My dad once told me that years after his mother passed away, he would wake up in the night crying because he missed her. My grandmother died in her 80s. She lived a long and full life. She was loved by her many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And yet, years after her peaceful passing, my dad still mourned her loss. Dad and his mother lived in different cities, but he called her once a week to visit. I have no doubt that his midnight tears spoke of his ache to hear her voice just one more time.
I found myself at my dad’s gravesite last week. Nine years ago he left us after dying instantly in a traumatic fall. He was trimming trees. He was determined and bold. He was 75. Like my grandmother, he was loved by his children and grandchildren. His life was full and, though not without heartache, he was blessed. But none who knew him were prepared to lose him. As we rushed to the emergency room, my nearly inaudible words to my husband were: “He can’t die. I still have things to tell him.” Standing over his grave last week, now 45 years old, this was still my heart cry:
Dad, I have things to tell you. Dad, things are happening in my life. Dad, I need to hear your voice on the line.
I wept that day with an intensity of longing for him that I had not expected. I wept because I still could not believe that I was standing over his bones. I wept because I still cannot believe that I don’t get to wrap my arms around him and feel him kiss my cheek. Yes, I have had nearly nine years to accept it. But he remains a part of my daily existence, his legacy so intertwined in my being that I can scarcely take a breath without sensing his influence. I felt, for the first time perhaps, anger at his absence. Anger at the unfairness of losing my dad at the age of 37. Anger at losing my dad while I still had young ones under my roof. Anger at losing my dad’s counsel while I still had decisions to make and new paths to pursue. For a moment, I wanted to beat my fists on the ground. I still have things to tell you, Dad. Grief has its stages, but they will not be enslaved to any timeline or order.
Leaving the cemetery, it occurred to me that we never truly outgrow the need for our parents to listen to our lives. This is one of my deep joys as a parent. To witness my children’s lives. To listen to their stories. To watch their dreams unfold, even in the midst of their struggles.
Indeed, this may be one of the greatest gifts we can give our children–listening to their lives. I saw a beautiful picture of this today. Walking in my neighborhood, I passed a young family playing in the yard. “Papa” (Grandpa) was playing too. I overheard the joyful exchange of voices between Papa, two little girls, and their young mother. Delight formed a circle–Papa delighting in babies, young mama delighting in Papa’s enjoyment, Papa, no doubt, delighting in mama’s mothering. Is this not the kind of relational dancing for which we were made? To be lost in the beauty of creating, nurturing, and perpetuating life and love?
My tears erupted so quickly I surprised myself. I teach my clients that you cannot/should not hold back the wave when the grief comes. It will only make you sick and weary if you attempt to contain the ocean tide. My tears told me that I had some emotional work to do. I knew that I had to make space for the sorrow and honor the man I miss so dearly. I thought of a thousand things I loved about him. A thousand ways that he made me proud. But in honoring him this day, I came back to this simple truth that he made known to me:
We never, ever outgrow our need to have our parents listen to our lives.
Had my dad not listened well, the void of his absence would never have taught me this. Some of us had parents who listened to our lives. Some never tasted that blessing. But we all have the need to be seen and heard. And we all have the power to be that kind of parent, not only to our own children, but to others in our lives with stories they long to share.
Thank you, Merle Ward, for being a dad who delighted in my stories. Your gaze on my life was needed then. It is needed now, and only faith assures me that you still see. On this hope, I carry on. I try to grow goodness and I still long to make you proud. Your legacy propels me. Oh and Dad, I will always have one more thing to tell you.