On Grieving, Part 4: “Why Didn’t I…?”
The night my father died I wasn’t home. Everyone else was; my mother, my brother, my sister, my brother-in-law and of course, my father, alone in his sickroom. They were all tucked into their beds in Manotick either sleeping or trying to. I don’t know his exact time of death so I’m not entirely sure where I was as he suffocated in his sleep, but my best guess is that I was most likely on a park bench on Sussex Drive, drinking cheap vodka from a plastic water bottle.
As often happened during his illness, I had fled back downtown to the sanctuary of my apartment and the comforting illusion of a normal early twenty-something life. As the youngest in the family, I frequently found myself unable to cope with the psychological pressures of having a dying parent and would periodically check out, either mentally or physically. I am grateful to my family for being as understanding as they were. As it was, I would be the last in the (immediate) family to learn of Dad’s death and I learned of it while fighting off the effects of my vodka-induced hangover. I didn’t cry when my mother came to my downtown apartment to collect me. When she told me the news, I just said,
Not exactly profound, but honestly nothing else came to mind. You may find that the more important the moment you are experiencing, the less you have to say about it.
Then I showered and packed a bag. I remember being concerned that I had no idea what I should pack to wear to the funeral. Later, in Manotick, I would go for a walk, buy some french fries and eat those french fries. Not terribly dramatic.
I cried later, of course. I cried a lot. Often when I didn’t want to. And often when I wanted to, I didn’t. Death and grief work as they will, not the way you expect them to.
The circumstances of the night and morning of my Dad’s death are one of those things I don’t often talk about, except in my private journal. Mainly because it is so difficult to express the myriad of feelings and experiences that swirl through my mind whenever I think about it. For one thing, although an understandably important day in my life, it was not, as you might expect, the saddest day of my life. I was not especially sad that day. I was sad of course, but I’d had some far worse days during Dad’s illness and I would have many painful days to come while I grieved. The day of his death was too surreal to feel properly sad. Mostly I didn’t really feel anything at all.
Like many of you, prior to my Dad’s illness, my chief experiences with death consisted of having had to put my cat down and dramatic and poignant portrayals of death bed scenes in movies.
Let’s get this clear while we can: life is not an after-school special and death rarely, if ever, happens the way it does in movies. There are no deathbed speeches, no swelling music and it doesn’t always rain. Death is not particularly cinematic.
But there’s nothing wrong with that.
Life isn’t a movie. And it shouldn’t be one. Our lives are not meant to be condensed into two-hour bite-sized chunks. They go on for a long time, not all at once. Life happens day by day and we are meant to live it day by day.
I have no idea what my last words to my father were, nor do I remember his last words to me. I think I said, “Goodnight. Love you!” because that’s what I always said. But if my life were a movie, Dad’s Last Words would have been a pivotal scene. Major life decisions and plot points would have hinged on that final goodbye. But my life is not a movie. I didn’t think to note Dad’s last words to me because I had no idea that I would never see him again. How could I? I didn’t have the script.
When someone has a terminal illness you expect them to die at any moment, but paradoxically (since our minds can’t handle that sort of stress), expecting something all the time translates to never really expecting it at all.
As I wrote in my journal at the time: “Anticipating an axe to fall does nothing to lessen its effect.”
However, though I don’t remember my actual last moment with my father, I do remember this:
About a month before he died, maybe more, maybe less, he and I were alone in the dining room. It was just after dinner and everyone else was cleaning up in the kitchen. I was clearing the table. Dad was wheelchair bound at this point and was largely dependant on us to move him. He was waiting patiently for us to finish cleaning so that one of could wheel him to the sitting room. At that point, with all the visitors and all the care he needed, it wasn’t often that I had moments alone with him. I was reaching for his plate when all of a sudden he said to me,
“I’m sorry for leaving you like this.”
He was choked up and couldn’t say anymore, but he didn’t have to. I knew what he meant.
Sorry to put you through this. Sorry we have to suffer. Sorry for leaving you before you’re ready. Sorry for all the years we’ll never have.
What do you say to that? You don’t say anything. I stood behind his wheelchair and put my arms around him and held on tight and cried with him. It was the kind of crying where you don’t make a sound, you bury your feelings in each other. And then I finished clearing the table. Because life went on. As it does.
He would go on to live another month. We would talk many more times. I would massage his aching limbs and read to him from The Wind in the Willows and the night he died I would kiss him goodnight. But I understand now that it was that moment in the dining room, two years ago now, that my father said goodbye to me.
Death will surprise you. Nothing about it will be exactly what you expect. You will cry a lot less than you think you will. You will laugh a lot more than you think you will. There will be many poignant moments, but never when the script demands it. And no matter how ready you think you are, you’re not.
You will always think that you have more time, even if it takes eight months and when it finally happens you will think ‘already?’
If you’re like me, you may feel guilty; your head rattling with “But I should have said…” and “But I should have done…” We feel we have failed because we didn’t do enough, we didn’t say everything we wanted to say, we didn’t ‘prove’ our love enough.
But life, and love, happens in the smallest of moments. Moments you may not even notice.
This is the advice I can give you:
Every time you leave, make sure you always say,
“I love you.”
[Contributed by: Caitlin Corbett]