I’ve been trying for a couple of weeks now to figure out how/what to say about Dad’s recent death, the events leading up to it, how I feel now, etc. Writing is the way I work through emotions and events, and yet, I’m not entirely ready or able to work this out.
So. I’ve decided to just do it a little at a time, and what I need to say to all of you today, my friends, is this, and it is very important: Say the things.
If you had just 18 days from the time you were told you had a terminal illness until the day you died, what would you say to the people you love? What would they say to you? What if 12 of those days were spent in a hospital with a limited and difficult way to communicate with your loved ones, and you had only six unhospitalized days until you died, and what if perhaps three of those days you spent mostly sleeping because you were dying, and one of those days was spent tidying up all the loose ends because you knew you were dying? Now you’re down to maybe two days to say all the things to all the people to whom you need to say them. Don’t wait to say the things.
I am very fortunate that my Dad and I have always been close, except for perhaps off and on during my 20s when I was too busy being 20-something. We talked on the phone at least once a week for many, many years, and since and before my stepmom’s death a year ago, we talked nearly every day. For a while there, and I’m not ashamed to admit this, I felt the heavy responsibility of being my dad’s person, and I had to set some boundaries for myself, like being sure those daily or twice-a-day conversations took place when I knew that I had time to have them. But have them we did, and I have no regrets.
I got smart after my mom died, because I had accidentally erased all of her voicemails except for the last one, when she called to tell B and me that she had fallen and needed help. Over the past year or so, I had started saving my dad’s voicemails and emailing them to myself, so that I wouldn’t lose them. And sometimes, as ridiculous as this sounds, I wouldn’t answer the phone when he called, knowing that he would always leave me a voicemail (and I would call him right back), just so I could hear him say “I love you, sweetheart” forever and ever.
I feel like we always said the things to one another, my dad and me. He’d tell me how proud he was of me, and I’d tell him he had always been a good dad. In the last year or so, I wrote down some of the things he said, like “I’m really proud of you, sweetheart. You just keep doing what you’re doing. Everything you do is good.” I didn’t have any inkling of what was ahead, of course, but I wanted to have the words, for the time when I didn’t. I was never unsure that my dad was proud of me or that he loved me. I knew those things from my mom as well, but if you knew her at all, you know those waters were a little muddier with Mama J. In the last year of her life, my stepmom also began to voice the things she didn’t say often, and each phone call was punctuated with the “I love you” she meant always but rarely said.
Yet, with all that was said between my dad and me, in those last 18 days it became increasingly important to be sure that the things were said. I promised Dad I’d finish my doctorate, that I would make him proud. I told him what a good dad he was. He told me how proud he was of me. Brian promised him he’d take good care of me. Dad called and texted his Navy buddies, his siblings, his friends to say goodbye. Mike and Jess and Rob said the things they needed to say, in their own way. We all said I love you I love you I love you.
In this first attempt to get out what I’m feeling about the loss of my dad, this is my takeaway for today. I know there are some people, like B — if one of us were to lose the other, we have and continue to say what needs to be said. There is no uncertainty of our feelings. But there are others I’m not sure I’ve told — friends who may not know how much their friendship means to me; a grieving extra mom I haven’t checked in on lately because of the selfish weight of my own grief; colleagues whom I think are doing an incredible job; my siblings, whom I love dearly and in whom I have such pride for a variety of reasons …
Are there things unsaid between you and anyone important in your life? Do you need to say I’m sorry or I love you or I’m proud of you or I always wanted to tell you this? If you had only 18 days or a day or an hour, or no time at all, have you said all the things? Say the things that need to be said.