Five years ago this morning, my phone rang right after I got out of the shower. It was my sister, who said something I will never forget:
“They think Dad’s had a stroke. They’re not sure he’s going to make it. You need to come home now.”
I did that clichéd thing that, until then, I thought only happened on tv; I sat down on the kitchen floor in my bathrobe, too stunned to stand, to think, to move.
I didn’t make it home before he died. I didn’t even make it as far as my brother’s house.
It was what Dad had always wanted, a quick and (presumably) painless death. Over the years, I have grown to see the blessing in that; the multiple sclerosis had already robbed him of so much in life that fate, karma, God – what/whoever it might be – owed him a good death.
In the moment, though, and in many, many moments that followed, it was unspeakably difficult. There were no final goodbyes, parting words, last hugs. I craved that one last chance to say “I love you.”
Over these five years, I’ve come to realize he didn’t need to hear it one last time. And really, I didn’t need to say it, either, because I’d said it already. Dad called me the week before he died, to see how my new job was going and to find out if I was feeling better from the nasty bout of walking pneumonia I had, and while I can’t recall it specifically, I know the call ended “Love you./Love you, too.” I know this because that’s how our calls always ended. The words we said to each other at the end of a casual conversation were exactly what we would have said if we had one last chance to say goodbye.
Figuring that out, of course, does not mean I don’t still miss him terribly, because I do. So many things remind me of him: A rerun of “Law & Order” will come on, and I remember his ability to recount the entire plot of an episode before the end of the opening scene. I see a walk-off home run at a baseball game and know he’d have loved to hear all about it. I always pick Syracuse to win March Madness because I remember how happy he was the year they won. I watch in awe as my brother’s younger son replicates Dad’s facial expressions and gestures with amazing (and unknowing) accuracy.
I’m pretty sure Dad would be pleased that so many parts of my life make me think of him, and he would be so damn proud of his grandsons, I know that for sure. And he’d be happy that his family has spent the last five years getting closer and taking good care of each other. We learned together the hard lesson that you never know what the last time might be, and I think it’s made us all a little more aware of how we leave things. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, I think.