The other day I cried while watching an episode of “How I Met Your Mother”. I actually don’t like the programme but my kids do and sometimes I watch it with them so I can be with them. Maybe not the most effective parenting strategy but that’s how we roll in our house.
Anyway, back to the tears. One of the characters, Marshall, is dealing with his father’s unexpected death. The most painful thing for Marshall is that he believes his father’s last words to him were:
Go rent Crocodile Dundee 3. It still holds up.
He wanted his father’s words to be wise and worthy of a glorious legacy that Marshall could pass on to his children. Instead, they were insipid.
What made me cry was that it reminded me that my dad died before I was ready for him to die too. His last words to me were the weary words of a man who wanted to get off the phone and have a bit of a snooze.
The reason it was a phone call was that we knew he was dying and we knew he had a little over a week or so left. I decided not to go home because I didn’t want to spend a week long vigil by my dad’s bedside with the undercurrent of the conversation being , “so you’re still here then”. The other reason is I figured my mother would go crazy with me lurking around.
So I rang home every day. Sometimes I got Dad but usually it was Mom and we’d talk about how things were going. He was weaker each time I rang and by mid week he could hardly keep up with a long phone call. So in our last phone call, we chatted about this and that for about five minutes and then he said, “I’m going to go now”.
I said, “take care, I love you”
He replied, “I love you too”.
Those were his last words to me.
I don’t think I felt cheated with that everyday exchange. My dad spent my whole life trying to impart wisdom and legacy to me. Sometimes I ignored it and sometimes I took it to heart: just like my sons do to me.
As I was thinking about this I was also engaged in my annual reading of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days. He writes about the callowness of youth and the disappointment his youthful self felt when his elders didn’t make the most of those ultimate moments which require “final” words. Here’s what he wrote about his grandmother’s last days:
I felt that we should be saying profound things about Grandma’s life and what it had meant to each of us, but I didn’t know how to say that we should. My uncles were uneasy. The women saw to Grandma and wept a little now and then, a few friendly tears; the men only sat and crossed and uncrossed their legs, slowly perishing of profound truth, until they began to whisper among themselves-I heard gas mileage mentioned and a new combine- and then they resumed their normal voices. At the time I thought they were crude and heartless, but now I know myself a little better, I can forgive them for wanting to be get back on to solid ground. She was eighty two. Her life was in all of us in the room. Nobody needed to be told that, except me, and now I’ve told myself.
In my mid forties and a couple hundred funerals under my belt, I learned on the day of my Dad’s memorial service the truth of those words. After the service we repaired to the church basement for lunch and sat around with old (and new) neighbours and talked about life, our shared past and the futures we made for ourselves and Dad was part of all that. We laughed and told stories (where dad was sometimes the villain and sometimes the hero) and decided that life was good. My brother and I agreed that we had turned out all right and frankly, for my Dad, that was the best tribute we could give him.
So, surprised by tears on a spring afternoon isn’t such a bad thing if it leads you to remember that the best final words are a life worth remembering and not necessarily what comes out of your beloved’s mouth.