The phone rang. It was 2:17 in the morning. It’s never a “good” phone call at 2:17 in the morning.
For almost a week I had been expecting this call, but some part of me was hoping that it was a wrong number. Perhaps my roommate’s ex-girlfriend drunk dialing him after the bar closed? However it was a Wednesday, so that was a long shot.
When I answered, the voice on the other end of the phone was the one I most feared, my mother’s. Her normally stoic nature was absent and all I could make out was, “your father is gone.”
“I’ll be right there,” I replied.
I threw on some clothes and ran down the stairs to head over to my parent’s house. I remember thinking how cold it was when I got in my car, even for December. I remember thinking that the place I was going to was no longer my “parent’s” house, plural. Now it was just my mom’s house, singular. I remember thinking that I was now one of “those” people. You know, the people who get spoken about at parties.
“Did you hear what happened to Brian? His father died of a brain tumor. Only 47 years old.”
“Oh, I have no idea what I would do if something like that happened to me.”
But it did. It did happen to me.
I know now as a father myself, that the worst pain in the world would be to lose a child. But at twenty years of age, I didn’t yet have that perspective on life.
Back then the worst pain I could imagine would be losing the person you loved most in life. The person you looked up to. The one who protected you when you were frightened. The one who taught you how to fish, to throw a baseball, and to charm your mother when she was mad at you.
That was my dad. And now he was gone.
There is an age-old debate about whether it is best to go “quick,” or “slow.” The consensus is always that “quick” is the best. But here’s a secret…it depends on who is answering the question; the victim, or those they leave behind.
There was nothing unspoken between my father and I. He regularly told me that he loved me and I told him the same in return. There were no long simmering grudges or stretches without speaking that needed to be reconciled before his final exit. If he had died suddenly, in a car crash on the way home from work, it would have been cleaner. Neater. More dignified, certainly for him.
But the fact of the matter is, no matter how tough it was on him, I was glad to have him for those eighteen months in which I knew he was going to eventually die.
I used to feel guilty when I thought about this. How could I be so selfish? Those last months were hard on him as the tumor began to shut down parts of his body and mind day after day. What sort of non-caring, narcissistic person would want his own father to linger on in that state just to stave off his own fears and insecurities of a life without him?
With no kids of my own, I often assumed he would have rather gone quick if he could have. But now, as a parent myself, I know that that wasn’t the case.
If, God forbid, I was ever diagnosed with a fatal disease, I would put every ounce of my being into staying alive as long as I could. I would endure any amount of discomfort or suffering in order for more time with my children. A year. A month. Even days or hours would be worth any pain I would have to endure.
I would want every precious moment I could grab in order to help ensure that my children were that much closer to being able to live and prosper on their own after I was gone.
Back in 1985, if you lived six months past the time you were diagnosed with a brain tumor you were considered “lucky.” I think the reason my father tripled that “lucky” number was because of me and my sister. I think he felt then just like I feel now. I don’t think he regretted one extra moment with us, no matter how much he suffered.
I always carry my father’s spirit within, but at times he feels like a ghost to me. A fleeting vision or dream of a time that never really existed. I can see the man who was my father in the yellowing photos of camping trips, soccer games, and birthday parties past, but they don’t connect with me like I think they should.
In the world we live in today everyone has a video camera in their purse or pocket, but I feel somewhat cheated that there are only fourteen seconds that exist of my father on film.
Just fourteen seconds of a random video my aunt and uncle shot on their visit here from Australia. If it wasn’t for them being 1985’s tech version of “first adopters” there might not be any moving images of him at all.
This video was shot just months before he had the seizure that first alerted us that the clock was ticking on his time left on Earth. Though my mother naturally is “dominating” the conversation, he is very quiet in the video. Too quiet. Uncharacteristically quiet, focusing his attention on my young cousin instead of joining the conversation. I often wonder if he had any clue at that moment that things were not right?
Were there any pains in his head that woke him in the middle of the night? Did he begin to forget things he should know? Was there an inner sense in him that something was wrong? It’s a question I will never know the answer to.
In the months and years that passed after he died I would feel extremely guilty if I had a day where I was happy. Or a day where I didn’t think about him for a few hours here and there. I thought that that meant that I was forgetting him, or that I wasn’t missing him like I should.
Then one day it hit me. It was the cliché’ of all cliché’s but somehow it rang so true. I realized that my father, being the type of person he was; happy, outgoing, friendly, funny, warm, and loving, would not want me to cry over him. He would want me to live my life. To take all the best parts of him and make them part of me. He would want me to remember him, but to move on with my life.
I have tried to do that in the years since he left me as a very young man, unsure about myself, my life, and my future.
A quarter of century is a long time. I have lived more of my life without my father than I did with him. And sometimes I wonder if I have moved on too much.
In the last few years, as my daughter has gotten older she has begun asking me certain questions like, “where is YOUR daddy.” I have explained to her best I could about my father, who he was, and why he is not here with us. With the godsend that is youthful naiveté, she has only soaked up the joy of his story and not the sadness of his loss.
And for some unknown reason, instead of “Grandpa Kelly” he has become “Uncle Kelly” to her. And when her school had a project where the children brought a picture of someone in their family who had “gone to heaven” she brought a photo of my dad.
The other day she asked me if we could go to see where he was buried. Taken aback a bit I asked, “why do you want to do that?”
“I just want to remember him,” she replied.
“Remember him?” I said.
“Yes. I want to remember all the times when he played with me when I was a baby. And all the fun I had with him.”
“But sweetheart, ‘Uncle Kelly’ died a long time before you were born,” I explained to her. “You never got to play with him.”
“Oh,” she said pondering my statement for moment. “But I just want to go there and think about him daddy. It that okay?”
“Yes,” I told her as I held back my tears. “Yes, that is okay. That is very okay. I want to think about him too.”