Too Late to Say Good-bye

May 1, 2008

THE SPAGHETTI NOODLES always arrived from Portland in a two-foot long box, carefully curled in half at one end, which made it just possible to ease them slowly into the rapidly boiling water and cook them whole. We never ate them whole except when we had the missionaries over for dinner. It was Dad’s favorite way of breaking in the new missionaries—not new in the field, but new to our family. Watching the nineteen- and twenty-year-olds politely lift their forks higher and higher in an attempt to get to the end of the noodles while also keeping their white shirts clean seemed like great fun to us kids. It must’ve amused my dad, too.

Although he had a reputation as a hard worker, my father could be quite the tease. In honor of him, I usually make his favorite cake from scratch—spice cake with caramel frosting—and serve it to my kids on his birthday. I want them to remember the grandfather they’ve never met. I always tell them the same old story: We would gather around the table for dessert and inevitably Dad would point across the room or out the window in order to distract us, then sneak our caramel frosting—which we had painstakingly saved for last—and eat it.

We fell for it every time.

One year my dad earned a significant sales bonus from his employer. We had a choice: a boat or a swimming pool. We kids all voted for a pool. After all, the neighbors had a pool. But my dad, in his wisdom, cast the most weighted vote and bought a boat. I think he knew that a boat would provide a good excuse for him to take time away from work on occasion to be with his family. And it did. Our family made many good memories together out on Fern Ridge Reservoir in that boat.

I also have fond memories of our yearly road trips from our home in Oregon to my grandfather’s ranch in Randolph, Utah. Sometimes we drove straight through, often in the middle of the night. My job was to help Dad stay awake. I remember sitting behind the driver’s seat, gazing out the window at the big stars and talking to him until I would eventually fall asleep myself. Once we arrived in Randolph, Dad would busy himself with branding or whatever else my grandpa needed. But I always appreciated the time we spent together during those long drives.

My last drive home from Utah with my dad was at the end of my first year at BYU. I hadn’t been home since Christmas. And I’d failed to read between the lines of the letters from home, never realizing how difficult things had become for my family. I didn’t have any idea my father had become so ill. But when he came to pick me up, I noticed how thin he was. We stopped in Randolph on the way home. It wasn’t until I saw that he was too sick to work the ranch that I began to grasp the seriousness of his situation. But even then, I still had no idea what was coming.

By the end of June, Dad was hospitalized with what we thought was ulcerative colitis. I vaguely remember talk of a procedure doctors would perform and some hint that if they didn’t succeed he would only get worse down the road. That prognosis was just vague enough to be beyond any of our imaginations.

At the time, I was still too naive to really consider the possibility of losing someone I loved. The doctors told us they needed to keep Dad in the hospital for the rest of the week and build up his strength before they could undertake the procedure. Earlier that week I had written Dad a letter to cheer him up and express my love and appreciation for him. I’d planned to give it to him on Saturday, when I would finally have a long enough break from my two jobs in order to make the thirty-minute drive to the hospital.

Just after two o’clock on the morning I was planning to visit him, my mother awakened me with the news: Dad was gone.

I never got to say good-bye.

One of my brothers punched a hole in the wall. Another kept everything inside until it came pouring out of him as he watched The Lion Kingtwelve years later. Grief worked its way out of the six of us kids in different ways. I dreamt it was all a dream and that Dad came back to us. I cried. I cried a lot the first few days. Some awareness of his absence would hit me at the oddest times, and I would cry some more. Even a year later, when my mom sold off many of our possessions and packed up the house to follow her oldest children out to Utah, I cried when she finalized the sale on the boat. That’s the only time I remember crying over a material possession.

I was mad, too. I took my grief out on the people who were the closest to me. Thankfully a friend—a young man who was grieving the loss of my father as his mentor—cared enough to set me straight one night. He showed me how badly I was hurting the people who loved me the most. I heard the truth in his words and finally made the choice to start the long process of healing the aching hole in my heart.

Time does heal, but I still have issues about saying good-bye. Looking both forward and back, I fear having regrets about how I spent my time with people. I don’t want to be so caught up in the busyness of life that I fail to connect with family and friends. I feel a need to cut through the safe distance people tend to keep between one another and truly know and love those around me. I want to be able to tell people how much they mean to me. I want them to know I admire them and how simply knowing them blesses my life.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Dad’s funeral was observing how he had blessed the lives of others. As family and friends gathered at the funeral to say our too-late good-byes, I was awed at how many people attended. As a kid, you never stop to consider who your parents are outside of being your parents, but I learned a lot about my dad that day. He was a friend to everyone. He had a reputation for treating people fairly and with respect, no matter what their station in life. People who were complete strangers to us traveled great distances to attend because they knew my dad considered them a friend. I remember wanting to become that same kind of friend.

Although it was a time of unfathomable sorrow, mostly when I look back what I remember is the love. Friends and family wrapped their loving arms of comfort around us and completed numerous acts of service that left a lasting impression on my heart and mind. From filling our fridge with comfort food to landscaping our front lawn while we were in Utah for his burial, people loved us through our loss in ways we never expected.

After the funeral we got the results of the autopsy. It was cancer—cancer of the colon, the stomach, and the liver. Back then the c word wasn’t so common, but it always meant a death sentence. And we never knew. Later we would speculate over whether his doctor knew and told my dad and he wanted to spare us the pain, or whether Dad ever knew what hit him. Not that it matters now. But ever since cancer robbed me of my father, I seem to take cancer diagnoses in my friends—even in people I don’t know well—a little personally.

Almost twenty-five years later, the edges of the hurt have worn down somewhat. But I’m always surprised at how random experiences—something as simple as cooking spaghetti with my daughter—can bring the memories flooding back. Maybe I am more keenly aware of my father because I recently turned forty-four, the age he was when he died. Somehow seeing myself this age and observing my life—my marriage, my family, the various ages and stages of my children—through this perspective makes my father seem less distant to me.

At the same time, knowing I see things from the same time and space that he did when he passed away also makes his death seem more tragic. My oldest child will be leaving home in less than a year. While I still look back and wonder if I gave him everything he needed, I also look forward and know there is still so much more to come. I anticipate witnessing the rest of the “growing up” that my dad missed with his children and is missing with his grandchildren.

My eight-year-old tells me I cannot ever die before he does because he could not live without me. While I know he could survive such a loss, I’d rather he not worry about the uncertainties of the future. So I share the love of family with my children through memories of good times past. I cook pasta with my daughter and tell her about four-foot-long spaghetti. I bake birthday cakes with caramel frosting and show my kids how Dad would snatch away the best we’d saved for last. And I look ahead. I continue to pass on the stories and the love and make a greater effort to play with my kids while we are still together.

And when they leave I always remember to say, “Good-bye, I love you.”

May 1, 2008