Say the important things when you can

Hospice called my aunt a couple of weeks ago and said my grandmother only has about a month left to live. My mom went to Maryland immediately to see her and then she came here to spend Christmas with me. Mom said she realized once she left Maryland that she hadn’t really said the things she wanted to say. She was too wrapped up in coaxing my grandmother to eat and just trying to keep her grief under control.

So, she wrote my grandmother a letter, thanking her for all that she had done for her. My aunt L. got the letter, and she started reading it to my grandmother. And as she read it, she realized that the things my mother was saying were things she wanted to say too. She started to cry, and then she handed the letter to my cousin J.  (not to be confused with my other cousin J., who is in Nicaragua) and left the room.

J. started reading the letter, and then she started crying too. She put the letter down and left the room. My cousin K. had to pick it up and finish reading it.

My mom was talking to my aunt L. on the phone, apologizing for putting them all through such an emotional scene, but I don’t think an apology is needed. I think it’s good that my mom got to say the things she needed to say, and that they got to participate in it and express some of what they feel to my grandmother.

My father and my stepfather died suddenly and unexpectedly, and there are still so many things that I wish I had been able to say to them.

With my father, it’s mostly questions. He had a breakdown in Vietnam and developed schizophrenia. I want to know what happened to him over there. What was it like when he heard the voices? Was he scared? Even though he was sick, did he still love me? But he was too ill and I was too young to talk about those things before he died.

With my stepfather, P., I wish I had been able to thank him the way my mom did with my grandmother. He was caught on a golf course in a tornado when I was 21. The warning siren didn’t sound in time, and he and my mom were trying to get to the clubhouse when a tree fell and a huge branch struck his head. He died before I could get to the hospital.

If I could have written him a letter, it would have been like this:

Dear P.,

Thank you for marrying my mom. I know I was a brat about it at first, but things hadn’t gone so well with my dad, and I wasn’t sure about having a man around the house. But you were a good addition.

Thank you for building me the dollhouse. It was perfect with the way the front opened and shut so that everything could be stored safely inside until I was ready to play with it. You know how I like things to be put away in their place. And it had all the tiny furniture and a tiny stove and groceries and a little roll-top desk just like the one mom had in the living room. I know I didn’t play with it much. I wasn’t that into dolls.

Thank you for understanding that. And thank you for building me a stable to keep my toy horses in. I was into horses, and the stable rocked. I still have it. Mom encouraged me to sell the horse collection, but I just can’t. It means too much.

Thank you for teaching me to shoot baskets. Remember the summer in middle school when we practiced every night? And then I started running and you used to run with me. That was cool.

Thank you for all the nights that you drove me to the community college and waited in the hallway while I took a photography class. I still love photography. When G. and I went to New Zealand last year, I took more than 1,000 photographs. Some were really good. I think you would be impressed.

Thank you for building my catapult for my physics class my senior year of high school. Let’s face it, I was never going to pass that assignment on my own. I’m not good with tools or geometry. I wasn’t even very good at physics, and while we’re talking about it, thank you for letting me skip physics class and go to breakfast with you instead. I only wish I had been allowed more than six unexcused absences before they were going to fail me.

I told Mom about that, by the way. I also told her about how we’d stop at Taco Bell or McDonald’s on the way home from the photography class and eat junk food. She wasn’t really upset about it at all. We probably could have gotten away with more.

Thank you for getting my oil changed in my car every time I came home to visit during my first year of work. Thank you also for all the $100 bills you slipped me when Mom wasn’t looking. It helped out a lot that year. Mom told me later that you were worried that I was too broke to eat. I wasn’t, but I couldn’t afford meat very often, and $100 can buy a lot of chicken.

Thank you for taking me to hear George Winston. Mom told me that you weren’t excited about going to see “a dumb piano player,” but you ended up liking it. She also told me about how you heard his music later when you were shopping at Meijer and you got so excited you rushed home to tell her and forgot to buy milk. I think of that every time I play one of his pieces on my iPod.

Mostly, thank you for loving me, even when I was bratty and stubborn and hard to love. I love you too.

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