My Dad passed away on January 17th of 2009. He had battled cancer for years and while we all knew he’d succumb to the disease, the finality of his death still stung my heart, cracking open a wave of grief so deep and wide, it was truly breathtaking. I suppose losing a parent is like losing a limb. It’s painful and debilitating at first. You learn to adapt with two steps forward and one step back, and then learn to live life in a new way.
I had visited my parents for four days the week before he died. I spent time in the house I grew up in, every wall and window the same. I slept in my childhood room, ate breakfast at the same kitchen counter and saw my father’s withered body in the same bed he shared with my mom. Although my Dad and I had a complicated relationship, none of it mattered anymore.
When he spoke: I listened to him, really hearing him.
When he slept: I knelt beside him and watched the shallow breaths rise and fall in his sunken rib cage.
When he said “I love you” for his last time on earth: I said “I love you too”. The simple statement didn’t have a caveat; no reminders of previous engagements in battle; no pride or ego. Just simply, I love you…
Like most people, my Dad was a brilliantly complex individual. He was quick-witted, hysterically funny, quirky, methodical, hot-tempered, intellectual, well-respected, and completely his own person. He worked five days a week and most weekends for 40 years doing what he loved: dentistry. He would occasionally let us in on a funny anecdote or a particularly stressful situation, but usually he’d keep to himself all the secrets and stories his patients shared with him.
There were times in which people would call his office or our home, pleading for help. He’d go in to the office to meet them for an emergency every. single. time. He knew some people would have a hard time paying. He’d help them anyway. Some were of different backgrounds or upbringings. He’d help them. Some had distinctly difficult personalities. He’d help them. He didn’t align with everyone’s viewpoints. He helped them too.
He helped them because it was the right thing to do.
My dad never told me who he voted for. When I was little, I asked him why he never talked about it and he said it was a personal choice for every person to make. A-ha! So this man, this veteran, realized it was a right, but also respected others’ rights and privacy as well. Wait, but where’s the punchline you say? There is none. It was a dismally small conversation in light of the bigger, more meaningful conversations we had, day in and day out. It made up a minuscule part of who he was as a whole. A part that didn’t warrant more than a passing comment. He was a small town dentist in the middle of America, but he was SO MUCH MORE.
We ALL are so much more.
My responsibility resides not in condemning and bringing to justice society’s prevailing ignorance, horrendous actions and poisonous comments. It resides only in my own actions and remarks. Just like my Dad did with grace and humility, are we able to drop our judgement and simply help others within our giftedness? Serving one person at a time with love and tenderness seems a lot easier than trying to solve all the world’s problems, doesn’t it? I’m positive helping others will be the glue that strengthens our collective bond. At this point, it couldn’t possibly hurt to try.
That January, we flew back to help my mom with my dad’s final arrangements and burial. We sobbed together, we laughed together, we drank wine, we ate incredible church lady food, all while President Obama’s first inauguration was being broadcast. I have forgotten a lot of that week, but I haven’t forgotten watching it. Twelve years ago the inauguration was momentous, it was honorable, it was noteworthy.
I can’t help but think of what my Dad would say about the state of our nation years later. Maybe he’d say “Is this real life?”. Or perhaps he wouldn’t even care knowing what really matters. Because those tender moments with him? That’s what matters. Caring for others regardless of whether they can afford it? That’s what matters. Hearing ‘I love you’ spoken for the last time? You bet that’s what matters.
If I’m afforded time at the end of my life, will I be able to reflect back knowing I helped (and loved) others to the best of my ability?