(Originally published in 2010.)
My father died on December 18, 1987 after a second bruising round with cancer.
I was 16.
He’d beaten it once four years earlier, only to watch it return in a different place.
He died on a Friday night in a big hospital bed with me and two of my siblings racing in my brother’s blue Chevy Chevette to get there on time.
There is a debate older than I about which is more difficult and which is preferred: To lose a loved one suddenly, in instantaneous ways like car accidents, plane crashes, or in some other suddenly-your-life-is-very-different sort of moment. Sadly you don’t have a chance to say goodbye or I’m sorry or I’ll see you soon.
Or is it easier in the long-steps way, where you watch your loved one slowly fade from this life to the next, often in pain, sometimes great pain, sometimes straddling the veil? Yes, sometimes it’s still a painful goodbye. But it is, if nothing else, a chance to say goodbye.
I’ve had that debate myself, and I never come to any conclusion about which is easier, which hurts less. I only decide in my mind that I had a little bit of both. I knew because he’d had cancer four years earlier that it could return. But on the other hand, on the night he died in the hospital waiting for another scheduled surgery, it felt like he’d been taken in an instant, a tragedy unforeseen, unpredicted. And certainly I was unprepared; I never saw it coming.
Maybe more than anything I’ve just decided that what happened happened. I can’t change it, and that’s OK.
It also wouldn’t change the fact that at every baby birth, every soccer game, every graduation ceremony, I still close my eyes and wish that he were next to me.
And, well, that’s OK.
My father wasn’t a perfect man. He was a terrible golfer, terrible. Seriously, I think there are still courses where his photo is up in the clubhouse. Not for having the course record, but because if he walks in someone is supposed to call security immediately.
No, he wasn’t perfect. He raised his voice from time to time; he liked to burp the alphabet.
He punished me when I felt like I didn’t deserve to be punished.
There was advice he gave that I didn’t want, and other advice I wanted that he never gave. Perhaps he didn’t think I was ready for it.
So he wasn’t a perfect man. So what? For me, he was the perfect dad, and there’s nothing I wish he’d done any differently except perhaps linger a little longer on this side. But he didn’t.
He went when he was called, of course he did, and that’s OK.
Some people choose to remember their loved ones who’ve left this earth through this lens of perfection, where their flaws and faults are edged away, polished by time and scrapbooks, like the rough corners of a block of wood on a sander’s belt. You just hold it there long enough, close your eyes, and wait, maybe move it slightly with gentle pressure, and the rough edges will go away. Then what’s remembered is that smooth, perfect edge, the edge of a dearly departed loved one’s life.
I’ve chosen to remember my dad differently. I do remember the times I became frustrated. The times he was impatient when we worked on my science fair projects or as he taught me to drive. And, of course, the times he banged his thumb, his knee, or his elbow and used a word that made my mom shout “Willaaaard!” from across the house.
I remember him imperfectly because it gives me hope. I don’t have to be the perfect dad to my kids. I just have to be the perfect dad for my kids.
I smile when I think of the spot of ground that is my father’s final resting place. It is like most others, a marker on the surface of the earth that says, “Here they are, here’s the name, here are the dates that matter, the day they punched in and the day they punched out.”
Sometimes some of us spend time at that place. Mourning, remembering, talking, leaving flowers, notes or pebbles.
When my dad died I didn’t go for quite some time, not until a dear friend finally convinced me it was time and offered to go along. I remember vividly how we kicked snow off markers until we found my dad’s. Honestly? I wished I’d gone a lot sooner and I’ve beaten myself up plenty about it through the years. But I didn’t.
And that’s OK, too.
Sometimes people visit the cemetery often. Every day, every week, once a month, or once a year on the anniversary of their death, or their birth or on the anniversary of their anniversary. And sometimes I have looked at those people and thought, “Oh, it’s too much, too often, too unhealthy, they should move on.”
But who are we to judge? If sitting on a patch of grass next to a marker on the ground or a granite tombstone six feet above the memories of a loved one brings them comfort and peace, then isn’t that OK?
Some never go back. There are members of my family who haven’t been to my dad’s grave for years. They remember him in other ways and they say they know he isn’t really there anyway. Instead he’s doing some sort of important work on the other side and that is how they find peace and comfort.
What could be more OK than that?
So yes, I do miss my dad. And more than anything in the years since my dad said goodbye, I’ve learned that there is no right way or wrong way to grieve, there is only your way, and there is my way.
It’s been 29 years since my father died. 29 Christmases. 29 birthdays. 29 Father’s Days. And, of course, countless rounds of bad golf never played.
But after 29 years, I’m no longer afraid to admit that I still miss my dad.
And, well, that’s OK.
Click here to join Jason’s email list and be the first to read Jason’s weekly columns and other posts. You’ll also hear about exclusive contests, freebies and sneak peeks of new projects.