April 16, 1988. 30 years ago today.
My mom and I were trying to buy plane tickets at Detroit Metro Airport when the woman at the ticket counter read us a message from my sister: “don’t come – it’s too late.”
We had been trying to get to California to see him one last time but, as the message said, we were too late. We got back in the car and drove back home instead. I remember sitting on the deacon’s bench in our dining room about 45 minutes later just kind of staring at the clock. It was around 6 or 6:30pm Eastern time when he passed. I was 16 years old. Two days later I got a postcard from him. The front said “Wish You Were Here” and the back said “see you next week.”
That was hard to read. A message from beyond the grave.
Given that we didn’t make it to California and that I definitely was not going to see him next week, that made our drive to the airport a few days earlier the last time I would ever see him. I remember that drive very well for two distinct reasons: One, the fact it happened at all. A 16 year old kid getting up at 6am to drive his dad to the airport? For some reason he asked and for some reason I said yes.
The second reason was because of what he talked about on the 30-minute ride there: he spent the entire time apologizing to me.
He apologized for his treatment of me. Said he regretted it. Wished he could change things.
You see, he knew he was dying. He knew this was probably his last chance to have this conversation with me. Two years earlier his failing liver almost took him but he somehow bounced back. But now his liver was failing again and he knew there was no bouncing back this time. This was it.
10 years later, in 1998, I would be having a similar conversation with my mom on her deathbed, although she wouldn’t be apologizing; she would, however be expressing the same feeling my dad was on that drive to the airport:
My dad’s regrets centered around what he wished he hadn’t done while my mom’s were more about what she wished she had done. They came from different angles but they both focused on the regrets of their lives – probably my dad feeling that a bit more extremely. My mom wished she had experienced more while my dad wished he had loved more.
Either way, in my final conversations with my parents I learned what I consider to be the most important things I have ever learned. Their parting thoughts changed my entire approach to life. Ever since then, I have set life-goals and pursued them with ferocity and have tried my best to be a great parent, husband, uncle, brother, son-in-law, neighbor and friend.
To date, I am doing quite well on my life-goals and my relationships are in good shape. It’s a work in progress of course; I suck some days like we all do but at the end of the day I can look in the mirror and feel good about how I am treating other people.
30 years ago today…he died at 59, left a lot of life on the table. What would he have done between then and now? He was a funny guy, a smart guy. I would have loved to see what he would have invented. What machines he would have constructed. He was a mechanical engineer with a brain full of innovative ideas. He had a great laugh that I would like to hear again. I would have loved to see him play with my kids, to meet my wife, to be at my wedding…
Anyway, reflecting on that final car ride and conversation again I think I was probably too young to have said it so I’ll say it now: apology accepted, Dad. Thank you for teaching me the importance of behaving in a way you’ll always be proud of and of owning up to it when you don’t.
Wish you were here.