I was 28 when my Dad died after about a year of illness. He was lucky. Death let him know it was coming sooner rather than later so he could make some preparations.
I spent as much time with Dad in those last months as I could. And I hung on his every word hoping, somehow, to stockpile time with him so that it wouldn’t hurt as much when he went.
Because he had lung cancer, his breathing was immediately affected. Everything seemed to be going wrong. And it seemed that, in those dark nights of winter he could never really take a full breath. Maybe it wasn’t the cancer. I felt like I couldn’t breathe either.
One night, as we sat in front of the fire talking about things that didn’t matter, Dad started to run through one of his lists.
I could never really tell when the trivial would become important with Dad. He didn’t announce it. Mostly, I think, because he wasn’t even sure.
I had learned, though, that when the listing started, it was time to pay attention.
Sometimes he ran a list to remember things that comforted him, like a list of his shots on the last 18 holes of golf he played.
Sometimes it would be a list of things he wanted each child to have whether physical or less tangible (“I wish that kid would have more confidence!”).
Sometimes it would just be a list of great meals we shared. And sometimes it would be a list of things that hurt.
Every single one of those lists made a difference in his life.
This time it was a list of each kid. He’d name one of us, our spouse, maybe a grandkid or two if we had them, and then sort of nod or smile. I watched. He’d throw out a question like, “Do you think Jack will ever move back home?” Sometimes I’d answer. If you knew Dad, though, you know he did most of the answering himself. That guy could not stop talking.
After the third kid, I picked up the rhythm. He was running the list to see if where he was leaving each of us was OK. Would each of us be alright?
It was so sad. I eventually cracked a joke. Something like “Liz was never really OK, was she? That crackpot!”. We laughed a little. Only a little.
We both knew that, for him, he never would really feel we were all OK without him. That had nothing to do with illness and death. A worrier, we were always on his mind. He never really felt he could take worrying about us and our lives and our choices off his list.
I told him to take a breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. We’re all fine, old man! We’re all adults. We’re all OK. It’s going to be alright.
I did not have kids then. I didn’t know that, as a parent, you can never really fully exhale once you have kids. You just are always going to be worried if they’ll be alright.
Tell us about a time when everything seemed to be going wrong — and then, suddenly, you knew it would be alright.
Photographers, artists, poets: show us SAFETY.