I was thinking about my dad today and with that came thoughts about grief and loss. My dad passed away almost 10 years ago after a six-month battle with Small Cell Lung Cancer (SMLC). If you aren’t aware, SCLC is the type of lung cancer that most often effects smokers (or those exposed to smoke on the regular), and my father was a smoker for almost my entire life and long before I was brought into this world. He stopped briefly after a heart attack at 40 but unfortunately his addiction was too strong. My brother and I posted “No Smoking Section” signs around the house when we were little and over the years, I expressed my disdain for this habit and plead with my father to stop but for whatever reason he never could until it was too late.
Ten years later and I still miss him every day. Something will still remind me of him or the wish that he could “be here” for this moment. My beliefs on death and the afterlife are still a bit fuzzy. My mother would say he’s “still with us” or he’s “looking down on us” and that’s all well and good but I remember being a tween when my own grandfather passed away and all that did was creep me out. I was not happy at the idea of my grandfather “always looking down on us” from Heaven; when I got out of the shower for example. I remember distinctly sitting in my room one day after a shower, wrapped in a towel, looking around my room like “Dziedek?” (Dziedek = Grandfather in Polish) And ever since then my feelings around “Heaven” have been a little skeptical.
But I digress….the afterlife (or lack thereof) is not the point of this.
The point is living with the grief over the past ten years and the 6 months that led up to his passing.
When my father was first diagnosed I, of course, went to “the Google” and read up on SCLC. It’s a pretty gnarly and fast acting cancer. At the time, median survival was only approximately 18 months which meant on average patients diagnosed with this cancer usually died around 18 months — some shorter, some longer; we all know how averages work, right? I knew something was up when they wanted to start chemo like yesterday and were scrambling to call other hospitals to find the drugs. I met the doctor outside my father’s room and said, “tell me the truth.” The poor doc looked like a caged and worn out animal, didn’t help that I towered over him (thanks Dad!), and said “we try to treat each patient as an individual, not a statistic….*pause*…cherish what time you have left with your father.” I nodded and went back into the room. I knew what he meant.
I also talked with my minister at the time, Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti (who is a man of incredible insight and compassion honestly if you ever get the chance to meet him you should do it regardless of your faith tradition). I expressed my frustrations and anger that basically my dad had done this to himself, and we were suffering because of it. He acknowledged my feelings but told me to stop and just love my father and be present with him during whatever time we have left.
Because of the doctor and Manish, I spent those six months trying to remain present and enjoy what I still had with my father while I still had it. Some days it certainly wasn’t easy and some days I was angry as hell that I was going to lose my father in some unspecified amount of time but I kept going.
Now almost ten years have gone, and I still think about him every day; I am incredibly sad that he isn’t around to meet my daughter. I can just see my Dad with my daughter trailing behind him as his little helper, the way I was at her age. Unfortunately, my daughter has never met him but she does ask about him once and a while and I try to tell her stories or share experiences with her like “my dad used to do this with me.” While we were camping a few weeks ago, I told her that her Babci and Dziedek (my parents) took me camping when I was her age so this was something I was passing on to her.
While I still miss my Dad, I don’t feel the gut wrenching absence that his death initially caused. The hole that was there in 2012 when he passed away has been filled with the way my Mom (Babci) tries to be the best she can for my daughter, the way I share things with my daughter and say “my Dad, your Dziedek, taught me that”, or when I see her following after her own father trying to be his helper.
In those last six months, I really tried to embrace the message from Manish and the doctor so I could focus on what is and not what could or should be.
I’m not in a stranglehold from grief or regret because there wasn’t anything left unsaid or undone when he died. When we sneaked (or snuck depending on what country you live in) into my mom’s house to decorate that first Christmas after he passed, I said to my brother it wasn’t about ignoring that he existed just because it hurt so much (we were debating putting up one of his golfing ornaments on the tree), it was about celebrating that he was in our lives; I can still hear him to this day whistling “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”.
I can’t be wrapped up in “what ifs” because I’ll miss what is — which is beautiful even if someone is missing from it.
What if we always acted like we might die tomorrow? What regrets wouldn’t we live with or what wouldn’t be left unsaid?
Whether it’s telling people that we love or appreciate them (why is this so hard sometimes?) or telling people the things that are getting on our nerves or hurt us so it can stop twisting us up in knots — things shouldn’t be left unsaid because what happens if you could never say them again?