In rolled summer, and out came the lighter wardrobe for the hotter season. In the pockets of a linen blazer, I found an assortment of odds and ends abandoned and forgotten since the jacket was stored away for winter: a five-dollar bill, a movie stub, two dinner receipts, and a handwritten note from Dad.
“Brett, you need to work less, find someone to love you and take care of you, and live a little. Love, Dad.” My father died on Sept. 29, and although I miss him, I haven’t been successful at following his advice any more than I did during the four decades I benefitted from hearing it delivered in his own voice. Dad’s parents both passed away in their 90s, so it was a shock when our father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at 71, especially since he did 200 pushups every morning and ran five miles at night. Confronting this fleeting nature of existence led to all kinds of resolutions – try to enjoy life more, stress the little things less – that haven’t exactly come to fruition.
To say I was unprepared for the impact of losing such a central personality in my life would be the understatement of the year. Surprise attacks are launched against the emotions at the most unexpected times: when a dinner companion orders a flavor of ice cream Dad liked, when a certain football commentator pops onto the television screen, when a colleague recounts some obscure anecdote about the Civil War, or when a uniquely ugly General Motors product sputters by on the road (Dad worked for Ford for nearly 40 years). It is then that the sound of his voice, the smile on face, or the feel of his arm around your shoulder comes rushing back and you find your eyes watering up out of nowhere.
It’s frightening, though, how quickly the memory can forget some things about the ones closest to us, and how much of a struggle it can be to let it go. But go it does, and the pain of the loss is as sharp and interminable as a nagging toothache that never goes away. When I walk into the spare bedroom in my house where Dad frequently stayed when he was sick, I can feel his presence as if he were still suffering there in bed, and I think, “Dad, I miss you.” But then guilt and self-doubt strike. Did I miss you yesterday? Did I even think about you yesterday? Is the memory of you beginning to fade already? Am I sometimes still too busy with work to reserve even a few precious seconds every single day for the man who gave me life? God knows I neglected him enough as his life slowed down and mine sped up. The Harry Chapin song “Cats in the Cradle” is sad to millions for a reason.
This time of year is a season of anniversaries, with a heartbreaking memorial practically every week: Dad’s initial cancer prognosis; the surgery to remove the grapefruit-sized tumor in his head; slight recovery and false hope for some good days ahead; numerous hospital stays; moving him around with siblings; a trip to the emergency room; brief rebound; permanent transition to a wheelchair; a spinal tap; another trip to the emergency room; pneumonia; long, continual decline; refusing a doctor’s request for another spinal tap; short stay at a hospice; pneumonia a second time; final agony on the morning he died. As the days of this summer get longer, we are haunted by memories of when Dad’s days became fewer.
There was some comfort at the end, mostly in the ancient rituals of our Catholic faith: Mass frequently, final Confession during his last Sunday of lucidity, and Last Rites several times when it looked like the end had come. Our father had a strand of old world religion in his DNA that switched on as his body was switching off: an unflinching belief that kicked in and signaled that the time had come to get ready to meet his maker. Beyond what we hope is their salvific role, the timelessness of the sacraments also reminded of a more generic truth about the importance of tradition in the ongoing cycle of life. The same drama goes down every day, but in God’s plan, we all have a unique part to play in the world and the lives of others until we breathe our last breaths.
A friend of mine who not long before lost his mother and father warned that one cannot understand the void that is created when a parent dies until you stumble through it yourself, and he was right about the shock effect. As one experiences the messy end of life in all its misery, it is hard to avoid questioning its meaning, or – amidst the torture and horror of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – if there even is any purpose to it all. This is humanity at its weakest, buckling when the going gets tough. In better moments of clarity, we learn a lot about life through death. That the desire to live is stronger in those who know the end is near should bring shame to those of us who are healthy but take each day for granted. And there are the basic facts about mortality: We don’t know when our time will come so should live life with no regrets because any hour could be the last.
This is my first Father’s Day without Dad. I’m not dreading it like I thought I would, but that’s mostly because I’m still in denial that’s he’s gone. Who knows when that sinks in, but I’m glad it hasn’t yet. When I get a new job, test-drive a new car, or meet someone new and interesting, my first instinct is still to call Mom and Dad and tell them about it. Sometimes the phone is in my hand before I realize Dad won’t answer. What I wouldn’t give to hear Dad say one more time, “Well, it sure is good to hear from you, son…”
Brett M. Decker is Editor-in-Chief of Rare. Follow him on Twitter @BrettMDecker