It's been ten years since the worst day of my life.
My dad died December 18, 1998. But, I didn't find out until 7:00 am Saturday morning, December 19. I remember that moment so vividly. It is interesting how time can slow down. It was my uncle Randy on the phone -- my uncle had never called me before -- and I knew, as he began to speak, that something was wrong. He got out the words "I'm afraid I have some bad news..." In a fraction of a second, my mind ran over the possible scenarios. My first thought was that something had happened to my grandmother, but even as that thought came, I immediately knew that if that was the case, this would be my dad on the phone. Then I knew. As he spoke the words, I was already speaking them to myself: "Your dad passed away last night."
He wasn't sick and this was not expected. The blow was as though someone had fired a cannon ball through the middle of me. I felt hollow and cold.
My dad and I had never had an adversarial relationship, but neither had we been close -- until the last five years of his life. My marriage in 1994, and the birth of my daughter in 1997 changed him. It changed us. We finally became close. I think it had something to do with having some girls in his life. He had only boys, but he thought of my wife, Sharon, as a daughter, and Jordan absolutely melted him. He LOVED being a grandpa.
We had spoken on the phone three days before, and we talked as we had rarely talked before. We made plans for Christmas. He had rented a suit, and was looking forward to playing Santa for Jordan. He asked me why, growing up, my brother and I had never woken up my parents on Christmas morning before 7:00 am. I told him it was because we were told not to wake them up before 7:00 am. He said he used to lay there in the early darkness, and wonder why we were not coming in. It was a revealing conversation -- the kind of talk that was coming more and more frequently these days.
Then came that damned phone call.
We buried him on the 22nd, to try to put as much distance between Christmas and the grief as possible. That was a crystal clear, and arctic cold day. I was twenty-six, and this was the first funeral I had ever been to (at least that I recalled -- my older brother had passed away when I was two years old). I had to tell my little brother. The funeral service was so hard, I didn't think I would make it. What got me through were the dozens and dozens of my dad's friends who filed past -- some I knew, some I did not -- each of whom told me what a great man and a great friend he was. They told me the wonderful things he had done for them. I was touched beyond words. I hadn't always thought of my dad as a great man.
I miss my dad terribly, and often when I look at my kids, it breaks my heart. He knew Jordan, but we were going to tell him that Sharon was pregnant with Matthew, for Christmas that year. Matt would have been his only grandson. And I suspect that Emma might have been his favorite of all. None of them know him. None of them remember him. That is the greatest source of pain for me.
I was keeping a journal at the time, and the entry, on the day of the funeral, ends with the line "I don't know how I can heal from this."
But I have.
The anger and the debilitating sadness are gone. I wish he were still here, and I've thought about him every day for ten years, probably more than I thought of him during his lifetime. During the last conversation I had with my dad, he asked me if I could pick up a few presents for his wife, and he would pay me back. I got a letter in the mail from him, three days after his death. His handwriting was unmistakable. Inside was a letter saying thank you, and a check reimbursing me for the gift shopping. I hadn't intended to charge him, but I never got to tell him so. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to say I love you dad.
This has affected me in many ways. I learned, as early as the funeral, that life goes on. After the dedication of the grave, we all met back at the church for a luncheon. Three days later it was Christmas. Both events were enjoyable experiences. At first, I felt guilty for being happy, but life is for the living. You have to move forward. I mourned and I cried (I still do), but the joy and love of my little family kept bringing me back from despair. You cannot prepare for a sudden death like this, and I've decided you shouldn't try. Take the gift that is each day of life, and embrace it. Make life meaningful, and love it.
I believe my dad still lives. I dream about him. Two or three times a year, I have very vivid, lifelike dreams about him. Early on, in these dreams, he seemed very confused about what was going on. He seemed sickly, and distracted, and apologetic. We didn't talk much about what had happened, only that he was gone, and shouldn't be. We were face to face then. Over the years he has grown healthier looking, more at peace. We no longer face each other, but walk side by side. We talk about my kids, and my family. He seems proud. I always wanted to make my dad proud.
I have no idea if these dreams mean anything or not. But they mean something to me.
I miss you and I love you dad.