I originally posted the essay below on Boys, Dogs and Chaos in May of 2011. My father had just passed away. With his birthday a few days away, I’m sharing it again. I hope it helps anyone who may be going through the loss of a loved one…
“There are always things left unfinished,” the rabbi said as he turned from my father’s body. We had been sitting in the hospital for hours and none of us could bear to leave, even though there was nothing left to do, nothing left to say. My father had been sent home the day before with, while not a clean bill of health, certainly an optimistic outlook that the episodes of chest discomfort, dizziness and fainting were behind him and a healthier tomorrow beckoned. The last thing that he had said to me when I left his house the night before was, “I feel good! I guess the stent fixed everything.” Did he know that was the last time we would speak? I certainly didn’t, so I merely answered, “Great! I’ll see you tomorrow,” and with a wave up the stairs to the room he was sitting in, I left.
I told the rabbi that I was devastated that I didn’t say, “I love you,” that I didn’t climb the five stairs to lean over his chair and give him a hug. I just gave a short wave and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Because, I did believe that we had tomorrow. I believed that there was plenty of time for hugs and plenty of time for “I love you.” In the hospital during the previous week, I blew kisses (I had a sore throat and didn’t want to bestow my germs) and said, “I love you,” before leaving, because I didn’t know what would happen. But, that night my kids were waiting, I was tired and really I thought everything would be fine. Everything was fixed. I wasn’t thinking that the next time I told my father I loved him his forehead would be ice cold when I kissed it; his face graying; his hands waxy and yellow. But really, unless someone has died from a long drawn out illness, who ever thinks it will be the last time? Who ever says everything they need to say?
I sometimes think it’s easier for the living to have a loved one die after a long illness, because you have said all you need to say, you have prepared yourself and you know that person is finally at peace. Although, I would imagine the anticipation and knowledge that you are going to lose a loved one is equally painful, not to mention the pain of watching that person suffer. Quite frankly, it all sucks – whether you’ve said I love you at every opportunity and anticipate a quiet slipping away or you’ve treated the moments before death as any other moment crowded into a lifetime of days. It sucks for the living. It sucks for the dying – but, I am glad that it was over quickly for my dad. I’m glad he didn’t suffer and I’m glad he didn’t know. Or did he?
Just before he passed away, he told my mother, “I love you. You know I love you.” And he asked for a kiss. So, did he know? Was he sick of the hospitals and just didn’t want to fight any more? That is my son’s theory and increasingly mine, as well. Not that he wanted to die, but that he didn’t want to live his life in and out of hospitals. He wanted to live vibrantly and fully, the way he did before a stroke robbed him of his short term memory eight months earlier. Before the stroke he went to the gym every day and walked miles. He looked much younger than his years and acted that way too, even after the stroke. But, in the two months prior to his death, he was in three different hospital four times. Who knows if he just decided, I’m not going back to the hospital and that’s it? He said what he wanted to and I think he passed away knowing he was deeply loved.
Now, it’s up to us, the living, to make peace with his passing, as well. It’s not easy. And it’s especially difficult during the season of rebirth. The flowers bloom. The sun shines. And still we grieve. It seems like it should be gray and rainy to match our moods, but even when that weather arrives, it doesn’t do anything, except make us more depressed. My kids tell me that they can’t stop thinking about their grandfather. They worry that no one will ever make them chocolate chip pancakes like he did. You know what? They are probably right. There are a lot of things that will never be the same. It is the new normal, something I said often after his stroke. It’s a new normal that will take months, even years to get used to. Someone told me recently that even decades after his father passed away, he still dreams about him. He still sees him and hears his voice. I still dream about my childhood pet that has been gone for almost twenty years, why should my father be any different? And, that’s good. I want him to show up in my dreams and I want my kids to keep thinking about him, to keep hearing his voice and seeing his face as they did in the days following his death. We all did and he was telling each of us that it would be ok. My ten year old heard him say, “I love you” not once, but three times.
If my father were alive, he would tell me to stop worrying about the things I didn’t say and just be glad about the things I did. A few days after he died, I confided in my husband that I just couldn’t get over the fact that I didn’t say, “I love you” the last time my father and I spoke. He answered, “I’ll let you talk like that for a couple of more days and then I’m going to tell you to stop, because there’s no point in beating yourself up over it.” I knew he was right, but I bristled. “There are only two words you need to say,” I informed him. “And one thing you need to do.”
He was quiet for a moment and then offered, “I’m sorry?” “That’s one,” I answered. “And hug you?” he asked, hooking me close to him. “That’s the other,” I said quietly. I wasn’t ready to forgive myself then, but I know I have to eventually. Beating one’s self up is not the way to honor the dead. It was sudden. We didn’t expect to have to say goodbye. There were things left unsaid. That’s life. And death. But, perhaps the best way to move forward is to simply say, “I love you” often to those who remain, so the pain of things left unsaid at least has a purpose – to teach us to embrace the moments we have and to tell those around us how much they mean to us while we can.