48: Last Words

48: Last Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Last Words

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.

~From a headstone in Ireland

What I remember most vividly when stepping into Dad’s hospital room was the assault on the senses. The bright green walls were meant to be soothing, but to me they screamed of the desperation of the inmates. Nobody used this color in their homes. The noise of the machines helping my father to breathe sounded like the hissing snake of death. And the insidious odor of decay persisted despite the competing smells of antiseptic and bleach.

I took a deep swallow to quell the nausea. “Hi Dad,” I said quietly. He turned his face toward me, and what greeted me was a man who looked decades older than the last time I had seen him. While he had only been sick for a few months, I lived on the other side of the country, and the progress of cancer on his 59-year-old body was swift.

“Hi, honey,” he wheezed.

The instant our eyes met, I knew that he had surrendered to what was coming. When I looked into my father’s eyes, now clouded over with pain, I knew that he would never leave that bed again. And since I was boarding a plane in six hours, this would be the last time I would get to gaze at those eyes; I would never again feel the grip of his hand, never again hear the lilt of his voice.

He wasn’t strong enough for small talk. I simply held his hand and let the quiet tears fall. I don’t know if he saw them or not. Finally, when it was time to go, I summoned all my courage. I set aside my fears. I resolutely said, “I love you, Dad.”

Those words had never been said in my family. My father never said them to me, and until then, I never said them to him. In fact, I’m sure I never heard them uttered in our strict, Irish-Catholic household. It just wasn’t done. But my fear of rejection was outweighed by my knowledge that this was my last chance. And so I said it.

But he couldn’t give it back. His once dancing eyes, now muddy and confused, looked away. “I’m tired,” is all he said. “Maybe you better go.”

As we walked toward the elevator, my husband squeezed my hand and whispered, “You did the right thing.” The elevator doors slowly slid open; we stepped inside. Jeff pulled me to him. “It’s okay,” he said as I sobbed into his shirt.

Three days later, I sat with my nine siblings planning my father’s funeral. We alternated between tension and relief, laughter and tears. We had never been an expressive family, but there was a tangible sense of being tired of the restraint. His death was hardest on my youngest sister, just a sophomore in high school. She seemed confused by how this could have happened. As we shared “Dad stories” back and forth, she was unusually quiet, but finally said, in an almost embarrassed way, “I saw Dad right before he died. He took my hand, looked at me, and said ‘I love you, Caroline.’”

Her words hit me like a blunt force instrument. He loved her. Why hadn’t he said it to me? Finding out that just a day after I left him he told my sister, his youngest daughter, that he loved her, was a blow. How could he be so cruel? Did he really not love me?

It was easy to hide the reason for my tears—after all, we’d just lost our father—who would begrudge a child her grief? But no one knew the true source of my sorrow.

I’ll always wish that I had that moment with my father over again. I wish I had said, “It’s okay, Dad—you can say it.” But I don’t have it. What I do have is the moment with my sister. I know now that the risk I took helped him to find the courage to say what he wanted to say—but she was his audience, not me. Dad found the courage and strength, on his deathbed, to say “I love you.” I believe at least some of that courage and strength came from me. And I am grateful that at the time when he was most vulnerable, I gave him something of substance. Something that would help him to let go, and help my 15-year-old sister to let go as well.

So Dad, I wish you could have said it to me. But thanks for saying it to Caroline. And, by the way—I do love you. And I know you love me, too.

~Bridget McNamara-Fenesy

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