Nothing but Thankful
It’s always a phone call. Despite our world’s ever-increasing infatuation with e-mailing, texting, and social networking, when someone in your life dies, this information will most likely be delivered via telephone. With my father, it was through my cellphone. It was just after 8 p.m. on Dec. 13, 2007. I was a senior at Grinnell College at the time, and like many a student in the days before Christmas, I sat with my eyes glazed over my laptop screen, feverishly typing away at one of the many final papers I had due over the course of the coming week. (This specific paper argued that the Central American Free Trade Agreement would spell Bad News Bears for Nicaragua’s agricultural sector.) But then my phone rang, my mother broke some rather unpleasant news, and that was that. One phone call forever divided my life as I knew it into two categories: Before my Dad had died and After. Into when family dinner reservations were made for a party of five and when our party dropped to four. Into when I could tell my Dad about the extraordinarily attractive young man I had spotted at a nearby bookstore and when I couldn’t. Two years later, I still can’t help viewing my life through these lenses.
As I muddle for clarity during the unfamiliar landscape of what comes after the After, I ponder the unique challenge posed by the last weeks of the year. Losing a loved one can chill the holiday season in a way that has nothing to do with the Earth’s tilted axis and the slanted angle in which the sun’s rays hit the Northern Hemisphere during the winter months. The holidays are times of celebration, of family togetherness, of counting one’s blessings, of giving, of gratitude. So when a season that is supposed to be joyous is instead clouded with grief, something as small as a particular song lyric of a Christmas carol on the radio— say, “through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow”— can elicit sadness, remorse, and even anger. After all, one might argue internally, why haven’t the fates allowed me to be with my loved one this holiday season or with any of those who remain? Further, family gatherings can be a cruel reminder of an empty seat at the table that can never be filled, while the sugarplum salvo of holiday cheer spewing from television sets and shopping malls can make those who approach the season with heavy hearts feel anything but cheerful.
How then, does one find healing during the holidays and throughout the other 11 months of the year? In her book, Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss, Deborah Morris Coryell states that, “Healing is an active process, not a passive one.” In other words, losing someone is not something we “get over” with time, but rather, something we actively live, something that should be honored. Now, as I reflect on how I can best heal as actively as possible as the year 2009 draws to a close, I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to honor my father, his life, and his memory than to explore the art of goodbye. Inspired by Dr. Ira Byock and his book The Four Things That Matter Most, I plan to bid adieu using what he considers to be four essential phrases: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.
So, to my father, I’m giving one last gift, that of a proper farewell.
Please forgive me.
Please forgive me for all the times I was impatient with you, for when I would dismiss your lectures by rolling my eyes, for promising to complete a task and not following through. Please forgive me for the time I broke the lamp in the family room and blamed it on the dog, for spilling that Diet Coke from Burger King on the all-too-recently cleaned beige upholstery of your Grand Prix, for fighting too much with Kerry and Bill. Forgive me for not wanting to go into law or medicine or engineering, for causing you to worry when I’d run at the forest preserves by myself, for all the times I may have disappointed you in any way, for any reason, in any context.
I am sorry.
I forgive you.
I forgive you for showing off your rifle collection to every single boy I ever brought home, for your temper that was often much too short, for the times your sour mood and the shouting matches that resulted made Mom cry. I forgive you for being too hard on Bill, for your aggressive driving that made me nervous, for the time you opened the Star Trek DVD we bought you for your birthday and you responded with, “This isn’t widescreen,” instead of “Thank you.” I forgive you for your occasional narrowmindedness and for all the times you disappointed me.
Thank you for loving me unconditionally, for supporting me always, for calling me Doll, for telling me I could live at home forever and that you’d never turn my bedroom into an office or exercise room. Thank you for all
the sacrifices you made, in time, money, and dreams deferred, so that I could have every advantage and opportunity that you never had. Thank you for making me laugh, for kissing my belly when I felt sick, for inviting me to take the van around the block to test the brakes you had just repaired. Thank you for making me a sling out of old towels the night I sliced my finger in half while helping Mom cut up a cucumber for the salad and for all the times you used the tweezers on your Swiss army pocketknife to extract various items I had misplaced up my nose.
It’s much appreciated.
I love you.
I love you for loving me and letting me love you. I love how you’d say “breffast” instead of breakfast, your tendency to pluralize nouns that grammatically needed no pluralizing, and how you’d circle all the items you longed to buy in the Sunday paper’s glossy advertising leaflets. I love how you’d accidentally shut off the lights on me when you didn’t notice me reading in the front room, the way I could see the muscular Marine calves I didn’t inherit contract and flex when you’d walk around the house wearing your cutoff jean shorts, and all the times you fell asleep on the couch watching the History Channel. I love that you lived your life rooted in love, and I love that my love for you continues to grow in your absence.
Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. Goodbye.
And that’s that. I may never be able to return to Before, and the unfamiliar landscape of the After that looms ahead can and will overwhelm, but today, I am reminded that, despite the losses we all inevitably face, the holidays still call for celebration, for counting one’s blessings, for giving, and for gratitude. And today, I am nothing but thankful.