I could hear the sadness and tension in my Aunt’s voice. She had just found out her brother was dying from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a rare and incurable lung disease. She also knew that I had not seen nor spoken to the man who was also my father in nearly seven years. My heart pounded as it took in the terrible news of my father’s impending death. I knew I would face this “someday” and now the shock of “someday” had rudely and abruptly entered the space of right now. In the background, my husband was tending to the cries of our newborn son, our first child, and my father’s first grandchild.
My Aunt told me that she and others in our family had been praying for a place of peace and resolution between my father and I - and now the clock was ticking. My father’s prognosis was terminal in all known cases. No one has lived with IPF for more than five years. I looked over at my precious son in that moment and made the decision that it was time to end the separation - for him. Could I rightfully deny him the chance to know his grandfather (in a safe and observed manner)? “Grandfather” - that word sounded oddly out of place, a new role that might never be fulfilled unless I changed my heart.
The progress with my father was tense and fearful, and we ended up agreeing to disagree on our versions of our past. I would never get the acknowledgement that I craved, but I did get glimmers of a man reformed. He became more patient, more available, and increasingly able to see and admit some faults. He was an adoring Grandfather to my boy. He was even aware that his illness had purpose woven into the fabric. Shortly after his diagnosis, he said to me, “If it took this illness to bring you back into my life, then I am glad it happened.” How ironic to me that the same man who could never afford me the healing of an apology could now welcome a terminal illness into his life on my behalf. It was clearly apparent that the Grim Reaper had ushered in a new man - right before he ushered him out.
Perhaps in the end, there was some twisted justice from the years I spent in silence, being completely at his mercy. For on his death bed, he was unable to speak or respond, and I was able to have my final words without rebuke. The balance of power had greatly shifted. Yet those final words to my father were not harsh, but deeply, deeply sorrowful. The bad choices he made and all that was lost in our relationship was never more profoudly felt than while I sat by his bedside in those final moments. How little time we all really have to affect our world and spend time with those we love. Can there be a more tragic ending than when your time embraces more hurting than healing?
The greatest loss in those last minutes was realizing that we did not need to be in this place. Would a mysterious lung disease have consumed him has he taken better care of his health, had he decided to act only as my father and not as my spouse, had he been able to embrace his imperfections and admit error? I could only wonder about what might have been as the doctor came into the room, listened to his silent chest, and pronounced him dead.