Sometimes to get through difficult moments in life, you have to peel off the tough layers and get down to the heart of the matter. I have many friends and acquaintances who’ve experienced tough losses of loved ones—some years ago and some very recent, but in either case, loss has a way of changing us all. The important thing to remember is that though it’s sometimes difficult to understand and recognize, grief is a very long and painful process. The letter below is one of the most raw and personal pieces I’ve ever written and decided to share publicly. I’m sharing it now not only as part of my own healing process, but also for those who might feel alone in their struggle with grief. I want you to know that no matter who you are, or what you’ve lost, you are not alone.
February 3, 2018
The other day I was driving home from work, and I imagined you were sitting next to me in the passenger’s seat. You never liked my driving. You said I never braked soon enough or I followed too close (both opinions of which I emphatically disagreed). But this time, rather than criticizing my driving, I imagined you sitting there quietly with the same crooked smirk on your face that would always appear when I was upset about something you thought was ridiculous. That smirk always made me angry. It made me feel like you didn’t take me seriously, or that my problems weren’t important to you. But, now that you’re not here, I realize what that expression really meant. You weren’t patronizing me, really, you were just taking a moment to recognize (without actually verbalizing it) all the things I had left to learn. Sometimes I hated you for that, but now I finally understand all the things you never said.
It’s been five years to the day since I last heard your voice, yet the sound of it is still so clear inside my head. I remember exactly the way you looked the last time I saw you in that small café where we used to have breakfast every Super Bowl Sunday in honor of your birthday (on February 4th). You were especially chipper and dressed in a black half-zipped sweater with the collar turned up—the way guys half your age liked to wear them—and you smelled like smooth cologne. You bickered playfully with your wife the entire time we ate, you poked fun at your daughters (who consistently rolled their eyes at you), and you laughed and joked with your friend from AA who joined us that morning. When it was time to leave, I hugged you and I told you to have a good birthday. As we parted I felt the scruff of your facial hair against my cheek when you told me, “thank you.” Your voice was gruff, the result of countless years of smoking and surviving lung cancer—twice. I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw you, and I don’t remember if I told you, “I love you.”
The following day was Monday, and I didn’t call you—even though it was your 67th birthday. I had a busy day at work and I meant to talk to you on my way home, but I didn’t. I told myself I just saw you the day before and we had already caught up on all the usual things that fathers and daughters who were never really all that close could possibly catch up on during a 90-minute breakfast. Even though we were in a good place then, when I didn’t feel like talking to you, I sometimes still justified it by reminding myself of just how much you missed out on when I was younger. Birthdays, choir concerts, heartbreaks, softball games, and so much more.
But, I’m sorry now that I didn’t make that call, because you died eight days later.
So much has changed in my life since you’ve been gone and, the funny thing is, sometimes when I’m grocery shopping or driving downtown I sometimes think I catch a glimpse of you. As I turn my head to check, for a split second, I forget that you aren’t here anymore. And, as I imagined you sitting next to me in the passenger’s seat the other day, I wondered what would you say to me now if you knew all that’s happened since you left? Would you give me that same smirk and say nothing because you always knew that somehow, I’d figure things out on my own? Or, would you give me the father-daughter talk we never had and tell me I was doing all the right things and that, eventually, everything would be ok? Would you look at the decisions I’ve made and nod your head in quiet approval because you know I’m making my way in this world with absolutely no help from you? You always knew that was the case and, deep down, I know I’m a stronger woman because of that. Yet, sometimes, I wish it hadn’t been that way.
You said to me once that you were proud of the women your daughters had become—and you knew that was in no way thanks to you. You were right about that, though we stopped blaming you for it long before you said it out loud. Without words you always gave credit where credit was due. You handed that merit to our mother, as well as the man who stepped into your shoes during the years when you were absent and lost from us. And, for that, we were always grateful. And, we were proud of you when you finally put down the bottle and found your way back to us, even though I wish it had been so much sooner than it was. Even though you could have been, you weren’t jealous of the relationship we built with our second father, and you held no grudges. You knew he gave us what you couldn’t give at the time—and you knew the only person to blame for that was you. But, what you didn’t know, is that because of that grace and unabashed honesty, we learned to let go of our grudges, too. It made us realize that family is comprised of so much more than blood alone.
But, as tough times circle me now, and people wonder why I can’t talk about my feelings the way I should—I think about you, James, and all the things we never said to each other. We were so much alike, you and I. You probably always knew that, but it’s taken me nearly 45 years to fully understand it. I always knew how proud you were that even though I wasn’t the son you really wanted—I was still your namesake, and you were glad when I kept our family name attached to mine, even though I didn’t have to. When I look in the mirror now, though I usually see my mother, I want you to know that I see you, too. And I miss you—everyday, which is so strange to me because I never missed you like this when you were alive. I won’t lie and say that if you were here I’d tell you everything that’s on my mind because, honestly, we both know that’s not true. That’s not who we were. But, it doesn’t stop me from wishing that I could talk to you—especially now.
I want you to know that even though you had come in and out of my life so many times before, on February 11th, 2013 your unexpected exit changed me drastically—and it changed all of us who knew and loved you. I can’t forget you, even when I’m mad at you for leaving so many loose ends and unanswered questions. At the end of every hard day I have lately, I wonder if you’re beside me. Believe it or not, it makes me feel better to imagine that fucking annoying smirk on your face. And, sometimes I even hear you saying with a half-hearted laugh, “It’s really gonna be ok, kid, but you should really stop buying all those God-damn shoes and getting tattoos.” Even though I work my ass off, have a house, no car payment, a 401K, a small savings and a college fund for your granddaughter (all the things you said responsible adults should have), I know you’d still criticize me for spending money on shoes, and you’d disapprove of my tattoos (even though secretly I know you’d think they were badass).
It’s taken me a long time to write this letter to you, Dad. But, I think you know why that is, and I think you understand why I need to write it now. You were never a model father, and rarely the one your daughters needed, but I forgive you for that now. I know you loved me, and I know you were proud of me—even when you didn’t say it. I hope that you’re still proud of me despite all my mistakes, failures and decisions you would totally disagree with. I don’t blame you anymore for my struggles, I own them, because I am very much my own woman despite where I came from. I want you to know that I keep the memory of you close, and I see your eyes inside of mine. I try to be a better parent than you were and I know that I am, even though I know I make just as many mistakes, only in different ways. I will always be a part of you, and I know you’ll always be a part of me. We didn’t choose each other, James, but when God was handing out souls he knew he had something important to teach us both, and I’m forever grateful for the lessons learned—even when they hurt like hell.
I love you, Dad. Rest well and happy birthday.
Your second born, Jamie