This article by John Pete appears in the book, “Open To Hope – Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss” (Dr’s Gloria and Heidi Horsley).
I found out this week that my father’s years-long battle with cancer has moved to a terminal stage. And while the news is not completely unexpected, it is a frightening jolt to be faced with his mortality in terms of months, all the same. My father has quietly admitted that he is afraid and not yet ready to die; heartbreaking words from someone whose emotions are usually very reserved.
My dad would likely be surprised to know that I have always seen him as one of the strongest men I have ever known, despite the fact that there have been many differences between us. He has not lived a perfect life by any means, and he has certainly made his share of mistakes. But I have always admired the strength of character he has displayed throughout his life.
My parents divorced when I was very young, and I have often reflected on this with a sadness that my father and I have not been very close through the years. While many in our family have believed it is because of our differences, the truth is, it is moreso because we are so much alike in many ways. And no matter how many disagreements there have been, or how much time we spent apart throughout our lives, I have never – ever wavered in my love for my father. And deep in my heart I will always be that little boy excitedly waiting to see his “daddy” on weekend visits and holidays; and he will always be the father I have been so proud of and quick to defend to others.
A little over a year ago my dad lost his mother to congenital heart failure in hospice. I watched my father intently as he sat by grandma’s bedside day after day holding her hand, wetting her dry lips with a damp cloth, and gently stroking her hair. And I watched his quiet tears when she took her last breaths and eventually passed. It was a very touching side to my father that I have very rarely witnessed.
Then just a few weeks ago we lost our much beloved dog, Tucker, and I was very surprised to receive a call from dad, saying he was sorry to hear about her passing. I was not surprised because I believe he lacks compassion, but because I have so rarely seen him express his feelings in this way. We talked about how much people love their pets and how they insert themselves into our lives as cherished family members. And it later occurred to me how much we both have changed over the years; how we have finally allowed each other to see our vulnerabilities, and to respect our differences without judging each other so harshly. And more importantly we have opened ourselves up to expressing ourselves to one another in new ways, and by saying “I love you” whenever we see each other or talk on the phone. Quite an accomplishment for us.
So now, as the precious commodity of time diminishes into the frightening inevitability of what lies ahead, I ask myself how I can comfort my father in final days, and how I will ever be able to say goodbye. And the unexpected answer is, I will do it by being my father’s son. By summoning the compassion, courage and strength in myself that I have found in him beneath a tough, reserved exterior. The man who I have discovered on a long and complex journey, which has led us both to more personal and spiritual growth than either of us could have imagined.
John Pete is a certified grief counselor and the founder MyGriefspace.Net, a peer support site for those grieving the loss of a loved one.