I knew my dad had cancer six months before he actually died on April 29, 1993. One would think that six months was plenty of time to say good-bye to him and say the things to him I’ve always wanted to say. But the fact of the matter was, I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to my father. He had cancer long before he told me. He kept it to himself for as long as he could then when it became obvious to all of us that he had crossed that invisible line of no return, he let me in on his secret.
In retrospect, part of the reason he waited so long to tell me was that he wasn’t ready to let go. He wasn’t ready to say good-bye to his family, his friends, his pharmacy, and his faithful dog that kept him company on the couch in our den when he came home after a long day of pushing pills to the rich and famous of Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, he was in denial about his imminent death right to the end. I know because I was there when he drew his last breath.
My mother had spent a grueling night with dad and at about five in the morning she came into the room where I was staying and asked me to be with him while she tried to get some sleep. Dad was lying on his right side, talking incoherently and moaning from the pain racking his body. He would sit up. Lie down. Sit up. Lie down. He asked for some more of the pain medication that could only be administered to him through an eye dropper. I gave him a little bit of the Roxinol then got him to lie down again. I was sitting behind him, rubbing his back and then I said the words that I didn’t want to say, but words I knew someone had to say and that someone was me. I told him it was time for him to let go. I told him good-bye but even as I said the words, they felt like they were coming out of the mouth of a stranger. I wasn’t ready to let him go and say good-bye. Not really. Even now I have days when I look back to the morning of April 29, 1993 and feel like I was watching a movie on Lifetime about someone else’s experience.
He was gone ten minutes later and as the process took place, the last word out of his mouth was “No!” He wasn’t ready to say good-bye either.
I’ve said good-bye to my dad and good-bye to both grandmothers and there are days when I wake up I wonder if this will be a day I have to say good-bye to someone else I love. When we spend time with people in our lives and say good-bye to them after dinner, after meeting a best friend for tea or after going on a long hike sometimes we wonder if the good-bye we say to them will be the last. And what if it is? What if?
We all have our way of dealing with the loss of someone close. Sometimes we get through the grieving quickly and sometimes we never get over the loss. Closure is an important aspect of letting go and the methods of closure run the gamut. Mine was simple. I took part of my dads’ ashes and backpacked far into the Sierra wilderness. I honored him by scattering his ashes amongst the terrain he loved. He introduced me to the mountains. He is the reason I reside in high altitude today.
I have a friend who has the ashes of her husband on the shelf in her bedroom while another friend took part of his wife’s ashes and had them mixed with oil paint. He had a local artist paint a portrait of his late wife with the oil and ash mixture and the portrait is now hanging up in the stairwell of his house. Eternal art.
Death isn’t the only reason we say good-bye to people. We fall in love. We fall out of love. We say good-bye. Sometimes we are still in love when we say good-bye. We say good-bye to our children when they go off into the world and we say good-by to the towns we grew up in so we can explore new places to live on the planet. What about the families and friends who said good-bye and bon voyage to the folks who didn’t survive the tragedy of the Titanic when it sank on April 15, 1912? They said temporary good-bye’s, not knowing that the good-byes were going to turn permanent.
I don’t particularly like saying goodbye to my kids when they have to leave after a wonderful visit. My granddaughter didn’t like saying goodbye to me when she was pulled from my arms and put into her carseat for the long ride back to Ventura but she’ll eventually learn that a small good-bye mean that a great, big “hello” is just around the corner.
Because many our good-bye’s can have sense of permanency maybe it’s time to change the words to something like, “See you later” because according to those folks who see people that have passed on to the other side, we will, without a doubt, see them later.