Posted February 16, 2015 by jimhigley
(This is the seventh week of a six-month journey of self-discovery. Thanks for joining me. Today we begin with Chapter 6 from my book, “Bobblehead Dad: 25 Lessons I Forgot I Knew.” I hope you’ll come back this week for more thoughts on this chapter.
It was a couple of weeks after my mom died. I was fourteen and just beginning to grasp the reality of what had happened. I was feeling something I hadn’t yet felt since the beginning of the ordeal surrounding her death a few weeks earlier. It was a void bigger and deeper than anything I had ever experienced. And although as a fourteen-year-old I still thought I knew everything, I was only starting to understand that this new life—the one without my mom—was actually going to last forever. I found myself desperately trying to catalog every possible memory of her. Would I remember her smile? What did her eyes look like? Would her voice actually slip away too?
I wanted someone to come along and fix everything. I’d have negotiations with God where I’d promise to do anything—anything at all—if he’d give me my mom back. I’d create scenarios in my head where she would walk through the door, alive and well, and tell us the story of how she had been part of a top-secret government project that required her to fake her death for national defense purposes.
I wanted her back. I didn’t care how. I didn’t care about logistics. I just wanted her back.
One day, a family friend stopped by our house shortly after I got home from school. I was getting used to people visiting. Usually they were dropping off food or a batch of cookies. I also knew they were checking in on me. Conversations with these people were always the same. They’d tell me what a wonderful mother I had. They’d tell me a favorite story about her. And most times, they would cry. This particular friend, however, had a message that had yet to hit my ears.
“You know,” she said, “you’re really lucky because your father is still young enough to remarry. And you can kind of have a new mom.”
Yup. I guess my whole perspective was just plain wrong. Lucky me. Lucky Dad. This could all be resolved by introducing a new woman into our lives. Let’s start taking applications!
Hearing this family friend’s bizarre words was the first time in my life I realized the absurd, insensitive things people sometimes say at the wrong time. It was my initiation into the world of hurtful comments people throw out when, oddly enough, they think they are being helpful.
My dad, who had been battling cancer off-and-on for a few years, was finally losing the battle. He had been hospitalized and was close to death. Ever since the day my mom had died, I dreaded the day I would lose my dad. Intellectually, I knew it was bound to happen. But I always hoped that day would be far into the future.
He was seventy-two, and the future was now.
He had lived a fabulous life. He was given not only one but two wonderful marriages. We were all blessed when he found love again in the one woman, Arlis, who had the strength, compassion, and inner confidence to join our testosterone-filled family. My brothers and I knew we had so much to be thankful for as we each spent time with Dad in the hospital during those last couple of weeks of his life.
We had been down this path before, with our mom—twenty-two years and nine months earlier. Hospital waiting room moments with my brothers—for both my mom and my dad—are probably some of the most intimate, personal ones I’ve ever shared with my siblings. All of life’s distractions are gone. The focus is so simple. It’s all about coming to terms—individually and collectively—with the looming departure of both a person and a part of your own life.
A day or two before my dad died, I was in the waiting room alone with my brother Kevin. We were talking about our dad, about the life he gave us, about how lucky we were, when a family friend entered the room and stumbled into our conversation.
“How’s your dad, boys?”
“Well, he’s still telling jokes, so he’s good.”
“Have you decided what you’re going to do about his funeral and where he’s going to be buried?”
Kevin and I were speechless. Dumbfounded. Blown away. Did this guy actually just ask such an insensitive question? He came all the way out to the hospital to ask us where our dad—who was still very much alive—was going to be buried?
My brother Kevin’s life ended at the age of forty-six. Brain cancer. Just like my mom. He fought for eighteen months—during which time he gave every member of our family the most amazing collection of memories and love.
Kevin did not have any children, yet there was no one in our family who connected with kids as well as he did. No one remotely close. Everything about Kevin was cool, especially through the eyes of a young person. He brought such joy to each of my three children, especially my oldest child, who is named after him.
When Kevin died, we all died a little. Actually, we all died a lot. Kevin was so much a part of our family and his death extinguished a spirit within each of us.
“Thank goodness he didn’t have any children.”
I heard that comment regularly after he died, as friends tried to support and comfort me. I don’t mean merely a couple of times, either. Over and over, people would offer their condolences to me with some commentary about how lucky we all were that Kevin didn’t have any kids.
Clearly, I understood they were focusing on a concept that no children would have to endure the loss of a parent. I, more than most people, could empathize because I was one of those children many years ago. What people didn’t understand was that, with Kevin’s death, our entire family was mourning the loss of one thing—Kevin.
We didn’t feel fortunate about anything. There wasn’t a bright side to this story.
I suppose i should have expected it. I suppose my prior experiences should have prepared me for what I was about to encounter as soon as they gave me the official cancer diagnosis.
“Thank goodness it’s only prostate cancer. You’ll be fine!”
“My seventy-five-year-old uncle was diagnosed a few years ago with the same thing and he is doing great!”
I was overwhelmed with how many times I heard comments like that. Daily.
I wanted so desperately to jump back with an answer, to let people know their comments weren’t making me feel any better. I wished they could hear what my doctor told me so they might begin to understand this wasn’t a little issue.
“A young guy like you shouldn’t have this kind of cancer,” my doctor said. “Something’s very wrong when a guy your age deals with this.”
To put it into perspective, roughly 200,000 men in our country are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. And with less than 1 percent of those men in my age bracket, I was in a club with very few members.
So, while I needed many things, sugarcoated comments weren’t high on that list.
I needed reassuring words, most definitely. But I didn’t expect anyone to say things to make it all go away. Life can be hard. I get it.
Some things can’t be fixed instantly—if ever.
I really just needed to hear people say, “I care.”
Better yet, I needed someone to say, “I will be there for you. You won’t be alone.”
And if they weren’t comfortable with words, I would have simply loved to get a great big hug.
Want more? Read last week’s posts including Chapter 5!