That Christmas was different.
We lingered in the kitchen.
Exchanging looks as if to say, “It’s not the same… I know.”
I thought maybe Dad would be able to come downstairs that day – weak, but able.
He was weak, but not able.
I like to think he heard all of our familiar voices downstairs, the adults milling about in tempered good cheer amongst kids living their best life ever…
Not wanting to ask, I wondered if it made him happy or sad.
Likely a bit of both.
Lots of mixed emotions happening here…
Heartbroken this is even happening AND grateful for every single day together.
Confused about what’s fair in life AND acknowledging “what simply is.”
I didn’t know what to get Dad for Christmas.
Everything material seems unnecessary or insignificant at the moment. And yet, I wanted to simultaneously buy him whatever I could to make up for... The future.
Three sticky tags written with our pet names for each other. The bond from having a family pet name has always felt inclusive and loving.
Three gifts, carefully wrapped:
1) A $20 scratcher
He’d only ever gone for the $1 kind, maybe $5 if the occasion called for it. So this seemed special.
Not so much for the money aspect, but for the thrill of the win. If Steve Jobs couldn’t save himself from Pancreatic Cancer, the winnings from a scratcher ticket weren’t going to cut it. Dad and I both share excitement for even just winning a new ticket… because it meant we still had a chance on the next one.
The adventure of the unknown.
2) Dark chocolate-covered almonds
He loves them. And while his body prevents him from wanting to eat at the moment, I carried an inkling of hope that maybe *this* would spur desire.
3) A framed print of my new favorite photo together
On our second adventure day in December, Julie FW captured a single beautiful moment in time that is forever captured in my memory.
The gifts remain unopened.
‘Things’, I suppose, seem pointless.
But I am there.
We were supposed to go to the ballet last week with new friends, Hillary & Ray, who had gifted us special Nutcracker performance tickets.
Transparently, it’s not my dad’s first choice of activity, but ever since I was a kid, my mom would drop hints to surprise her with tickets to a ballet.
I vividly recall being ten in the kitchen as she poked his side with a flirty look on her face and him rolling his eyes, nodding as if to say, “One day.”
I thought it would be amazing if he could take her on a date and gift her with that memory.
I can’t necessarily say, ‘happy wife, happy life’ applies in this particular case, but I suppose sacrifice never truly ceases in marriage. Especially given all that my amazing mom has sacrificed in the last nine months post-diagnosis.
I had imagined watching the agile dancers soaring high in the air and then collapsing with grace onto the floor.
Much like the dance we’ve been forced to do these past two weeks.
The ballet didn’t happen.
He could barely walk ten steps without gasping for breath, let alone to the car.
The next day, Ray & Hillary dropped off a box at the house - It was the most beautiful stained glass 2021 tree ornament of the Hotel Del Coronado.
I went to pull it out of the very snug box and my index finger went straight through one of the glass roof “tiles” right in the center. Everything else was intact except that one shattered shingle.
It actually is quite fitting that way, almost as if it were customized to match our year.
I loved the meaning of the ornament even more.
Perfectly intact aside from a shattered heart.
The empty chair at the dinner table didn’t feel quite right, especially since earlier I was so grateful it wouldn’t be empty that evening.
Mom asked us all to sit down at the table for grace. We bowed our heads and there was a 2-second silent beat.
We all quickly chimed in…
Dad is always the one who leads grace.
Changes change roles.
Downstairs, Mom did her best to keep up Christmas cheer for the kids… She’s resiliently go go go.
Escalating the stairs, the holiday music fades and the light becomes softer.
That evening, visiting Dad’s room felt very unlike Christmas. Pill bottles, electrolyte water, enzymes, nausea medicine, piles of blankets… not the usual leftover roll of wrapping paper or candy cane in sight.
Words felt like they needed to be said.
Tonight. On Christmas.
Prepared several days earlier for when the moment felt right, I questioned myself… How could this moment ever “feel right”?
The night of Christmas, I held my dad’s hand and said everything I needed to say to avoid regret from cementing itself in my heart.
I hadn’t yet cried in front of him up to this point. I’d always been able to make a swift escape from the room upon feeling the familiar tightness in my throat.
If he saw, it would admit this was something to be afraid of… that maybe there was a chance we couldn’t beat it.
I would make him proud by being strong, I thought.
I didn’t want information kept from me for fear of “not being able to handle it.”
At work, with practice and intention, I brilliantly compartmentalize. At home, my kids see me sad, but never in grief.
And yet… How can I possibly say goodbye forever to my Daddy without crying?
I’m five again asking for one more time.
One more piggyback ride.
One more walk around the neighborhood after dinner on a warm Summer evening.
In a key life moment such as this, I felt infallible.
So I said my piece… slow and steady through my trembling voice, to ensure he heard Every. Word.
He sat there, holding my hand with his eyes closed as he listened.
Nothing left unsaid. No regret.
I’ve only ever seen Dad tear up three times in my life: During the brutal opening scene of the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (thinking of his own father during war), at the death of his sister from her own battle with cancer, and the morning a doctor told us his mother would not be waking up again but could possibly still hear us talking to her.
The oldest of five younger siblings and often “man of the house” while his dad was away at sea, one tends to adopt a sense of toughness for the little ones.
As I read my words to him that Christmas night in the dim glow of the room, his lip quivered as he squeezed my hand.
I made it clear there’s always the chance of a miracle that he’ll still make it to age 107 as he wants, and none of us knows when our time is, which was important for me to say and important for him to hear.
If he’s not giving up, I’m not either.
But he needed to know our family was going to be okay no matter the outcome.
That my mom will be cared for and never want for anything… Besides him.
By day’s end, I had never felt such immense joy and equally immense heartache within a 24 hour period.
On this Christmas day of jubilee and excitement with my kids, I said goodbye to my Dad.
My eyes felt so tired, yet thoughts raced on once closed.
So this is what loss feels like… something slipping away.
Not yet gone, but not really here either.
At least not as I know him.
My dad knows he is loved. That will have to be enough to carry us forward.
As they say, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
He has declared a strong will to keep fighting, and now it’s simply a matter of whether or not his body will withstand the miserable and ever-changing side effects of chemo.
We are dancing, we are playing Whack-A-Mole, we are throwing the kitchen sink at this thing while biding time for everything we’re doing to work…
This ‘December With Dad’ month has not gone as planned. But we have lived the month TOGETHER, and that was the whole point in the end.
No matter if my time is first or his, I said my words.
If there’s someone in your life whose passing would leave you with regret for not saying what needs to be said, don’t wait until it’s too late…
If all of the above inspires even only one person to do so, I will feel peace.
For the grieving hearts who have previously expressed the importance of final words… Feeling Blessed & Grateful. ❤️
(My amazing Dad and me… a beautiful moment captured forever)