Ours was a long goodbye.
It happened over years, although it felt like I was preparing for it my entire life.
Maybe it was the proverbial dark cloud that lay over him from the KOOL cigarette that always rested between his two fingers.
Perhaps it was the bleeding ulcer that made its appearance at the most inopportune times.
It could have been his ashen skin or gasping breaths or sunken eyes that gaze back at me in family photos.
He was larger than life, yet fragile. Full of vigor, but always sick. Capable and accomplished, while also needing so much help.
He would not listen to doctors. He would not listen to his family’s pleadings. He would not help himself.
I know there was a time my father was young and strong and healthy, but my memories of him are beautifully tangled, full of love and compassion and cigarettes and sick.
Yet, knowing that he would break my heart one day by dying never stopped me from loving him any less.
And even when the doctor sat across from my mother and me with a large, stark black desk sitting between us, and with a solemn face explained that the grapefruit-sized tumor in his lungs would only allow three more months to live, my dad ignored medical advice again and decided to live three more years.
It is both a gift and a curse when you know someone is dying.
You have the opportunity to say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. You are grateful for any additional moments you get to spend with your loved one, but tormented by watching them suffer.
I said a thousand farewells, planted hundreds of kisses, listened to stories and asked so much advice.
And even though I knew my dad and I were square, even though there were no words left to share, even though I knew my father sat on death’s doorstep, I was still stunned when I heard the words, “Dad died.”
My first thought was: “But I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Loving someone who you know is hurting themselves is one of the most difficult things to endure. Watching silently as years of self-abuse take their toll is gut-wrenching. And when I’m angry, I think of all the things I’d like to say or change or do differently, but I know that the time I had with my dad was an incredible gift. Even a second you shared with him would make you smile.
I no longer think if only my dad had stopped smoking, he would still be here with us today, because I am starting to understand that I was given more than I realized, more than maybe I even deserved.
His death, like his life, made me who I am today.
Ours was a long goodbye.
It’s been many years, and I’m still trying to let go.
It wasn’t nearly enough time.