Death made life real

Dad's portraitI grew up 15 years ago today, the final day of watching Dad die. Until then, I was just going through the motions of adulthood.

Death made life real. It shook up my thinking about what I thought was important and worth chasing. Clarity of purpose brought calmness and strength.

Losing Dad hurt like nothing I experienced before or after. But 15 years later, I know that one of the greatest gifts from that experience was losing my fear of death. Life is easier when you’re not afraid to die.

Below is a Thanksgiving column I wrote about Dad in 2000, when I was still struggling to fully understand what losing him meant to my family. I’m still figuring that out.

Sept. 6 will be the first anniversary of Mom becoming a part of my household. Almost daily I learn that I’m not done growing up.


Dad was neither here nor there.

He would go somewhere when his eyes were shut. When he would open them again, sometimes it took a while for him to make it all the way back to us.

He came back as often as he could. And when he knew he would come back no more, he told me so. I’m so grateful.

All of my Thanksgivings have been full of blessings. Even this one, which comes when my life is significantly less full.

In my Thanksgiving prayer this year is eye contact, a wink, a smile, a touch.

Endless love, simple truths.

A deep breath, hope, time. Life.

A last breath, silence. Death — the lessons it teaches and the people who teach them.

My dad taught me well. And I’m thankful.

“I’ll be leaving you all soon,” Dad said. He had just come back to us.

For a preacher man, Dad wasn’t much of a talker. From the pulpit, his messages were always short. He never had to say much to make his point.

He was the same at home. Sermons were few. He didn’t have to preach to us.

I learned to know what he was saying even when he didn’t say it.

In my times of trouble, for example, I’d get from Dad a “How’s everything?”

Translation: “I’m worried about you. Please tell me what to do to help and I’ll do it. I love you, baby.”

I didn’t need to hear anything else.

“I’ll be leaving you all soon,” he said from his hospital bed. I didn’t need to hear anything else.

Only days earlier, he talked about moving his legs again and getting some upper-body strength so he could do more for himself. Only a couple of weeks before that, he talked of making a trip to Arizona. Maybe this fall, after he finished radiation treatments.

Now he was talking about his final journey. He was going home. It was an awesome farewell speech delivered over four days. He hardly said another word.

Dad told me he loved me when I looked into his eyes. You can fill a lot of silence with eye contact.

When I entered his room, he said he missed me and was a little bit afraid by motioning for me to come to his bedside and hold his hand.

In his final hour — when I was afraid — he gave me a wink of reassurance.

I’m thankful today for all the things I know now that I didn’t know before Dad left us last summer.

That even when there is only a little bit of life left, it is so worth living and appreciating.

That death, as a natural function of life, is also something that should be appreciated and managed with care.

That love lives on long after a heart stops beating.

My dad told me so.

— The Arizona Republic, Nov. 23, 2000