeber all the time here. It’s so important to be grounded in something, to have an inheritance, even if it’s only “shit’s up”. Maybe there’s a wonderful lesson to be learned… your last words can be both tragic and comic. In fact, all our words can be. Thanks for sharing yours!! I look forward to reading your posts.

  8. Margie S
    March 17, 2014

    I am so moved by this post and yes, once again, am brought to tears. I am so impressed by your father’s tenacity and will to live – a life filled with humor, love, family and forgiveness. He has much to teach us all. I am sorry for your, and your family’s, immeasurable loss. Glad to hear he remains an integral part of your family.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      Amazing that you found this on the anniversary of his death. I posted a bit about that today. It’s lovely how he’s still with me (us) through stories I tell my children.

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  10. Jojo
    April 23, 2014

    I hope to be able to write like this one day. You are such an inspiration. Love this.

    • jgroeber
      April 24, 2014

      Thank you for those kind words. And always give yourself a break about your own heartfelt writing. Some days I wish I could write like this, too, but I don’t.

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