I had an important conversation with Dad the other day. That might sound strange, but hear me out.
Back in the summer I wrote that I’d noticed the way I sometimes hear Dad’s voice when I’ve made a mistake: "Pay attention to what you’re doing!" he says. I hear him at other times, too, as when I’m dragging my heels instead of taking care of a task: "You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it," he says then.
So I realized that even though Dad had many sides to him – he was funny, and loving, and he knew how to work hard but also when to take it easy – I had let just one side of him overtake my memory. I had reduced him to a few stern adages that looped again and again in my mind.
Which was, you know, a bummer.
There’s a lot about loss that we can’t control. We don’t have any choice about when our loved ones die. And we may not even have a chance to say goodbye (I didn’t). But I see now that there are still some things in all this that we can control. In the infinitely wise words of the rapper E-40, "Everybody got choices."
So, back in the summer, I had a big realization: I could choose who Dad would be in my life. "He could be a benevolent presence always," I wrote on this very blog.
Of course, the notion that he could be a benevolent presence is really different from him actually being a benevolent presence. Even though I’d had that important realization, I still had some changes to make.
Meanwhile, a perceptive friend introduced me to the concept of the "clearing conversation." The idea is to deal with baggage in a relationship in order to clear the way for a healthy future. Though it’s a concept that more obviously applies to relationships with people who are, you know, alive, it can also apply to ones with people who are no longer around.
So my friend sent me a document called "Completing Relationships," the title of which initially sent me sniveling into my keyboard. The "completing" part refers to completing the past to make way for the future, whether or not the other person is alive and whether or not the relationship is ongoing. The process contains several parts:
- Communicating resentments
- Expressing gratitude
- Stating what you loved and will miss about the relationship
- Saying goodbye
Yeah, I know, this is heavy. When my friend first sent it to me I could barely read it, never mind contemplate staging such a conversation with Dad. But I tucked the idea away. Then, about a month ago, I looked at my calendar and saw that November 30th was approaching. That’s the anniversary of the day Dad died. And suddenly I knew what I would do.
On the morning of November 30th, I summoned my courage and opened my notebook. I wrote down what I needed to say to Dad in each of the areas listed above. I also added a section of my own, which I titled,
- What I need to hear from Dad
Then I packed a framed photo of him and two folding chairs and drove to the cemetery. And in the cold morning air, facing his picture, we had our talk.
He’s been gone twelve years. If he were alive we would've had a million conversations of every tone and variety in those twelve years, including a few arguments and a few apologies. That’s how relationships go. So even though it seems like a strange idea that I went to the cemetery to have this sort of heavy conversation with him, it was long overdue.
You might be thinking: Well it wasn’t a conversation. He couldn’t respond.
Duh. He’s dead.
However, the process of writing out my resentments as well as what I wanted to apologize for led me to some key discoveries. When I looked at the things I’ve been resenting all these years, I felt certain that Dad would apologize if he could. By the same token, I felt he would gladly forgive me for the things I’d done – and he probably had forgiven me, long ago.
So even though he wasn’t physically there, it seemed that we were able to apologize and forgive each other in a meaningful way. What’s more, I saw that the things that I’m grateful for about who Dad was far outweighed the things I’d been resenting. So why had he become this stern and exacting voice in my mind?
Well, there was still one more thing that needed airing. There was the question of what I needed to hear from him.
And what I needed to hear was that he was proud of me, and that he was confident in my ability to handle my own life.
So I sat there in the cemetery, and I listened. The day was still. And, finally, a gentle wind came.
P.S. A couple months back, This Life After Loss had its first birthday. That was an important marker. When I began these pages I made a plan to write about loss for one year. That year has now passed. Clearly I’m still at it, but I’m not posting as frequently as I did before. And that’s how it will be going forward: a post every month or two, as inspiration comes. Thank you – for being here with me.