When my father passed away in April of 2007, I hadn’t seen him in almost two years. I was going to college in Albuquerque, and he was in an assisted living facility outside of Washington, D.C. In addition to the geographical distance between us, I had also completely disconnected from any emotions relating to my dad and his illness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in pure survival mode. I loved my dad, I missed him, and I hated that he was suffering. But that’s as deep as it went. Any deeper, and it just hurt too f**king much.
I was focused. I had school, I had work, I had my friends… I was fine. I was “happy.”
I remember the last conversation I had with my dad, a couple of months before his death. I called him on a Sunday afternoon, and as always, I braced myself for the deterioration I knew I’d hear in his voice. It was the same every time. I’d ask him the same questions, and then listen to him struggle to find the words to answer me. He had no short-term memory, and I feel incredibly fortunate that he never forgot who I was. He’d hear my voice on the phone, he’d sigh and say, “Oh Moll… I missed you. I love you. I want to go home.”
I’d tell him that I loved him and missed him too; and I’d pretend that I didn’t wish for God to take him Home every time I prayed.
Each time I spoke with my father, I ignored the darkness that would try to creep over me… Those ever-present demons that lurk in the shadows just out of sight, waiting for me to acknowledge them. Instead, I’d go to the gym, read a book, or call one of my friends. Or, if I really wanted to avoid, I’d drag a sharp object across my skin and watch the blood gather and fall.
Again – I was fine. I was “happy.”
I never got to tell my dad that I loved him one last time. I never got to apologize for moving 2,000 miles away, and all but disappearing from his life. I never got to tell him how sorry I was that cancer ruined his life. I never got to say goodbye. These unspoken words will haunt me, always.
Life is fragile and fleeting. When a loved one dies, any second chance you may have wanted, any words you failed to speak – all of those things die too. If we’re lucky though, we’re sometimes granted the opportunity to not make the same mistake twice. It doesn’t happen often, but life can come full circle.
For me, this opportunity came in the form of my Uncle Terry. Married to my mother’s sister, Terry was a farm boy from Oklahoma who grew up to be a painter, a builder (he even worked for John Lennon in New York), and one of the most unique individuals who ever walked this earth. He wore rainbow suspenders and straw hats. Any and all hats, actually. He loved to laugh, tell stories, and listen to the stories of others. He was stubborn, generous, and unfailingly positive about life. He found joy in the little things, every single day; and when I try and focus on living in the present, I think of him.
Shortly following my dad’s death, Terry’s health began to deteriorate. He’d been diagnosed with emphysema several years prior, and symptoms of the illness started to creep into his daily life. It was very gradual at first, but then… it wasn’t. I couldn’t believe I was being faced with losing another monumental man in my life to terminal illness. But this time, instead of emotionally shutting down, I opened my heart and led with love.
I spent as much time with Terry as I could. I never missed an opportunity to spend weekends with him when my aunt was away – it became our special time, just the two of us. I’d prepare his meals, we’d talk over coffee, he’d talk about art and I’d listen, we’d watch movies in the evenings; and I made sure he had his whiskey and canned sardines. (Yes, I still want to vomit when I think about that.)
My uncle understood me. He appreciated me for exactly who I am, and didn’t expect me to be anything other than myself. I don’t know if he ever consciously decided to step into the role of surrogate father for me, but he certainly played the part perfectly.
I remember him calling me before I went out on a first date once, just to tell me that I was beautiful. Anyone who didn’t like me for me could take a hike (his words). That particular date – and the guy – turned out to be an absolute joke, but so worth the call from Terry beforehand.
When I shared with him that I’d started seeing my therapist, he wanted to hear all about it. Anything I was willing to tell him, he wanted to know. Sometimes he’d call me simply to ask if therapy was going well.
As hard as it was for me, and with the help of said therapist, I made sure to have the talks with Terry that I never got to have with my dad. I told him how much I loved him, how much he meant to me, and what he had become for me – what our relationship symbolized. I cried. He cried. I got to hear, in his words, how much he loved me, how proud he was of me, and how sorry he was that I had to lose him too. He told me to let go of the belief that every man I loved would die. I cried harder.
Nothing was left unsaid between us. No unfinished business, no regrets. The very last conversation I had with him, before he slipped into a coma and eventually faded away in his sleep, is something I will cherish as long as I breathe.
Not long after he died, I had a dream that I was sitting with him beneath a shady oak tree in the middle of a meadow. He was healthy, happy, and painting on his easel. He looked at me and said, “I love you, sweetheart.”
I woke up with tears in my eyes and a warmth in my heart that told me he was right there with me. I then remembered something he said to me a few days before he passed away. “Don’t be sad that I’m gone; be glad that you knew me.”
While I will forever miss my second dad, and be lonely for his presence in my life, I wouldn’t trade away a single moment of knowing him. The pain of his loss goes deep. When those moments of sadness hit me, when the tears are falling and I feel like every breath I take is a struggle, I remind myself… What a gift – to have loved, and to have been loved, so deeply. My pain is a reminder that the love was real, and I will carry it proudly.
Life gave me an irreplaceable gift with Terry. It came full circle.