“Kylee, I’m not going to be around much longer.”
Today I’m thinking about that day in my childhood room that my Dad sat down on my bed to tell me that he was going to die.
My second-floor bedroom had two windows that overlooked our backyard. I was a kid who worried a lot and I grew up lying in bed thinking about how I needed a window-rope-ladder so my little sister and I could safely escape in case of a fire. That was me, always worrying. Always planning.
I never got the ladder, but my sister and I both had floral JC Penny comforters, ordered out of the catalog, in the very-popular-at-the-time colors of dusty rose and country blue. (You remember this combo, don’t you?) My Mom installed dusty pink vertical blinds that were topped with matching flowery valances over the windows. These curtains were completely not me. They were frilly and girly, but they were strangely a point of pride for me. I liked how they matched the bedding and how the whole ensemble made the whole room look and feel put together.
I wanted nothing more than to be put together.
“Look! My life is normal! I have bedding that matches my curtains. Everything is fine here! All good. Everything is great. Moving along.”
My Dad was sitting on my bed, and I was sitting opposite him.
I was in 5th grade. I had recently transferred to a new school in a new district. I was in a split classroom of 5th and 6th graders. I had a bowl cut. My dad was dying of cancer. I didn’t quite fit in.
He didn’t live with me. My parents divorced when I was about 2 and I did the every-other-weekend, couple days during the week shuffle for as long as I could remember. But it was fine! It was all I ever knew. My parents got along, but they just weren’t meant to be married. They sit for hours and talk when my Dad would come to pick me up. I remember thinking, “WE NEED TO GO if we are going to get to the Wendy’s salad bar before they start taking away the good stuff. If you two keep yakking any longer the chocolate pudding is going to be gone.”
My Dad sat across from his ten-year-old daughter, I was just months older than what my Lila is now, and he told me that his treatment wasn’t working and that he wasn’t going to be around much longer.
I’m pretty sure “die” or “death” or “dead” weren’t part of the conversation. Why say out loud what we already know? But I could be wrong. It was almost 30 years ago… Puh-tay-toe, poe-tah-toe.
He started the conversation by telling me about the kids that he saw regularly during his Bethesda, Maryland visits to get interleukin, an experimental immunotherapy therapy that used the body’s natural immune system to fight cancer. (Spoiler alert:* It didn’t work.)
I listened and clutched my little hand-held white teddy bear, Tedit, that he had brought back for me from one of his treatment visits.
I normally didn’t touch Tedit. When my Dad gave him to me, I promptly sealed him in a plastic sandwich bag for posterity. I think I knew that my Dad was going to die and I wanted to preserve anything — everything he gave me — immediately.
When he was done talking.
We hugged. And I cried. And I remember thinking, “REMEMBER THIS. Remember how he smells. Remember all of this. REMEMBER THIS, KYLEE.”
My Mom made him talk to me, she later told me. (That Shirley…)
She didn’t think it was fair that he wouldn’t talk to me about what was going on. She felt that I needed to know what was really happening, within the bounds of what a kid should know. But, I wasn’t your average ten-year-old. I as actually 35. We were all well past the point of him being able to drive with me in car. We were getting to the part where I stopped seeing him very often because apparently it’s not ok for a ten-year-old to see her 43-year-old Dad wasting away in a hospital bed in his dining room.
So, I was prepared, in as much as I could have been.
I’d been given a sneak peek as to how how the story was going to unfold.
I knew that there wouldn’t be a happy ending. Even if my curtains matched my bedspread.
Today, I think about that conversation.
I can’t imagine how he felt, walking up stairs to my bedroom…
Sitting with me, his last child, his baby, telling me that this was it.
I cannot imagine sitting with my precious Lila, my sweet Vivi… telling them, that I’m pretty sure my time has come…
He died 29 years ago today. On the Ides of March. I was wearing shorts. In Ohio. (I looked it up, it was about 66 degrees. Ohio Heat Wave.)
And this year… it’s the first year that I have reallyconsidered his death from the perspective of a parent, not a child.
He died when I was 10.
Each year, I’ve felt what it’s like to grow up without a Dad. I’ve felt the pangs of sadness that he never saw me turn 13, graduate from high school, college. It pains me that he never met Craig or has held my children…
And so this year, I’m feeling the powerlessness, the sadness, of what he must have felt as this happened to his body. The lore in our family is that he never really believed that he was going to die… and I respect that. But that day, maybe for my Mom, maybe for me, he gave me a gift.
The gift of pause. He gave me the gift of communication. He parented me.
The theme that has pervaded my life since I was 10 is that life is short and it can change at any second. I learned it 1990 and then again five years ago on that September Day in 2013 when my Mom died. Life ends here on earth. But, I believe that it continues and that the ‘ole hereafter is going to be amazing. One day, I’ll be able to hug both of my parents again. I hope they’re unrecognizable because they’re so healthy and happy.
So today, I remember. I feel. I hold space.
I’m thankful for his courage. His love. For my siblings. For life and all that comes with it. I’m happy, Dad. All good down here.
I love you.
*Note: Humor has been vital to my grief growth. My parents happened to have been two of the funniest people ever. Both with dry, clever wit. I like to think I absorbed that.
I mean, if both of your parents are going to be dead by the time you’re 33, you need light and laugh-y.