Patrick Francis O’Connor, my father, died last week. He was only 76, but he’s been sick for years. We’ve had the emotional whiplash of “last moments” over and over again:
Surely, he won’t make it home from the hospital again?
This time the pneumonia will take him.
Another diabetic coma and fall?
But every time, he came back home. A little less strong, a little less loud, a little more tender.
There were many moments that I thought might be our last together. Some were soft and gentle and beautiful. He cried every time I left him the past few years. I was able to tell him over these years that I loved him and that I appreciate what he’s given me.
But it turns out that our truly last moment together was heartbreaking. We were on the phone and no matter how calmly and lovingly I spoke to him, he was lashing out at me. He wanted to make sure I knew that I had failed as a daughter. I would never amount to anything. I was destined to fail at whatever I do. Some of his exact words were, “You’re going to scrounge away the rest of your life.”
It’s hard to write these words. For the obvious reasons, yes: they hurt me. But also because I feel loyal to my father and I don’t want to dishonor him. This was fairly typical fare from my father to me. But it feels important to say them here, out loud, in public.
And to say the more important thing: I learned better than to invest much in his words.
I know that his words aren’t true. I won’t ever accomplish anything? Sorry, Dad, too late. But I wouldn’t argue with him. I wouldn’t take these last moments to get sidetracked by his fear or his grief about his own life. I know a little bit better now. I learned how to do this by coming back to my father again and again for so many years. I learned how to not listen to his words, but to feel his heart. I learned how to know that he loved me, the best way that he could.
I can do this all now—years after kicking and screaming and fighting and defending myself. After years of trying to prove my worth to this man. After years of trying to be seen and heard and acknowledged.
Until I learned that I am not going to get those things from him. Until I learned that he has given me other things, gifts that are equally important: my strength, my tenacity, my tender heart, and my deep way of feeling every single thing. My growing ability to forgive.
So instead of arguing with him, I thanked him. I said, “I am your daughter and you are my father.” I said, “I will take this life that you have given me and do something with it.” I said, “I honor you, my father. I honor your pain, I honor your life.” I told him I loved him and that I know he loved me.
We sat silent for a couple of minutes. I didn’t know what else to do. Should I run down to Chicago and hold his hand and look him in the eye one more time? Should I let him go like this? Was this really going to be our last conversation?
He said, “Well? Is that it?”
“I don’t know, Dad, is this it?” I said.
And then he said he’d see me in heaven. He said that tomorrow is a new day, and maybe tomorrow a light will shine down on all six of us—him and his five children. Then we said goodbye.
He died the next day.
I’ve been so sad since then. His death struck me with a force. I had been curious about what to expect. I have had a tumultuous and difficult relationship with my father, but we’ve also come to a real place of resting, with some kind of peace in the past ten years.
But yep, it’s really hard. He’s gone and with him goes so many things. He was a history of the family, of his life, of experiences and street names and his favorite restaurants and his favorite dogs (he was a Doberman guy) and the links to my aunt and uncles and my grandparents and Ireland and the way that he always wrote with a green pen, and the ways that he wished for such love and forgiveness and kindness even when he wasn’t capable of giving these things to his own flesh and blood.
I miss him. I keep thinking that I need to tell him one more thing, but he’s not there to tell. I have an old mohair sweater of his that I’ve been wearing for pajamas for twenty years. It’s fuzzy and warm and soft. It’s full of holes and threadbare. I still love it.
These are big moments, when a parent dies. The circle of my family that stands behind me is one short today. So I am dealing with these big feelings. I’m not afraid of them. I know by now that grief is painful and difficult, but I also know that it won’t kill me. Grief no longer has the power to take me down. I will take care to appreciate what I have and to let people know I love them, that I see them for their good.
After really considering that last conversation I had with my dad, I realized that this is the biggest gift he’s given me. How to stay clear in love despite the circumstances. How to let everything else go and hang on to love.
That’s what I learned from my dad. May he rest in peace.