That day is still permanently etched into my memory. It was towards the end of July, a little over a decade ago. I was in my mid-20s. After finding the love of my life, someone I’ve talked about before, we moved to a new state so I could help support her while she went to veterinary school. Right after I left, a really rough stretch started for my family. My Uncle, who was as close to me as a father, got diagnosed with cancer. A few months later, my father was diagnosed with cancer. And a couple months later my Aunt got cancer, too. The doctors tried their best with all 3, as they always do. But they caught it late for my Uncle. My Aunt was already sick. And, even though they found the Cancer in my dad’s back, they couldn’t identify it, meaning they couldn’t treat it correctly. With all the problems they were having finding the right treatment, he was given until the end of that year.
So, that day in July, my wife and I left the mid-Atlantic and headed up to Vermont. Two of our friends were getting married and my wife was going to be in the Wedding Party. This was something we had been looking forward to for a long time. We were going to stay there for a few days, then head down to NY and spend a week with my family. Not only did we want to spend as much time as possible with my dad, but my Mom’s birthday was later that week. We had been looking forward to this wedding for over a year. A bunch of friends rented a house and were all going to celebrate for a few days together. With my wife forehead deep in Vet School, she really needed it. After a drive that took us forever, we pulled up to the house, unpacked the car, and I went to go sit down on the couch to relax. I pulled out my primitive smartphone to pass some time while I waited for the rest of the couples to get there, and I saw I didn’t have service. It didn’t matter, though. We were there to party, after all. My wife and the other women went to town and me and the guys stayed back and caught up.
About thirty minutes later, my wife walked in, phone in hand, white as a sheet, eyes puffy. This is a woman I knew with my soul, so when I looked at her face I knew. “No.” I refused to accept it immediately.
“I’m sorry, love. Your mom said she tried to call you but it went right to voicemail…” She could barely get those words out.
“No!” I almost shouted it this time.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.” I could see the tears starting to fill her eyes from across the room.
“He was supposed to have months!. Months!!! How could this happen just like that!?”
“I don’t know, sweetie”
At that point, I pretty much went catatonic for a little while while everyone tried to comfort me. There’s nothing anyone can say or do at that point, though. So we packed up what little we unpacked, and, fresh off a 7 hour drive, got back in the car and embarked on another 6 hour journey. My wife offered to drive, but I knew that sitting in the passenger’s seat, thinking for hours, would be torture so I drove the whole way trying to focus everything I could on the road ahead. Until we crossed the George Washington Bridge. At that point the memories starting flooding in and I had to use all the strength I could to get to my boyhood home.
The funeral was awful, as funerals are. As I’ve said in the past, I was a national debate champion. So I just zoned out when I gave my dad’s eulogy. People started crying telling me how moving it was. I can’t remember a word. I’m kind of glad for that. People flew in from across the country to pay respects, and I can’t remember much of that either. One of the only things I remember was the conspicuous absence of my Uncle and Aunt. They were both too sick to leave bed at that point. Even at what my dad would have demanded be a joyful celebration of his life, we all knew what was around the corner. Well, a couple days after the funeral, my Uncle passed. And after another couple weeks my Aunt was gone too. I was 25. And I had to go the rest of my life without a couple of the most significant people in my life.
On his posthumous election to the MLB Hall of Fame, Roy Halladay’s widow, Brandy, had a 20 minute session with the media to answer questions about Roy, what team’s logo would be on his plaque, how he would have felt about everything, and what the family thinks about it in his absence. At the end, one of the reporters asked her if time heals all wounds. Understandably, this caused her to start crying.
“I don’t think time heals wounds,” she said. “I think time gives you an opportunity to learn how to live with your new surroundings, your new circumstances. So you don’t ever heal. You don’t ever forget somebody. You don’t ever get over something. You just learn how to deal with it in a new way.”
I have lived that truth every day of my life, from that hot July day over a decade ago until right now as my 40th birthday approaches. As much as I try, not a day goes by when the knot in my gut doesn’t form as I think about the role models my son was robbed of. Not a night goes by where the demons don’t try to creep in. I was a 25 year old kid, very much still trying to figure things out, just getting out into the world, in need of the people I needed most. Then they were gone.
After the pneumonia, my sister-in-law went downhill quickly. First, she couldn’t swallow. Then she couldn’t talk. Then the pain came. My wife went last weekend and had a nice visit with her. She shared some pictures of their adventures together, While my sister in law couldn’t talk, she could still communicate and my wife told me how happy she was that my sister-in-law was still responsive. By the next day that had changed. A couple days ago, when the pain got to be too much, they gave her the medicine to make her unconscious and, today, at 330pm, her breathing slowly softened to nothing.
As much as I am going to miss her, I can’t help but think about her two young boys. The oldest is 8 and the youngest is only 4. As much as I feel robbed of decades of time with my dad, they were robbed of everything. They had one of the most genuinely amazing people I’ve ever met as their mother, and they will only know her through fleeting memories and stories we tell them. As painful as it is to know she’s gone, my heart is shattered into a million pieces thinking about my two little nephews, her parents having to bury their child, and my brother-in-law, another one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, becoming a widower and single father.
Because it happened so quickly, I have to carry with me the fact that I never got to say goodbye to my dad. I wasn’t there to hold his hand, or look in his eyes. I didn’t get to tell him how much I loved him one last time, how much I still needed him, and how I would always carry the love he had for me in his heart. I didn’t get to tell him that my girlfriend at the time was about to be my fiance. I didn’t get to hear his voice one last time tell me whatever it was he had to say. I know he knew all that. And I know he loved me as much as anyone could love anything. But not getting that closure is just something that never stops weighing on you.
So, I want you all to do me a favor today. At some point, pick up your phone – not a text – and call the people you love. Cause tonight everything can change and tomorrow they could be gone. Make sure you let them know how lucky you are to have them. Let them know how much they mean to you. And tell them, forcefully and emphatically, that you love them. Yell it if you have to. Make sure when you are done talking, the sound of your voice expressing your love resonates in their ear drums for hours and days.
Because, right now, there are two little boys whose mom told them she loved them every night, with a kiss on the forehead as she tucked them into bed. And I don’t think either of them will be able to remember a single one.
Appreciate the people in your life, folks. Please.