My stepmother texted me from Rhode Island as my father lay dying. “Tom, you’d better move up your plane tickets. He’s starting to decline fast. Come fast.” My heart sank and a chill went through my entire body. I was alone at home. I spoke to myself, “My father…dying. I can’t imagine the world without him. Damn.” Then I knelt and prayed, “God, help me to find peace with him.”
My family history has been marked with painful twists and turns, with deep estrangements. Just like in so many families. My hope was to walk this final journey with him as a journey of reconciliation and peace.
My years working with Aging With Dignity has been a real formation for me in seeing the end of life as a singular grace, an unrepeatable opportunity to (re)discover life’s greatest treasures – friendship, love, family. Tragically, these often get buried beneath the busyness of life, hardened grudges, or simply obscured as we suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
As my wife dropped me off at the airport, she said, “Remember, this is the one chance you get to say what you need to say. Even if he doesn’t understand you, you need to share what’s in your heart. No regrets.”
As I settled into the airplane seat, I thought about what was in my heart and what I need to share with him. I recalled something Aging with Dignity founder Jim Towey mentioned in a talk years before. Quoting from Ira Byock’s The Four Things that Matter Most, he said the last words we speak should be “Thank you”; “I’m sorry”; “I forgive you”; and “I love you.” So simple, I thought. But when the time came to speak them, they were terrifying and thrilling, all at once.
I began to scribble out in my journal a kind of “litany of thanksgiving” to my father. Suddenly I remembered I’d done this once before, eight years earlier. A mentor had encouraged me, “Tom, if I want to heal from painful things in the past about your father, you need to ask God to help you see the many good things that came to you through your dad.” He insisted I should let go of the hurt, stop holding on. Give them to God. “Let me encourage you to write out the good things your dad did for you, and then look for the good God brought out of those darker places,” he said, “and if you feel so moved, send a copy of what you write to your Dad.” So I wrote it. It ran more than ten handwritten pages long. I sent it to him.
My father called me a week or so later. I was sitting on our driveway when I answered my cell phone, leaning against the garage door. The air was cool and crisp. “I’ve read your letter hundreds of times, son. I’ve wept as many times. Thank you.”
At my father’s funeral, the priest read excerpts from that letter of eight years earlier. I was stunned that my Dad had kept it. He said he wanted it read at his funeral.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as the plane began to taxi down the runway, edging toward his bedside in Rhode Island. I began to write my new “litany of thanksgiving.” This time I could recite it in person.
Tom Neal, Ph.D, is Aging with Dignity Faith & Ethics Advisor