My mother lost her father this summer. He was 90, frail in body and mind, and by all accounts, probably ready to go. In the end, he didn’t suffer. He died peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him.
But it’s still sad. It’s always sad to say goodbye to those we love, especially when we have years of long and complicated relationships to sift through in the wake of their passing. For me, it’s sad to think that the sweet, little, Irish-accented man who told me the legend of donut-trees is now no more than legend himself. He was a good grandpa, always ready with a joke and a hug, impossibly cheerful, a talented artist, an amazing athlete, a devoted husband, and a world-class whistler. I will miss him.
But mostly it’s sad for me to think of my mom who has lost her dad. Her mom died a few years ago and so she is now, along with her brother and sister, an orphan of sorts. And it makes me sad for her – for them.
Even the best relationships between parents and their children are complicated – some more than others- and my mom’s relationship with her dad was no different. But she loved him. She loved him the way daughters love their fathers – with a combination of respect and affection, pride and fear, ferocity and deference. And always with a longing for approval and acceptance. That is just how it is for girls and their dads.
In the days preceding my grandpa’s death, the hospice nurse called and suggested that my mom say goodbye to her dad over the phone, as no one was sure if he would last the hours needed for her to reach his hospital bed. She was caught off guard. She knew he was sick and that he “had started down a path” as the nurse had gently put it, but she hadn’t thought about what she wanted the last words she’d say to her father to be. He had been slipping in and out of consciousness, mostly out, but before my mom could react the nurse had put the phone to his ear and she was up.
Perhaps it was better that she didn’t have hours or even minutes to toil over these words. The pressure of the Last Words Ever would have been crushing. But in the abrupt moment that she was faced with she simply told him she loved him and that it was okay for him to go. She told him she’d miss him. And she told him she loved him again.
After the call, my mom worried that maybe she should have said more. She wondered should she have said all those things we don’t say in the course of normal conversation: final absolutions, forgiveness for all the ways – little and big – that we’ve hurt each other over the years, thanks for the sacrifice our parents made for us that we can’t understand until we’ve become parents ourselves, gratitude for loving us, permission to leave, reassurance that we’ll be okay without them. These are not things we say when we talk to our parents. We talk about the weather. The kids. The job. The house. The traffic. The game. The damned politicians. We don’t talk about goodbye. We don’t talk about the Last Words Ever.
If the rightful order of the universe holds true, then most of us will outlive our parents. We know this. We grow up believing this. Our parents hope and pray for this. So why is there a question of things left unsaid at all? In a perfect world we would all make sure that we say how we feel while we still have time. But we don’t live in a perfect world. And we don’t always do the things we should – even when we know we should.
I guess we don’t do this because it’s hard. It’s hard and awkward and uncomfortable for most of us to even think about The End, let alone dredge up all those feelings we’ve had throughout our lives towards our parents. There are just so many of them… and they’re not all warm and fuzzy.
But I think the ones that matter are. I think the component of the Last Conversation Ever ought to be as warm and fuzzy as our selective memory will allow. We should use that last conversation for expressions of gratitude. For reassurance’s that even though they may not have been perfect, we know they did the best they could. For appreciation. For kindness. For love. For forgiveness. For approval and acceptance. For permission to go on.
I want my parents to know all of the above – and more. I want them to know that I forgive their shortcomings, I appreciate their sacrifices, I admire their strength, I know how hard they tried to do the very best for us even when it was hard. And I’m sure if I asked them, they would have a list of warm and fuzzy things they’d want to be sure I knew too. But chances are the next time I talk to them, we won’t talk about those things. We’ll talk about the debates, the price of gas, what a nice Fall we’re having, how the car is running, etc.
Maybe what we need is a code. Like, when I call to talk about my air conditioner that needs replacing, what I’m really saying is – “Thank you for all the ways you’ve been there for me.” Or when my Dad complains how expensive his medication is getting, what he really means is, “You’ve been a good daughter.” Or when my Mom talks about her Pilates class, what she means to say is, “You may not be perfect, but I love you anyway.” Maybe if we could do that – there would be no need for Last Conversations Ever, because everything we needed to say would be said – over and over, buried in the mundane details of our lives.
So, on that note – I’ll end my more-maudlin-than-most post with a simple message to all of my lovely readers out there: I need to clean the lint out of my dryer vent.*
*Code for “Thanks for reading – I appreciate you taking the time!”