Among those college friends with whom I stayed up all night, took spontaneous road trips, and wondered about all that the future would bring are twin brothers who are friends to so many. Through football games and parents’ weekends, their parents became our friends too and welcomed large groups of college students to their home for summer shenanigans. In recent weeks this family has been on my mind as the patriarch’s health declines and a decision has been made to focus exclusively on palliative treatment.
They are a family of great faith and, until this morning, their prayer requests via social media have asked for total bodily healing of their beloved father. But that has not happened and they are making sense of the fact that he will leave them sooner rather than later. There is so much I want to say to them having faced my own versions of this parental loss journey in recent years.
First, there is no dishonor, no ungodliness in accepting that something sad and difficult is happening. Even though your father’s suffering will end, and in accordance with our faith, he will truly and joyfully meet his maker, the poignancy of saying farewell, if not goodbye, is real. It hurts and it does not need to be covered over by platitudes no matter how well intentioned. There is no shame or guilt in wishing that the current circumstance could be different. God knows what you wish for and it is the mark of your dad’s great love for his sons that you want to keep him on this earth forever. I believe our tears for our parents please God, because it means that, at least in part, the parents and the children have seen something of Him in each other, something they know they will miss.
The next reminder is to dwell on the commandment to “Honor Your Father and Mother.” Because during these next weeks or months, you will learn what that actually means. As a child, I thought honoring them meant using honorifics – Yes ma’am. No sir – and following their rules. As I got older and had to find my own path, I often felt sad and sometimes guilty that I was not exactly the daughter they thought they would have. I felt badly about celebrations for them that I couldn’t quite pull off, frustrated by conversations in which I chose to be argumentative/adolescent rather than accepting. But what I’ve learned in recent years is that, if we’re lucky, there is time to honor them anew, and that honor shows up them in the smallest of acts. Not reacting with anger or frustration when someone can’t quite make it to the bathroom. Putting fancy moisturizer on my 93-year-old mother’s face in the hospital. Manicuring my father’s nails when they become ragged and torn. Helping him with socks and shoes. Just as with the very young, it is the physical care of the body that is the most primitive indicator of our love. These are strange Rubicons to cross and yet there is sacredness to them that I hope you will not ignore.
Third is a lesson that many who grieve come to understand, but don’t necessarily speak. And, that is, that when you love someone fully, they do not leave you. Your relationship does not end; it simply changes. You see them in different places. I see my mother in the morning glory that turns away from the sun to peak in my doorway. I talk to her in my head most every day whether to ask advice, complain, or show off a new outfit. Very rarely, she shows up in a dream. At first I wanted that more, but now once in awhile is enough. I am not a sci-fi person, but I am beginning to wonder about the nature of time. There are some loves that simply are bigger than the linear time frame in which we live our lives. These loves don’t begin and end, they simply are, sometimes dormant as we pay attention to other things, but always present and waiting to speak to us again. Your relationship with your father is like that. He truly will be with you, even as he is not.
Finally, I remember our times together, your enveloping hugs that made me feel safe and cared about, our late night drives to Austin during exams, conversations by the suspension bridge plotting our respective futures, writing secrets on the walls of a house your folks were refurbishing before the paint went on, being one of many friends your parents welcomed home. We have no daily contact now. I have no means to be of any instrumental help. But know that far from East Texas someone loves you both, loves your dad, and wishes him and you Godspeed.
Photo Credit: Skylar C. Searing