Monday, June 14, 2010

Wright Words: I miss my dad, and that's OK

It started as a journal entry, became something I read aloud at an event in Winchester, VA, and now has become my latest syndicated column. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Wright Words: I miss my dad, and that's OK

My father died when I was 16 after a second bruising round with cancer.

He'd beaten it once four years earlier, only to watch it come back in a different place.

He died on a Friday night in a big hospital bed with me and two of my siblings racing to get there on time. We didn't.

There is a debate as old as time 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 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 wouldn't change the fact that I still miss my dad, even now, 20 years later. Or that I would still miss him a little bit every single day. 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 probably didn't need, and other advice that I did need that he didn't share. 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 expect 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 that 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 words 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 them.

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 their 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 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, finally, that's OK.

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, despite living much closer that I do. 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. And 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 more than 22 years since my father died. Twenty-two Christmases. 22 birthdays. 22 Father's Days. And, of course, countless rounds of bad golf never played.

But after 22 years, I'm no longer afraid to admit that I still miss my dad. And, well, that's OK.


  1. Beautiful Jason, thank you for sharing these very intimate thoughts.

  2. Thank you for that story. It mirrored my own relationship with my dad and like you I do miss him even to this day. God bless you.

  3. Jason, aside from the tears, it was a very moving story filled with love and compassion. Your Dad was very lucky to have you as a son. I too lost several loved ones, my mom back in 1966 and recently my 35 year old son to Lukemia. Grief is such an overwhelming emotion, and without understand and sypmathetic friends and family it's hared to get through. Thanks for you ability to be transparent...

  4. Thanks for the picture of your dad (and yourself). It means a lot to me, and thats OK

  5. Something in this writing, your style of writing, I just love. You know it reads differently than your books. When I read a writing like this, my heart is already attached. I don't know how else to describe it. julie in WI

  6. Very nicely said and I too feel your pain. My dad was too sick (lung cancer) to fly to Germany for our wedding, and I thought that's ok, he couldn't have come inside anyway. But I missed him so much, even in the time before he finally passed, that I would sometimes wake up at night sobbing unconsoleably thinking of all the things he was going to miss. I feel him close sometimes and know everything is going to be OK.

  7. I remember your dad as a perfect gentleman. Never would've guessed that he could burp the alphabet. : )

  8. Elizabeth O'ConnorJuly 19, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    I, my partner, and my best friend, all just finished reading The Cross Gardener. We all read it because a friend gave it to me to read, feeling it would shed some insight on what my 37 year old son is going through, and has been for almost 8 years. He lost his wife to suicide shortly after their little girl turned 3. Tim is so protective of Lauryn, his now almost 11 year old daughter, and so drowing in pain that he doesn't feel very much happiness. I want him to enjoy his life and enjoy what he has. My friend and co-worker lent me the book so that I may gain more insight into what's in my son's heart. As I said, I and my partner have both read, and a dear friend who also is close to my son and his daughter has read. Now I want to encourage him to read. I felt so connected to not only John B. in the book but also to his parents in law and especially to his little girl....No, probably mostly to Tim, because he is my child. Thank you. Elizabeth O'Connor

  9. Thank you for noting more than one way to deal with a loved ones death. I, too, lost my mother 23 years ago to cancer, and I still miss her. I watch others who still have their moms and wish they could/would relish every moment they have together since I know what it's like not to have her here anymore.

  10. A friend of mine had you Wednesday Letters on CD and I just listened to them yesterday and today. Now I contemplate making my own as I check out your websites.

    My husband and I have been through a few trials in our 8 year marriage. I can appreciate your thoughts in this post especially. Our youngest son died a couple of years ago unexpectedly in an accident. It's been a hard road with grief. And that's OK.

    I look forward to reading your other novels.