Saying Goodbye to My Father--in Advance
When I said goodbye to my father, I honestly didn’t know I was saying “goodbye.” That’s because, for all practical purposes he was in good health and the “goodbye” wasn’t formal or literal. But it was still my way of making sure I said everything I wanted to say before the sun set on his life.
My father died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 88. About ten years prior to his death, I would stop by his home with my teenage son, David, on most Thursday nights after David’s guitar lesson. The three of us would talk over cookies and a Coke. My father was a quiet man in many respects, never making himself the topic of conversation—till now. Perhaps as he approached 80, he was becoming more reflective, or maybe I twisted his arm to share bits and pieces of his life with his grandson. Regardless, he took this weekly opportunity to reveal key turning points in his life—in snapshots.
He talked about leaving home at 17 to find work during The Great Depression, how he lost his nine-year old brother (the uncle I never knew) to a brain tumor, he discussed his disjointed college education due to the war, how he met and married my mother, his military service as a marine at Pearl Harbor in 1943, two years after the Japanese attack, and his role at Iwo Jima, (previously hallowed ground, never mentioned).
Every Thursday rendezvous was a little different and more enlightening. He provided names, dates, and compelling details of his life and the hardships he faced—often with his head bowed, staring at his hands. His tone was humble. He spoke more as a survivor, less as a hero. His demeanor was grateful, not proud. I put pen to paper and wrote it all down. I was not completely sure why we were doing this, but I loved the bond transpiring before my eyes between my father, my son, and me.
“A moment’s insight is sometimes
worth a life’s experience.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
A few years later, I would review these rough notes, and convert them into a 12-page story titled, “Lessons My Father Never Knew He Taught Me.” It catalogued his life—and the life lessons he unwittingly taught me. My wife and I wanted to celebrate his remarkable, yet understated life. She invited our immediate and extended family over for a dessert with the intention of having me read him the story that expressed how his six adult children—and grandchildren—admired him.
Our family gathered in our living room as I read the story. David noticed he was visibly moved by the recounting of his life, and the lessons we derived from the way he lived it. Everyone had a chance to share what his life meant to them. For the first time, he saw the cause and effect of his life. Naturally, he didn’t want special attention, but how could he refuse this act of admiration?
Later that night, after the family had left, I chatted with my wife about the event. “Karen, I believe we all said everything we, as a family, ever wanted to say about how much we love Dad. Someday when he’s gone, if I ever have any doubt that I didn’t say enough, or all the right things, this night will remind me that I told him how much I love him, and in effect, said ‘goodbye’ while he was still in good health.”
My father died of complications from Alzheimer’s a few years later. It was a slow process. He literally faded away. One by one, the six children he raised as a single parent slowly became strangers to him.
But that night I read him the story, for me, drew a line in the sand. I have always strived to live without regrets—so I'm content that I told my father everything on my heart in this metaphorical goodbye.
Today, I wonder if, when he recounted his life to David and me, in some small way, he was saying goodbye to us, too.
To read more about my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, and how we handled it, check out the article on my website titled, “Survival Guide for Alzheimer’s Caregivers” under the NONFICTION tab. (This story was published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book.
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